It was the day before our group’s bus trip to Washington, DC, to be part of a demonstration against the Vietnam War. The theme of the march was: “If the government won’t stop the war, then we’ll stop the government.” This was the May Day protest of 1971. Tens of thousands descended on the capital and acts of civil disobedience proliferated. The Nixon administration ordered the police and the military everywhere around the capital and Nixon, who hated protesters, felt as if he was a captive in the White House. He gave siege mentality a new twist that weekend. Thousands were arrested and held at a local stadium, and given a symbolic cash award as compensation years later for their arrest and the denial of their right to seek redress from the government from the brutality of the Vietnam War.
Our group, made up of mostly New York University students, left Washington Square South in front of the NYU student union and as evening approached, we rolled out our sleeping bags and camped on a hillock in West Potomac Park within sight of the Lincoln Memorial, where the next morning we were driven by DC police and found temporary sanctuary among the city’s tourists.
The May Day protests, a more sedate demonstration took place in DC one week earlier, was the high-water mark of protest against the war. In two years, with an end to the draft, and the so-called Vietnamization of the war, the war seemed less urgent an issue to the minds of many and the mass murder in Southeast Asia finally ended in 1975, with the specter of US helicopters flying away and out to sea from the rooftop of the US embassy. To the empire and to those in power, this was not an inspiring sight and it would take about a decade to reverse the distaste for war among millions of people, a phenomenon called the Vietnam Syndrome.
Around the same time in Providence, Rhode Island, a local peace movement member lamented that it was nearly impossible to garner interest in antiwar protest by the middle of the decade of the 1970s. Remarkably, another organizer from the same national peace organization would publicly announce, during the First Gulf War, that she supported the US-led attack to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, where Iraq claimed it had a historic right to some of the land under which there were oil deposits.
The reversals of antiwar sentiment and protest were not all that unusual for the time. Masses of men and women, who were stalwart antiwar protesters, would leave the peace movement in droves. Many from the Vietnam antiwar movement became careerists and apologists for the systems that create and sustain wars. Decades later, when my best friend from college appeared as a contributor to an early campaign of Hillary Clinton for president, I knew that times had changed.
The war in Afghanistan lasted nearly two decades and changed everything with an anemic peace movement. As I document in Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-era War Resister (revised 2022), mounting a significant campaign against that war became impossible. Sadly, after approaching several peace organizations asking for a review of my memoir, not a single one showed any interest, although I was very cautious at first at committing to the book’s review, an issue that has dogged me since my resistance to the Vietnam War. I made primary documents available relating to my resistance to the government during the Vietnam War in my papers at the Swarthmore Peace Collection, but there has been absolutely no interest there, either. Although there was a resurgence of antiwar protest in 2003, with the preemptive and bogus regime-change US war in Iraq, by the time Barack Obama ordered a so-called troop surge in Afghanistan, ordered the murder of a US citizen accused of encouraging violence against the US without due process, and sped up the use of drone warfare, a tactic of war that continues today and is unanswered by major protests, antiwar protest had fallen precipitously.
The peace movement and protest was so atomized by the time Donald Trump, then Joe Biden, became president that any serious movement to counter wars the US supported directly, or as a proxy, such as in Syria and in Ukraine, was dead.
The military-industrial complex, assisted by investments in war and war profiteering, had proliferated by the new century. When voices were raised about the causes of the Ukraine war, as had been the case during the 2003 Iraq War, not only the right and far right went on the attack, but neoliberals and many so-called liberals followed suit. When a small group in Congress wrote an appeal to the Biden administration to pursue diplomacy in Ukraine, it was hastily withdrawn (Reuters, October 26, 2022), as if promoting peace and a dialogue between the world’s major powers was verboten. Diplomacy in matters of war and peace vanished. The cacophony to support Ukraine militarily is part of the long-term pushback against Russia as a threat to US hegemony (“Inside the U.S. Effort to Arm Ukraine,” New Yorker, October 17, 2022). The proliferation of the Ukraine flag across the US is yet another example of how public opinion can be manipulated in the support of war. It is as if the US never skipped a beat following the $8 trillion pissed away in Afghanistan and Iraq (Costs of War Project-post 9/11 wars). When billions of dollars are earmarked for Ukraine, almost no eyebrows are raised.
The US wars in Iraq and the war in Ukraine are illegal preemptive wars. With the latter war, almost no one wishes to discuss the possibility of a nuclear war taking place. Discussions of NATO expansion following the fall of the Soviet Union are also limited.
With a frenzy for war, no major antiwar voices are heard in major media outlets. Media such as CounterPunch and Democracy Now have seen Internet traffic drop by a measurable amount, a trend that can affect the ability to provide information that is not sanitized as it is in mainstream media. Other alternative sources of information have experienced the same result to different degrees. Mass media has become the mouthpiece for the official line and a critical analysis of issues of war and peace has vanished.
Programs of social welfare for the economic and social elite are well known, as was clear in the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Programs of social welfare and social uplift for those in the working class and much of the middle class, well, that is not a topic for serious debate, as was obvious with the so-called peace dividend that evaporated after the fall of the Soviet Union.