Debating the Antiwar Movement

Debating the Antiwar Movement

Washington, DC


Washington, DC

Never get in a fight with a skunk; even if you win you come out smelling bad. Over the years, that’s the advice I have given people who complained they were wronged by Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn. He is, I would explain, a master of the underhanded attack and will use his right of reply to compound whatever false impression–or outright prevarication–he presented in his original hit. You only provide him one more forum for yet another foul swing. I am now going to ignore my own sensible advice.

Let’s begin, in Cockburnian fashion, with the ad hominem: Cockburn is a liar. In a recent column, he whacked me for being part of what he called the “anti-antiwar movement.” To discredit yours truly–who has served as Washington editor of this magazine for more than fifteen years–he wrote, “David Corn’s most substantial piece of work to date is Blond Ghost, which could be described as a not unsympathetic account of Ted Shackley, a CIA supervisor of one bloodbath after another, most notably the Phoenix program in Vietnam.”

See Cockburn’s deft hand at work? “Could be described as…” How can one of those vaunted Nation fact-checkers take issue with such a sneaky formulation? My Shackley biography could be described as “not unsympathetic” only in the way a rainy day could be described as a sunny one–that is, by a person whose aim is to deceive.

If I sympathize with a butcher, Cockburn implied, why take anything else I write seriously? But no sentient reader could walk away from my book believing I sympathize with Shackley. After the book came out, Shackley was enraged and told friends he was considering a lawsuit. (Unfortunately for book sales, Shackley’s pals talked him out of it.) A New York Times review chastised me for going too far in blaming “Shackley for an enormous number of the CIA’s failures over the past several decades.” Covert Action magazine noted that my book chronicled “Shackley’s career, with its lost causes, its body counts, and its toll on constitutional government,” and called it “a study not in evil’s omnipotence but in its banality.” Washington Monthly noted that in the book Shackley comes across as “a distillation of the CIA’s worst faults…[either] a typical CIA automaton or simply a failed human being.”

You get the picture. Cockburn chose not to–in order to engage in his by-whatever-means-necessary polemics.

I earned my place in his crosshairs by writing a piece for LA Weekly, noting that the antiwar demonstration held in Washington on October 26 had been mostly organized, via front groups, by the Workers World Party, a small, revolutionary-socialist sect that hails the North Korea of Kim Jong Il and calls for abolishing all private property. Consequently, the WWP controlled the agenda of the demonstration and placed before the microphones speakers who issued a variety of tangential, far-left demands: smash capitalism, release imprisoned Cuban spies and free former Black Panther H. Rap Brown, convicted earlier this year of murdering a sheriff’s deputy. Also, since the WWP takes the position that targets of US imperialism deserve full solidarity, it opposes weapons inspections in Iraq. So there was little give-inspections-a-chance talk from the stage. All this, I suggested, poses a problem for the antiwar movement, for it is unlikely the movement will attract the millions of recruits it needs to be effective if some of its public manifestations focus on these other matters. Playing a recorded message from Jamil Al-Amin (as H. Rap Brown is now known)–which the organizers tried to do at the rally–serves the interests of the WWP, not the antiwar movement.

Cockburn, true to form, unfairly conveyed what I had written. He huffed, “Corn has now taken to issuing cop-style intelligence reports, reminiscent of FBI field advisories to Hoover, on the Workers World Party, stigmatizing the WWP for its nefarious role in the Washington and Bay Area antiwar demonstrations.” Cockburn did so without even referring to the offending article, leaving most readers to wonder what I had done to deserve his wrath. Apparently, no Nation editor thought it necessary that he should direct readers to the actual evidence. Interested readers can look at Irresponsible, inaccurate score-settling is not uncommon for Cockburn. Unfortunately, Nation editors enable him, confusing vetting with censorship and thus share ownership of his misdeeds.

