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by Mark Rudd
I JOINED THE anti-Vietnam War movement as an 18-year-old college
student, a freshman at Columbia University. It was the fall of 1965,
just months after the U.S. began sending ground combat troops to
The older members of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic
Society explained to me that unlike World War II, Vietnam was an
imperial war, a war of occupation whose purpose was the repression of a
national liberation movement. We were a small group then, but over the
next three years SDS became a critical part of a larger antiwar
coalition. Our anger mounted, our protests grew and our ranks burgeoned.
Unfortunately, we went many bridges too far and got ensnared in the
hallucination of revolution. By 1969, it became more important in SDS to
fight each other over who had the "correct revolutionary line"
than to fight against the war itself.
Early the next year, while the war was still raging, my own faction, the
Weathermen, made the stupid and ultimately disastrous decision to
disband SDS and opt instead for "armed struggle," our
middle-class version of urban guerrilla warfare. Predictably, we became
isolated and irrelevant over the ensuing years, even as the larger
antiwar movement went on to achieve its goal: U.S. withdrawal from
I often wonder what would have resulted over the long haul if SDS —
which represented the radical, anti-imperialist wing of the antiwar
movement — had not chosen to self-destruct in violence and fantasy but
instead had kept plugging away, encouraging more and more people to
understand and oppose the building of an American empire.
This question seems particularly relevant today, 40 years later, as a
reawakening antiwar movement prepares to confront many of the same
issues. Who benefits and who loses from an American empire? What are the
moral and economic and spiritual costs to Americans? Is a system of
international law possible as an alternative to endless use of American
military power? Viewed against the bleak future that Bush, Cheney,
Rumsfeld and Rice are offering Americans and the rest of the world,
these questions begin to seem more practical than idealistic.
What's hard to understand — given the revelations about the rush to
war, the use of torture and the loss of more than 2,000 soldiers — is
why the antiwar movement isn't further along than it is. Given that
President Bush is now talking about Iraq as only one skirmish in an
unlimited struggle against a global Islamic enemy, a struggle comparable
to the titanic, 40-year Cold War against communism, shouldn't a massive
critique of the global war on terrorism already be underway?
Yet the movement has remained small and politically isolated since the
original outpouring of opposition in the spring of 2003, during the
run-up to the war. In part, it was the victim of its own early success,
the spontaneous demonstrations involving millions of people in the
streets here and around the world trying to stop the war before it
began. When this initial outburst failed, many became demoralized and
Then, in 2004, most of the pent-up antiwar energy flowed into John
Kerry's campaign, with little to show for it but further demoralization.
The movement caught a second wind with the energizing presence of Cindy
Sheehan, but it remains small compared with the outpouring against the
Probably it's because there's no draft now. Clearly the fact that
middle-class boys across the country were receiving draft cards and
lottery numbers went a long way toward helping spur resistance to the
Vietnam War. Nor is there a countercultural movement today that
questions authority like the one that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.
But building a movement can be done. To increase our ranks, we'll need
to break through the too-common belief that change is impossible.
We'll also need to take on the larger war. As the next battle heats up,
perhaps against Iran or Syria, the movement will have to ask the
American people to look honestly at who we are in the world. The antiwar
movement will have to engage in the most difficult dialogue of our lives
with our neighbors.
Throughout American history, popular movements have made vast
transformations in the social and political geography of this country
— the abolition movement, the women's suffrage movement, the civil
rights movement, the labor movement, the gay movement.
My own contribution is to tell the story of how an antiwar movement
involving millions of people accomplished something unique in American
history and almost unique in the history of empires: We helped stop a
war of aggression by our own country. This was American democracy at its
best. I lived through it, I saw it with my own eyes.
If all of us "gray-hairs" were to tell our stories, we might
be able to make a contribution. At least we could help people find hope
in this dark time.