Moral Imperatives, Strategy & Tactics
The threat to American democracy that we now face is the gravest since the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. At last Sunday’s general meeting, ISF members declared that removing Trump from office is a moral and political imperative. I agree. But two or three speakers asserted that because impeaching Trump is such a moral imperative, consideration of strategy and tactics have no place. I strongly disagree. If getting Trump out of office is a moral imperative that has to mean that our imperative is to be effective and win — not merely vent our frustration and anger.
The Civil Rights Movement built a strong and effective mass peoples movement that transformed America and I’m immensely proud of the small role I played in it. I deeply regret, however, that I cannot say the same for the Anti-Vietnam War movement and my role in it. For three years, 1965-1967, the united antiwar movement grew larger and more powerful to the point where it was playing a major role in national and local politics. At that time I was what we would now call “Mid-Tier” leadership in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an organization as central to the anti-war movement back then as Indivisible is to the Resistance today.
In 1968, out of fear, frustration, and fury, SDS abandoned the strategy and tactics of unity and mass-movement for self-righteous rage. Our analysis of the U.S. and its role in the world was accurate, but even when you’re right you still have to be smart if you want to be effective — moral fervor and political purity were not enough.
We called ourselves the “anti-imperialist” wing of the struggle. We saw ourselves “
in the belly of the beast ” surrounded by an American people who were at best we held in contempt and at worst saw as our enemies. Our attitude toward anti-war activists and potential allies whose thinking was not as advanced or militant or urgent as our own ranged from indifference to hostility. We attacked not just their ideas but their motives. Sadly, some (not including me) even went so far as to burn flags, condemn GIs (most of whom were draftees), and engage in terrorism.
The anti-war movement split into rival camps.
The Vietnamese National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong”) whose flags we provocatively carried in our protests — even though doing so deeply offended people whose support we needed and could have gotten — criticized our emotional recklessness. They begged us to adopt a strategy of building a united, mass movement against the war. In our righteous arrogance we ignored them because we knew better.
The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was an atrocity and a betrayal of democracy. But while our fury at the Democratic Party establishment was politically justified it was strategically disastrous. We vilified and attacked Humphrey, we formed third parties against him. Nationally, Nixon won by less than 1%. Had Humphrey won California where the antiwar movement was strong but our passionate extremism bitterly controversial, he probably would have been president and the war ended years earlier. We continued to spurn strategy and reject unity with all those who failed to match our impatient, urgent fervor and our insistence on immediate maximalism –to the point where Todd Gitlin would later write that “The only thing the American people hated more than the Vietnam War was the anti-war movement.”
The war dragged on for years, at little cost to us anti-war activists but enormous cost to the Vietnamese and American GIs. There’s no way to know whether Nixon could have been kept out of the White House had we been more strategic or if the war could have been ended sooner had we been less self-righteously impatient. Maybe yes, maybe not. Regardless, I don’t like to repeat old mistakes (I prefer to make new ones).
Whatever we think of Pelosi, it’s clear that impeachment cannot move forward over her opposition. The same is true for leaders of the Progressive and Black Caucuses. Fulminating about how bad they are, publicly questioning their motives, flooding Slack with articles denigrating or attacking them, is not going to move them one inch. When we need to win people to our side, treating them as enemies causes them to react accordingly. The only way to move Pelosi and other party leaders is to build public support for impeachment and convince rank and file House members to vote for it.