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The Anti-War 60s All Over Again?

by Alexander Cockburn

A full-blown anti-war movement needs a full-blown war
First, the big anti-war demonstrations in Washington D.C., and San Francisco a couple of weeks ago; then, the Election Day sweep by Bush and the (prime) party of war and then, ... in my case, a concert by Merle Haggard in my local town of Eureka, California, Wednesday night.

When it comes to the big themes of love and war and history, nothing concentrates the mind like a few songs by Merle, whose 1969 pro-war country anthem "Okie from Muskogee" lambasted the dope-smoking hippie peaceniks and earned the former resident of San Quentin a full pardon from Governor Ronald Reagan.

Merle's political positions have evolved somewhat since the late Sixties, as we'll see, but sitting there in a mostly white working class audience even a tad older than the equally white crowd listening to Bob Dylan in Berkeley a few weeks ago, an obvious question bulked as large as the Stars and Stripes hanging above Merle: Are we seeing the birth of a new anti-war movement as potent as the one that prompted Merle to riposte with "Muskogee" and "The Fighting Side of Me"?

Now, there's always an intervention movement here, usually below the radar screen of mainstream reporting. And since, according to the pre-Sept. 11 Defense Department, 60,000 U.S. troops were conducting temporary operations and exercises in about 100 countries, this movement has plenty to do. But a full-blown anti-war movement needs a full-blown war, and a reasonably protracted war at that. Not the notional "war on terror" now merged, according to Attorney General John Ashcroft, with the war on drugs officially waged since 1982. Not the sortie to Afghanistan.

Look back to the early 1960s. In 1962, a full eight years after President Eisenhower had decreed secretly that Ho Chi Minh could not be permitted to triumph in open elections, the left was just beginning to educate itself about Vietnam.

When President Kennedy was sending the first detachments of U.S. troops to South Vietnam and setting the stage for the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, there was scarcely the semblance of an anti-war movement. In Oxford, England, in 1962, I remember being incredulous when one of my radical mentors, the historian Thomas Hodgkin, remarked to me that the next big anti-imperial battleground would be Vietnam.

It wasn't until 1966 and 1967 that the left, particularly the Socialist Workers Party, had managed to stage the big anti-war rallies that broke forever the pro-war consensus and set the stage for more radical actions. And by then, there was that potent fuel for an anti-war movement, the draft, which prompted Stop the Draft Week.

By 1968, we had a worldwide anti-imperial movement; we had the May-June upheavals in Paris; we very definitely thought history was on our side. Not anymore.

Today? We have the premonition of a big anti-war movement. Like the SWP 40 years ago, the Workers World Party did much of the organizing of the recent demonstrations, which doesn't mean the 150,000 or so who marched in the Bay Area and in Washington D.C., are dupes of Karl Marx, Ramsey Clark and Saddam Hussein, as some have alleged, but merely that organizing big demonstrations takes a lot of dedication, energy and experience. I have a dream, said Martin Luther King, and so he did, but the Communists in the south helped him put flesh on that dream, as they did the dreams of Rosa Parks.

But will there be a war with Iraq? No one knows for sure, but I'd say the odds are better than ever there will be. To judge by the amended U.S. resolution lodged with the UN, we can have one anytime the commander in chief decrees it, with February/March 2003 as probably the earliest practical slot. A draft? No time soon. A calling up of the National Guard? More likely, and already there are tens of thousands of reservists on duty, many of them no doubt chafing at their condition.

And if George Bush lets loose the dogs of war on the grounds that Saddam wouldn't submit to a full personal cavity search, will we see a new age of '60s-style protest? Certainly, if the war goes on long enough and Americans get killed in large numbers. As I said, there already is an intervention movement out there, whose senior members cut their teeth in the '60s, with more recent recruits from America's later forays in Central America and other battlegrounds of empire.

Back to Merle. He's changed, too. "Friends ... and conservatives," he said to the crowd in the old Eureka Theatre, then he made a joke about George Bush's colostomy. Elsewhere on tour he's derided Ashcroft and the erosion of the Bill of Rights. There's a slab of the Right that's denouncing America's imperial wars. That wasn't happening in the early Sixties. If the Left could ever reach out to this Right, which it's almost constitutionally incapable of doing, we'd have something.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor November 13 2002 (

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