Will the Democrats repeat the mistakes of the Vietnam era?

The history behind current events.
Aug. 16 2006 1:22 PM

The Lamont Question

Will the Democratic Party repeat the political mistakes of the Vietnam era?

Since the Iraq war began, public discussion has been thick with Vietnam analogies. Revelations of the war's bogus casus belli recalled the Gulf of Tonkin, and the horrors at Abu Ghraib and Haditha and brought to mind the My Lai massacre. Now, with Ned Lamont having upset Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary, a new parallel is being drawn: between anti-war sentiment then and now. Lamont's win heralds a period like the years 1968 to 1972, when the anti-Vietnam War movement began running candidates for office.

Many liberals today—rightly disturbed by the shrillness of some of Lamont's supporters and the high profile he's given to demagogues like Al Sharpton—fear the Democratic Party could reprise its blunder of 1972. That year it nominated the ultra-dovish South Dakota Sen. George McGovern for president, commencing an era of crippling neo-isolationism and compounding the party's already-debilitating image as indulgent toward extremists on the left.

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One failed candidate, however, shouldn't be allowed to stand in for the whole anti-Vietnam War alliance. Even in 1972, McGovern hardly represented the mainstream of anti-war opinion. In fact, when President Nixon crushed him at the polls, a public desire to continue prosecuting the Vietnam War was assuredly not the reason. Most Americans had soured on the war by that point, and Nixon was promising peace as fervently as McGovern. Throughout the fall, polls showed that voters, by a margin of 3-to-2, thought that Nixon, if elected, would end U.S. involvement in Vietnam more rapidly than McGovern.

Voters, in short, didn't reject McGovern for opposing the war. What doomed him was the manner in which he spoke of withdrawal. He wanted to cease all bombing at once and pull troops out within 90 days of taking office. He relentlessly criticized America's (admittedly corrupt) South Vietnam allies. He talked of begging for the release of POWs. His language suggested a retreat from the world stage. "Come Home, America" was his slogan.

But the anti-war spectrum ranged much further than the McGovernite fringe. It contained, of course, its share of radical leftists—"the campus firebrands, the radical clerics, the flowers-in-gun-barrels hippies, the papier-mâché puppeteers" as Hendrik Hertzberg describes them, whose street fights with police, burning of draft cards, and general contempt for social norms drove many Americans into Nixon's arms. Yet it encompassed other groups, too. A large number of conservatives, disillusioned with the lack of progress in the field, wanted to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age or get out. Many otherwise-apolitical dissenters simply didn't want to be drafted.

Then there were the liberals. Early on, mainstream anti-communist liberals such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Hans Morgenthau, Walter Lippmann, and Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield counseled against intervention in Vietnam. Plenty of rank-and-file liberal citizens agreed with them. But in the early years, as Charles DeBenedetti wrote in An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era, "they were too scattered and undemonstrative to rank as a movement." Loyal to the Democratic Party, moreover, many declined to attack their own leaders publicly or vociferously. Liberals thus generally ceded the anti-war stage—and the cameras—to the flamboyant New Left.

As the war widened and deepened, however, liberals' criticisms grew louder. Many channeled their energies into electoral politics rather than the street theater of the New Left. The most talented liberal leaders harnessed the energies of the young and the angry without succumbing to demagogic gestures or anti-imperialist cant. The classic example of this liberal dissent was Allard Lowenstein, the energetic mastermind of the "Dump Johnson" campaign of 1967 and 1968. Rooted in Cold War liberalism, holding no truck with communism, he was more interested in reaching out to the center than spurning it.

Although he considered the war both an error and a lost cause, Lowenstein disdained an immediate pullout in favor of winding down the conflict through phased withdrawals, talks with the North Vietnamese, and a coalition government for the South. He worked to build an inclusive left—with only violent extremists omitted—that would unite Adlai Stevenson torchbearers with Students for a Democratic Society-types disenchanted with the New Left's zealotry. Lowenstein's liberals, Todd Gitlin has written, "flashed the anti-war V long past the time, in 1968 and 1969, when their New Left counterparts had switched to the clenched fist."

Lowenstein asked New York Sen. Robert Kennedy to challenge President Johnson in the Democratic primaries in 1968. But Kennedy declined, and Lowenstein instead recruited Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who at first inspired droves of students and twentysomethings to join his campaign but later turned out to be a petulant, narcissistic, and self-destructive candidate. Yet McCarthy had shown Johnson to be vulnerable, and Kennedy jumped in the race. Though opportunistic, Kennedy's candidacy embodied a more winning anti-war philosophy than McCarthy's. Far from renouncing American influence abroad (as McCarthy was inclined to do), RFK reaffirmed "our right to moral leadership of this planet." His assassination that June dashed hopes for a leader who might have ended the war without jettisoning liberal internationalism tout court.

Yet over the next few years, anti-war sentiment continued to take over the mainstream. Senators and representatives routinely adopted positions once seen as radical. Today, this shift has come to be viewed as a radicalization of the Democratic Party; at the time, it was seen as the normalization of dissent. The three top Democratic candidates running in 1972 denounced the war. Edmund Muskie of Maine pledged "as close to an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam as possible." Hubert Humphrey insisted, "Had I been elected [in 1968], we would now be out of that war." It's not likely that either man, if nominated, would have run a "come home" America campaign like McGovern's. There were many anti-war stances to choose from.

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