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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Comparing Antiwar Movements Past and Present

As a participant in anti-Vietnam War protests, I felt some clear comparisons to today’s antiwar protests was in order, so I wrote an assessment at New York:

For many a baby-boomer, the sights and sounds of student protests against U.S. complicity in Israel’s war in Gaza brought back vivid memories of the anti–Vietnam War movement of their youth and of the conservative backlash that ultimately placed its legacy in question. Some of today’s protestors consciously promote an identification with their forebears of the 1960s and 1970s. And some events — notably the huge deployments of NYPD officers at Columbia University 56 years to the day after police crushed an anti–Vietnam War protest at the school — are eerily evocative of that bygone era.

As someone who was involved in a minor way in the earlier protests (mostly as a member of the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam), I’m both fascinated by the comparisons and alert to the very big differences between the vast and nearly decadelong demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the nascent movement we’re seeing today. Here’s how they compare from several key perspectives.

Size: Gaza protests are smaller than anti-Vietnam demonstrations.

While early protests against Israeli military operations in Gaza were often centered in Arab American and Muslim American communities, the latest wave is principally college-campus-based, albeit widespread, as the Washington Post reported:

“The arrests of pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University on April 18 set off the latest wave of student activism across the country.

“The outbreak of nearly 400 demonstrations is the most widespread since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. From the Ivy League to small colleges, students have set up encampments and organized rallies and marches, with many demanding that their schools divest from Israeli corporations.”

The size of these protests has ranged from the hundreds into the thousands, but they can’t really be regarded as a mass phenomenon at this point.

There are, however, similarities to the earliest phase of the anti–Vietnam War movement: the campus-based “teach-ins” of 1965 (the year U.S. ground troops were first deployed in Vietnam). These began at the University of Michigan and then went viral, as a history compiled by students of the university recalled:

“The March 1965 teach-in at the University of Michigan inspired a wave of more than fifty similar teach-ins at universities around the nation and directly challenged the Johnson administration’s ability to shape public opinion about the War in Vietnam. At Columbia University, just two days after the UM event, professors held an all-night teach-in attended by 2,000 students …

“At UC-Berkeley, after an overflow crowd attended the initial UM-inspired teach-in, the Vietnam Day Committee organized a second outdoor event that drew 30,000 students.”

The anti–Vietnam War movement soon outgrew its campus origins as the war intensified and U.S. deployments soared. By 1967, monster rallies and marches were held in major cities — notably a New York march that attracted an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 protesters and a San Francisco rally that filled Kezar Stadium. At the New York event, the expansion of the antiwar movement to encompass elements of the civil-rights movement that had in part inspired the early protesters was exemplified by the participation of Martin Luther King Jr., who had just made his first overtly antiwar speech at Riverside Church.

By then the antiwar movement was beginning to attract support from a significant number of politicians, mostly Democrats but some Republicans.

The pro-Palestinian protest movement could eventually grow to this scale and breadth of support, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Durability: Gaza protests are new; anti–Vietnam War movement lasted a decade.

The fight to end American involvement in Vietnam lasted as long as the war itself; protests began in 1964, grew to include a mainstream congressional effort to cut off U.S. military aid, and continued as the South Vietnam regime collapsed in 1975. It had multiple moments of revived participation. Once such moment was Moratorium Day in October 1969, when an estimated 2 million Americans joined antiwar demonstrations once it became clear that Richard Nixon had no intention of ending the war begun by Lyndon Johnson. Another was the massive wave of protests in May 1970 when Nixon expanded the war into Cambodia; student walkouts and strikes occurred on around 900 college campuses and students were killed in Ohio and Mississippi.

It’s unclear whether the pro-Palestinian protests have anything like that kind of staying power. That’s a significant issue, since the goal shared by many protesters — a fundamental shift in the power relations between Israelis and Palestinians — could be harder to execute than an end to the Vietnam War.

Focus: Gaza protests have less clear-cut goals than Vietnam demonstrations.

Most pro-Palestinians protesters have embraced multiple demands and goals: an immediate permanent cease-fire in Gaza; termination of U.S. military assistance to Israel; and an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Campus-based protesters have also called for termination of university investments in companies operating in Israel and, in some cases, closure of academic partnerships with Israeli institutions.

If this is going to become a sustained movement rather than a scattershot series of loosely connected local protests, some clarification of tangible goals will be necessary. Some of these aims are more achievable than others. If, for example, the Biden administration and the Saudis succeed in negotiating a significant cease-fire that temporarily ends the carnage in Gaza, does that take the wind of out of the sails of protesters seeking a definitive withdrawal of support for Israel? That’s unclear at this point.

