MARK RUDD, who led the student uprising at Columbia University in 1968 and then became a member of the Weather Underground, teaches math at a community college in New Mexico.
I JOINED THE anti-Vietnam War movement as an 18-year-old college student, a freshman at Columbia University. It was the fall of 1965, just months after the U.S. began sending ground combat troops to Southeast Asia. [I originally wrote "just months after the U.S. attacked Vietnam," but the editor changed it. I accepted the euphemism because I didn't want the fight over it to kill the piece.]
The older members of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society explained to me that unlike World War II, Vietnam was an imperial war, a war of occupation whose purpose was the repression of a national liberation movement. We were a small group then, but over the next three years SDS became a critical part of a larger antiwar coalition. Our anger mounted, our protests grew and our ranks burgeoned. Unfortunately, we went many bridges too far and got ensnared in the hallucination of revolution. By 1969, it became more important in SDS to fight each other over who had the "correct revolutionary line" than to fight against the war itself.
Early the next year, while the war was still raging, my own faction, the Weathermen, made the stupid and ultimately disastrous decision to disband SDS and opt instead for "armed struggle," our middle-class version of urban guerrilla warfare. Predictably, we became isolated and irrelevant over the ensuing years, even as the larger antiwar movement went on to achieve its goal: U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
I often wonder what would have resulted over the long haul if SDS — which represented the radical, anti-imperialist wing of the antiwar movement — had not chosen to self-destruct in violence and fantasy but instead had kept plugging away, encouraging more and more people to understand and oppose the building of an American empire.
This question seems particularly relevant today, 40 years later, as a reawakening antiwar movement prepares to confront many of the same issues. Who benefits and who loses from an American empire? What are the moral and economic and spiritual costs to Americans? Is a system of international law possible as an alternative to endless use of American military power? Viewed against the bleak future that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice are offering Americans and the rest of the world, these questions begin to seem more practical than idealistic.
What's hard to understand — given the revelations about the rush to war, the use of torture and the loss of more than 2,000 soldiers — is why the antiwar movement isn't further along than it is. Given that President Bush is now talking about Iraq as only one skirmish in an unlimited struggle against a global Islamic enemy, a struggle comparable to the titanic, 40-year Cold War against communism, shouldn't a massive critique of the global war on terrorism already be underway?
Yet the movement has remained small and politically isolated since the original outpouring of opposition in the spring of 2003, during the run-up to the war. In part, it was the victim of its own early success, the spontaneous demonstrations involving millions of people in the streets here and around the world trying to stop the war before it began. When this initial outburst failed, many became demoralized and hopeless.
Then, in 2004, most of the pent-up antiwar energy flowed into John Kerry's campaign, with little to show for it but further demoralization. The movement caught a second wind with the energizing presence of Cindy Sheehan, but it remains small compared with the outpouring against the Vietnam War.
Probably it's because there's no draft now. Clearly the fact that middle-class boys across the country were receiving draft cards and lottery numbers went a long way toward helping spur resistance to the Vietnam War. Nor is there a countercultural movement today that questions authority like the one that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.
But building a movement can be done. To increase our ranks, we'll need to break through the too-common belief that change is impossible.
We'll also need to take on the larger war. As the next battle heats up, perhaps against Iran or Syria, the movement will have to ask the American people to look honestly at who we are in the world. The antiwar movement will have to engage in the most difficult dialogue of our lives with our neighbors.
Throughout American history, popular movements have made vast transformations in the social and political geography of this country — the abolition movement, the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the gay movement.
My own contribution is to tell the story of how an antiwar movement involving millions of people accomplished something unique in American history and almost unique in the history of empires: We helped stop a war of aggression by our own country. This was American democracy at its best. I lived through it, I saw it with my own eyes.
If all of us "gray-hairs" were to tell our stories, we might be able
to make a contribution. At least we could help people find hope in this
The Albuquerque Journal republished this piece on Sunday, Nov. 13. The following Letters to the Editor were published on Thursday, Nov. 17:
Totalitarianism Worth Fighting
RE: "ANTIWAR Protests Need Old Blood"
The commentary by Mark Rudd, former Weather Underground member, ...
asked somewhat ruefully why we have not seen a groundswell of sentiment
against the war in Iraq comparable to that during the war in Vietnam. His
analysis came up short. He wrote, "Probably it's because there's no
military draft now," but effectively admitted that did not fully account
for the lack of demonstrations and riots like those of the Vietnam era.
