Monday, July 30, 2018

THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT AND THE DEMISE OF STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY (SDS) HALF A CENTURY AGO


There are leaders of the New Left of the 1960s who have bashed the Weather Underground (such as Todd Gitlin who was one of SDS’s first presidents) and, to a lesser extent, Marc Rudd (who regrets 

having participated in the Weather Underground). I don’t believe in demonizing the Weather Underground people, particularly because they were well intentioned and were reacting to a highly immoral war which was illogical from all viewpoints. Furthermore, to the extent that they were successful in pulling off highly daring acts (without producing human casualties) in order to demonstrate that the ruling class is not invincible, they deserve some credit. But there is one consideration on the negative side which I think is much more important This has to do with their underestimation of the importance of the mass mobilizations against the war. A number of members of the U.S. left traveled to North Vietnam during those years, including Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden (SDS’s founder), and Bettina Aptheker (the daughter of a fairly prominent historian of the U.S. Communist Party). The North Vietnamese (I think Ho Chi Minh himself) told these U.S. leftists that the best thing they could do was to mobilize massive numbers of people against the war in peaceful demonstrations.

Something has always struck me about the anti-war movement. The famous annual Marches on Washington (and on the west coast, smaller marches on San Francisco) grew bigger and bigger throughout the 60s and then peaked but ended in 1971. Nevertheless, the war continued for four more years and was increasingly unpopular. In the 60s if you opposed the war, many people considered you un-American.  But by the 70s, that was no longer the case, and yet the marches ceased in 1971.  Prior to 1971 the potential for incorporating people outside of the university community became greater and greater. On October 15, 1969 there were the “Moratorium” demonstrations organized by liberals that some of the radicals looked down upon (the leftists organized the March on Washington the following month on November 15), but was extremely successful in cities throughout the nation. The 1971 March on Washington  contained a large trade union contingent.

SDS had been a major force in organizing the first protests in the mid-60s. But as the organization became increasingly radicalized, it abdicated its role and this abdication had much to do with the loss of momentum after 1971. At SDS’s Chicago convention in 1969, none of the three factions (the Maoist PL, and the two RYM factions) defended the importance of organizing mass demonstration. 

Why did this happen? I remember the frustration of many New Leftists in the 1969 march on Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House. There may have been a million of us, or close to it. The next day the press asked Nixon for his reaction and at first he pretended he didn’t know what they were talking about and that he didn’t see us. Then he said, ‘Oh, I don’t pay them any attention. I had better things to do. I was watching the Redskins game.’ We know from the Watergate scandal and insider accounts, that both Nixon and Johnson were obsessed by the demonstrations (you can see evidence of that at the LBJ Library in Dallas). Johnson’s surprising decision not to run for re-election in 1968 had everything to do with the protests. In any case, Nixon’s statement convinced some of the 1969 protesters in Washington that they had to escalate their tactics and organize confrontation type actions. The confrontation tactics morphed into terrorist-type actions. 

The SDS leaders at the ‘69 congress failed to appreciate what was really happening on the ground, a shortcoming that was particularly damaging because by then SDS had branched out into many working class colleges. The extent to which SDS’s demise had to do with the failure to sustain the anti-war movement, the SDS leaders of the Weather Underground faction (as well as the PL faction) did a big disservice to the progressive cause and world peace in general.  

1 Comments:

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