Main Document Index  |  ETOL Home Page


Report on the American Antiwar Movement

A report to the 1967 Socialist Workers Party Convention

Lew Jones

From International Socialist Review, January 1968
Source: Microfilm, NYU Tamiment Libraries
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL)

The antiwar movement in the United States has developed despite the absence of a mass anticapitalist political movement and despite the relative apathy of the labor movement. The American political climate, dominated by the two parties of the ruling class, has from the beginning exerted constant pressure on the antiwar movement to adapt to its norms. Yet this movement, since its first action, has consistently pursued a course of mass action against the imperialist war in Vietnam. And in doing so, it sets the example for and prods other forces nationally and internationally into action against the war administration and its supporters abroad.

The course of the antiwar movement has occasioned a continual political struggle within the movement over the fundamental question of how and for what purpose to mobilize the ever-mounting sentiment against the war. The alternative perspectives have been three: (1) the organization of periodic, mass, antiwar united front actions, (2) adventurist actions which aim to substitute a handful for mass actions, and (3) the use of the antiwar forces as raw material for various class-collaborationist electoral “peace” projects.

This fundamental conflict has been reflected in other debated questions within the antiwar movement. It has for instance, underlain debates over non-exclusion of any political tendency from antiwar actions. A war that is motivated by anti-communist, cold-war clichés, cannot be opposed by a movement that condones red-baiting. The rejection of the policy of exclusion testifies to the movement’s militant temper. But establishment of the principle of non-exclusion did not come about by chance. It was established as the result of an initial political fight over non-exclusion and overall perspective that has recurred time and again.

Militant, non-exclusive, and continuously growing, the antiwar movement is a catalyst for the current radicalization that has swept beyond the student milieu. It constitutes an organizing center for vigorous dissent from and demonstrations against the foreign and domestic policies of American capitalism.

The basic political characteristics of the antiwar movement were evidenced as early as its first national action, the April 17, 1965, March on Washington, called by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In their call SDS termed the conflict in Vietnam a civil war, called for an end to U.S. intervention, and supported the right of self-determination for the Vietnamese.

The old-line social-pacifists, dominated by cold war social democratic ideology, objected to the audacity of these young rebels who dared to resist the Vietnam war in this manner. The League for Industrial Democracy, then the formal parent organization of SDS, opposed the plans for the march, particularly the policy of non-exclusion and the political line of supporting self-determination for the Vietnamese. These social democratic reformists fully realized the implications of the SDS call and sought to tone down the demonstration’s politics and make it more “reasonable.” They went so far as to demand that SDS turn over the final planning of the demonstration to them.

But from the beginning SDS had involved the left-wing socialist youth tendencies in the planning and refused to buckle. The fight finally broke into the open on the eve of the march, when Bayard Rustin, Norman Thomas, and others issued a statement denouncing the action.

The rest is history. The march was large—some 20 to 30 thousand—and the antiwar movement was solidified on the basis of non-exclusion, self-determination for Vietnam, and mass action; and it was launched by a section of the student movement breaking from the tutelage of reformism. The reformists had lost out.

From April 17, 1965, to March 26, 1966

At this initiating stage the SWP and YSA recognized that this peace demonstration was qualitatively different from previous ones. The YSA endorsed the march; organized speaking tours to help build it; distributed literature in sizable quantity; (our basic propaganda pamphlet on “The War in Vietnam” made its first appearance); and helped in organizing the various local ad hoc committees to build the march.

The SDS march served as a focal point around which to crystallize the radical antiwar sentiment which had been developing on the campuses. Like the call for the march itself, the ad hoc committees which arose to build the march usually supported self-determination, non-exclusion, and naturally enough, the mass actions. These Committees to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV’s), most of them based on the campus, soon became the basic unit of the antiwar movement and its most militant wing. Within a few months over 300 of these committees came into existence. They organized much of the wave of teach-ins and other campus antiwar activities in the spring of 1965, and continued to flourish even during the summer, when students are traditionally less active.

The organization of antiwar students into these militant committees placed two alternatives before such organizations of the “established” peace movement as Women Strike for Peace (WSP) and the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE). They could either cooperate with the antiwar committees to build a militant movement against the imperialist war, on the basis of non-exclusion, or they could separate themselves from the radical youth, continue to work for “peace in the abstract,” and attempt to win over the activist youth along that unpromising line. The majority of the WSP leadership took the former course while the majority of the SANE leadership took the latter in that first period.