I would like to propose a different analysis. Most of those strongly
opposed to the war in Vietnam were from the political left. Many of them,
... though they didn't really endorse the excesses of Stalinism, somehow
admired the communist states in spite of their totalitarian character. Even
today, Fidel Castro has many American admirers despite the repressive
measures still imposed by the Cuban communist state.
Well, North Vietnam was a communist state trying to impose its rule on
South Vietnam, and the United States was trying to prevent that. Hence, the
virulence of the antiwar protests by American leftists.
Contrast communist totalitarianism to the Islamic terrorist movement.
Essentially no Americans have any respect for those who kill innocent
people to make their demands known. Nor do many sympathize with their
goals, such as government by religious decree, degradation of women and
imposition of Islamic beliefs worldwide.
Like it or not, that's what the war in Iraq is all about. Even though,
in hindsight, Iraq may not be the vest venue for fighting the war against
terrorism, that's what we're doing there, hence the difficulty of
organizing a movement against it.
Reportedly, some American Muslims have underlying sympathies for the
terrorists' goals, if not their methods, just as many Vietnam era leftists
sympathized with communism in spite of its practices. If so, Rudd should be
looking to American Muslims to energize an antiwar movement. But I guess
that isn't the kind of strategy he had in mind.
ROBERT B. FRARY
Mark Rudd Still a Communist
RE: COMMENTARY by Mark Rudd
This writer with a touch of gray realizes that Mark Rudd is as much a
communist sympathizer today as he was 40 years ago.
I, too, heard professors and students proclaim that "Vietnam was an
imperial war, a war of occupation whose purpose was the repression of a
national liberation movement."
The problem with that statement is that it was communist propaganda.
... The South Vietnamese wanted no part of the North Vietnam's national
liberation movement and were willing to die to keep from becoming part of
The U.S. goal was to stop the spread of communism. ... Rudd was a
member of the Weather Underground, a self-proclaimed "organization of
communist women and men." No wonder ... Rudd opposed a war of Communist
aggression against people who desired freedom. ...
Despite Rudd's opinion, this is not a dark time in our history. The
2,000 plus volunteers who sacrificed all have given freedom to 50 million
Afghans and Iraqis. The Communist Stalin killed about 20 million, Communist
Mao killed about 40 million, Communist Pol Pot killed a paltry 3 million,
and don't forget the Afghans killed by the Soviet Empire.
On balance 50 million people living in freedom is better than 63
million dead and hundreds of millions living in fear of the state.
Were millions killed by American imperialism? No, they were killed by
communists and their supporters. Rudd and the antiwar minions through their
actions, helped kill millions of Cambodians and Afghans. That is his, and
The SDS movement didn't self-destruct; it became the Democratic Party.
Rudd, his ilk and the ideas they espouse will end up in the trash bin of
history, just like their beacon, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. ...
J. TORREY BAIRD JR.
Leave Rudd's Sedition in L.A.
THE JOURNAL reached a new low by publishing Mark Rudd's seditious
article concerning the need for "building" the current antiwar movement.
If that article came from the Los Angeles Times as the heading
indicates, the Journal should have left it there. ...
He apparently regards anyone with a position of power in the federal
government to be an "imperialist"- hell bent on taking over the world.
ROBERT B. KOCH
Draft Fed Antiwar Movement
THE COMMENTARY by Mark Rudd in the Nov. 13 Journal offered a refreshing
attitude and view.
It's remarkable how clear Rudd is about his Weathermen past. He
renounced that group's extreme positions and its insistence on violent
revolution without denouncing the larger anti-war movement.
If wisdom comes with aging, this is a great example.
I agree with Rudd that the weakness in the present antiwar movement is
likely because there is no draft turning young men into political militants.
I also think the lack of protests may be because most Americans backed
this war at the outset, and while Americans clearly have second thoughts
about the Iraqi war and the Bush administration, they are probably still
mostly in favor of American military strength.
Rudd, Mark. "Something happening here ...." LA Times Op-Ed: November 10, 2005 . http://www.markrudd.com/Homepage/LA%20Times%20op%20ed.htm.