How to Revive the Antiwar Movement

The headlong rush toward war with Iran seems to have slowed down. But we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security — we urgently need a mass antiwar movement that isn’t tied to the Democratic Party.

Demonstrators hold up signs during an antiwar rally at the US Capitol on Thursday in Washington, DC. (Leigh Vogel / Getty Images)

We haven’t had an antiwar movement in the United States for a long time. So, when Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was assassinated on orders from President Donald Trump on January 3, it immediately raised the prospect of a real shooting war between the United States and Iran. It also caught many of us flat-footed and scrambling to respond.

I was heartened to see a significant number of younger people and Democratic Socialists of America members turn out for “No War on Iran” demonstrations across the country last weekend. Though still modest in size, rallies and demonstrations took place in seventy to ninety cities, ranging from a few dozen to five to six hundred people. Pre-planned canvasses for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign were cut short so DSAers could attend.

Although some antiwar groups, such as ANSWER, were quick to declare a “new movement,” we should be more sober in our analysis. We are in the very early stages of recreating a new antiwar campaign. Most local and national antiwar groups such as ANSWERUnited for Peace and Justice, and US Labor Against the War (USLAW) have devolved into largely website groups with few active members and resources, and haven’t done anything significant or even met in years. We need to have a political assessment of these and other potential collaborators.

Most importantly, we need to have a wide-ranging discussion of the political basis for a new antiwar movement that takes into consideration the heightened radicalization and class inequality here, and the struggles for democratic rights in Iran and Iraq. At the same time, Bernie Sanders, of all the presidential candidates, has most aggressively challenged Trump’s warmongering. We need to understand that Bernie will need to draw his strength from a mass antiwar movement build by us.

The potential for forging a new, mass antiwar campaign will — if the past is a guide — derive from the actions of the US government. We’ve entered new and dangerous territory. Trump followed up the murder of Soleimani with threats to target fifty-two sites in Iran — one for every American hostage held in 1979 to 1980 — many of significant cultural significance, which is considered a war crime under international law. He later backed down. Iran responded with missile attacks on two US bases but with no casualties. The United States chose not to respond militarily but to impose tighter sanctions.

Talk of peace by the United States should not lure us into a false sense of security. We should be prepared for anything and everything to come in the next few weeks and months.

What Makes a Mass Antiwar Movement?

Many antiwar activists hope that we can “stop the next war before it starts,” but history shows that this has rarely happened. For example, the greatest failure of the old Second International was with the First World War. Despite the many pledges to oppose war between the European Great Powers, the mass-based Social Democratic, Socialist, and Labour Parties of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Czarist Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire abandoned their comrades and pledged loyalty to their governments amid patriotic fervor. The two significant exceptions among the belligerent countries were the Socialist Party of America and the Bolsheviks.

It took two years of bloody, near-genocidal trench warfare before popular antiwar agitation resumed. The war was finally brought to an end by working-class revolutions in Russia and Germany, along with working-class upheavals throughout Europe.

In the United States, the most important antiwar movement of the twentieth century was the one to end the US war against Vietnam. Before then, the United States emerged from the destruction of the Second World War as the strongest capitalist country in the world, virtually unscathed by the war compared to the destruction in other belligerent countries, and soon afterward imposed its political and economic rule over large parts of the globe. The much weaker Soviet Union imposed its rule over a smaller “sphere of influence,” largely Eastern Europe.

This Pax Americana never went unchallenged. The United States was fought to a stalemate in the unpopular Korean War by Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China and was frustrated by repeated and failed attempts to destroy the Cuban Revolution. But the Vietnam War brought the most significant military defeat the United States has ever suffered.

During the pre–Vietnam War era, antiwar (or, more accurately, peace activism) was confined to a small fringe of radical and religious pacifists and conscientious objectors. In many cases, these small currents overlapped and provided some of the initial cadre for the civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements. What turned this fringe movement into a radical mass movement encompassing millions — as I argued in my book, Vietnam: The Last War the U.S. Lost — was a combination of three political factors: the Black Freedom Movement in the United States, the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation, and the breakdown of the US military. This political ecology produced the largest mass movement in US history and was a major factor in forcing the United States to withdraw from Vietnam.

The US ruling class took away several lessons from its defeat in Vietnam. Realizing the need for widespread public support, they abolished the draft, lowered the voting age to eighteen, and resolved to avoid “quagmires” and take better control of the media to shape public opinion and explain its war aims.

These goals were largely met during the largest post–Vietnam War US military engagement, the first Gulf War. After Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the United States put over half a million troops into Saudi Arabia and rained down destruction on Iraq, reducing a modern country to near rubble. The United States confined its war aims to expelling Saddam from Kuwait, destroying most of his army and temporarily occupying southern Iraq. The war seen as a huge success and was thought to have broken the “Vietnam syndrome” that prevented the United States from the large-scale use of US ground troops abroad.

It’s important keep in mind that the first Gulf War did face opposition, one that would foreshadow some of the difficulties the United States would face during the Iraq War. The short-lived antiwar movement popularized the slogan “No Blood for Oil!” and mobilized a few spectacular mobilizations. I was at a demonstration in San Francisco where over one hundred thousand marched against the war. There was a lively student movement against the war. Alex Molnar’s famous essay, If My Marine Son is Killed, foreshadowed the opposition to the Iraq War by many military families.

