Unmoved By War

Millions of Americans oppose attacking Iraq, but no furor anything like that of the Vietnam era exists.

October 20, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The prospect of war against Iraq has a lot of opponents, but this is no Vietnam - yet.

Depending on how the question is asked, either a substantial minority or a significant majority of the country opposes the United States going to war with Iraq. This is probably a greater percentage than opposed the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

But back then, that opposition polarized the country, turning campuses into political - or actual - battlegrounds. Several times a year, Washington was invaded by tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of demonstrators, dominated by young college students.

For some reason - despite a split that seems as deep - that is not happening today. There are teach-ins and other activities at colleges and universities, but campuses remain relatively quiet. Demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere have been substantial but subdued. Whatever the disagreement about this fundamental issue of American foreign policy, there is no sense of the political ferment that bubbled throughout the country four decades ago.

This does not surprise Todd Gitlin, a leading historian of the '60s who teaches at Columbia University's School of Journalism. He calls what happened in that decade "sort of a harmonic convergence of factors that were conducive to activism."

"By the time the Vietnam War heated up, there had been five years of pretty continuous and sometimes well-organized organizations involved in agitation on campuses, mainly in the civil rights movement," Gitlin says. "There was a New Left already. In recent years we haven't had very much of that sort of activity at all. The precedent of doing politics on campus is not in place. The atmosphere is not very conducive to it."

The campus groups that are involved in such activities, he says, often target single issues - the use of sweatshops to produce clothing, or an issue pioneered by students at Johns Hopkins, a minimum "living wage" for all university employees. When the issue disappears, the groups tend to disband, too.

Professor Mark Lichbach of the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park says there is a protest structure in place around the issue of globalization, but that the issue does not translate easily into an anti-war movement, despite similar concerns about American power in the world.

"There is not a commonality on the left," he says.

Fred Pincus, who went to a meeting in support of the Catonsville Nine draft records burners not long after he arrived at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1968, says that the nature of the dispute over Iraq militates against the polarization of the Vietnam era.

"In the Vietnam War, there was a feeling that there were good guys and bad guys," says Pincus, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at UMBC. "At least in my own perspective, the U.S. were the bad guys attacking people we didn't agree with who had their own idea about what they wanted to do with their country."

With Iraq, Pincus says, all agree that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy.

"I've been to demonstrations about the war in Iraq and no one defends Saddam Hussein," he says. "You can't really defend him. ... When there are no good guys, it is harder to mobilize people."

Support for alternatives

Lichbach agrees. "People opposed to the Vietnam War had, if not hero worship, a lot of sympathy for those movements on the left that represented national liberation even if they were associated with the Communist world," he says. "So they weren't just opposing U.S. policies, they were giving positive support for an alternative to that.

"No one thinks that way about Saddam Hussein, either in the United States, Europe, or the Arab world for that matter," Lichbach says. "He is not a rallying point.

Leaders remain quiet

Pincus also points to the absence of political leadership speaking out against going into Iraq, saying that opposition to the Vietnam War grew as more and more political leaders took stances against American involvement.

"In this conflict, the liberal Democrats have been so cowardly, and I can't think of a better word to describe them," he says. "Some of them, I guess, believe in what the president wants to do and others are afraid that if they speak out it will come back to bite them at some time politically."

Without such political leadership, the anti-Iraq-war movement is led by what Gitlin calls "the Old Left sectarian groups."

"That limits the appeal of the anti-war movement," he says.

No war going on

One major difference between the two eras is that Vietnam protesters were demonstrating against a war that was going on, while Iraq remains an abstract possibility.

Though it built slowly, starting with a few advisers to South Vietnam's army early in the decade, after the escalation of 1965 put hundreds of thousands of Americans in Vietnam, the war there was a daily reality, with hundreds of American deaths every week.

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