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Why Is Opposition to the War in Iraq Seemingly So Muted (Compared with Vietnam?)

Many have pointed out that our current problems in Iraq resemble the nation’s earlier difficulties in Vietnam, but few have observed that conditions at home in the U.S. today are quite different than those of forty years ago. Strong public resistance to an unpopular foreign intervention, so evident in the 1960s, is missing. We hear familiar sounds of war in Iraq but not many familiar sounds of protest in the USA.

When Americans questioned the morality of their nation’s policies and suspected their troops were walking into a quagmire in the 1960s, they quickly engaged in participatory democracy. Within weeks of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision in 1965 to bomb North Vietnam, professors at the University of Michigan held a “teach-in.” Interest in the format spread quickly to other campuses across the nation, especially when the president committed U.S. soldiers to combat operations. More than fifteen thousand citizens gathered for a peace rally in Washington, D.C. in April, 1965, and demonstrations there and in other cities grew to hundreds of thousands in later years. These rallies did not, alone, reverse the nation’s course in Vietnam, but they helped to provoke discussions about changing America’s course.

The controversy over U.S. military engagement in Iraq has been in the news since the Bush Administration made its intentions obvious in 2002 (i.e., well before the bombing of Baghdad began on March 19, 2003), yet the public’s response to this news over the last two and a half years has been surprisingly mild. Recently, a few senators, such as Edward Kennedy, Barbara Boxer and Robert Byrd, have denounced American intervention in Iraq with the gusto that critics in the Senate demonstrated forty years ago when they complained about the Vietnam War. These days, however, most members of Congress seem afraid to challenge the war and occupation in sharp terms. They are also reluctant to take the debate to a higher level by insisting that American troops leave Iraq quickly.

Why are leaders in the Senate and House less likely to criticize the situation now than in the sixties? Are they waiting for a Tet-like uprising in Iraq to arouse greater concern? Are congressmen watching to see if the toll of American deaths and injuries, now well over 10,000, will climb higher before taking action? Does the absence of a military draft make U.S. losses in Iraq seem less compelling, since young Americans do not face the threat of involuntary service? Does the cost of the war – nearing $200 billion and still climbing – need to hemorrhage the American economy more impressively before leaders will take greater notice of the mounting problems and demand a correction?

The key difference between the sixties and today relates to the political parties. In the 1960s the party in power led the people by example. Democrats of the sixties dissented much more vigorously than Republicans of the 2000s. When Democrats became unhappy with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policies in Vietnam, they manifested their discontent publicly and sharply. It did not matter to them that the man in the White House happened to be a Democrat. In 1966, just a year after major American combat operations began in Vietnam, J. William Fulbright, a Democrat and head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, organized hearings on the war that challenged President Johnson’s actions and helped to give legitimacy to the emerging anti-war movement. Today, the Republican chairperson of that Senate committee, Richard Lugar, is much less contentious in responding to President Bush’s policies in Iraq. Lugar has expressed doubts about the war and occupation but refuses to operate in a defiant manner.

Of course, Fulbright had stronger support in the Senate for his maverick behavior, since many of his Democratic colleagues publicly expressed discontent over U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. By 1966, the sixty-six Democrats in the Senate were almost evenly split between those who opposed the war and those who chose to stay the course under Johnson’s leadership. Later, some angry Democrats hinted openly about replacing Johnson in the next presidential election.

By comparison, Republicans today offer a soft response to an unpopular intervention in Iraq and the public’s growing fears of a quagmire. A fondness for unity and loyalty to the president leaves them practically mute when dealing with serious foreign policy problems. Sometimes they question the nation’s intervention in Iraq, but their observations are usually polite and forgiving. Republicans demonstrate enthusiasm for consensus at a time when the country desperately needs demonstrations of dissent by its political leaders. They are especially unwilling to articulate a demand that is on the minds of many Americans: “Support our troops. Bring them home.”

The opportunity for such a call may be at hand. In view of the strong turnout in recent Iraqi elections, Americans can more effectively claim today what a sign on an aircraft carrier suggested prematurely a few years ago: “Mission Accomplished.” Additional missions need to be the responsibility of the Iraqi people, not the young men and women of the U.S. armed forces whose families wait nervously for their safe return.

Since the Republican leadership will not provide a strong example of dissent, the American people will need to do a better job communicating their interest in bringing U.S. forces out of Iraq as soon as possible. One way to establish that communication is to demonstrate in the manner of an earlier generation. Like citizens of the sixties, Americans can gather in Washington and other cities to remind the country and each other that ultimately it is the people, not the politicians, who determine the course of a democracy.

These gatherings can show that the ideal of peaceful and responsible protest that energized thousands of men and women in the sixties is still relevant. Participants in these rallies cannot expect to change foreign policy by themselves, but they can hope to provoke a more energetic public discussion about ways to end America’s nightmare in Iraq sooner rather than later.