WASHINGTON -- In 1972, Richard Nixon was so plagued by the protest at home against his war policies in Vietnam that he turned his political pit bull, Vice President Spiro Agnew, on the protesters and launched a bitter campaign of invective against them. They did not prevent his re-election in the year of the Watergate break-in, but in time they did help bring about the American withdrawal.
So far, President Bush, in his war of nerves to force Iraq's Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, has been largely spared the kind of street and campus protest that marked the Vietnam era. But, as he raises the stakes by sending more American troops with offensive capability into the Persian Gulf area, a latter-day version is blossoming.
The Vietnam protest began on American campuses, fueled not only by basic disagreement with U.S. government policy but also by the practical consideration that the military draft threatened the disruption of tens of thousands of college students. With an all-volunteer army replacing the draft today, that incentive is gone. A call for reinstatement of the draft already is being heard, however, from Jesse Jackson and others, to widen personal involvement in the gulf commitment and, presumably, to increase protest against it.
In place of widespread campus protest, some of the older heavies of the Vietnam anti-war movement have been organizing since the Kuwait invasion to build home-front opposition to the Bush deployment and subsequent force buildup. Ramsey Clark, attorney general under Lyndon Johnson and later a leading figure in the Vietnam protest, has organized the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, banding together more than 200 organizations of all stripes.
Clark has just returned from a visit to Baghdad, where he met with Saddam -- and was photographed and filmed shaking hands with the man Bush has with gross exaggeration equated with Adolf Hitler. That bit of personal diplomacy by Clark may please fellow-protesters. But it hands an easy public-relations score to Bush. During the Vietnam war, Johnson and Nixon were able to make political hay against left-wing leaders of the protest by suggesting it was communist-inspired. Bush can't do that now, but Clark's handshake with Saddam could cast him as the Jane Fonda of the gulf crisis, reminiscent of her celebrated trip to Hanoi.
Brian Becker, a 38-year-old free-lance bookkeeper who worked with Clark on a project investigating the U.S. invasion of Panama, says the impression of the new protest as one consisting largely of old veterans of the anti-Vietnam War movement is erroneous. Most of the people involved, he says, have never taken part in political protest.
The coalition has held two large rallies in New York and others in other major cities, he says. Currently, the group is collecting signatures of protest and intends to present a petition with a million names to President Bush, calling on him to withdraw all U.S. forces from the gulf.
Also, Becker says, plans are being made for another rally in New York on Thanksgiving Eve, as Bush visits U.S. troops in the gulf, for a mass rally in Times Square on the day after any shooting war involving American troops begins there, and for national demonstrations on both coasts three weeks thereafter. And the coalition is planning an "International Speak-out" at New York's Madison Square Garden in mid-February, he says, at which peace groups from around the country and abroad will protest against American intervention.
One problem for the new peace movement may prove to be the same one the old movement encountered -- a myriad of voices representing differing degrees of protest. Most members of Congress opposing the further buildup of ground forces in the gulf, for example, support the first wave sent ostensibly to prevent a possible Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia. Becker says such a prospect was "a fiction," never in the cards, and the coalition wants all U.S. troops taken out of the gulf area.
Differences within the Vietnam protest did not in the end, however, critically dilute its overall impact on public opinion and ultimately on public policy. Even before Congress holds hearings on the latest Bush troop deployment, polls are showing serious slippage in public support for the president's actions. And that is a much better climate for launching an anti-war protest than existed when the public campaign to force the United States out of Vietnam began a quarter of a century ago.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening 8 Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The ; Sunday Sun.