This militant antiwar movement produced a shake-up and realignment in the established pacifist organizations. In a series of articles in Liberation magazine in the spring and summer of 1965, a debate took place over what attitude pacifists should have toward the Vietnam war and the antiwar movement. The radical pacifists argued for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam and against the negotiations stand of the social democrats and others. They aligned themselves with the militant, non-exclusive, antiwar sector. Bayard Rustin and his ilk could not tolerate such a position and a split occurred. The radical pacifists became a leading component of the antiwar movement and a bridge between the established organizations and the new student groupings.

Following the SDS March on Washington, the next national gathering of the antiwar movement was the August 1965 Assembly of Unrepresented People in Washington D.C., called and organized by the radical pacifists. There one of the workshops initiated the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam (NC C).

At its formation the NCC had several clearly delineated aims—to coordinate the various antiwar committees, to coordinate the upcoming October 15-16 1965, International Days of Protest, called by the Berkeley Vietnam Day Committee, and to hold a convention at Thanksgiving to establish a national organization of the independent committees to end the war in Vietnam. Most of its founders hoped it would fill the urgently needed function of a national coordinating body for the antiwar coalition. The SWP and YSA vigorously supported this perspective.

Unfortunately, while the NCC was initially looked to as a national coordinating center for the antiwar movement, it never developed into such a formation. The Communist Party supporters within the NCC oriented toward class collaborationist political action and the “community organizing” forces saw no need for national coordination. Thus, over time, the leadership of the NCC sought to impose upon the entire antiwar movement a pro-Democratic Party perspective under the slogan of “negotiations,” setting up a lobbying office in Washington to push for draft reforms, and attempted to become a general “progressive organizing center” around a number of diverse issues.

On the other hand, the broad perspective of the CEWV’s favored organizing the antiwar movement around the single unifying issue of opposition in action to the war and attempting to involve the largest range of groups and individuals on that basis. Many of the activists in these committees were acutely aware of the objective need for a national formation that would include, in an action coalition, all the peace organizations and political groups opposed to the war.

These two conflicting perspectives for the antiwar movement clashed at the NCC convention in November, 1965. While the controversy involved basic political perspectives, it took the form of a struggle over the organizational structure required by the antiwar movement. The political debate revolved around the basic slogan of the antiwar movement—was it to be “negotiate” or “Bring the GIs Home Now”? Although the issues were not then clear to some participants, the end of the convention posed these alternative demands as the slogans of the opposing tendencies.

The 1,500 who attended made the convention the biggest gathering of the antiwar movement to that point. It was likewise the high point of the NCC. While forces grouped around the “withdrawal perspective” were outvoted, the debate was carried from the convention floor into the ranks of the antiwar activists and eventually the majority of the antiwar movement was won over to that viewpoint. A year later the Spring Mobilization Committee, a broad, non-exclusive action coalition, and the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, a militant national student organization, were formed. These conformed to the organizational structure the left wing had proposed at the NCC convention.

The Bring the Troops Home Now Newsletter, initially the organ of the militant caucus formed at the NCC convention, played an essential role in this process of education and debate within the movement. It campaigned for the program of periodic, inclusive, mass actions and the formation of CEWV’s around the slogan, “Bring the GIs Home Now.”

Organizationally, the Newsletter projected the formation of a national body comprising the independent CEWV’s. But before such an organization could be realized, the movement had to argue out the question of self-determination for the Vietnamese. During the spring of 1966 the majority of forces in the antiwar movement began accepting the withdrawal demand. In this important step in the continuing development of the radicalism of the antiwar movement, the Newsletter carried out an effective and successful propaganda campaign for the withdrawal position. Eventually, the activists around the Newsletter became one of the key ingredients in the formation of the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

Despite the differences at the NCC convention, there was near unanimous agreement to call for the next International Days of Protest, March 25-26, 1966. This action was to play an important role in the expansion of the antiwar movement.

From the NCC Convention to April 15, 1967

The next stage of the antiwar movement following the NCC convention was marked by the decline of the NCC and the rise of representative local, united-front type coalitions, based upon minimal agreement on actions against the war. The organization which proved most successful as an acting alternative national center during the decline of the NCC was the New York City, Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee, (the “Parade Committee”). Originating around the October 15-16 Days of Protest and then organizing the massive March 25-26 New York protests, it quickly became a permanent organization in New York with growing national authority. It was initially composed of representatives of nearly one hundred organizations, ranging from local student and professional antiwar formations to political parties like the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party. Today it has over 200 cooperating groups.

The N.Y. Parade Committee was an expression of the need for a national coalition leadership of mass actions, constituted by all organizations opposed to the war. The leaders of the Parade Committee were partisans of the withdrawal demand. The Parade Committee proved in practice the validity of the militants’ perspective. It set a national model.

