The horrors which we have seen, the still greater horrors we shall presently see, are not signs that rebels, insubordinate men, are increasing in number throughout the world, but rather that there is a constant increase, a stupendously rapid increase, in the number of obedient, docile men.
—George Bernanos, 1888–1948, French novelist and antifascist
In 1955, 28 New Yorkers committed civil disobedience by refusing to rush into air shelters when sirens sounded in a rehearsal of a nuclear attack. The War Resisters League was involved in that peace action.
In 1960, at least 500 New Yorkers committed civil disobedience at City Hall Park to demonstrate resistance to nuclear armament. There were also stirrings of concern about American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Among the organizers of that action were Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, and A.J. Muste, master of anti nuclear, antiwar, and civil rights strategies, and a direct-action pacifist. The police randomly arrested 27 people in the park. Some, like me, managed to avoid eye contact with the cops, so we weren’t busted.
In other towns and cities, the anti nuclear movement expanded into antiwar demonstrations. In 1962 a young black man picketing in front of the Atomic Energy Commission in New York said, “What’s the sense of being integrated into oblivion?”
In 1965, as Eric Foner noted in his invaluable recent book, The Story of American Freedom (Norton), “Outrage over the war, and over the disproportionate number of young black men being drafted to fight it, contributed significantly to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s embrace of black power.”
As Foner points out, “More than any other issue, what transformed student protest into a full-scale generational rebellion was the war in Vietnam.”
It wasn’t only the students who pro tested, of course. Across the spectrum of race, age, class, gender, and sexual preference, huge numbers of people awakened to the necessity of resistance to illegitimate authority.
But where are the survivors of those movements now—especially those on the Left, who provided much of the anger and energy for a historic confrontation with a murderous American government?
In December 1967, Gene McCarthy—who won enough votes in a New Hampshire primary to force Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the presidential race—made a speech before the Conference of Concerned Democrats in Chicago:
“I see little evidence,” Gene McCarthy said, “that the administration has set any limits on the price [in life and property] which it will pay for a military victory which becomes less and less sure and more hollow and empty in promise.”
Recently, we’ve been hearing statements that sound remarkably similar to some of the most chilling remarks to come out of the Vietnam War. An American army officer at that time said: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” And Curtis LeMay, who was for a time in charge of the air war in Vietnam: “We’re going to bomb them into the Stone Age.”
So where are the concerned Democrats now? Apparently remaining loyal to a president who, having no principles, keeps trying to find out which way the wind is blowing. And who, being incompetent in foreign policy, has no idea how or when to stop the rains of death that he has dunderheadedly caused—with the help, of course, of the fascist ruler of Yugoslavia.
Where is the peace movement?
The War Resisters League is doing what it can, along with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Catholic Worker, Pax Christi, et al.
But the networks of people around the country that nurtured those groups during the Vietnam War—and which in turn were nurtured by them—have fragmented. “We feel lost,” a previous resister told me.
Where are the priests, the rabbis, the ministers who used to march with the rest of us and issue proclamations and denunciations of the makers of war?
Where are the black leaders? If American ground troops go, as Pete Seeger used to sing, “waist deep into the big muddy,” how many of those soldiers will be black?
Where is the Left as hundreds of thousands of Kosovo refugees are torn from their homes? As families are broken apart? As fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, are murdered? The president and his invincibly obtuse secretary of state bray, “We’re winning!” But in Yugoslavia, innocent civilians are murdered by our weapons of undeclared war.
A notable exception to the retreat on the Left is The Nation (May 10). More on its writers, as well as on what can be done, next week.
It’s not only the survivors of the 1960s who are silent. Where are today’s young? Nearly all the college campuses are quiet now on the war. Paul Goodman, an extraordinarily prescient analyst of the politics embedded in everything we do—and don’t do—used to tell me how saddened he was that, for all the ferment of the 1960s, no meaningful, determined attention was paid to building a principled Left that would endure beyond the Vietnam War.
Mike Harrington and others tried, but too many indentured themselves to the
Democratic Party without being able to transform it.
Why aren’t members of the Left marching now against the horrors we see and have seen in Kosovo, Rwanda, and
other parts of the world? Could it be they think that, God forbid, the Right will benefit if Clinton is discredited?
A.J. Muste used to say, “Those who undertake a revolution are obligated to try at least to see it through.” Because we of the 1960s failed to do that, the generations
after us will have to start again. But where are they now?