Academic journal article Social Justice

The Antiwar Movement during the Gulf War

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Antiwar Movement during the Gulf War

Article excerpt

The national movement against the Gulf War failed to prevent that war, or to bring it to an end before tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed and the United States proclaimed victory. The movement also failed to generate broad popular opposition to the war. In the months before the war began, while policy toward Iraq was still being debated in Congress, there was widespread opposition to, or at least doubts about, military intervention. These doubts evaporated when war was declared, and the antiwar movement rapidly found itself isolated and powerless. It is probably fair to describe the Gulf War as the worst defeat that the U.S. peace movement has suffered since the late 1940s, when public support for Cold War policies was created, and the peace movement of the time was successfully labeled as un- or anti-American.

Although the nation as a whole was plastered with yellow ribbons throughout the war (and beyond), there were cities where the peace movement mobilized tens of thousands of people when war was declared. The San Francisco Bay Area (including Berkeley and Oakland in the East Bay) and Santa Cruz, some 80 miles to the south, were two such cities. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., were the sites of the major national antiwar demonstrations. Unlike the Washington demonstrations, which drew protesters from the East Coast and the Midwest, the San Francisco demonstrations were primarily an expression of greater Bay Area opposition to the war (southern Californians could attend the simultaneous demonstrations held in Los Angeles). As soon as Bush announced that war was imminent, tens of thousands of Bay Area residents took to the streets. The Bay Area peace movement was able to turn public life upside down for about 10 days, with countless demonstrations, teach-ins, forums, and other public events. Santa Cruz, a city of about 50,000, was the other major focus of antiwar activity in the larger Bay Area. As soon as war was declared, 8,000 people gathered to march through the streets in protest, the largest demonstration in the history of the city. The University of California, Santa Cruz, campus was shut down for two days and for the next two weeks life in Santa Cruz, as in the Bay Area, was dominated by antiwar demonstrations, educational events, and discussions.

The purpose of this article is to try to understand why the antiwar movement was stronger in the Bay Area than it was elsewhere in the nation (except possibly New York). I also wish to raise the question of whether local success and national failure were tied to one another, whether there was something about the structure, or culture, of this movement that enabled it to flourish locally, but prevented it from becoming a significant factor in national politics. The movement against the Gulf War was the first major effort of what have been called the "new social movements" to join forces around one issue. It tested the ability of movements that represent discrete constituencies and celebrate difference to coalesce. Looking back at the war and the formation of an antiwar movement in an area where antiwar activity was particularly strong allows us to look at both the strengths and the weaknesses of the new social movements at a moment when unity is called for.

This "test," of course, did not take place in a vacuum, but under circumstances that were particularly difficult. First, the war came and went in a flash. Unlike the Vietnam War, in which U.S. ground troops were introduced only after nearly a decade of gradually increasing levels of U.S. involvement, the prospect of massive U.S. military intervention in the Gulf seemed to appear out of the blue. The Vietnam War lasted long enough for large sections of the public to rethink not only that war, but also the political and cultural assumptions that legitimated U.S. intervention. The Gulf War was over before any such process was possible. Second, the Gulf War came at a moment when the Left, or progressive forces, were extremely weak in the U. …

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