In the years that followed the first Gulf War, tens of thousands of US troops were plagued with Gulf War illness. History also proved unkind to George H. W. Bush, who despite having a 90 percent approval rating in the weeks following his lopsided victory over Saddam Hussein, was defeated by Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election. Bush was the first president to win a war and lose an election. His victory was undermined by the economic impact of the recession during his last years in office, which he seemed oblivious to, along with growing concerns about inequality, job security, health care, and police violence.

The Iraq Antiwar Movement

The second Gulf War, also called the Iraq War,  is usually traced to September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC traumatized Americans and laid the basis for both the US invasion of Afghanistan and the passage of the repressive Patriot Act. Mostly important, the September 11 attacks gave the neoconservative movement a dramatic “Pearl Harbor–like” event to swing public support behind a new project of empire-building in the Middle East. Or at least it thought so.

The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (now nearly two decades old) was to be the springboard for the invasion of Iraq followed by a series of quick, decisive wars of regime change, of which capturing Iran was to be jewel in the crown. It’s impossible to recount the war here except to say that this hubris came crashing down very quickly in the months that followed the March 2003 US invasion.

The antiwar movement that arose following the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was small and largely confined to the far left and many pacifist groups with the exception of NYC Labor Against the War (NYCLAW) that was founded soon after the September 11 attacks. NYCLAW provided a model for organizing labor antiwar committees across the country in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq.

The Iraq antiwar movement emerged out of the trauma of the September 11 attacks, but it was also shaped by the previous twenty-five years of a Left that had all but collapsed, the decimation of the trade unions, and the marginalization of most social movements. The largest demonstrations against the war took place before the US invasion of Iraq, not after.

Some of the political elements that created a mass antiwar movement during Vietnam resurfaced, but never came to full fruition. So, for example, the Iraq resistance rocked the US military and produced a small but important milieu of antiwar soldiers. The destruction wreaked by the United States shocked the American people along with the spiraling costs of the war and occupation.

One of the most important political developments was the trade union opposition to the war. The AFL-CIO called for “rapid withdrawal” from Iraq in 2005, something it never did during the Vietnam War.

But the biggest problems that plagued the Iraq antiwar movement were primarily political. The movement, if you can call it that, was dominated by an older generation of radicals whose political expectations collapsed during the 1970s and 1980s, and many of whom moved to the right politically, ending up close to the Democratic Party. In his seminal essay, Whatever Happened to the Anti-War Movement?, the late Alexander Cockburn wrote:

Even though the war in Iraq is a bipartisan enterprise, even though Democrats in Congress have voted year after year to give Bush the money to fight that war, the mainstream anti-war movement, as represented by UFPJ, is captive to the Democratic Party.

Having the antiwar movement captive to the other war party stifled the opposition to the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. It never quite became the vibrant mass movement that it demonstrated at certain moments, and the US working class and victims of US imperialism have paid the price for that. And we live with that legacy. The 2008 election of Barack Obama killed off the last of the Iraq antiwar movement, but it had been on pretty wobbly legs for a while before that.

During his presidency, Obama withdrew the bulk of US ground troops from Iraq, promised to end the Afghanistan War (he didn’t), and shifted military strategy toward the use of special forces and drone warfare. Popular antiwar activism collapsed, leaving a small space that was occupied by a small number of committed pacifists and long-term (and older) activists. Also, and very disturbingly, small paleo-Stalinist micro-sects took over the husks of antiwar groups in many cities, and turned them largely into platforms for some pretty dubious politics, including support for mass murderers like Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

The Next Antiwar Movement

We are in a moment of great danger. Yet there is also great potential. Foreign Policy magazine reported on January 3, 2020:

Overwhelmingly, the US public does not believe that US interests warrant war with Iran. Only about one-fifth of respondents say that their country “should be prepared to go to war” to achieve its goals with Iran, while three-quarters say that US goals do not warrant it. Among Republicans, only 34 percent say that war should be on the table to protect US interests.

However, public opinion can shift dramatically if armed conflict breaks out, and let us not forget the deep well that Trump can draw from. The United States has demonized Iran for forty years. As a young socialist in the late 1970s, I can remember both the enormous impact of the Iranian Revolution on world politics, as well as the horrid racism and bigotry dredged up by the year-long hostage crisis beginning in 1979. Before 9/11, 1979–80 was the worst political year of my life.

We on the left also have a deep well of antiwar activism to draw on, along with the bitter legacy of the US wars fought since 9/11 for working-class Americans — who either fight and die in these wars, are disabled by severe injuries and illnesses — or pay for the costs of a military budget approaching one trillion dollars annually. A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed:

Among veterans, 64 percent say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting considering the costs versus the benefits to the United States, while 33 percent say it was. The general public’s views are nearly identical: 62 percent of Americans overall say the Iraq War wasn’t worth it and 32 percent say it was. Similarly, majorities of both veterans (58 percent) and the public (59 percent) say the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. About four-in-ten or fewer say it was worth fighting. Veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan are no more supportive of those engagements than those who did not serve in these wars. And views do not differ based on rank or combat experience.

This quick survey of past US antiwar movements demonstrates that we can and do build mass movements against US imperial aggression, but the success of those movements depends on many factors, including not being captive to the Democratic Party. We need to be vigilant. The next few months will tell if the United States will be at war again.