In the 1960s, the United States had an authentic broad based peace movement that sprang from opposition to the War in Vietnam. Motives varied; fear of the draft, revulsion for the US strategy that was based on increasing enemy deaths, and general youthful rebellion probably all played a part. Yet by 1970, years before the end of the war, the anti war movement was in disarray. This paper addresses some of the reasons the movement was never able to capitalize on its support or to form a broad based Left anti war party. In fact, some remnants of the rancorous movement can be seen now in the US’ deeply divided politics.
Long term American involvement in Vietnam escalated after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave President Johnson the power to wage war. As the war expanded in 1965, the fledgling anti war movement focused on ending US involvement in Vietnam. In his history of the anti war movement of which he was part, Bill Zimmerman writes that at first the movement adopted “two strategic goals: to give activists enough knowledge about Vietnam to be able to draw others into action, and to normalize opposition, since many Americans were hesitant to oppose their own country in a time of war.”
By 1967 the costs of the war were increasingly evident. As death tolls rose, the anti war movement grew and its stated goals evolved into a plan to build a mass movement and convert it into a political force. That year there were a number of large anti war demonstrations including 100,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and 500,000 in New York.
As the war dragged on, it began to seem that although the US military could level a city, it was not equipped to win a limited war on foreign turf. Perhaps for this or other reasons in 1967 much of the anti war movement adopted a frankly anti American posture. According to Bill Zimmerman: “Our strategy, less coherent than in earlier stages, was to force an end to the war by creating instability, chaos and disruption at home.”
This shift can be seen in the changes in one of the largest anti war groups, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS began in 1960 as a Leftist education and civil rights group that by 1965 had taken on a leadership role in the anti war movement. In 1968, SDS gained a large number of new members following North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive whose success came as a shock to many Americans who had been repeatedly informed that the communists’ resolve and resources were crumbling. Even the ordinarily prosaic newscaster Walter Cronkite remarked, “to say that we are mired in stalemate is the only reasonable, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.”
At its peak, in 1969, SDS had over 100,000 members and its actions made national news. Many of the members who had joined in 1968-9 were anti war, but not necessarily radical or Leftist, and tended to be from the south and the midwest. They were largely ignorant of and disinterested in the Left and its history. As Kirkpatrick Sale writes in his exhaustive history of the SDS: “They were non-Jewish, nonintellectual, nonurban, from a nonprofessional class, and often without any family tradition of political involvement, much less radicalism.”
With the influx of working class members, SDS, always a tumultuous organization, entered a period of destructive internal turmoil and battles for leadership that pitted the ‘old guard’ intellectual Leftists who fought to adopt radical policies against the ‘new guard’ who were more interested in demonstrations to end the war.
Steve Weissman, a veteran of the old guard, later regretted that the SDS had “underestimat[ed] … the importance of the anti war movement and lost the chance to create a permanent political force in America.” By failing to use the anti war movement for recruitment and education and peckishly insisting on increasingly far Left political positions, the SDS lost a chance to build an American left, one that included not only intellectuals and students but other strata of America as well.
The Yippies, formed at the end of 1967 by Abbie Hoffman and a few others, were a publicity hungry anti war group whose principal weapon was the public mockery of institutions. Famed Yippie actions included an “exorcism” and attempted levitation of the Pentagon and the guerrilla theater of Abbie Hoffman and other Yippies who dropped hundreds of dollar bills onto the New York Stock Exchange, effectively closing the floor as stockbrokers scrambled for the money. These well publicized comedic acts were deliberately intended to undermine the institutions they attacked.
Yippie activism captured perfectly the chaotic final years of the “movement,” as the New Left subsided into factionalism and confusion over political objectives.
Their antics also contributed to the public’s widely held view that the anti war movement was too countercultural, too radical.
In 1969 the deep divisions in SDS resulted in a convention that was so acrimonious that it “could hardly even agree upon a time to adjourn, much less an organization for revolution.” SDS broke into two main factions, the Progressive Labor Party and the Weathermen, a self proclaimed radical group dedicated to fighting for the overthrow of American capitalism.
