Home / Robert Farley / How Much Did the Anti-War Movement Matter?

How Much Did the Anti-War Movement Matter?

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Why did anti-Iraq War protests never reach the crescendo of their anti-Vietnam predecessors? There’s been some decent scholarly work on the determinants of public support for wars, but as a very quick cut this seems about right:

Instead of curing the Vietnam Syndrome or its symptoms, the Bush Administration insulated the American public from it. It formulated and executed policies that neutralized the nagging problems that Johnson had previously faced. Whether these decisions were made with Vietnam in mind or were implemented due to political ideology (tax breaks for example) can be debated, but the result was an American public largely distanced from the direct, day-to-day effects of a prolonged conflict. Although America was directly attacked, taxpayers did not pay higher taxes (in fact, paid less), young Americans were not subject to a draft, and the country did not experience the loss of a large number of its citizens. Additionally, despite the advantages of information technology and its professionalization, the anti-war movement never rallied or connected with a large audience in a long-term, meaningful way. Though there were individuals with strong personal connections to the on-going conflicts, they did not exist in significantly numbers.

The last two sentences are interesting for their assessment of the importance of the anti-war movement. The conclusion is debatable; while I think we can say with some safety that the 2006 elections went the Democrats way because of frustration with the war, it’s less clear that the shift in opinion was specifically the result of anti-war activism, or rather the inevitable result of a war that was going poorly. Jonathan Bernstein argues that the most important result of the 2006 election for the war was the Surge; had the Republicans held on, Bush wouldn’t have been as inclined to pursue a risky escalation, or to make the political concessions to the Iraqis that executing the Surge required. I don’t know that this is right, because Bush had pretty much lost faith in Rumsfeld by that point, and Rumsfeld was one of the key obstacles to putting more troops in Iraq. Petraeus was building a constituency for the Surge inside and outside the military well before the election, and might have been able to convince Bush that it was worth the effort.

But then in terms of effect, it’s also not clear that the anti-Vietnam movement had a huge policy impact. By 1968, there was a growing elite-level consensus that continuing the war was a bad idea. Nixon and Kissinger wanted to get out on their own terms, but they definitely wanted to get out, and mostly for international rather than domestic reasons. It’s worth wondering how the war would have wound down if an explicitly anti-war candidate like Bobby Kennedy had prevailed. I think it’s very possible that we would have seen something similar to the slow motion Iraq withdrawal undertaken by the Obama administration, hopefully without the periodic escalations launched by Nixon.

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