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Specters of Vietnam in the pro-Palestinian Movement

The reemergence of the student movement raises echoes of the past that help to articulate key aspects of the direction of the movement against the genocide in Palestine. Here we consider a few links between today and the movement against the war in Vietnam.

Daniel Alfonso

May 12, 2024
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A banner at the City College Encampment in NYC which reads: "The 5 demands: 1) Divest 2) Boycott 3) Solidarity 4) Demilitarize 5) A People's CUNY
Photo by Luigi Morris

Over the last several weeks, the student movement in the United States has emerged on a scale unseen in decades, with dozens of encampments on university campuses across the country and thousands of students taking part. The encampments’ demands vary but the majority share a common core: the disclosure of universities’ financial relations to the state of Israel and companies involved in the war, divestment of university funds from Israel, and amnesty for those involved in the protests. There have been important rallies and demonstrations against the war in Gaza in the United States since October, but the encampments have put the movement at center stage in national politics for the last few weeks.

In the last week of April, dozens of campuses all over the country were repressed by police and university administrations; over two thousand people were arrested. While such repression — combined with the end of the academic semester — has taken a toll on the movement,  the movement has not let these attacks pass. Four thousand people marched on May Day in New York City and CUNY faculty undertook a sick out on the same day. Independent Student Workers of Columbia also staged a sick out which started on May 13 and UAW Local 4811 — a union representing 48,000 University of California academic student employees and researchers — is voting whether or not to strike in defense of those who protest the war after UCLA students and faculty were brutally attacked by Zionists and the police at their encampment. Even at the end of the semester, encampments keep popping up, and the police have been repressing them whenever possible. Widespread support for Palestine coupled with the historically low approval for Israel are ingrained in broad sectors of society. 

The scope of the current anti-war movement being led by students has invited comparisons to the historic movement against the Vietnam War. In this short piece we will examine some similarities and differences between the context that informs them.

The comparisons with the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 60s and early 70s appear along different axes. From lukewarm New York Times op-eds that defend students’ right to protest while keeping their politics at arms length, to more accusatory op-eds after the wave of police repression at multiple campuses, an ever-verbose Wall Street Journal that adds fodder to the criminalization of protest, to various pieces by left authors and publications.

The New York Times opinion columnist Charles Blow lists a few striking similarities between 1968 and 2024, such as both being presidential election years with an unpopular Democratic incumbent, a surging student movement that came to life in the final weeks of the spring semester, and a Democratic convention in Chicago. 

While the examples Blow mentions are important parallels, the terrain is quite different. World politics were a much different affair in the 60s and early 70s. The world had been divided after World War II between the United States and the Soviet bloc in the Potsdam/Yalta accords. Revolutions had sprung up across the colonial and semi-colonial world, and the U.S. government had devoted major efforts to quelling domestic discontent via McCarthyism. Just a few years before the United States entered the war in what was then known as Indochina, Cuban workers and peasants overthrew Fulgencio Bastista’s dictatorial regime in Cuban Revolution that would not only constitute one of the most serious threats to U.S. imperialism in the region, but serve as inspiration for millions of workers and students throughout the country.

The war in Vietnam was at the heart of the nascent tensions in this new world order, with French imperialism forced to call on American support to maintain their colony in Indochina. This leads to the most significant difference between then and now: the Vietnam War was fought with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers. Over the course of the movement against the Vietnam War, according to a liberal account of the antiwar movement, “perhaps as many as six million Americans took to the streets, signed petitions, wrote letters, attended meetings and rallies, participated in vigils, and engaged in other antiwar activities.”1Simon Hall, “Rethinking The American Anti-War Movement”, Routledge, 2012. 

As a movement that spread over several years, it ebbed and flowed according to the operations in Vietnam, the domestic political situation, and the politics of the organizations leading it, which interlaced with the overall disposition of the movement. The movement gained more ground as the politics of Lyndon B. Johnson, the so-called “peace” candidate — in comparison to Republican Barry Goldwater — became increasingly more hawkish, casualties mounted by the thousands, and technological advancements in reporting revealed with unprecedented speed images of the horrors inflicted by the U.S. army upon the Vietnamese civilian population, napalm burns among them. It also shook the Democratic Party, forcing Johnson to not seek reelection in light of intense criticism of the administration’s actions in Vietnam. The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago made history with massive protests outside the convention, for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. Just a few months before the Convention, Martin Luther King Jr. — who had voiced his opposition to the war in 1965 — had been assassinated in Memphis while supporting a strike of sanitation workers, causing intense protests in over 100 cities. 