The Weathermen’s first declaration was that “the job of white Americans is to do anything they can in support of [revolutionary] struggles.” Members of Weathermen contended that any efforts at organizing whites against their own perceived oppression were “attempts by whites to carve out even more privilege than they already derive from the imperialist nexus.” This sounds like the seeds of the contempt that the former anti war candidate, Hillary Clinton, showed unemployed coal miners and steel workers.
The white, mostly bourgeois, Weathermen found that the rest of the anti war movement failed to follow them. Despite their dwindling popularity, they somehow imagined that the urban communes they set up would become bases for organizing the would-be rank and file of the revolution, but predictably, they failed to rouse the proletariat.
Zimmerman, who came to view the Weathermen with contempt, believed that in order to make their movement grow they “had to make it easy for people to join us, not require them to carry foreign flags, risk arrest or adapt a militant posture toward a government many still considered their own.”
But the Weathermen were focused on demanding loyalty to itself. New members were subjected to intense initiation rituals. Mass orgies entitled “smash monogamy” were scheduled with the intent of making the relationship with the group the only one that mattered.
With revolution rather than peace as its goal, the Weathermen turned to terrorism. In 1969, the Weathermen issued a well-publicized call for a “fight the pigs” event in Chicago that the press dubbed “Days of Rage.” Two days prior to the protests, the group bombed the Haymarket Police statue. But the expected mobs of protestors failed to materialize. A crowd of about 100 worked diligently to create chaos, but managed only to cause property damage and get arrested.
Frustrated, the Weathermen became increasingly violent. They built bombs to detonate at the sites of their purported oppressors. In March, 1970, a bomb meant for a dance at a nearby military base went off prematurely, blowing up their Greenwich Village town house, killing three and injuring two. At the time two additional bombs with 44 sticks of dynamite were defused with information provided by an undercover agent. The group ultimately set off about 25 bombs in various locations, including a nail bomb that killed a policeman. Historian Harvey Klehr writes that “the only reason they were not guilty of mass murder is mere incompetence.”
In September 1970, the Weathermen robbed a National Guard armory in Massachusetts stealing weapons and ammunition before setting fire to the armory. They used these weapons in a bank robbery during which they shot a police officer in the back. Three others were killed in a separate bank robbery.
Although the Weathermen diverted much of the anti war movement’s leadership, demonstrations against the war continued, albeit on a more sporadic and spontaneous basis. In 1969, following the news of the1968 My Lai Massacre of 347 civilians, a broad based nationwide one day moratorium drew 500,000.
Then in 1970, the invasion and bombing of Cambodia brought about large, violent and disorganized campus protests that resulted in the National Guard shooting into crowds of protestors, causing the deaths of 4 students at Kent State University and 2 at Jackson State University. Then again in 1971, demonstrations flared up after news broke of the invasion of Laos.
In part, organized demonstrations subsided in the wake of the departure of their far left organizers, and in part the movement lost its impetus when President Nixon and his defense Secretary, Melvin Laird, began to implement ‘Vietnamization,’ that is, the policy of transferring military operations from American troops to the South Vietnamese. Nixon gradually reduced the number of Americans in Vietnam until direct military involvement ended in 1973.
But the Weathermen remained energized throughout this period. They convened a ‘war council’ in 1970 that issued a “Declaration of a State of War” against the US government.The council ended with a speech by John Jacobs who condemned the “pacifism” of white middle-class American youth (of which, of course, he was one). And declared that: “We’re against everything that’s ‘good and decent’ in honky America,…We will burn and loot and destroy.” The anti-White hatred reflected in Jacobs’ remarks was a central theme of the council. The Weathermen even debated whether killing White babies was a salutary revolutionary act.
