Bryan Caplan  

How Pacifist Was the Last Anti-War Movement?

David Cay Johnston Plays with ... Tyler Cowen on the Euro...
Not very, unfortunatelyHere's the WSJ on Heaney & Rojas:
many antiwar Democrats saw the election of President Barack Obama as a sufficient victory for their cause and withdrew from the streets.

The researchers conducted 5,398 surveys at 27 antiwar protests from January 2007 through December 2009. They also interviewed movement leaders and conducted ethnographic observations. The largest protest during that period occurred on Jan. 27, 2007, and drew over 100,000 people, by the researchers' count. By October 2009, however, protests were drawing mere hundreds (which is about where they've remained).

What changed? During the period studied, the proportion of protesters who identified themselves as Democrats dropped from about 50% to roughly 20%...

...Democrats viewed the election of President Obama as a victory per se, while nonpartisan protesters were more attuned to policy continuities. Such continuities as--well, the wars not ending, and the one in Afghanistan escalating.

I do wonder, though, why Lyndon Johnson's Democratic identity and leftist domestic policies failed to prevent massive opposition to the Vietnam War.  Sure, it's a lot more plausible for Obama to say, "Bush started the war, I'm just trying to finish it," than it would have been for Johnson to say the same about Eisenhower.  But since when have partisans of any stripe balked at implausible excuses?

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The author at in a related article titled Another great unintentionally hilarious comment writes:
    As regulars may know, I delight in finding and occasionally republishing barking moonbat comments, since they are, in their little, sad way, a marker for our times. Take it away, music maestro! "You mean, the anti-war movement that is comprised of the ... [Tracked on April 19, 2011 11:00 AM]
COMMENTS (20 to date)
Michael OBrien writes:

A: The draft.

Franklin Harris writes:

Opposition to Vietnam was mostly self-interested opposition to the draft.

Troy Camplin writes:

When Nixon eliminated the draft, the protests all but stopped.

Mark Brady writes:

Pacifist or pacificist?

Aidan writes:

Why does an anti-war movement have to be pacifist?

Jim Rose writes:


A professor of mine who served in Vietnam noticed the same thing.

When he left for south-east Asia soon after Nixon came into office, the campuses were abuzz with anti-war protest.

When he returned, the draft had been abolished, and things had quietened down a lot on campus.

As for current ebbs and flows in peace protests, Matt Welch’s notion of temporary doves applies. His specific example was how the Clinton era architects of Kosovo war were so down on Bush 43’s Gulf War II.

Both wars were expressions of American exasperation at Western impotence in the face of dictatorial slaughter.

Congressional republicans were not keen on the Kosovo war, and they are not falling over themselves to rally around the flag on Obama’s Vietnam.

Welch noted that the United States led the fight against the dictators in Serbia and Iraq despite warnings from antiwar activists and multilateralism enthusiasts that each new bomb would lower the threshold for waging modern war. Kosovo made Iraq possible.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I don't get your Johnson point at the end. Isn't Johnson comparable to Bush in terms of deceptive war-starting? What does Eisenhower have to do with it? Eisenhower's minimal involvement is more comparable to Clinton firing off a few missiles.

Johnson's the one that lied us into war and Johnson, like Bush, got massive protests.

If the anti-war movement (which I considered myself a part of, having gone to a couple protests) is not a pacifist movement (I don't consider myself a pacifist) then all the better for it. It's a good thing that they can recognize the difference between nearly 200,000 troops and 50,000 troops and still decreasing. It's a good thing that they recognize that a precipitious withdrawl might not be in the interest of peace and justice (unlike pacificists, who often don't put much thought to real peace and real justice).

Perhaps the protests correlate well with who is in the White House. If the peak protest is in 2007, I'm guessing they also correlate well (better) with troop levels. Which, since they're anti-war protests, maakes a great deal of sense.

Arnold Kling writes:

Glenn Reynolds has this saying, "They're not anti-war. They're just on the other side."

I think that fits the left to some extent. Yes, there are some sincere pacifists. But I think that you are more likely to find sincere pacifism among libertarians.

David R. Henderson writes:

Aidan asks,
"Why does an anti-war movement have to be pacifist?"
Good question. It doesn't. I'm active in the antiwar movement in the Monterey area and I'm not a pacifist. Many of the other participants are not pacifist either. To the extent we've talked about past wars, most of the people I've talked to said they would have favored U.S. participation in World War II. I wouldn't have, but that's another story.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Why was there so much anti-war opposition to Lyndon Johnson but not to Barack Obama?