But I did get one laugh from Cockburn’s assault. The last line of his column reads, “If the left can ever reach out to this [populist, antiwar] right, which it’s almost constitutionally incapable of doing, we’ll have something.” That was, in a way, precisely my argument. Does Cockburn believe a WWP-led antiwar movement pushing the Free Mumia cause and demanding the end of capitalism is going to be able to partner with Pat Buchanan types? To succeed, the antiwar movement has to broaden and grow. But with the WWP in the vanguard, that is less likely to occur. Moreover, I believe it is highly useful to tell war critics and war skeptics who is at the front of the march they are joining. (If white supremacists, using innocuously named outfits, organized an anti-NAFTA rally, should journalists not examine the groups in charge, not probe their agenda? Should attendees not care?) With this information in hand, perhaps citizens with more sense will out-organize the WWP and create a movement with greater reach (for another amusing and telling Cockburn contradiction, see Marc Cooper’s letter below).

Now put on the safety goggles, smock and noseplugs, and prepare for a clever and rascally retort from Cockburn. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Woodland Hills, Calif.

Let me get this straight. When David Corn and I criticize the Workers World Party for its fringe politics and we worry over its leadership of the budding peace movement, we commit ideological crimes that place us in the camp of the “anti-antiwar movement.” But when our chief critic, Alex Cockburn, did the same exact thing twelve years ago, on the eve of the Gulf War, he was instead doing what? Nobly enriching the consciousness of the peace constituency? Cockburn had it dead on when he wrote in these very pages on December 31, 1990: “I wish people would stop writing to remind me that in the 1930s leftists of principle–Trotsky and Togliatti are two favorites cited by my correspondents–supported feudal Ethiopia against the invading Italians. The inference is that today leftists of principle should espouse the cause of Iraq and eschew criticism of Saddam Hussein. This is Marxism-Leninism-Bonkerism of a sort much savored by the Workers World Party, which seems to be the animating force behind the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, decorated by Ramsey Clark.”

Cockburn was furious that WWP sectarians would sink the peace movement with their rigid politics when he added: “The Bonkerists insist that Saddam and Iraq not be criticized, thus instantly placing themselves in an immoral and tactically impossible situation, as anyone talking about the crisis on television or radio will understand. The Bonkerists also see the U.N. purely as a U.S. cat’s-paw.”

Alex’s fears were well placed. The narrow-based movement against the Gulf War, in fact, never broadened and quickly and impotently collapsed. Those are precisely the same fears that Corn and I have raised about the re-emergence of the WWP at the head of this season’s peace rallies. One difference between now and then, however, is that neither Corn nor I have suggested that anyone boycott the demos organized by the WWP. I merely argued that the Stalinists be out-organized by other more sane folks. Cockburn, on the other hand, in that same 1990 column, actively urged his readers to not attend the rally organized by, as he put it, the “Bonkerists” of the Workers World Party. “The Bonkerists are having their demonstration in Washington on January 19,” he wrote. “People interested in a broad-based peace drive should go to the one organized by the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East on January 26.”

So big deal. I caught Cockburn in a glaring, self-serving contradiction. No biggie. Regular readers know by now that Cockburn’s only concern is to fill the column space he is given twice a month with whatever he can. Facts, truths and principles be damned. Like a stopped clock, he’s right some of the time. And I give him credit for unmasking the Bonkerists of the Workers World Party a full dozen years before my meager attempt. It’s a pity Cockburn now lacks the minimal decency to admit that the writings for which he excoriates me and David Corn today are an almost perfect mirroring of what he wrote in 1990.



Petrolia, Calif.

I’ll get to Corn’s and Cooper’s letters in a minute, but must first turn to my erstwhile colleague here, C. Hitchens. His recent response to Katha Pollitt contained the following sentence: “Just watching the sluggish stream sliding by in the past few months, I have seen the editor of CounterPunch, one of our fellow columnists, reprint a vicious and paranoid and subliterate screed, explicitly associating Jew power with the destruction of the World Trade Center.”