The generally sympathetic documentary, “The Weather Underground” (the group’s name changed when their lawlessness forced them underground), portrays Weather members who put their lives on the line for peace and to oppose racism and who saw themselves as joining Black people and the Vietnamese in revolution. The Black Panthers, whose communal living facilities were dedicated to providing food and services to Black neighborhoods, shunned the Weathermen, calling the group’s violence “stupid and unnecessary.”
Brian Flanagan, a rare working class member of the Weather Underground, and alone among the former members interviewed in the Documentary, compared the Weathermen to Islamist terrorists and to Timothy McVeigh, noting that all shared the conviction that their own knowledge of what was right for society entitled them to break laws, to kill, to engage in terrorism. “When you feel that you have right on your side,” he said, “you can do some pretty horrific things.” Others interviewed in the Documentary remain unapologetic, and do not seem to see that their actions failed to inspire political change or even to help bring an end to the war. Bill Ayers, one of the group’s “rich kid radicals” said in a 2001interview, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”
Many in this movement that had superseded the anti war movement and transformed it into a divisive, patronizing, violent, disruptive force were Jewish. Why? Mark Rudd former leader of SDS at Columbia University and of the Weather Underground, addressed this question in a later essay. As he explains, although he was a third generation American, he grew up in an insular world where his “family carried the Jewish ghettos of Newark and Elizabeth with them to the suburbs.” He writes that his family was far from “assimilated, if that means replacing a Jewish identity with an American one.”
Rudd’s explanation for his political alienation is instructive. “As a child I never fell for the seduction of patriotism. It seemed so arbitrary, who’s an American and who’s not. If my relatives hadn’t emigrated, who would I be? Since I was also at core an idealist and a utopian—another Jewish tradition?—I wanted to skip all that obviously stupid and dangerous stuff that gave rise to wars and racism.”
This is an astounding statement. He views being an American as the arbitrary result of immigration (although immigration was a purposeful event) and his Jewishness as an irreducible and positive trait. Then after speaking of the racism of his family (they moved out when Black families moved into their Newark neighborhood) he sees patriotism, a sentiment that presumably embraces all Americans including Blacks, as racist and treats his own membership in an insular racial group as “idealist and utopian.”
When Rudd entered Columbia he joined SDS where all of his mentors and friends, and indeed, most of the group, were Jewish. Rudd recalls many conversations with his Jewish comrades but never a conversation in which they “discussed the fact that so many of us were Jewish. This glaring lack alone might serve as a clue to what we were up to: by being radicals we thought we could escape our Jewishness. Left-wing radicalism was internationalist, not narrow nationalist; it favored the oppressed and the workers, not the privileged and elites, which our families were striving toward.”
While Rudd may have wanted to escape his identity and become one with the ‘workers,’ it seems that the workers had no interest in his revolutionary politics. Gilad Atzmon points out in ‘Being In Time,’ that when ‘revolutionary’ Jews went to Spain to join the Civil War, they found themselves in an International Brigade that was 1/4 Jewish and Yiddish was the lingua franca. While they wanted, as Rudd did, to escape their identity and join the proletariat, they found themselves in a “Jewish ghetto, fighting Spanish patriots.” They might have identified with the working class, but they were not a part of that class. Atzmon explains, “[t]he Red Jews who traveled to Spain ended up fighting in Jewish legions because ID politics and Left-orientation are largely a Jewish intellectual domain that is actually quite foreign to working people.”
Then, as if to illustrate his confusion, in Rudd’s next paragraph he switches to seeing the ‘revolution’ not as an escape from his identity but as an affirmation of it, stating: “Identifying with the oppressed seemed to me at Columbia and since a natural Jewish value. What outraged me and my comrades so much about Columbia, along with its hypocrisy, was that despite the large number of Jewish students the University had “the air of genteel civility. Or should I say gentile?”