Though it is easy to look back on Johnson as a liberal Democrat, most liberals at the time didn't consider him "one of us." He had a southern accent and had hung out with all those bad southern politicians.

At the time, one of the ways you showed you were a liberal was by putting down the south. It was racist and backward, uneducated and bigoted. In 1976, southerner Jimmy Carter would win the presidential nomination because he presented himself as an enemy of the old southern politians. A cultured man who would be comfortable in a university.

Johnson, on the other hand, was uncultured. He pronounced Vietnam "Veetnam." He had an obvious rivalry with the Kennedy family. Many Kennedy fans hated him as a usurper--a hatred that was transferred to liberal icon Hubert Humphrey, who became LBJ's vice-president in 1964 and ran against Bobby Kennedy in the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries.

Obama is "one of us." And even if he disappoints in some ways, he'll always be the first black president, so he should only be opposed in extreme circumstances.

Aidan writes:

I'm not sure I agree with Roger. Vietnam War protests came on the heels of the free speech movement, civil rights protests, women's rights protests, etc. Popular protest was more fashionable, more alluring, and more novel in the 1960s than it is today. Any sort of mass movement is generally few and far between these days.

Also, as others have pointed out, there was a draft during the Vietnam War. I'd guess that far more of the anti-Iraq protesters were doing so without a personal stake. I do remember some draft fear, but I don't think that was the main factor.

I'd also agree with Daniel's point. Why would anyone expect the size of protests today to match up with protests at the time of the surge?

On the list of reasons why anti-war opposition to Johnson exceeded opposition to Obama, I'd say that anti-southern bias is way, way down the list.

Mark Brady writes:

@Daniel Kuehn:

"It's a good thing that they recognize that a precipitious withdrawl might not be in the interest of peace and justice (unlike pacificists, who often don't put much thought to real peace and real justice)."

Please clarify. Are you using "pacificists" as a synonym for "pacifists" (which makes sense in the context of your sentence) or were you using "pacificists" to distinguish them from "pacifists"? If the later, I suggest that pacificists (as this word is used in historical accounts of antiwar movements) do indeed put a great deal of thought to real peace and real justice.

Daublin writes:

"Sure, it's a lot more plausible for Obama to say, "Bush started the war, I'm just trying to finish it."

Bush said the same thing, so of course that doesn't explain it. He said he wasn't so sure about it once the WMD news came in, but it was the right thing to do to finish what we started. Overall I don't see much difference between Bush's and Obama's policy for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The researchers findings match what I see with the Democrat partisans I know: they largely used Iraq as a hot-button issue to get their man in and then dropped the issue.

I find it demoralizing. Once you surrender on pacifism, the budget, transparency, and proper treatment of prisoners, what's the point of electing a Democrat? Is it really just trains and socialized medicine?

Aidan writes:

When was the Democratic Party ever pacifist? How do you surrender on pacifism if you aren't pacifist?

roystgnr writes:

These numbers seem strange to me. We observe that, of the ~50,000 Democrats in the early anti-war protests, only ~200 remain, so our hypothesis is that roughly 99.6% of them were satisfied just to see Obama elected regardless of the war's continuation...

But what about the 50,000 Republicans/independents, of whom only ~800 remain? 98.4% of them were placated by Obama, too?

Roger Sweeny writes:


I agree that the draft partly explains the level of anti-war protest under Johnson, and the ending of the draft in 1973 partly explains the relative lack of anti-war protest after that.

However, the presence or absence of a draft cannot explain the collapse of anti-war protest (and anti-war passion) after the election of Obama. There was no draft under Bush and there is no draft under Obama.

There was certainly a plethora of protests in the mid to late 60s, generally centered on young people. Some of that was no doubt youthful exuberance and youthful optimism. And LBJ, as a person who looked old and acted old, made a good target.

One of the things that united the movements was a "we're the new, the better." That required identifying and looking down on the old and worse. One thing that everyone could agree on was worse was the old southern system of white supremacy. For many, "the south" symbolized all that was old and bad: uneducated, repressed, hypocritical. That gave Johnson one strike right away.

