Whatever Happened to the Antiwar Movement

Remember the antiwar movement? For those too young to have lived through the sixties – or even the cold war with the Soviet Union – this was once a mighty movement of millions, whose members were convinced that nuclear apocalypse was all but inevitable. And to those of us who lived through the nerve-wracking days of the Cuban missile crisis, when it looked like the two superpowers would go head-to-head in a thermonuclear shoot-out, this was not just the screenplay of a cheap science fiction movie but a very real possibility. Millions of people were legitimately concerned that the ruling elites were so maniacally fixated on the idea of “winning” the cold war that they would even go for a military “victory” – however Pyrrhic.THE EARLY YEARS

The movement consisted not only of pacifists, such as A. J. Muste and the Quakers, but also anti-Communist liberals of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, anti-Stalinist leftists, and the remnants of the fellow-traveling milieu represented by such groups as the U.S. Peace Council. Of course, in the pre-war era, those who opposed the interventionist schemes of our rulers were considered to be on the extreme Right: the America First Committee, the biggest antiwar organization in American history, was created by conservative businessmen in alliance with classical liberals such as John T. Flynn, and midwestern progressives such a Senator William E. Borah, the “Lion of Idaho,” and California’s Hiram Johnson. Smeared by the rabidly pro-war Left as agents of Hitler and the Mikado, the old isolationist wing of the Republican Party had almost completely faded away by the mid-fifties, driven underground and rendered practically invisible by the rise of the Buckleyized Right, which plumbed for a thermonuclear showdown with the Soviets as the core of its political program. During the mid-fifties, the left-wing peaceniks were lucky if they could count on a few thousand to come out and rally in support of disarmament. By the time the sixties rolled around, however, and the Vietnam war was the number one item on the national agenda, the ranks of the peace movement swelled to include hundreds of thousands of active participants.


A movement in opposition to something can only reach large numbers of people when that something looms large in the popular consciousness, and surely the sixties was such a time. Every night on the evening news, families gathered ’round their TV sets to hear the news anchor solemnly announce the day’s casualty count. The Vietnam war touched everyone and everything, for here was a war that we were losing. Practically every time you picked up a newspaper there was a blaring headline explaining that the war had “escalated” in some way or other; every month or so they sent fresh battalions of GIs into the jungles of Southeast Asia. They came back in body bags almost as fast.


In the beginning of the nascent antiwar movement of the sixties, the organized Left was typically obstructionist. The sclerotic Stalinists of the CPUSA stayed away. The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), made up of the kind of liberal Democrats who were active in Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), wouldn’t touch the issue. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the premier student left group, abstained from the first organizing meetings, and insisted instead that it was time to do “community organizing” in the urban ghettos, where trust fund activists could shed their “white skin” privilege and get down with the bruthas.


It was left to the old-line pacifists and religious activists, such as Muste, to provide the leadership to organize a single-issue coalition against the war, with the organizational backbone for the massive protests provided by independent radicals and the Trotskyists of the (pro-single issue) Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It wasn’t until later that the SDSers latched on to an already rising movement, and then only to drag it down into the bottomless pit of imbecility and wacko ultra-leftism in which the “New” Leftists eventually found themselves. At its high point, however, the movement against the war in Vietnam became not just a political project but a cultural phenomenon, a metaphor for the times that dramatized the spirit of a generation. By the time the antiwar movement had run its course, every sector of American society was basically in agreement with its central premise: that we needed to get out of Vietnam. The anti-Communist liberals who had initially supported the war turned against it, and even some on the far right, such as Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, were saying that the old Bircher slogan of “Get US Out” – originally meant to apply to the United Nations – was equally applicable to Vietnam.