There are no U.S. troops on the ground at the war in Gaza, but the U.S. is deeply connected to the war due to its ties with the state of Israel that go beyond funding, arms, and geopolitical support. The demands for divestment bring attention and question the deep connections of universities to the state of Israel. The case of Columbia University, at the epicenter of the movement, is illustrative. According to a piece by CNN:

Less than 1% of the school’s $13.6 billion endowment is publicly disclosed. From that limited information, protestors identified small holdings in 19 companies they believe are connected to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, including defense contractors Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics that make weapons used by Israel, and Caterpillar, whose bulldozers have been used by Israel to demolish Palestinian infrastructure in the West Bank and have been used by the IDF during the ground invasion of Gaza.

Not every university has a budget like Columbia, one of the most expensive universities of the country, but the case is the same across higher education, including in public universities. It is not only universities that have ties to the state of Israel or invest in companies involved in the genocide. As written in this article:

The pro-Palestine movement is challenging a highly sensitive aspect of bipartisan politics: the unconditional alliance with the state of Israel. Democrats have been able to co-opt the great social movements of the past, from the colossal civil rights movement to the Black Lives Matter movement more recently. But because the bipartisan regime is Zionist to the core, the current movement presents an enormous challenge to the Democratic Party.

The economies of the core countries had been going strong for over 20 years beginning with the “reconstruction” of Europe via the Marshall plan — the period later became known as the “30 Glorious Years.” The tensions arising out of the tailend of this period were at the heart of class struggle worldwide, including in the United States. In contrast, today’s economy is structurally more fragile and is still coping with the consequences of the 2008 crash that struck a blow to the pillars of neoliberalism, as well as the effects of the Pandemic. 

Domestically, the bipartisan regime of the late 60s was in better shape. The challenges it faced during the Civil Rights Movement — which connected and overlapped with the anti-war movement in various ways — gave impetus to a reordering of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Those were the days when social polarization was not accompanied by political polarization within the major parties, at least not to the extent we see today. The fight for civil rights, a fight that was closely tied to the labor movement, was met with a more “flexible” bipartisan regime: Democrats who were unhappy with politics of their party toward the Civil Rights movement found a new home in the GOP, while Republicans discontent with the party’s openness towards the far-right turned to the Democratic Party.2An analysis that frames this phenomenon, although from a perspective enclosed within  the regime itself, is Lee Drutman’s The Two-Party Doom Loop – The Case for Multiparty Democracy. According to the author, “from the mid-1950s through the mid-1990s, the national two-party system contained a hidden four-party system: liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans in the culturally liberal Northeast and Upper Midwest, the West Coast, and the big cities in between, and conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans in the rural, traditional parts of the country and the South. Each represented its own cluster of values and issue positions. None had a majority. All had to bargain. Enemies could become allies; allies could become enemies. The fate of democracy didn’t hang in the balance each election.” This was not a process that happened overnight, it took several decades to complete. The profoundly undemocratic bipartisan regime today is more dysfunctional and less apt to deal with constant crises, as its counter-majoritarian mechanisms make it difficult to govern and pass legislation even when a party has control of both houses. This gridlock takes place in the context of broader phenomena of organic crisis around the world, and in the United States specifically. 

In the late 60s, the post-Yalta world order was showing signs of weakness and it was challenged by class struggle throughout the world, in imperialist countries, colonies, and semi-colonies, as well as in countries ruled by the Stalinist bureaucracy. It was only in 1972 that the economic crisis erupted. Neoliberalism provided an answer to the crisis of the post-World War II boom. In contrast, the 2008 economic crisis marked a before and after despite the success of the massive rescue, orchestrated by banks, corporations and governments, in impeding a generalized crack. Its effects have been deep and are felt presently as the imperialist bourgeoisie does not have an alternate plan to the agony of neoliberalism. Significant processes of class struggle have taken place since, although the most acute ones were revolts and have not developed into revolutions. 

If the antiwar movement in the 60s and early 70s took place before neoliberalism, the current upsurge in the student movement happens at a moment where the neoliberalist ideology has suffered a major blow in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis

The Subversive Potential of The Student Movement

An integral component of the organic crisis in the United States has been the rise in labor activity over the last several years. Strikes have been on the upsurge since 2018 and the number of work stoppages was the highest recorded since 2000. The UAW strike last year is the most recent example of a labor movement whose rank and file are eager to take part in decisions in union affairs and who have drawn important conclusions of the decades of concessions during neoliberalism — and in the case of UAW, the significant concessions during the 2008 crisis. Changes in the youth have been discussed significantly, and it is difficult to overestimate the significance of a youth — forged in the post-2008 world and its 2016 elections, the pandemic, and BLM — that feels in their bones the connections between the fight against oppression and exploitation. A youth that was either part of the generational shift that preferred socialism over capitalism or was raised in a country where the support for socialism has been on the rise for several years

The political and social weight of Israel throughout U.S. society reflects the integral importance of the country to U.S. imperialists interests in the region after World War II can be considered a change that affects the core of the bipartisan regime and the relationship of the Democratic Party to its historic base. As Joe Allen writes:

The widening gap between the Democratic Party’s liberal and pro-Israel leadership and a large minority of population and majority of Democratic Party voters is reaching Vietnam War—era  proportions. By late February, nearly two months ago, the Data for Progress polling site reported: Around two-thirds of voters (67%) — including majorities of Democrats (77%), Independents (69%), and Republicans (56%) — support the U.S. calling for a permanent ceasefire and a de-escalation of violence in Gaza.

This comes as an extension of the increasing difficulty the U.S. has had to impose its will in the region. 

The disconnectedness of the Democrats to younger voters speaks to a wider phenomenon: the increasing realization of the horrors of the genocide in Gaza are systemic and connected to the plight against global warming, racism, and police violence. This youth embodies skepticism that something resembling liberal “American values” could play a role in dealing with these challenges is widespread. It remains to be seen what challenges the Democratic Convention in Chicago this August will face. Whatever those end up being, the relationship of wide sectors of the youth to that party has been severely strained — due to, among other reasons, the complicity of the Democratic Party to finance capital and its drive towards the destruction of the planet, the organic relationship of the party to Wall Street, and also due to the support of Israel’s genocide in Gaza. 

The debate about the relationship of the working class to the Democratic Party should be considered in light of the challenges of the anti-war movement as well. The DSA and Jacobin insist on remaining within the Democratic Party, and for the time being the debate on whether socialists should leave the Democratic Party (the “clean break” position) or work within the Democratic Party and leave the party in supposedly better circumstances (the “dirty break”) has veered towards the latter and the logical consequence of leaving aside the debate on leaving the party altogether. However, the discontent with the Democratic Party is not only a phenomenon within the youth, it is a deep process that has been taking place over several years, which lesser-evil politics and the threat of Trump have mitigated. The fight against the genocide and for a free Palestine require class independent politics, that is, politics that are not tethered to the Democratic Party and their defense of American imperialist interests. Politics that rely on the strength and interests of the working class, the youth, and the oppressed. 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the reemergence of the student movement. Organized by a generation that was born into crisis, in a context of widespread support for unions and an organic grasp on the relationship between oppression and exploitation, the student movement can play an even larger role in the fight against the war in Gaza. The affinity for the working class among students and broader sectors of the youth is incipient but deep. By allying themselves with the labor movement, students all over the country can play a decisive role in stopping arms shipment to Israel. As in student movements throughout history, their strategic choice lies between siding with the interests of the bourgeoisie or with the interests of the working class. This new student movement understands this and sides with the latter. This alliance can strike a blow to the heart of U.S. imperialism.

Notes

Notes
1 Simon Hall, “Rethinking The American Anti-War Movement”, Routledge, 2012.
2 An analysis that frames this phenomenon, although from a perspective enclosed within  the regime itself, is Lee Drutman’s The Two-Party Doom Loop – The Case for Multiparty Democracy. According to the author, “from the mid-1950s through the mid-1990s, the national two-party system contained a hidden four-party system: liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans in the culturally liberal Northeast and Upper Midwest, the West Coast, and the big cities in between, and conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans in the rural, traditional parts of the country and the South. Each represented its own cluster of values and issue positions. None had a majority. All had to bargain. Enemies could become allies; allies could become enemies. The fate of democracy didn’t hang in the balance each election.”
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Daniel Alfonso

Daniel is a member of Left Voice.

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