I don't think LBJ's accent and geographical history are the only reason liberals opposed his war. There was much more they disliked about him: his non-Kennedyness, his crudeness, his unwillingness to give them the props they thought they deserved. He simply was not "one of us" and I think that is the major reason for the different treatment of him and Obama.

Maybe even a non-assassinated John Kennedy would have come under the same attack if he had escalated in Vietnam the way Johnson did: "JFK, JFK, how many kids did you kill today?" But I doubt it.

Roger Sweeny writes:

I do wonder, though, why Lyndon Johnson's Democratic identity and leftist domestic policies failed to prevent massive opposition to the Vietnam War.

At the time, the Democratic brand was not what it is today. Many of liberals' greatest enemies sported the capital D: Orval Faubus, Lester Maddux, George Wallace. Democratic Senators from the south were credited with killing liberal legislation. And when Johnson ran for president in 1960 (against the sainted, martyred John F. Kennedy!), he had their support. One might think that Johnson's successful campaign for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act would have put that behind him but it did not. He was still just culturally wrong.

Much of the initiative for the anti-war movement, at least at first, was young people, and they weren't so much left as anti-this-unfair-world-that-old-people-have-made. Kennedy had been young and cool and charismatic, glamorous, great on tv. Johnson was none of those. He was like your annoying uncle who said, "Why don't you listen to any real music?"

I think it is important to realize that fairly early on in Johnson's escalation, the war began to look like a "quagmire" (a term of the times) to a significant part of the population. Many people wanted to believe that if only JFK had lived, this wouldn't have happened. A lot of Kennedy people in politics, the media, and the universities saw themselves as displaced from their rightful positions of power and influence. A narrative developed among liberals that Kennedy was the real deal and Johnson was not.

Aidan writes:

I guess I'm just not clear as to what you think people should be protesting at the moment. I can't speak for the leftist/anarchist/pacifist crowd, which surely made up a decent portion of the anti-war movement, but I think I represent a fairly conventional center-left Democrat perspective. For people like me, the majority of anti-war sentiment was towards the decision to go to war with Iraq, the poor planning that led up to it, and the execution.

One complaint was that the war was waged based on misleading evidence in generally bad faith. While I doubt perceptions of the war's beginning have changed, this is not relevant to the Obama administration's Iraq policies.

Another complaint was that immediate planning and initial projections were hopelessly optimistic and unprepared for the realities on the ground. I don't think perception of this has changed either, but it's also not relevant to Obama.

Another complaint was based on opposition to the troop surge. You can argue whether this opposition was well-grounded or not, but it isn't relevant to the Obama administration's Iraq policy.

Another complaint was that the U.S. needed an exit strategy with a withdrawal plan and date. While the Pentagon has shown reservations towards withdrawal, Obama has announced a date for withdrawal and already begun the process.

Again, I can't speak for the far left portion of the anti-war crowd, but it isn't my understanding that they're particularly enthused with Obama's presidency. What do I think best explains the lack of anti-war demonstrations since Obama took office? The fact that since Obama took office, a deadline was announced for the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq, and a date has been set for complete withdrawal. Unless the future sees the Obama administration radically diverging from the plan, I'm not sure why you would expect to see a renewed enthusiasm from anti-war demonstrations.

Aidan writes:

It did occur to me that the question was more likely "Why are we not seeing anti-war protests against Libya?" and not "Why have the anti-Iraq protests gone away?" I would say that people both supporting and opposing military action in Libya would recognize that the process of preparing for war and the justification used for war was much, much different than Iraq (Juan Cole lists a few here: If George Bush had invaded Iraq to aid an existing popular movement as Saddam Hussein actively massacred Baghdad, I'd imagine the response to the war would be quite different. If Barack Obama lied about Libya's nuclear program or complicity in the 9/11 attacks to justify going to war, I'd imagine you'd see more protests.

Roger Sweeny writes:


You are absolutely right about the differences between Bush and Obama in Iraq. Bush started it; Obama didn't. And "since Obama took office, a deadline was announced for the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq, and a date has been set for complete withdrawal."

However, two questions. If President McCain had done the same thing (announced a deadline, etc), would most of the people who protested Bush be saying, "Okay, I'm satisfied"? I very, very much doubt it.

Similarly, if President McCain had done the exact thing in Libya that Obama has done, would the people who protested Bush be saying, "Hey, no big deal"? Again, I very, very much doubt it.

Look deep into your soul. Would your response have been different?

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