With the end of the Vietnam war, it was only natural that the antiwar movement would begin to wind down. Although the US government’s policy of global intervention was still fully operational – and even preparing to go into high gear – as the last helicopter gunship took off from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon, a movement that had numbered in the millions shrank back almost to its original size: at most a few hundred dedicated activists, scattered around the country, mostly pacifists and religious groups, disarmament activists of the Muste mold, as well as the SANE liberals, who were back in business. These groups, working in coalition, took advantage of the sixties peacenik mentality to raise the demand for a nuclear freeze, a kind of lowest common denominator that could and did appeal to the Woodstock Generation and beyond. The Freezeniks built up quite an organization, with local chapters nationwide and a huge donor base: they were especially strong in California, where the flowers-in-their-hair generation had integrated itself effortlessly into the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But Ronald Reagan took the wind out of their sails, the man who had fought the Evil Empire all his life, with his historic disarmament agreement with the Soviets. What Reagan proposed, not a freeze but a radical rollback leading to the abolition of all nuclear weapons, was far more radical than anything the Freezeniks had ever proposed – or dared dream of.


The final nail in the coffin of the old-style left-led peace movement was the implosion of the Soviet Union, and the victory of the US in the cold war. The whole reason for the activism of the old-line Stalinists had been the defense of the Soviet Union – with the “workers’ fatherland” overthrown, however there was no longer anything to defend. In the cold war era, when the peace movement was an appendage of the Left, the Freezeniks were just another Friday night meeting ground for the politically correct, along with the El Salvador and Nicaragua solidarity groups and the committees to free sombody-or-other. The remnants of the New Left that did not blow themselves up making bombs in New York City townhouses had fled to the universities, where they ruled their isolated domain with an iron fist, and into the Democratic Party. With the end of the Freeze movement, the small religious and pacifist groups – dwindled down to a precious few – managed to carry on in a limited way. But by the time our ex-peacenik President ordered the “humanitarian” bombing of Belgrade, the peace movement in America was long dead if not finally buried. This appendage of the Left had withered and practically expired long before the antiwar activists of yesteryear turned into the warmongering Clintonistas of today.


I won’t go into how and why the Left sold its soul to the devil, to begin with because my deadline approaches, and secondly because I am not a leftist, and never was: a good dose of Ayn Rand immunized me to that early on. I will leave it to the man whose column in the Nation is appropriately called “Beat the Devil,” the witty and merciless Alexander Cockburn, to explain it all to me at the upcoming Second Annual Antiwar.com National Conference, being held March 24-26, in San Mateo, California. For Cockburn is speaking on precisely that subject: “How the Left Sold Out to Imperialism,” at the Saturday luncheon and I can hardly wait. As the last honest Marxist anti-imperialist still left standing, Cockburn, whose writings inspired and entertained so many Antiwar.commers during the Kosovo nightmare, is well qualified to speak on this subject. While the Tod Gitlins of this world twisted themselves into comic contortions to justify their betrayal of the antiwar cause – and the totalitarian “liberals” piously proclaimed that this was a war for “diversity” and “civil rights” – Cockburn’s cogent commentary on the war and its aftermath has been a tonic to all of us, Left and Right, who opposed Clinton’s war.


Well, then, is the antiwar movement finished, along with the anti-imperialism of Tod Gitlin’s long-lost youth? No way. Every fifty years or so, there seems to be a general reversal of political polarity, where Right and Left switch sides on the question of war and peace, and take positions heretofore opposed and even abhorred. The opposition to World World I was primarily leftist and populist in orientation, centered especially in the old Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and the International Workers of the World (Wobblies), along with such Southern populists as Tom Watson, and the midwest progressive movement embodied by Robert LaFollette. But Left and Right switched sides in the thirties, as World War II loomed on the horizon. It was conservatives and libertarians, the founders and rank-and-file of the America First Committee, who feared that we would win the war against national socialism at abroad – and lose it on the home front. The war would be the final nail in coffin of the old order, and all obstacles to the collectivization of industry and Roosevelt’s dictatorship would be swept away. The Old Right was anti-imperialist and anti-statist: the former was a function of the latter.


