|College students march in protest against the Vietnam war, October 15, 1969.|
This is another installment of my observations from reading Todd Gitlin's The Sixties. The previous installment, on the Chicago riots of 1968, can be found here.
Chicago 1968 was, as I said before, a turning point in the anti-war movement. It solidified for many radicals in the SDS and the larger anti-war movement that actually fighting with the authorities was an option, and for some, the preferred alternative to marching in the streets. Thus, at the 1969 SDS convention in Chicago--its last--signals that the group was losing its cohesion were readily apparent.
Gitlin-- an SDS member from the Port Huron days--was disillusioned with the direction of the movement and all the infighting. He wrote to a friend from the 1969 convention: "[T]hese fights among brothers depress me enormously. The Left is its own worst enemy here . . . and often I'm glad we're in no position to take power: if we did, the only honorable sequel would be abdication."
The convention was filled with all sorts of factions--communists, socialists, Marxists, Maoists, Black Panthers, and many others. It was impossible to keep the group together, much less vote on any positions. By the end of the convention, the most radical group--The Weathermen--had split off from the group as the rest of the SDS disintegrated and each faction went its own separate way.
The anti-war movement, however, was gaining strength. A National Moratorium was held on October 15, 1969 (of which I'm proud to say that my dad was a part, and he has the black armband to prove it). Up to 750,000 participated. Another large gathering was held one month later. Even mainstream Democrats--including Bill Clinton--participated, and it was becoming acceptable to speak out against the war, even if many Americans still felt like the war was a worthwhile cause.
The movement, however, took a hit because of the Weathermen's tactics. From the Days of Rage in October of that year, to an official Declaration of War against the United States in December, the Weathermen used guerrilla tactics to protest the war and the "imperialist, fascist" U.S. government. It was domestic terrorism (bombing the Pentagon and the Capitol, for instance), and it was incredibly frightening. It did nothing, however, to advance the anti-war movement. In fact, it damaged it, as the Nixon administration sought to paint the entire movement with a broad brush, implicitly ascribing the Weathermen's fanaticism to anyone who dared to take to the streets and speak out against the atrocities in Vietnam.
And that's what the Weathermen never understood: terrorism as a political act has never worked and never will. All it does is reinforce stereotypes and solidify why people hate your group in the first place. Chicago 1968 was still fresh in Americans' minds, and for many, their reality was this: the anti-war movement is a bunch of good-for-nothing longhairs who don't support the troops or the U.S. government and who are more than willing to resort to violence to get their point across. The Weathermen fit right into that stereotype and they, more than anything else in the 1960s and 1970s, gave the anti-war movement a black eye.
Below is the documentary Weather Underground. Somebody did us a favor and put it on Youtube. I highly recommend it.