When It Seemed as If the World Took Notice

An antiwar protester in Providence, Rhode Island, Jerry Elmer, noted in the middle of the decade of the 1970s that it was difficult to sustain interest in the antiwar movement as the American war in Southeast Asia came to a close. Elmer, and other peace activists, had set up a replica of the tiger cages that the government of South Vietnam used to confine and torture its enemies. Several years earlier, the same protester had been present at “The Farm” in Voluntown, Connecticut (“At the End of the Barrel of a Gun: From Voluntown, Connecticut to D.C.,” CounterPunch, January 27, 2021) on the early morning that the headquarters-living quarters of antiwar and antinuclear Committee for Non-Violent Action was attacked by the armed, far-right Minutemen. The Minutemen were much like today’s armed insurrectionists, both groups having common ties of hate and violence.

The death of protester and Chicago 7 (Chicago 8  with Bobby Seale) defendant Rennie Davis is yet another example of how long the echoes of the antiwar movement sends ripples into the present (“Rennie Davis, ‘Chicago Seven’ Antiwar Activist, Dies at 80,” New York Times, February 4, 2021). The Chicago trial of protesters was in answer to the antiwar protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention and resulting police riot. The guilty verdicts against protesters were overturned on appeal.

Some criticized Rennie Davis’ post-antiwar interests, but that is beside the point here, because the power of the antiwar movement was so great for so many of the post-World War II baby boom generation that it was almost impossible to escape its grasp and the incessant criticisms of its former members.

Many critics of the antiwar movement looked to the minutiae of everyday life to condemn both protest and those who protested. Those who took up the cause against war could not have the same human flaws as the majority without total condemnation by the larger society and its media outlets acting as spokespersons for the status quo. The antiwar movement began a long decline when the military draft ended in 1973.  Reaganism surged in popularity during the decade of the 1980s and added yet another blow to antiwar protest. There was protest, but nothing like the heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s. By the time George H. W. Bush destroyed the Vietnam Syndrome, the hesitancy of the US to fight wars far from its shores, the mass antiwar movement was long dead and only lived on in many through the power of memory. There were baby boomers who continued to take part in protest, or worked for a better world, but there would never again be such a sustained movement for peace. As those on the right gave up their collective conscience, protesters could only achieve rear-guard and limited goals. It was like a banishment of the mind and soul.

Who could doubt the power of what Abbie Hoffman, a co-defendant in the Chicago 7 trial, said that the 1960s were like metaphorically jumping on the Earth and having it bounce back in response. It was like psychologist Abraham Maslow’s concept of peak performances, but Maslow was no friend to the antiwar left.

When the war ended in Southeast Asia, members of the generation that had come of age during the epoch of protest often reinvented themselves. Many baby boomers continued to hold onto the values of  a better world, and many others attempted to seamlessly fit into society. A few, not knowing which way to turn, morphed into bizarre right-wing zealots and condemned not only the New Left, but often their own familial heritage of fighting for the common good. There was little room to move on the left in an increasingly conservative and right-wing political and economic environment. One of the best outcomes of the 1960s’ and early 1970s’ movements, the environmental movement, was trashed again and again by the political and economic right.  Ronald Reagan typified the insane ramblings of the political right when he said “trees pollute.” The opening of some of the pristine environment of the Arctic Circle by Trump to oil drilling resulted from the anti-environmental and anti-science pushback.

Here’s the late Abbie Hoffman in his autobiography Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980):

Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit(emphasis in original). When all today’s isms have become yesterday’s ancient philosophy, there will still be reactionaries and there will still be revolutionaries. No amount of rationalization can avoid the moment of choice each of us brings to our situation here on the planet. I still believe in the fundamental injustice of the profit system and do not accept the proposition there will be rich and poor for all eternity.

Counterrevolution has taken hold, and it seems as if that state of worldwide politics is more the norm than manning the barricades of left revolution, at least for now. There are scores of people on the left who will never accept that outcome.

That war has become so routine since the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s seems like a nightmare to many 1960s protesters. Here’s Brown University’s Costs of War project:

The United States has spent and obligated trillions of dollars to fight the post-9/11 wars. The US federal price tag for these wars includes far more than direct congressional war appropriations. It also includes dollars spent and obligated for US veterans’ health care and disability, increases to the Pentagon’s “base budget” directly attributable to the wars, homeland security spending, foreign aid and reconstruction costs, and interest on war borrowing.

Now both China and Russia are added to the list that will grow the so-called defense budget.

Adding insult to injury is the human suffering foisted upon the people of the US through the near-total lack of planning and infrastructure to deliver Covid-19 vaccines to people.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).