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Rapid response

cover image

The peace brigade is up and running, but not everyone on the left is marching in step

In the spring of 1965, when serious U.S. involvement in Vietnam had been building for more than a year, Howard Zinn addressed an antiwar rally in Boston's Copley Square. "We had maybe 100 people," says Zinn, an emeritus historian at Boston University. Two weeks ago, he found himself in Copley Square again, speaking this time before a crowd gathered to oppose any U.S. military response to the terrorism of Sept. 11. And this time, though it was only a few days after George W. Bush first uttered the words "act of war," more than a thousand people had turned out for the protest. "The antiwar movement," says Zinn, "has sprung up more quickly than the war."

Exactly. Even before the first American shots have been fired, there is a rapidly emerging peace movement making pre-emptive strikes against military action. In churches and meeting halls, but especially on the college campuses that were centers of antiwar energy in the 1960s, Americans unnerved by the prospect of war have organized so swiftly to oppose it that they don't always have a name for their own organization. Two weeks ago, Judy Miller, 20, helped mobilize other students at Yale as part of a nationwide Day of Action marked by teach-ins and demonstrations at more than 100 U.S. campuses. But her group hasn't yet had time to decide whether to use the term antiwar in its name. "The idea of being peace activists is very new to us," she says. "We're not all sure if we're opposed to war in all its forms."

It's not hard to understand why a peace movement got off the ground so quickly, even in the face of a TIME/CNN poll showing that 86% of Americans favor military action. Through websites and group e-mail listservs, antiwar activists have reached campus veterans of campaigns for a "living wage" or against foreign sweatshops, and have tapped into the fully primed energies of the anti-globalization movement. After the World Bank and International Monetary Fund canceled their joint meeting in Washington last weekend, demonstrations long planned against that event were refashioned into antiwar protests and drew thousands to the capital on Saturday.

At this very early stage, the peace movement is still without cultural trappings--no songs of its own, no symbols, no cultural heroes. For now, at least, the model of the old peace movement hangs over the new one. At a teach-in last week at Columbia University, Danny Katch, 26, gave a 25-minute lecture on the lessons of Vietnam for today's activists. Lesson No. 1: The movement helped end the war. In fact, not many Vietnam-era lessons apply automatically. A major accusation against the U.S. in the '60s--that it was the aggressor in Southeast Asia--is not so easy to invoke this time, when any U.S. military action will follow a terrorist attack carried out on American soil. And the argument that the mass murder of Sept. 11 was brought on by injustices of American foreign policy is hard to credit when Osama bin Laden is a man whose ideal of social organization is not exactly Denmark.

Because of considerations like these, the left is divided. Todd Gitlin, a New York University professor of sociology, was once president of Students for a Democratic Society, the ideological cyclotron of '60s campus radicalism. Last week an American flag was hanging from the balcony of his Greenwich Village apartment. Gitlin wonders now whether an effective response to terrorism may require the judicious use of force and whether the left's reflexive condemnation of U.S. military action is blind to the new realities. "I have a disposition against massive retaliation, but I think nations have a right of self-defense," he says. "In the '60s, 'Make love, not war' was an appropriate message. Today much more complex things are going on."

The left-wing journalist Christopher Hitchens complained in the Nation that in their haste to point the finger at the U.S., some of the antiwarriors dismissed the fact that what the terrorists want is not a liberal ideal of global justice but the despot's utopia of religious extremism. "The bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face," Hitchens wrote. "What they abominate about 'the West'...is its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state."

As it did during Vietnam, war is also breeding some hot disputes within academia. Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, raised a local furor when he wrote in the Houston Chronicle that the Sept. 11 attacks were "no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism" committed by the U.S.--for instance, in Vietnam, Central America and Iraq. That led university president Larry Faulkner to write the newspaper a letter defending Jensen's right to his views but calling him "a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy." At the University of North Carolina, faculty members who sponsored an antiwar forum full of bitter evaluations of U.S. policy were bombarded by threatening e-mails after students published an account of the meeting at frontpagemag.com, an online publication edited by David Horowitz, a '60s radical turned ultraconservative.

Where will the peace movement go next? Another terrorist attack in the U.S. would make it harder to argue against the use of force. But a prolonged and nasty land war, especially one requiring the re-establishment of the draft, would be sure to make more people dovish. If it does, there will be a well-established antiwar movement ready to admit them.



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Cover Date: October 8, 2001

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