Don't underestimate the strength of the student protest

Todd Gitlin

January 02, 1991|By Todd Gitlin

IF PRESIDENT BUSH goes to war against Iraq, he should count on being shadowed by a large, angry anti-war movement. Students will not necessarily lead, but commentators who see nothing but Republicans and hear nothing but silence on campuses may be surprised by the level of student activism.

The skeptics commonly invoke "the 1960s" as proof that today's students are largely apathetic. But they wrongly compare the uncertain pre-war present to the high tide of campus protest in 1967-1970, when U.S. casualties in the Vietnam war numbered in the tens of thousands. The more appropriate comparison is RTC between today and the period stretching from 1963 through early 1965, when some 25,000 American "advisers" were in South Vietnam but the fighting was small-scale.

In 1963, there was some campus unease: The National Student Association condemned the repressive policies of South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem and supported the self-immolating Buddhists. But anti-war demonstrations were few. The war was remote, the country unmobilized and students exempt from the draft. Even the dubious Gulf of Tonkin incident and President Johnson's initial bombing of North Vietnam didn't inspire much protest.

Not until the spring of 1965, after U.S. bombing of North Vietnam became routine, did college protest emerge as a regular feature of the political landscape. Even so, apathy on campus was the norm. That spring, though, 25,000 students marched in Washington; teach-ins began at the University of Michigan and spread to dozens of campuses -- all at a time when students still felt insulated from the draft.

From then on, military deployment and anti-war demonstrations escalated in parallel. By 1969, when most students were touched by the threat of the draft (vastly more than were actually drafted), and 500,000 American troops were deployed in Vietnam, the same number of protesters marched on Washington, joined by millions around the country.

What is striking is that today -- absent a draft, absent a shooting war, absent body bags -- an anti-war movement has jump-started. For all the hesitations and cross-currents, there is already more protest than meets most eyes, and in the wake of George Bush's decision to double the size of the U.S. forces in the gulf, it has begun to cross the media threshold.

Even before the president's decision, teach-ins were being reinvented, sometimes by veterans of the Vietnam teach-ins of 1965, sometimes by minority faculty, sometimes by students who had never heard the term. By now, teach-ins and rallies have brought out thousands of students across the country.

Perhaps the most remarkable protest so far took place at the University of Montana. On a cold and rainy Halloween, 600 students marched through downtown Missoula chanting, "Hell no, we won't go, we won't fight for Texaco," and singing "Give Peace a Chance." Back on campus, they marched through school buildings and disrupted classes, sparking a controversy. But they also succeeded in getting a resolution through the student senate supporting negotiations in the Persian Gulf.

The Montana anti-war coalition embraces pro-life as well as pro-choice groups (at one meeting, they agreed to take down both their signs), fraternities, Central American, black and women activists. It has already mobilized as high a percentage of students against war as at most campuses during most of the Vietnam war.

What do these students want? The consensus is simple: No war; negotiate a settlement. This is not to say that the majority of students are anti-war -- or pro-war. While campus groups have organized to send gifts to the troops, few campuses have seen vociferous pro-war sentiment. The more common reactions are bafflement, concern, ambivalence, apprehension lest the draft return and annoyance that the prospect of war may disrupt personal plans.

The prospect of war is not on all lips; as usual, many students do not follow the news much. "The thing that upsets me," says Rosa Ehrenreich, an organizer of Harvard protests, "is that Harvard students just aren't worried about the possibility of a war occurring. They say that Harvard students are the future leaders of the world, but I think it would be nice if they paid more attention to important world issues now."

Where are the 1960s activists? Anti-war Vietnam vets mobilized quickly. Ron Kovic, the most celebrated, speaks at rallies and has taped an anti-war TV spot. On Dec. 3, 80 San Francisco Bay Area anti-war veterans blocked morning traffic into the Alameda Naval Air Station; 16 were arrested. Their coalition, which includes Republicans, continues and expand; future actions are planned. Veterans of the anti-war movement, many of them now faculty, have spoken at teach-ins and counseled students on tactics. Some parents have encouraged their student sons and daughters to take action.

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