Lessons from the Antiwar Struggle

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Leslie Cagan

SOME LESSONS THAT we have to learn from the antiwar struggle during the past seven or nine months really should have been learned many times over already. The unfortunate truth is that we keep needing to learn them.

One problem we’ve suffered from for quite a number of years is an antiwar movement that really has two wings: the nuclear disarmament movement, which is mostly focused as a lobbying effort around nuclear weapons, nuclear war and disarmament and the anti-intervention movement.

There have been some organizations or individuals who have worked very hard over the past decade to bring the two wings together. But for reasons that I honestly don’t understand, there is just this block that some people have and can’t make that connection. If you are really serious about understanding U.S. military or foreign policy, you have to understand that as far as the government is concerned, nuclear armament and intervention go hand in glove; they are part of the same general policy.

Related to that was the problem that existed not only in the antiwar movement with its two wings but in the general progressive movement an inability  to seriously take up the struggle of the Middle East For anyone who simply looked at the region over the past decades the central issue had to be the struggle of the Palestinian people.

But there has been a kind of fear, especially among some white people in the peace and antiwar movements in this country, that if you criticize Israel you will be tainted as or appear to be anti-Semitic It doesn’t make sense. It is possible to be critical of a government and its policies without being critical of a whole religious population. But there is this real fear, and therefore real avoidance, of that issue in the movement.

One of the results is that people don’t look at the Middle East in more general terms. This produces a situation where people didn’t pay much attention to the Iran-Iraq war. It was happening people knew about it, but really didn’t ponder it, consider it, or understand the role the United States was playing.

We really did not look at the tremendous arms saies from the government of our country to the Middle East—not only to Israel, but to a number of countries. We just ignore a whole chunk of the world and of U.S. foreign policy. If we had really looked at this region, perhaps we would have had a better time bringing together the anti-intervention and nuclear disarmament movements.

As a peace and anti-intervention movement, we were caught off guard. I remember people in the antiwar movement were saying in October or November even, “Oh, we’ll never go to war. Yes, there may be a build-up, but never actually war.” People didn’t understand what U.S. policy in the Middle East was all about. So we were not ready.

Grassroots Power

I think that we did an amazing amount of work in the past seven or eight months. And if we’re honest, we have to credit that work to the grassroots, community-based organizers.

Those are the people around the country who literally sprang into motion overnight. By the end of August, there were scores of local groups around the country. Some of those were spearheaded by people who had a long history of doing this work. But in a lot of places, given that there wasn’t a lot of Middle East work in this country, the core organizers came out of other movements. In many cities, they came out of the Central America movement.

One of the important lessons here is the regional perspec5ive that we have learned in the last six months. While our government tried to focus our attention solely on Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, there is such a thing as linkage, there are regional problems. A great deal of our movement has been able to say: We want to look at the rest of the region, and especially at Palestine and the struggle of the Palestinian people.

That is a lesson we should have been able to learn from other movements. For instance, Central America work remains plagued with an inability to think regionally. People do Nicaragua work, or El Salvador work, or Guatemala work. But we don’t have a movement here in this country that really looks at the region, except for the southern Africa work, which has been much more regionally understood in terms of the relationships among different countries and forces in southern Africa.

We should have learned to use a regional approach, both from the positive work of the southern Africa movement and the problems of the Central America movement One of the challenges we now face is whether or not we can maintain a regional approach to our work around the Middle East I wish I could say: These are the fourteen steps we’re going to take, this is how we’re going to do it. I can’t; but I think developing a regional approach is one of the challenges.

Let me go back to the state of our movement and the centrality of grassroots organizing. This is consistent with my politics, so it isn’t a big surprise to those that know me. I really believe that our movements, whatever the issues we are working on, need to be fundamentally based in grassroots community organizing all around the country.

If we’re to effect change, our movement can’t be a New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington movement. It must be truly national movement in all kinds of cities and towns all across the country. I think the grassroots organizers around the country saw a crisis unfolding in the Middle East and saw the need to do something. They didn’t know exactly what to do. But they did something. They got out into the streets they organized vigils and petition campaigns. They did a lot of educational work, and made a movement happen.

They didn’t wait for the literally hundreds of national organizations that exist in the progressive movement to come together and figure out a strategy. Had they waited, they might still be waiting. I think it was the local organizing and local activism that pushed the national organizations to get their act together, as much as what was happening in the Middle East. National organizations were hearing their local people around the country asking, what are we doing? And it is very important to think about this as we think about building a national movement on any issue.

Related to that is the question of what our movement does. I have a long history of organizing demonstrations, marches and rallies, events on the streets I love them; I think they are great for a lot of reasons. They are political and very important to keep doing. But perhaps more than ever, coming out of our experiences of the last seven months, our movement must be more than a vehicle for periodic mobilizations and demonstrations.

We have to find a way to balance that work with educational work, consciousness-raising work, as well as a whole lot of other things. I can’t imagine actually going to lobby anybody in Congress right now. The thought is nauseating. But at the same time I know that we can’t ignore Congress. Somebody’s got to be encouraged to keep putting pressure on Congress and doing that work. It is a part of the political landscape in this country.

Media and Symbols

The other part of the political landscape that we clearly need a much more coherent and political approach to is the media. I would seriously argue that it is a part of the political landscape, part of the power relations in this country. We have not yet been able to really figure out systematically how we deal with the media. Sometimes we can get the media to cover an event that we do. But that’s not enough, as you know. One thing the left and progressive movement must do is help set the terms of political discourse. And if we can’t get our ideas and perspectives into the media, then we’re not going to make a serious impact on the debate.

In relation to that, I would add the power of symbols. We saw it with the yellow ribbons. We as the antiwar movement, as the progressive movement, as the left have not yet been able to hit on those symbols that can really reach masses of people and identify who we are in a way that people relate to positively.

Events in the Middle East and the way the U.S. government moved for that six or seven months with such speed and such power—a demonstration of overwhelming power, not only militarily, but political power in the United Nations, the way they manipulated things and bribed people with the economic power of this country—shows we are up against a monster. We’ve known that for a long time. But one thing we relearned in this last six or seven months was not only how serious this power is, but the ability and the willingness of those who run this country to use that power. And they will use it any way they want against any target they want.

What are we going to do about this? It’s a big chunk of work. I don’t think any individual or organization, any left or progressive movement yet has the answer to what are we going to do. Anyone who says they do, I’d like to hear them. But I think it’s too early. We have part of the answer in the history of work that we’ve done over many, many years. We have to put things together in a more coherent way and develop a strategy that makes sense for the 1990s in this country.

Part of that strategy is the need to develop and organize to build a new multi-issue, multi-racial organization that is rooted in grassroots organizing, that links the struggle for social and economic justice at home to foreign policy, that isn’t afraid to use the term linkage in the full sense of the term, that is really committed at its core not only to being multi-issue and multi-racial, but to the struggle against racism and against sexism and the other dynamics within our own population which divide us.

July-August 2018, ATC 33