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U.S.: The Antiwar Movement -- Where Have All The Protests Gone?

A generation ago, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, young people in America turned out by the thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, to protest the U.S. war in Vietnam. Today the Iraq war is just as hotly debated in the United States, but there are few street protests, and those few are not well attended.

Washington, 24 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, U.S. President George W. Bush traveled to the southern state of Louisiana to deliver the commencement address for Louisiana State University, and urged the new graduates to use their educations wisely.

"Our country depends on business people who are honest in keeping the books [accounting], and public officials who stay true to their oath, and soldiers who put their duty above comfort, and men and women in every walk of life who conduct themselves with integrity even when no one is watching," Bush said.

Had this same speech been given by President Lyndon Johnson 35 years ago, he quite possibly would have been met by angry hoots of derision from students opposed to his escalation of the war in Vietnam.

Today the country is nearly evenly divided over the American military presence in Iraq, and public opinion polls say those who oppose the war are bitterly angry about it. And yet there are virtually no public protests to demonstrate that anger.

There are some simple reasons for this, according to Bill Frenzel, a former member of the House of Representatives who represented the upper Midwestern state of Minnesota for 10 years. The two chief reasons, Frenzel tells RFE/RL, is that the Iraq war shows no signs of being as long and as bloody as the Vietnam War, and that there is no longer a military draft.

Frenzel notes that the Vietnam War lasted from 1954 to 1975, with deep U.S. involvement from the early 1960s. More than 58,000 Americans were killed in that war, and television news programs regularly showed the remains of those victims being returned home in body bags.
"The '60s really is a non-typical period in the history not only of the United States but also of American youth.”

As for the draft, Frenzel says, the U.S. military today is an all-volunteer force. During the Vietnam War, the draft inspired many young people to take part in demonstrations because their friends -- or they themselves -- risked being called up to serve, and perhaps die, in a war they opposed. The draft ended in 1973.

Finally, Frenzel says he believes that Americans today are less angry about the Iraq war because it at least deposed Saddam Hussein as Iraq's president.

"I don't think people feel as strongly [today] as they did during the Vietnam War. Everybody admits that Saddam was a hoodlum. And no matter how peaceful your inclinations are, you've got to be grateful he's gone, and I think that's held down a little of the protests also," Frenzel said.

Frenzel also says he feels antiwar Americans are less angry about the Iraq conflict than they were about Vietnam. In fact, he says he is not certain that they are as polarized or as angry as many polls and news reports suggest.

But he says that could change if the war drags on and U.S. casualties continue to mount.

"I don't feel the same spirit of polarization that seemed to be flowing in 1970 and '71. I think those people [today] who think we ought to be in Iraq aren't as vehement about it, and I think those people who don't think we should be there aren't as vehement about it. But it depends on how the reporting [from Iraq] goes and the [number of] body bags -- things could change," Frenzel said.

Leo Ribuffo agrees with Frenzel that the lack of a draft and the as-yet short duration of the war in Iraq have limited the number and size of antiwar demonstrations. Indeed, he says, the first major demonstrations over Vietnam did not take place until 1967, several years after the United States became deeply involved in that war.

But Ribuffo -- a professor of American history at George Washington University in Washington -- disagrees with Frenzel about the anger felt by those who oppose the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He tells RFE/RL that the anger over Iraq is intense, but is being channeled into a more conventional form of protest than demonstrations.

"A lot of the antiwar sentiment is going into mainstream electoral politics. People I know who would be marching, and did march in the past, are now writing a check [contributing money] to the Kerry campaign," Ribuffo said.

Senator John Kerry is the likely nominee of the opposition Democratic Party to challenge Bush for the presidency in the 2 November election.

Ribuffo says American university students today are far different from students of the 1960s and early '70s. A generation ago they were, for the most part, politically motivated and driven. Today's students, he says, are more materialistic and less concerned with geopolitical issues.

And student attitudes aren't the only differences between today and the 1960s, Ribuffo says. He argues that it is a mistake to compare the Iraq war and current American society with the Vietnam War and American society during the 1960s, which included an enormous population of college students born during the so-called "baby boom" of the years immediately after the end of World War II.

"The '60s really is a non-typical period in the history not only of the United States but also of American youth,” he says. “Partly it's the size of the 'baby boom,' partly it's the scale of the war and the draft, and it's really a mistake to take that as the norm."

But, like Frenzel, he says these differences over war protests could narrow if the United States does not disengage from Iraq soon, and if the killing escalates.