The 1960s Antiwar Movement Revisited

I spent part of July 4 reading an antiwar book from the mid-1960s. Hey, call me a party animal. And what I learned gave me a perspective on today’s antiwar movement. Unfortunately, the mid-1960s’ movement makes today’s look weak by comparison. So here are some of the highlights from the book, some comparisons to today’s movement, and some suggestions for making today’s movement more effective.

What led me to buy it in a used-book store was its title: We Accuse. The title is obviously a takeoff on I Accuse, French author Emile Zola’s famous letter attacking France’s president and defending Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer who was wrongly convicted of treason. Published in 1965 by the Diablo Press, We Accuse is a compilation of speeches given at a 36-hour "Vietnam Day" protest in Berkeley, California. Some of the speeches, as you might expect, were hard to get through. Comedian Dick Gregory’s speech, for example, went on and on and often seemed off-point – maybe you had to be there. But what struck me was that, with the exception of a few moments of rhetorical excess, many of the speeches were literate, passionate, and informative. Even more important, they typically stayed on target. Everyone who spoke, possibly with the exception of the aforementioned Dick Gregory, focused on the Vietnam War, the invasion of the Dominican Republic, John F. Kennedy’s huge gamble over nuclear weapons in Cuba, the Cold War, or other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Almost no one used the forum as an excuse to talk about domestic policy issues.

One of the main things I learned was just how shallow the case for having a Cold War was. This doesn’t surprise me now. But I had grown up in Canada, believing from my teen years into my late 30s that the USSR was a grave threat to Canada and the United States and that NATO was absolutely necessary. I no longer believe that, based on much evidence I learned in the 1980s and 1990s. Had I known some of the things revealed in this book, I would have started questioning the Cold War in my teenage years rather than much later.

Some highlights:

From the speech by novelist Norman Mailer:

"Bombing a country [Vietnam] at the same time you are offering it aid is as morally repulsive as beating up a kid in an alley and stopping to ask for a kiss!" (p. 10)

"Let me list another difficulty in defining Communism in Vietnam: It is that the Communism of the Vietcong is attached to the local nationalism. With the exception of a few dedicated career soldiers, however, the average American in Vietnam is not much interested in the future of Asia." (p. 12)

"We are a conservative, property-loving nation obsessed with the passion to destroy other nations’ property." (p. 13)

"He [John F. Kennedy] was a young, good-looking man with a beautiful wife, and he won the biggest poker game we ever played. The only real one. We lived for a week [of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis] ready to die in a nuclear war, whether we liked it or not." (p. 18)

"War is indeed the health of a totalitarian state. And peace is its disease. Communism would split and rupture and war upon itself if ever it occupied most of the world. For then it would have to solve the problems of the world, and these problems are not soluble in the rigidity of a system. Like all top-heavy structures the greatest danger to Communism lies in its growth. Prosperity is its poison. For without a sense of crisis, Communism cannot discipline its future generations. Attack from capitalism is communism’s transfusion of blood." (p. 20)

"Let the Communists flounder in the countries they acquire. The more countries they hold, the less supportable will become the contradictions of their ideology, the more bitter will grow the divisions in their internal interest, the more enormous their desire to avoid a war which could only destroy the economies they would have developed at such vast labor and such vast waste. Let it be their waste, not ours." (p. 21) [The kind of thinking evidenced in the above two quotes makes one wonder why Mailer is thought of as a liberal/leftist. Mailer’s reasoning sounds like that of the late Roy A. Childs Jr., a radical libertarian, in speeches in the late 1970s and early 1980s.]

"Only listen, Lyndon Johnson, you’ve gone too far this time. You are a bully with an Air Force, and since you will not call off your Air Force, there are young people who will persecute you back. It is a little thing, but it will hound you into nightmares and endless corridors of night without sleep." (p. 22)

From the speech of Isaac Deutscher, a Marxist, a specialist on the Soviet Union, and a biographer of Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin:

"That colossus, Russia, lost in the last war [World War II] over 20 million people alone. … When, after the war, the first population census was carried out in the Soviet Union, it turned out that in the age groups that were older than 18 years at the end of the war, that is, in the whole adult population of the Soviet Union, there were only 31 million men compared with 53 million women. … [T]his nation with this tremendous, huge deficit and its population imbalance, with a whole generation lost, this nation was supposed to threaten Europe with an invasion. And, until quite recently, this threat of invasion was all the time assumed to be real. NATO was formed in order to contain this threat. Any specialist in population statistics could have counted the number of years that it would have taken Russia to fill these gaps.

