Over a conference table at a Washington hotel on March 20, a couple dozen antiwar activists and intellectuals, yours truly included, met to hash out the beginnings of a most unusual movement. We wanted to end American war and American Empire, against the evident bipartisan determination to keep both of them going.
There never was such a boundary-crossing event before, at least not in my 50 year political lifetime or any historical incident that I can recall.
Not quite true. The Populists, arguably the one literal grassroots movement that most nearly overturned the two party system in a handful of states, brought together a kind of cultural conservatism, bathed in scorn of city life, and political radicalism. The antiwar movement of the 1910s made Republican German- and Scandinavian-Americans of the northern Midwest and Great Plains states turns to the Farmer-Labor movement, under a variety of names, and again, in the middle 1930s, to join campus antiwar activists in resisting the militarization of American culture. Even as Pearl Harbor drew close, Norman Thomas stood on platforms with outspoken conservatives urging some other solution than US entry with the inevitable counterparts of conscription, loss of civil liberties, etc. They were wrong about the war but, at least after Truman came to power, right after all about the doleful consequences of mobilization for war. The big state, with its military-industrial part not at all benign, was here to stay.
Even these past sagas, now relegated to a kind of pre-history, seem very different from the little gathering of magazine editors, journalists, youth activists against war. We live in a time so strange that several nineteen year olds joined us, devotees of maverick Texas congressman Ron Paul, had been at the conservative CPAC convention the day before, on their feet cheering Paul’s call for an end to US occupations overseas while neocon elders sat in their chairs, glowering. A time so strange that these kids sat a few seats away from Jon Berger, the SDSer on hand, reminding me of my own SDS days and the historic moment when isolationists joined us against the Vietnam War. The shared sentiment never became a real movement forty years ago, but this time it might.
The editors of The Nation, American Conservative, Reason, The Progressive Review (on line), Black Agenda Report (on radio) and the Veterans for Peace Newsletter were all very much were on the scene, although perhaps not so prominent as notables Ralph Nader or William Greider. The event-coordinator, Kevin Zeese, is director of Voters for Peace but perhaps better remembered as a longtime, prominent figure urging an end to the drug war.
The premise was simple, if difficult to grasp entirely at first: the crisis of empire has generated a wave of distrust, make a sense ofr outrage simultaneous among erstwhile Leftwing enthusiasts of Obama (this writer included) and Rightwingers who get labeled “Isolationist” but cannot be pinned down precisely on issues beyond their opposition to US interventions, occupations and military bases abroad. Well, it does sound simple. Perhaps the real problem has been a lack of trust among varied opponents of war, a combination of the usual Lesser Evil voting and a growing, parallel if not mutual sense of political despair.
There proved ample room for agreement as well as disagreement, summed up for me in one exchange. I proposed a return to the late 19th century title, “American Anti-Imperialist League,” set up by Boston Brahmins to oppose the bloody war on the Philippines. A conservative sitting improbably to my left complained that the phrase “anti-imperialist” brought visions to his reader of Jane Fonda, whereas “opposition to empire” would give them a proper perspective. (I was loath to mention what recovered past visions of Jane Fonda might do to, or for, me.) In other words, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan made us both rage and weep, while the remembrance of the 1960s made him rage and me weep … with nostalgia.
We had, however, the same goal: bring the troops home now. And we had better learn to work on that together, somehow or other, if we didn’t want rightwingers gulled by Sarah Palin and leftwingers waiting, waiting and waiting hopelessly for Obama to do the right thing globally.
It’s easy for either side to project nuttiness in the other. Speaking only for myself, I have a useful yardstick for these particular conservatives’ favorite politician: I ask myself whether Ron Paul is crazier than my evangelical relatives. The answer is personally satisfying, even when Paul goes off on a tangent about abolishing the Fed (well, not a bad idea) or something about immigration that I do not like at all.
Veteran peace mobilizers, like Sam Smith, Mike McPherson of Veterans for Peace, and young peace mobilizers, like the SDS activist Jon Berger from the University of Maryland, offered some of the most useful, i.e., practical reflections and questions of the day. How would a multiracial coalition of antiwar conservatives and radicals operate? And how would they overcome what remains a crucial distinction between distaste and disillusion toward a president whose election seemed so promising (alternatively: threatening, at least frustrating) but whose global military strategy was and is dead certain to remain both catastrophically expensive and just plain awful?
There aren’t any easy answers, but the route toward them must lie in a better understanding, and that, at least, seems to have been achieved.
At the end of this day, the presence of the van den Heuvel-style mover-shakers on various points of the spectrum might well have been the most impressive fact in evidence. It wasn’t, because their affable expressions mirrored something deeper, the ground changing beneath all our feet.
Somehow, the delayed crash of Cold War Liberalism may finally have happened, as it could not happen under either Clinton (the male one) or Bush. It is awfully hard to see what lays on the other side, but as aging Pan African giant CLR James wrote after reading The Gulag Archipelago : “at least we know.” The bipartisan military-industrial empire has hit the skids and may be in ruins the day after tomorrow, so to speak. At any rate, their Demo-Republican credibility is gone. Now the rest of us had better speak up and begin organizing alternatives.
PAUL BUHLE, founder-editor of the SDS journal Radical America in the 1960s, is a historian of the American Left and in recent years, an editor of nonfiction comic books, including The Beats: a Graphic History.