For the most part, the anti–Vietnam War protest movement had one principal goal: the removal of U.S. military forces from Vietnam. Yes, factions of that movement expanded their goals to include such war-adjacent issues as university divestment from firms manufacturing weapons, closure of ROTC programs, draft resistance, and non-war-related issues like Black empowerment and anti-poverty efforts. But there was never much doubt that bringing the troops home was paramount.

Leadership: Gaza protests include more radical organizers.

One of the reasons for a perception of unfocused goals in the current wave of protests stems from organizers with more radical positions and rhetoric than some of their followers. As my colleague Jonathan Chait has pointed out, two major groups helping organize pro-Palestinian protests subscribe to ideologies incompatible with mainstream support:

“The main national umbrella group for campus pro-Palestinian protests is Students for Justice in Palestine. SJP takes a violent eliminationist stance toward Israel. In the wake of the October 7 terrorist attacks, it issued a celebratory statement instructing its affiliates that all Jewish Israelis are legitimate targets …

“A second group that has helped organize the demonstrations at Columbia is called Within Our Lifetime. Like SJP, WOL takes an uncompromising eliminationist stance toward Israel, even calling for ‘the abolition of zionism.’”

This was intermittently an issue in the anti–Vietnam War movement, particularly as such campus-based pioneers of protests as Students for a Democratic Society drifted into Marxist sectarianism. I vividly recall an antiwar march I attended in Atlanta in 1969 wherein the organizers (mostly from the Trotskyist Young Socialist Alliance) put Vietcong flags at either end of the march and controlled bullhorns bellowing slogans like “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is gonna win,” referring to the communist insurgency in South Vietnam. This effectively turned a peace rally into something very different.

But over time, the extremist wing of the anti–Vietnam War movement went its own way, falling prey to fragmentation (the collapse of SDS into at least three factions that included the ultraviolent and Maoist Weatherman group epitomized its self-marginalization) and irrelevance. If the pro-Palestinian protest movement is to last, it needs to shed its more extreme elements.

Relevance: Gaza protests aren’t impacting U.S. politics as deeply.

There was never any doubt that anti–Vietnam War protesters were talking about something that vitally affected Americans, even if it took them a while to get on board. 2.7 million American citizens served in the Vietnam War with 58,000 losing their lives. 1.9 million young Americans were conscripted into the military during that war. While what Americans did to the people of Indochina wasn’t often called “genocide,” millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians perished at the hands of the U.S. and its allies, and the humanitarian disaster did increasingly trouble the consciences of many people not directly affected by the conflict. As many military leaders and reactionary politicians bitterly argued for decades, U.S. public opinion eventually ended the Vietnam War.

While the rise in sympathy for Palestinians and support for some sort of cease-fire has been palpable as deaths soar in Gaza, it remains unclear how invested Americans are in any sort of policy change toward the conflict. Yes, unhappiness with Joe Biden’s leadership in this area is a real political problem for him, but much of the unhappiness stems from conservatives (particularly conservative Evangelicals) who want stronger support for Israel. And the effort to make this issue an existential threat to Biden’s renomination during the 2024 Democratic primaries failed in contrast to the major role played by anti–Vietnam War sentiment in sidelining LBJ in 1968.

Making Gaza a crucial issue in American politics grows more challenging to the extent protesters choose more radical goals, like a single secular (i.e., non-Zionist) Palestinian state. And at the same time, more modest goals could undermine the strength and unity of the protest movement if protesters reject half-measures (much as anti–Vietnam War protesters rejected “Vietnamization,” phony peace talks, and other steps that prolonged the war).

Legacy: Gaza protests could provoke a similar backlash.

Arguably, the many sacrifices and eventual triumph of anti–Vietnam War protesters were more than offset by a conservative backlash that treated the “disorder” and alleged lack of patriotism associated with protests as a social malady to be remedied with heavy-handed repression. In the 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon and George Wallace, the two candidates who engaged in law-and-order rhetoric and often espoused more violent steps to win the war, won 57 percent of the national popular vote. Other successful conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan made crackdowns on “coddled” student protesters a signature issue.

Today, Donald Trump and other Republicans are eagerly making pro-Palestinian protests part of a law-and-order message aimed at both student protesters and the “elite” faculty and administrators who are allegedly encouraging them. If protesters deliberately or inadvertently help Trump get back into the White House, they may soon encounter a U.S. administration that makes “Genocide Joe” Biden’s look like an oasis of pacific benevolence.

One comment on “Comparing Antiwar Movements Past and Present

  1. Victor on

    If this issue ever gained salience among the general public, it would be a net negative for Democrats. Another issue that divides the party or makes it look ineffectual.


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