With the final defeat of Robert A. Taft wing of the GOP, and the coming of the cold war, there was another paradigm shift: the Right was now the War Party, and the Left was inclined to noninterventionism. It was William F. Buckley, Jr., who declared in that it was necessary to put up with Big Government and high taxes “even with Truman at the reins of it all” in order to defeat Communism. For nearly half a century, the Right compromised its devotion to individual liberty and free enterprise in the name of the alleged “necessity” of militarily defeating world Communism. When the Red Empire imploded, however, the rationale for right-wing militarism no longer existed. With the end of the cold war, we are in for another radical role reversal.


As Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and their Third Way cronies throughout Europe and the world openly proclaim their intention to override national sovereignty in the name of a global order, the nationalist Right in every country is rising to meet the threat. Ever since Patrick J. Buchanan made opposition to the Gulf War the leitmotif of his first presidential campaign – and of a new conservative sensibility – the most articulate critics of interventionism have been on the Right. Pat was really the key figure, the leader of the “paleo”-conservative movement that has regenerated a tired and Beltway-led movement, and that rejects the idea of an American Empire as dangerous and blasphemous. Which is why is the Friday night keynote speaker at the upcoming Antiwar.com National Conference is none other than Buchanan – the most eloquent and certainly the most well-known champion of noninterventionism in America today. In a major foreign policy speech, Buchanan will inspire us even as he instructs us – this promises to be the kind of event that the attendees will long remember.


The juxtaposition of Buchanan and Cockburn is precisely the kind of ideological dissonance – and variety – that is bound to make for a very interesting and productive conference. It would have been easy to pack the conference schedule exclusively with antiwar speakers from the Right, and draw a fairly large crowd. With Chronicles editor Tom Fleming, Srda Trifkovic – author of the single best essay, “It’s Not Just the Balkans,” we have ever posted on this site – not to mention Rep. Ron Paul and the wonderful Joe Sobran, along with many of our own columnists, how could we have gone wrong. But the theme of the conference, “Beyond Left and Right: The New Face of the Antiwar Movement,” makes the vital point that a new paradigm shift is happening, and labels like “left” and “right” mean less than anyone is willing to admit. And so we have a hardline right-winger like myself speaking from the same podium – and speaking on the same subject – as Dr. Lenora Fulani, a Reform Party activist and a woman of the left whom the liberal media like the New Republic have chosen to demonize as a “dangerous extremist.” In an attempt to determine the terms of the debate by narrowing the political and ideological possibilities, all dissent (especially antiwar dissent) is denounced as “extremism” – which is why we are proud to have Lenora Fulani on our platform.


The old left-right paradigm is increasingly an obstacle to understanding what is going on the world. If John McCain is now considered a “conservative,” or at least claims to be, how useful is the term in describing my own belief system? In an age when such people as Jesse Ventura, William Weld, and even the odiously smarmy Bill Maher can claim to be a libertarian, what does the word mean anymore? And getta loada this: in an interview with Michael W. Lynch, McCain declares with a straight face that: “Any objective observer who looks at my 16-year record would view it as fundamentally conservative and to some degree libertarian.” Are we to be spared nothing? Good Lord, with McEvil claiming that he’s a “libertarian,” and nobody blinking an eyelash, the world has truly gone mad. Ideological labels have lost all meaning. So let’s not hear anything about how Buchanan and the paleo-Right have joined up with Marxist revolutionaries and betrayed the cause of true conservatism – I’ll take Fulani over McCain any day.


Now, I know what you’re thinking. Usually these conferences are pricey affairs, with high fees going to speakers and lots of fancy frills. Not here! We have a no frills, no meals package priced at only $75.00! If you want the package with meals (lunch and the banquet on Saturday), you still get a reasonable price: $125. If I were you I would get my reservations in a.s.a.p. ñ this is going to be a sold-out, standing-room-only event.

To make sure you get a seat, call Sybil now at

(She can also get you a special rate at the hotel, and make your reservations). Or you can send your check or money order, payable to the Center for Libertarian Studies, to: P.O. Box 4091, Burlingame CA 94011.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].