Dan Berger and Andy Cornell
January 24, 2007
Sometimes studying history is useful for more than passing a test. This is one of them. In 1969, opposition to the immoral war against Vietnam was nearing its height on the streets and college campuses of the United States. In Vietnam itself, U.S. troops were losing ground, even as they deployed vicious chemical weapons such as Agent Orange on the people and countryside of the small country in southeast Asia. More and more American soldiers were pledging their sympathies with the radical movements in their own country while expressing confusion over the purpose of U.S. involvement overseas. Despite his campaign promise to end the conflict, President Nixon’s response was to expand the war by launching bombing raids against Cambodia, a neighboring country accused of harboring that era’s political bogeymen, communist insurgents.
Sound familiar? Not two months after voters delivered an unmistakable electoral mandate against the current illegal and brutal U.S. occupation of Iraq, and with top generals declaring the fight militarily hopeless, President Bush announced his intention to expand rather than curtail the war, by sending an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq. Despite the callous arrogance it exposes, Bush’s expansion of the war is nothing new. Still, the more relevant historical question is, what did those U.S. citizens who opposed the Vietnam War–after years of peaceful marches and voting for nominally anti-war candidates–do in response to Nixon’s escalation?
They set their country, our country, ablaze, literally and metaphorically. The expansion of the Vietnam War into neighboring countries resulted in massive resistance that shut down college campuses through student strikes–often punctuated with incendiary blasts targeting ROTC buildings and the laboratories of professors paid by the government to research more effective ways to kill or repress people–and turned out spirited protests in cities and towns across the country. Many demonstrators realized that the pageantry of marching down prearranged routes had proven insufficient to stop the war. This ethical quandary required a political leap: Having taken each of the actions allotted for citizen participation within the liberal democratic system (voting, writing to Congress, circulating petitions, marching) without meeting their goals, they were still culpable for the massive, daily violence enacted by their government. The war’s expansion necessitated an immediate and unequivocal response, even if that meant taking actions considered illegal by that same government. Anti-war actions in the spring of 1970 harnessed this unbridled anger to directly confront the war makers and make their policies unable to function as long as the criminal war continued.