The Vietnam Moratorium by Jeremy Brecher (1969)
True mass movements develop quickly; they contain contradictory impulses; they change rapidly in the face of events their leaders cannot control. The great mass movement called the Moratorium already shows three explicit political strands, each with its own assumptions and its own trajectory for the movement.
1) For the great majority of participants, the Moratorium is essentially an expression of sentiment, based on the hope that such an expression will somehow sway the President to change his course. They show somewhat the touching spirit of the Russian peasants who demonstrated on Bloody Sunday, 1905, in the belief that if only the Czar knew the people’s misery he would save them. In this case, however, faith is put not in the magical mantle of divine authority, but in the equally magical belief that ‘the government represents the people’ and therefore will act upon their will. A more sophisticated version maintains that politicians in a democracy must respond to public pressures; the example is given of Johnson’s reversal of Vietnam policy in the face of overwhelming public pressure. But the fact is that even Johnson’s extreme political isolation, which would have led to the fall of any parliamentary government in the world, led him only to make a change in strategy, while leaving half-a-million men in Vietnam.
To the extent that the Moratorium remains within this framework it has no future, for the October 15th demonstrations alone were enough to show overwhelming popular desire to get out of Vietnam, as did the October Gallup Poll showing that a bill to withdraw all U.S. troops from Vietnam by the end of 1970 was supported nearly two-to-one. If the Moratorium retains this view, it may grow for a month or two, but after that it will gradually fade away, leaving little effect on the actual course of events.
2) The second strand constitutes opposition politics. It is essentially a continuation of the Kennedy-McCarthy movement of 1968-even the faces are the same. It too is based on a touching faith in the electoral process, seemingly impervious to the results of experience. Its proponents have not learned the obvious lesson of the 1968 campaign that the electoral process is controlled from above, not below. They have not learned the obvious lesson of the A.B.M. struggle: that the real power over governmental action does not lie in elected bodies. They have not noticed that Nixon ran as a ‘Peace candidate’, as did our other Vietnam War Presidents, ‘we seek no wider war’ Johnson and ‘let us put a truce to terror’ Kennedy, before him.
Naturally, there are always politicians who are willing to associate themselves with ‘peace’ when peace is popular. Thus, for example, Teddy Kennedy and George McGovern both associated themselves with the Moratorium by speaking on October 15-and proposed that all troops should be withdrawn by 1972! Several top Moratorium organizers themselves see it as a jumping-off point for their own political careers: Adam Walinsky, who all but took over the New York Moratorium office, is planning his campaign for state attorney-general, and Sam Brown, national director of the Moratorium, is talking, about a Massachusetts congressional campaign.
The program of this approach will be to keep the Moratorium going for a few more months, then swing it into the 1970 primaries and elections, building a base for a McCarthy-style campaign in 1972. Its main requirements are that the movement remain respectable, give visible support and loyalty to likely candidates, and continue to grow for a few months until it can be channeled into electoral action.
3) The third strand is confrontation. In its extreme form, as practiced by Weatherman, it is rejected by most of the Moratorium movement, but as the legacy of the civil rights movement and the old Mobilization Committee, its basic idea that ‘power is in the streets’ remains the frame of reference for most radicals in the peace movement. It assumes that each confrontation simultaneously advertises the radicals’ cause and undermines the claim of the government to represent the popular will. If the government uses violence, it presumably de-legitimates itself further with the population by showing that the basis of its power is not consent but force. At some point in the escalation of demonstrations, the demonstrators (as Staughton Lynd once imagined it) simply march to the White House and in their overwhelming numbers take back control of the country.
The first problem with this approach is quite obviousuntil the military and police power of the state dissolves, it is based on sheer fantasy. As the efforts to ‘storm’ the Pentagon in the October, 1967 Mobilization, the battles at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the recent Weatherman demonstrations in Chicago show, such tactics are essentially suicidal; not only because of the direct effects of the state’s brutality on demonstrators, but because few sane people deliberately offer themselves up as victims of police brutality where there is no other gain to be made. That is one reason why confrontation actions have had steadily fewer participants each time since the Pentagon demonstrations of 1967, even while opposition to the war grew by leaps and bounds.
The second problem is perhaps more important. The favorite tactic of an unpopular ruling group is to turn the sentiment of the population against the radical opposition. Since confrontation can always be interpreted as a deliberate provocation of violence, it plays directly into the hands of the authorities, who through their control of the press can make even a non-violent confrontation appear a deliberate act of violence. Even such flagrant official aggression as that of Daley’s cops at the 1968 Democratic Convention was palmed off as ‘demonstrators’ violence’ to a majority of the population. Thus, the prime political objective of confrontation fails; the government is permitted to portray itself as the bastion of public interest and public order under attack by a few violent malcontents. The radicals, desiring to show to the people their own power, reveal instead only the weakness of demonstrators before the military power of the state.
