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In the 1960s and the 2020s, Antiwar Movements Change the Landscape

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Global sympathy lay with the people of Vietnam in the 1960s-’70s, as it does with the Palestinian people today. But difficult as the road to forcing the US out of Vietnam was, the path to winning Palestinian self-determination and equal rights for all in Israel-Palestine appears even more challenging.

As the war on Gaza enters its seventh month of unrelenting destruction, students around the world are setting up encampments and occupying buildings to press their institutions to cut financial and academic ties with Israel. Their peaceful and passionate protests are bringing a new level of intensity to the multi-sided movement supporting Palestine. They also recall and build on a living history of similar student actions, from those demanding an end to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s on. In this series, Convergence’s Stephanie Luce interviews people who have been engaged in different generations of campus protests. They share reflections on the organizing they were involved in and the lessons it might offer for today. We begin with some thoughts and context from Convergence Editorial Board Chair Max Elbaum.

Stephanie Luce: You have been engaged in antiwar organizing for decades, and are a keen observer of movements. What would you say are some of the similarities between the anti-Vietnam War work in the 1960s/ early 1970s and what we are seeing today?

Max Elbaum: The movement to end the Vietnam War was a huge and sustained upsurge that challenged a sacred cow in US politics–anti-communism. Student activism and large-scale protests on college campuses were a big part of it. The antiwar outpouring transformed the country’s political and social landscape and many people’s lives.

The movement for justice in Palestine today is not as huge yet, but it is growing rapidly and is also challenging a sacred cow in US politics: pro-Israel politics. And it too is transforming the landscape. It has shifted sentiment toward sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinian cause among youth, including Jewish youth, in the labor movement, and in the base of the Democratic Party. It has dealt a decisive blow to what has been termed PEP–the pattern of being “Progressive Except Palestine.” It is laying the basis not just to expand Palestine solidarity but to put internationalism and opposition to US militarism back into the heart of the progressive agenda after a period when it was in the background. It has gained unprecedented influence in Congress via the Squad and other progressive congressmembers. And it is transforming the lives of thousands of young people who are likely to become lifelong activists.

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Both movements built off previous movements. Back then, the antiwar work was influenced and inspired by the spirit and tactics of the Black-led Civil Rights Movement. Today, the movement builds on years of efforts to build support for Palestinian rights and draws from the energy of Occupy and Black Lives Matter. They are similar in combining moral and political fervor.

And in both cases, there was, and is, repression from universities and the state.

Stephanie Luce: And what is different today?

Max Elbaum: In the 1960s, every activist personally knew someone in the military–if we didn’t go to Vietnam ourselves–and we didn’t want them to die. We sympathized with the Vietnamese and watched them suffer and die on television, but we had almost no direct contact with Vietnamese people. Only late in the war, after 1970-’71, did any number of US people (other than soldiers deployed to Vietnam) interact directly with Vietnamese people at various gatherings, mostly outside the US.

Today there is a stronger connection to the people targeted by US militarism. There are large numbers of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims here. Lots of students know Palestinians, people in Palestine, or people who have been forced into exile. Or they are just one step removed – they know someone who has a personal tie to Palestinians living in Gaza or the West Bank. And there has been a big demographic shift in racial composition of people on campuses. There are many more Black, Latino, and Asian students (and faculty and staff!) than there were in the 1960s.

A big difference between the periods is that while protesters in the 1960s were demonized, there was almost no one around who claimed to be a direct victim of the people the US were fighting. There were Eastern Europeans or people who had fled Cuba, saying they were victims of communism. But these were small numbers, and they did not claim to be direct victims of Vietnamese communists.

Today, many Jews, including thousands of Israelis living in the US, claim that people protesting for Palestinian rights are a direct threat to them. The political Right and the mainstream Jewish establishment propagate this conflation of support for equality in Israel-Palestine with anti-Semitism. They are weaponizing the charge of anti-Semitism to take attention away from what Israel is doing in Gaza and put it on the alleged threat to the safety of Jews in the US. They ignore the fact that large numbers of Jews are active in the movement for a ceasefire and Palestinian rights, and that all the significant groups in that movement oppose anti-Semitism and condemn incidents of anti-Semitic harassment or use of anti-Semitic language no matter what the source.

Another important difference is in the global political picture. The Vietnamese people had the sympathy of almost all of humanity, and political and material support not just from socialist countries but from the non-aligned movement and even a few western governments like Sweden. And those leading the revolution were clearly part of a progressive global movement. Even if vilified as communists, the Vietnamese revolutionaries practiced an internationalism (“Our war is with the US government, not the American people”) that spoke the sentiments of millions and blunted a lot of the propaganda barrage.

Today the Palestinian cause has almost the same sympathy in the global majority, though there are exceptions–Modi’s Hindu nationalist movement in India and the mainstream establishments in world Jewry. But overwhelmingly, global public opinion is horrified by genocide taking place in Gaza and sees Israel and its main backer, the US, as responsible.

But Palestinians have far less support from governments around the world other than their votes at the UN. Perhaps the clearest example of that is the stance of today’s Arab regimes compared to their actions in that earlier period. In the wake of the 1973 war between Israel and Egypt, the Arab regimes conducted an oil boycott against the West because of its support for Israel, and at that time none of the Arab regimes recognized Israel diplomatically.

Today, the Arab regimes are police states eager to fully normalize their relationship with Israel and just want a fig leaf to present to their populations, who overwhelmingly sympathize with the Palestinians. Today, there is no socialist camp providing the kind of aid to Palestinians that was provided to Vietnam. And the Palestinian liberation movement itself is badly fragmented–largely but not completely because of Israeli’s murderous campaign against it–and has not yet developed unified leadership projecting an emancipatory vision and operating with a strategy capable of winning Palestinian freedom.

Stephanie Luce: What about domestic politics? The students today are looking at trying to stop a war, heading into an election year in which a Democratic President is waging war. It has parallels to 1968!

Max Elbaum: The Biden Administration has made some important forward steps on domestic issues but is sabotaging that progress as well as its own political fortunes by waging this war. That’s like what we saw with the Johnson Administration in 1968.

But there are differences too. There were congresspeople opposed to the Vietnam War by 1968-’69, but none with the kind of organic ties to progressive movements that the Squad and others have today. And the anti-Vietnam war movement was not connected to the kind of progressive electoral infrastructure that now exists and is fighting both to win a ceasefire and to defeat a US-style fascist GOP in 2024. Nixon was a right-wing war hawk, and his “southern strategy” was the initial stage of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and all the other gains of the 1960s. But today that backlash is at its most intense phase and the GOP has been transformed from a conservative party into an authoritarian, US-style fascist party.

Another difference is that after Johnson was forced to withdraw from the 1968 presidential race, just about everyone in the antiwar movement believed correctly that it was only a matter of time until the US would lose the war and withdraw from Vietnam. Even many outside the antiwar movement recognized that. So even amid the intense repression and outright murder of student protesters, there was confidence that we were on the winning side.

It is more challenging today. The situation facing the Palestinians is far less favorable. If Israel agreed to a ceasefire tomorrow, the path from there to justice and equality in Palestine remains exceedingly difficult and long-term. This fact, and the threat of a MAGA takeover of the federal government which would bring down the full power of the state against partisans of Palestinian rights, poses big strategic challenges to a movement whose goal goes beyond stopping the killing to completely changing US policy toward Israel-Palestine such that it is possible to win full equality, justice and self-determination for the Palestinian people.

For more from Max Elbaum on this topic, see “Has America Learned Nothing? Lessons from Vietnam to Gaza,” on Francesca Fiorentini’s podcast The Bitchuation Room.

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