Demonstrations in August and November were followed by the Thanksgiving, 1966, Cleveland conference at which the massive April 15, 1967, mobilizations in New York and San Francisco were first planned. Antiwar sentiment had expanded considerably and combined with the efforts of the antiwar movement, the effect by Thanksgiving, 1966, was to convince more of the old line peace groups to participate in and mobilize for antiwar action.

Moreover, it had become clear to many that, as antiwar sentiment deepened further, it would begin to reach into the labor movement and other layers of the population. A mass action aimed at mobilizing antiwar sentiment and making it visible was necessary. Nevertheless, significant opposition to that perspective existed. A thorough debate over the role and value of mass action dominated the conference.

Counterposing multi-issue, reformist community organizing, leaders of the NCC, the DuBois Clubs, and SDS argued against periodic mass actions. But the rest of the participants led by the supporters of the Newsletter and student antiwar committees, the SWP, YSA the CP, and the radical pacifist leaders carried a large majority decision to go forward with the plans for April 15. The Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam was formed to organize the action.

The preparations and plans for the historic April 15 demonstration brought many new organizations and forces into action. The student wing of the antiwar movement took a decisive step forward in this period. In December 1966, following the decision to organize April 15, a conference of all the tendencies in the student movement to discuss a student strike was held at the University of Chicago. The Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (SMC) was formed at this conference.

The discussion there revolved around the need for students to organize themselves and link up with other sections of the antiwar movement and help draw new layers of the population and the American students into antiwar action. The SMC was formed on that basis and began to provide a long unfulfilled need in the antiwar movement—the national organization of the student antiwar militants. Its political objectives were to fight for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, to end university complicity with the war, and to end the draft.

The April 15 action had a tremendous impact on American opinion. Half a million Americans from all walks of life made dissent from the war and opposition to the government legitimate. The demonstration spurred the development of antiwar sentiment that has mushroomed in the last four or five months, including opposition in Congress itself. April 15 was a demonstration by the antiwar movement of the breadth of mass opposition to the war and the possibility of organizing it. More than any other single action, the April 15 demonstration convinced previously uninvolved groups, tendencies and individuals to participate in and build the antiwar movement.

The April 15 demonstration consolidated the Student Mobilization Committee. The success of the SMC’S Vietnam Week actions which preceded April 15 and the role played by SMC in building the April 15 action itself turned the SMC into an authoritative national committee. It acquired the respect necessary to begin organizing the tens of thousands of student activists in a program of actions aimed at withdrawing the U.S. troops, abolishing the draft, and ending university complicity with the genocidal war of U.S. imperialism.

Tendencies opposed to this course for the antiwar movement attempted to utilize the April 15 demonstration to win the activist youth to a liberal reformist perspective. Within one week after April 15 two organizations, Vietnam Summer Committee and Negotiations Now, appeared in a blaze of publicity boasting large budgets and glorified, ambitious plans.

Vietnam Summer Committee conducted “community organizing” projects with the aim of eventually supporting liberal “peace” candidates. Negotiations Now was a glorified campaign to obtain signatures for a petition begging Johnson to kindly negotiate. Although both gained some support, neither was able to provide a permanent organizing center or perspective. Since then they have either disbanded or been discredited in the eyes of the most energetic antiwar elements.

Towards October 21

Since April 15 sentiment against the war has erupted explosively on the campus. This has asserted itself in a wave of radical and militant demonstrations. The demonstrations in Berkeley, Madison, Brooklyn, and then Washington in October, 1967, indicate a deep alienation from, and active opposition to, the evils of capitalist society. They also express healthy disregard and disrespect for its institutions and norms.

Many of these actions revolved around opposition to the draft. Protest against the draft has been an element of the antiwar movement’s activities from the beginning. However, protest against the capitalist draft has been used in the past as an attempt to divert activists from mass antiwar protest. In fact, when antidraft protest began in the antiwar movement, around October 15-16, 1965, it was expressly designed by some SDS, pacifist and Dubois Club leaders, as an alternative to the development of a mass antiwar movement. At that time the isolated protest action of individuals was counterpoised to the mass demonstrations, and “antidraft organizing” became an excuse for not participating in the wider antiwar actions.

As opposition to the war has deepened, so has sentiment against the draft. Moreover, this widespread sentiment has had an effect on the antidraft activists themselves. The recent demonstrations did not stress isolated individual acts of defiance against the draft. The actions were totally identified with the general antiwar fight to withdraw the U.S. troops. These were progressive changes in the antidraft protests and protestors.