Here is the part of the anti war movement that is in complete rebellion against all that is ‘goyim.’ And yet it is Archie Bunker who we hold out as a racist. But even the fictional ‘racist’ Archie didn’t leave his home when a Black family moved next door as Rudd’s family had. Atzmon notes that ‘All in the Family’ was itself subversive of working class values. Beginning in 1971 we watched Archie railing against his son-in-law who represented what we now call ‘political correctness.’ Our universal denigration of Archie became a part of our adoption of identity politics, that eschews bigotry yet divides society into groups based on inherited characteristics.
Rudd’s explanations for why so many in the radical anti war movement were Jewish seems to me to be incomplete. The movement never was ‘internationalist,’ as it failed to convince the working class to join nor did the movement help Rudd escape his Jewish identity, he consistently identified as Jewish and found much to criticize about goyim. There are a few other possible motives that might have contributed to the phenomenon he addresses.
First, the Jews were the vast majority of the intellectuals of the movement. By adopting radical politics that were frankly anti American the Jews (in the movement) were able to differentiate themselves and escape the company of the seemingly unwelcome ‘middle Americans’ (goyim). Instead they formed an elitist apparatus within the so-called radical left.
George Tyler writes in “Weather Underground:Driving down a Dead End Street,” “Many of the Weather Underground leaders are sons and daughters of wealthy families – prominent corporation executives, lawyers, etc. …The arrogance, elitism and impatience stemming from their class background was reflected in their politics.” Much as they claimed proletarian values, these SDS leaders were unable to compromise or work with their working class brethren. Their contempt for others is not unlike the latter day critique of the ‘basket of deplorables.’
In fact, some former members of SDS saw the Weathermen’s violence and attacks on the middle class as deliberately designed to destroy the anti war movement. Although perhaps not intentional, it was at a minimum predictable that the Weather Underground’s actions would be repellent to most.
Also, and perhaps relevant, the radical split off and effective weakening of the anti war movement occurred after 1967, the year of the Six Day War after which a victorious Israel was viewed with pride by many diaspora Jews. The radical students seeking the oppressed to represent might well instead have chosen the Palestinians who had been uprooted by the Jewish state. Was some of their anger at America transferred from embarrassment at the land grab by the Israelis and the creation of thousands more refugees? Or instead, did they sympathize with Israel and feel themselves even stronger when represented by a victorious state? In any case, these radicals who identified as Jewish were more interested in ‘fixing’ the United States than in ‘fixing’ Israel.
Whatever the motivation, it was the intellectual and largely Jewish members of SDS who formed the Weathermen whose violence kneecapped the anti war movement. While they saw those who did not join them as ‘complicit’ in ‘America’s crimes,’ they were at least as complicit in that they accomplished nothing except to hurt the anti war movement by association.
However upset the Weathermen claimed to have been by the millions of deaths in Vietnam, even today most show no regret for the deaths they caused. In listening to them it is clear that there never was an achievable goal in their calls for a total revolution without a map. Atzmon points out that, “[t]hey didn’t want to liberate America, they wanted to liberate themselves from themselves by being themselves. It didn’t work very well.”
In the years since, many of the Weathermen have emerged from hiding, and have as Larry Grathwohl, writes in his memoir of his time as an undercover agent, “pulled off [one of] their most audacious feats: they negotiated a return to society, avoided legal consequences for their most serious crimes, and rose to influential positions in academia and politics – all without renouncing their anti-American ideology or apologizing for the acts of terrorism they committed against ordinary Americans.”
Sale concludes his history of the SDS narrative by pointing out SDS’ ‘salutary’ long term effects. “SDS taught the mechanics of political organizing and protest to an activist segment of the student population and restored the legitimacy of mass dissent to the national scene, leading eventually to such direct political consequences as liberalized laws (with respect, for example, to abortion, marijuana, homosexuality, community control, and the rights of blacks, women, and the young), the reorganization of the Democratic Party and the nomination of George McGovern, and the extension of suffrage to eighteen-year-olds.”
Perhaps it is the residue of the elitism of the SDS that has left the Democratic Party alienated from its former working class base.