The program of the confrontationists will be primarily to make the Moratorium demonstrations more ‘militant’-that is, essentially to seek conflict with the police rather than to avoid it. If the Moratorium and Mobilization Committees do not adopt such a course, they will attempt to generate such confrontations through separate demonstrations and organizations. The result will be a tendency toward splitting of the
movement, falling off of mass support, new vulnerability to governmental attack, and no doubt a few concussions.
All of these tendencies are rooted in the idea that real power lies in Washington. But the Moratorium movement also contains the seedsDespite the apparent power of the men in Washington to make the crucial decisions, it is not they who keep the country going, who do its work and fight its wars. Rather, it is the people-the same people who support two-to-one the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam. If they refuse to work-if they strike-the war must end. Indeed, the Moratorium itself was originally conceived as a general strike against the war, but was watered down by leaders who, as the New York Times put it, liked the idea of political action but not the threat of a strike. To end the war, the Moratorium must more and more become a general strike against the war. It is here that the real power of the movement lies, not in playing politics or playing with violence.
Of course, a general strike does not come into being simply because some organization calls for it. It will only come about if public sentiment moves from a mere dislike of the war to a decision to force it to end, and if the movement puts its faith in itself, not in politicians who promise but won’t-or can’t-deliver. But as long as the government continues the war, the movement against it will grow and deepen, and the Moratorium will be able to take on more and more the character of a general strike.
How can the Moratorium movement develop towards a general strike? First, by constantly widening its support. Second, by developing more and more job walkouts as part of its monthly protests. If such walkouts spread, the Moratorium thereby becomes a symbolic general strike. If even that fails to force an end to the war, the groundwork will have been laid for a real general strike, with the population halting production and providing for its own essential services until the government stops the war. The key in all these steps lies in the workplace organizations.
Throughout the country, workplace committees have sprung up spontaneously to coordinate participation in the October and November demonstrations. In New York, for example, Moratorium committees were formed by employees in each of the major newspapers, T.V. stations, and publishing houses; in Boston, by secretaries and lab workers at M.I.T.; in Washington, by workers in each government agency.
The main activities of such groups so far have been recruiting for participation in demonstrations and education teach-ins, discussions, and meetings for fellow workers.
Even such elementary exercises of Constitutional rights have often brought conflict with the employers over peace work during working hours and the use of employers’ facilities. Thus, at both the New York Times and the National Institute of Mental Health the use of auditoriums was refused for October 15. In the latter case, the ban was overturned by an injunction secured by the workers against their governmental employer. Thus, such a movement automatically raises the most fundamental questions of participatory democracy and socialism: workers’ control of their own work time and work place, and their responsibility for the overall direction of society.
The prime objective of each workplace organization should be participation of a majority of their fellow workers either in workplace educational meetings or as a group in demonstrations on each Moratorium day, eventually including mass walkout.
Such great social events as general strikes do not usually result from a single source of discontent; rather, they are a response to the piling up of one grievance on another, one action on another. So far action against the war has come primarily from middle-class and white collar people. However, those who fight against the war directly will have new allies in the coming months, for the government has deliberately put the burden of the war on those who can least afford it.
While fighting against tax reform, Nixon has demanded that the special war surtax remain. He has deliberately adopted policies which create unemployment in order to restrain war-generated inflation. This, combined with the fact that real take-home pay of workers had decreased each year since the escalation of 1965, means that strikes will increase and become more bitter. Pressure on business to cut payrolls will lead to attempts at speed-up, with a resulting increase in wildcat strikes. As Labor Secretary Shultz said recently, there will be a lot of tension … I imagine there will be strikes … this is part of the process of sorting out and rearranging the sense of direction of the economy.
Strikes and resulting wage increases will make the economic consequences of the war still less manageable for Nixon. The rise of discontent will undermine the lock-step patriotism of those who today still think it disloyal to oppose the President. Thus, the effects of this strike movement will converge with those of the growing anti-war strike movement.
A things become more serious, Nixon may attempt a counter-attack against the peace movement -everything from red-baiting to jailing leaders and shooting at demonstrators. By these means he may scare off many of the politicians who have seen benefit in supporting the movement, and even break up the national organizations which have led it. For these results the movement must be ready: it must be prepared to lead itself.
At this point the workplace organizations again become critical. For they can carry on the movement on their own initiative, no matter what happens to the movement’s national leadership. Even coordination of dates for their action will be no problem because of the monthly pattern which has been established. As the real power of the antiwar movement lies in the people, so in their own organizations, lies the people’s power to act.
The course of action for opponents of the war is thus clear: set up a Moratorium or strike committee where you work. Coordinate directly with other workplace organizations. Organize teach-ins, educational meetings, and participation in Moratorium-day demonstrations among your co-workers. Move these actions as rapidly as possible toward mass walkouts.
Jeremy Brecher was once Northwest regional organizer for SDS. He was also an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. and co-editor of Left Mailings, a new radical pamphlet series.
Source: Liberation Magazine Dec. 1969
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