As draft protest reaches larger proportions, reflecting mass sentiment against the war, such protests will more and more come in conflict with the state apparatus. Military conscription is basic to the warmaking ability of the American rulers—especially in fighting colonial uprisings. They are not likely to give it up. Faced with mass opposition, the state is obliged to resort to repressive measures against the protestors, such as police brutality, prison terms, or punitive draft calls. But these repressions only serve to intensify the mass protest of the activists and win wider public support for them.

The direct confrontation that ensues is another expression of the heightened struggle against the imperialist war. The job of antiwar militants is to organize this confrontation by organizing and integrating mass protests against the draft with the general program of antiwar actions.

The preparations for the October 21 demonstration in Washington took place in the context of a profound deepening of antiwar sentiment, particularly on the campuses. The Student Mobilization Committee did the major building of October 21. The SMC originally planned the march at a conference of its own and proposed it to the National Mobilization Committee (NMC), formerly the Spring Mobilization Committee. It put out the initial publicity, and then did the bulk of the organizing. The youth component of the October 21 Washington Action was close to 80 per cent of the total turnout, which confirmed the SMC’S estimate of the scope of antiwar sentiment on the campus.

The Washington demonstration was an overwhelming success—a big advance over April 15. It was a challenge that embarrassed the Johnson administration. No matter how much Johnson would have liked to prevent the demonstration or dampen its impact, he was unable to do so because of the divisions over the war at all levels in this country. Despite the urging of some of his advisers he did not dare stop the demonstration.

The outstanding characteristic of the march was its militant mood of mass confrontation. When 50,000 people stood outside the Pentagon and cheered youth who broke through police lines it indicated more than deep-going militancy and defiance. One surprising development was the spontaneous attempt by quite a few activists to try to speak to the GIs surrounding the Pentagon about the war and the antiwar movement. A new cheer addressed to these troops went up; one that is going to be heard more often from now on. It was “Join us, join us.” The authorities would have liked to arrest many more of those youth but were prevented from doing so by the size and militancy of the demonstrators.

Another most significant aspect of the October 21 action was its international ramifications. Coordinated with the Washington action, demonstrations occurred in most European countries, Chile, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary and elsewhere. In some countries the demonstrations were the largest and most militant since the end of World War II. This was the greatest international demonstration in opposition to the Vietnam war that has yet been held. It is now accurate to speak of an organized international antiwar movement.

The demonstration was a preview of what the antiwar movement is capable of. The militant antiwar sentiment in this country is reaching massive proportions. Another action, or set of actions, planned in a manner which challenges the war policy of the government, could turn out masses of people in every major city.

The evolution of the antiwar movement is basically the history of the outcome of the internal struggles over the political perspectives of the movement. Attempts to find ways of turning this movement from mass actions to class collaborationist pressure politics within and on the fringes of the Democratic Party are continually brought into the movement. But at every critical point in its development the movement has manifested its objectively anti-imperialist character by engaging in united mass demonstrations in the streets.

Because the movement has maintained its independence from the two capitalist parties and mounted a series of larger and larger protest actions throughout its history, it has, during the few short years of its existence, brought about a change in the political climate of this country.

While, apart from Vietnam, the colonial revolution has suffered some setbacks in the past period, a movement within the heartland of the imperialist oppressor itself has staged continually larger and more massive protests directly challenging the right of the oppressor to oppress. Revolutionary fighters abroad see hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens coming into the streets and saying, “No! We will not countenance this genocidal war!” The myth that American politics rests on permanent multi-class conformity has begun to crumble and revolutionaries around the world draw inspiration and encouragement from this resurgent radicalism to continue the fight in their own countries.

Movements in support of the Vietnamese revolution have sprung up throughout the world—many under the direct impetus and encouragement of the movement in the United States. Thus a shakeup and realignment of forces on an international scale similar to the one which began in this country is beginning to occur. In the process, the best of the antiwar fighters, especially the youth, are learning new lessons about the reformist character of the established Social-Democratic and Stalinist parties and are open to a revolutionary alternative.

Within this country the antiwar movement has helped to make dissent legitimate. Public confidence in the government has been shaken. The precedent for aggressively disagreeing with and challenging the government has been established. The antiwar movement has checked the emergence of a war-time hysteria and witch-hunt in this country, by capitalizing on the deep split which prevents the ruling class itself from uniting behind the war. It has helped promote a spirit of domestic struggle during imperialist war; a spirit that has affected other sections of the mass movement. By maintaining its non-exclusion policy it has undercut one of the basic weapons of cold war propaganda—anti-communism.

The fact that there exists in this country a large movement, encouraging, even demanding, that people speak out and act in a radical manner, is having a profound effect on the political consciousness of the American people. This international antiwar movement is forcing a shake-up and realignment of forces on a world scale and has the potential of preparing and promoting a mass radicalization in the United States itself.

Main Document Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive