The signs, ranging from the offensive (“Bush and Blair Wanted for Murder”) to the wacky (“Make Tea Not War”), have no doubt been consigned to the proper recycling bins. But the corrosive effect of the worldwide antiwar rallies of Feb. 15 lingers.
Saddam Hussein’s mouthpiece, the newspaper Babel, which is run by his son, Uday, has praised the demonstrators for inflicting “humiliating international isolation” on Britain and the United States and for ushering in “a new chapter in the global balance of power.” Seeing that his enemies are divided, Hussein has continued to not fully cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. In his defiant interview with Dan Rather, he even sneered at the United Nation’s demand that he destroy his Al-Samoud 2 missiles.
The demonstrations are thereby making war more -- not less -- likely.
All this should be no great surprise, considering the ignominious history of peace protests over the last century. The record is fairly clear: When the demands of protesters have been met, more bloodshed has resulted; when strong leaders have resisted the lure of appeasement, peace has usually broken out.
Antiwar movements during the Civil War and the Philippine War of 1899-1902 helped prolong those conflicts by giving false hope to Washington’s enemies.
The vociferous opposition of Irish Americans and German Americans, trade unionists and socialists helped delay U.S. entry into World War I and thereby prolonged the killing. If the advice of hawks like former President Theodore Roosevelt had been heeded, earlier U.S. entry would have shortened the slaughter and created a more stable postwar order.
During the inter-war period, public pressure in the West prevented rearmament despite growing threats from the original “Axis of evil.”
In 1933, the Oxford Union passed its infamous resolution: “That this House refuses in any circumstances to fight for King and Country.” When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938, declaring that he had delivered “peace for our time,” he was greeted by cheering throngs who sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Across the Atlantic, the America First Committee mobilized more than 800,000 people to keep the U.S. out of the war.
As we now know, the weakness of the West encouraged Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini toward more spectacular aggression, making World War II inevitable. It is doubtful that even the most hardened peace protesters today would look back with pride upon the activities of their 1930s’ predecessors.
Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, by contrast, still evoke pride among many veterans of the barricades. Indeed, the graying hair and sagging bellies of many of today’s protesters suggest that quite a few are 1960s stalwarts bent, like the Rolling Stones, on recapturing the lost glory of youth.
The Vietnam rallies are usually judged to have been successful because they stopped the killing of Americans in Southeast Asia. The killing of local people is another matter. The U.S. pullout led directly to the communist conquest of Saigon and Phnom Penh in 1975. The results were a human rights disaster. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese were executed, hundreds of thousands wound up in brutal “reeducation camps” and more than a million sought to escape in leaky boats. It was even worse in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered more than a million “class enemies.”
Antiwar protesters were not entirely, or even mainly, responsible for this outcome; faulty U.S. military strategy also was to blame. Still, anyone who once chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win” should not feel particularly smug about the consequences of that victory. Their protests led to peace, all right, but for many Asians it was the peace of the grave.
After Vietnam, the focus of antiwar rallies shifted to the nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Millions of Europeans took to the streets in the early 1980s to protest the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles designed to counter the Soviets’ SS-20s. Millions more demonstrated in Europe and the U.S. for a nuclear freeze.
If the pleas of those demonstrators had been accepted, Germany still would be divided and communist regimes still would rule Russia and Eastern Europe. Luckily, the leaders of the West withstood the pressure from their streets and brought the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion.
The “peace” crowd remained undiscouraged. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, demonstrators chanted “No blood for oil,” warning that U.S. military intervention would lead to thousands of body bags coming home. If the protesters had been in control, there is little doubt that a nuclear-armed Iraq would now occupy Kuwait and probably some of its neighbors.
Good thing George H.W. Bush and John Major ignored the protests -- just as their successors are doing today.
It is perhaps too much to expect self-doubt from any political activist, right or left. But given the dismal record of antiwar demonstrations, today’s marchers should heed Oliver Cromwell’s advice to the Kirk of Scotland in 1650: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”