"Moreover, from the end of the war until the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the Russians had demobilized their armies so rapidly that they reduced them from eleven and a half million men at the end of the war to less than three million. Only after the formation of NATO did they start remobilizing." (p. 39)

"There was only one man in the West who saw the de-Stalinization coming, a change in the climate of opinion in Russia, and advocated a new approach to Russia. And that was Churchill, the prompter of the cold war, the man who had, in 1946, in his Fulton speech [the famous speech in which Churchill coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’], made the great call for the rallying of the West against Russia. But then in 1953, it was he who spoke about the change in Russia and appealed to his NATO colleagues for a new, more conciliatory approach. He was disavowed by the White House and ridiculed by his own Foreign Office, although he was then the British Prime Minister." (p. 47)

"Now, American policy-makers apparently didn’t give any thought to the fact that only a few weeks after last year’s American attacks in the Bay of Tonkin, Khrushchev fell. He fell, among other things, precisely because he advocated a rapprochement with America and advertised in the whole communist world the latent rationality of American policy. And, of course, the American attack on Vietnam was a refutation of Khrushchev’s conciliatory policies." (p. 48)

From the speech by M.S. Arnoni, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps and editor and publisher of Minority of One: An Independent Monthly for an American Alternative:

"Twenty years later it still is a fact that the Red Army has neither moved nor attempted to move into any country since the end of the war. On the contrary, the Soviet armed forces have been withdrawn from three countries they had occupied during the war: Iran, Finland and Austria." (p. 57)

"Much as our Government is opposed to socialism, it seems rather enthusiastic about a twisted type of a fiscal socialism of the armaments economics." (p. 57)

From the speech by I.F. Stone, publisher of I.F. Stone’s Weekly:

"I think that De Gaulle is one of the great men of our times. He was brought to power by the forces deeply opposed to Algerian independence, and once he got to power, he set Algeria free. And he set Algeria free even though the French army was very close to a military victory. It was De Gaulle’s greatness that he recognized that even had they crushed the rebellion, it would flare up again; there would have to be a period of occupation, and there would be a new rebellion. France would poison its relations with Africa and spill its blood to no measure in such a situation. I’d like to point out that France’s withdrawal from North Africa increased its prestige in the eyes of the colonial world. And so would it be if we left." (p. 97)

What’s notable in all the above is its focus on war and foreign policy. Although I didn’t quote his speech, Staughton Lynd, a noted history professor at Yale University, criticized Robert F. Kennedy for his support of the Vietnam War. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if major left/liberal antiwar activists criticized Hillary Clinton for her support of the Iraq war? I know that some of them do, but a fair number don’t.

Having praised major parts of We Accuse, I have one major criticism. Most of the speakers, including the ones whose speeches were most informative and persuasive, used the word "we" when referring to Lyndon Johnson and other U.S. government officials. In his speech, Paul Potter, for example, a former president of the Students for a Democratic Society, stated that "we" installed Diem as a dictator of South Vietnam. But "we" did no such thing. I’m sure Potter had no role in it. Eisenhower was the main person responsible for installing Diem. People are responsible for their own actions, not those of others. For more on why this language matters, see my article, "Who is ‘We’?"

We need more things today like We Accuse. How about an "I Accuse" open letter to George W. Bush and, while we’re at it, to those other recent warmongers who are still alive, Bill Clinton for his attacks on countries in the Balkans and George H.W. Bush for his attack on Panama? How about an antiwar rally in which the ground rules are that you actually have to talk about war and not domestic racism? How about making a case against the war rather than just repeating the mantra, "Bush lied"? The current antiwar movement has just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at