The Return of the Antiwar Movement: Memories and Intimations

Photograph Source: Debra Sweet – CC BY 2.0

The turnout in Madison, Wisconsin, for an antiwar rally on Jan.4, was not bad, considering the students are out of town, many local Bernie devotees are busy canvassing in Iowa, and the weather was about as forbidding as usual in the Winter (it could always be worse). Somehow, the icy wind always sweeps off Lake Mendota toward us assembled at the Capitol.

The first group to sign the local Call happened, perhaps inevitably, to be the organizational grandchildren of the late Sam Marcy and his Workers World Party, today’s Party for Socialism and Liberation. Long ago, within Trotskyist circles, they were known as the “Lakes Tendency,” because of their unusual numbers in Buffalo and Milwaukee. That might explain a rebirth here in the inland seas, make that former wetlands raised up into lakes by dint of nineteenth century engineering. An affable young chap handed me their leaflet of the day, quipping, “We’re known as the Pisels.” A little humor is always appreciated.

Their signs were much as anticipated, likewise the chants, the word and curse “imperialism” hardly ever absent from either. But most everybody else with an interest in sign-carrying brought their own, hard-made or a few dozen of the same item offset, like the 8×5” sheet handed to me with the DSA messaging. Looking around, I saw a diorama of the Madison Left—the former leader of the state AFL, a city council member or two,  youngsters that I’d never seen before and oldsters that I had seen many times. Only days since New Years,  “Auld Lang Syne” went though my head as I took note of the absent-because-dead, generations of lefties and peaceniks since I first got to town in 1967. My favorite home-drawn sign, seen now many times over the years, was probably “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”—the tone of the legislature being dominated by hypocritical white evangelical  Republicans. Even better is the one I did not see at this demonstration, “What Would Bob La Follette Do?” because hardly anyone even now fails to recognize the visage and message of our great antiwarrior, 1917 style, sometime governor and Senator to boot.

A lively but erudite talk by the savant of DSA book discussions—we used to call him the atheist rabbi of the local Solidarity branch—pinpointed the issues as Trump’s attempt to change the headlines, and push the history of US manipulation of Iranian society out of sight. We Americans have our own war criminals, by gum, and how had they escaped without so much as a parking ticket? And so on. All good, delivered with the crispness of a historian who had written the saga of the once-famed socialist publisher, the Charles H. Kerr Company, in the days when American socialist propaganda reached millions.

Thirty years ago, every peace demonstration in Madison were likely to recall the old joke-localization: how many people did it take to put in a lightbulb? One to install, three to tell how it had been done in the Sixties. These days memories go back to the crowds of fifty thousand to a quarter million, walking around and around the Capitol, 2011-12. We had the numbers and stayed in formation until the Pols warned us to get off the streets and get ready to vote. That proved a disappointment all around.

Or is it ever a mistake to rally against overwhelming forces? I do not think so, and it is those Vietnam Days as well as so much since that make me think so. The Cataclysm has now descended upon all living things, in a hundred different ways. Bernie is with us to get the troops out of the Middle East entirely—although I do not depend on the fidelity of any other candidate to hold fast to the antiwar position.

In closing, looking for a laugh, I now recall that I forgot the funniest and most morbid of signs from around the country, evidently adapted from a Meme: An anguished Hillary Clinton saying, “THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MY WAR ON IRAN!”

And so we march.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.