On October 3 CounterPunch, which I coedit with Jeffrey St. Clair, ran on its website a piece by Kurt Nimmo about the uproar over Amiri Baraka’s poem about September 11, and the efforts of the ADL to get Baraka dislodged from his position as poet laureate of New Jersey. Web-conversant Nation readers can find Nimmo’s useful piece at

Since most newspapers (with the exception of the Newark Star-Ledger, which printed the entire poem) didn’t bother to share with their readers what Baraka actually wrote, we also put up Baraka’s poem ( He subsequently sent us his indignant, detailed response to the ADL’s charges of anti-Semitism, which we also posted on our site (

Actually, I strongly doubt whether Hitchens ever looked at our web page, since he told me the last time I saw him that his Internet skills are confined to reading his e-mail. I also doubt he’s ever read Baraka’s poem, or his subsequent defense, both of which are well worth studying and far less deserving of the charges of subliteracy, viciousness and paranoia than much of what Hitchens puts out these days. The phrase “Jew power,” by the way, is Hitchens’s, not Baraka’s.

I would have thought that Hitchens, a man who once defended David Irving’s First Amendment rights, would have thought twice about those sentences in his answer to Pollitt, so carefully designed to tarnish me and CounterPunch with the charge of abetting anti-Semitism. I can easily imagine his howls if I decried him as an apologist for Irving or noted the writer Edward Jay Epstein’s recollections of Hitchens asserting in 1995 that “no evidence of German mass murder had ever been found,” without adding any context.

I read a transcript the other day of David Corn’s recent session on The O’Reilly Factor, where he cooperated with pathetic eagerness when O’Reilly invited him to denounce the peace movement and people like Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon as dupes and cat’s-paws. To me, Corn seemed to have assigned himself, without much self-awareness, a toehold on the shelf alongside such epic snitches and Namers of Names as Harvey Matusow.

Maybe it’s this lack of awareness about the moral timbre of what he writes and says that causes Corn to be so upset about my description of his book as not unsympathetic to Shackley. He thinks I was being weasel-worded. In fact, I was trying to throttle back my view that the book is a disgusting effort, truly creepy in its detached, passionless tempo of narration about a terrible man stained from head to toe with blood. After reading Corn’s shrill letter I reread the chapter on Shackley’s tour as CIA station chief in Vietnam and find no reason to change my assessment.

Cooper yaps like a terrier in a badger’s den on discovering that I decried the WWP for Marxism-Leninism-Bonkerism back in 1990 and urged antiwar demonstrators to attend the other march. I have news for him: In 1990 Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and I had many arguments about the appropriateness of a UN-sanctioned response with people in the antiwar movement, including an exchange with Michael Ratner right here in these correspondence columns, disputing his view that criticisms of Iraq should not be on the agenda of the progressive community amid Bush I’s buildup to war. There were two large demos planned, and since I reckoned there was no chance they would unify, I urged my preference.

Here we are in 2002, with the UN a wholly owned US subsidiary (as I should have conceded to myself and others a lot more than I did in 1990) abetting an imperial onslaught as brazen and lawless as any colonizing sortie of the nineteenth century. In the urgent task of organizing antiwar demonstrations, the WWP has worked capably in building up coalitions. The group’s core Bonkerism is probably undiminished, but I don’t think that’s the issue, and I don’t see Cooper, Corn and Gitlin doing anything more serious in organizing peace rallies than advertising their own political respectability in the mainstream press.

In the column belaboring Corn et al., I mentioned the role of the SWP in organizing the antiwar marches of the 1960s. This elicited some interesting mail, including a note from that excellent historian of the left, Stew Albert:

“Dear Alexander C. Actually, the first big march against the war took place in NYC in 1964 on May 2. It was somewhat covertly organized by the Maoist Progressive Labor Party. Thousands marched from Harlem to the UN. And a PLP front group, the May 2 Movement, was born.

“The next big event that I recall was organized in Berkeley in 1965 by a coalition of New Leftists, CPers, PLers and, yes, the SWP. The coalition was called the Vietnam Day Committee, and its most prominent member was Jerry Rubin.”

Stew added that my overall point “holds up very well. If Maoists organized the event, it did not create a compulsory Maoism. Same with the Trotskyists. All these groups helped build the peace movement…. The great thing was that a new left developed that was able to work with them–and put aside the anti-Red biases of the 50’s social democrats.”


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