Lesson of '72: Compromise on War Plank

Now that the Obama-Clinton battle is over, the Democrats face another fight that could split the party. Over the summer, their 186-member Platform Committee will have to write a plank on the war in Iraq. And the convention in Denver will have to ratify it.

The lines are already being drawn. "On the issues of Iraq and foreign policy, Democrats can't be vague or fuzzy," says a contingent of progressive party leaders. They call for a clear forthright plank that demands "an end to the war in Iraq by initiating the safe and secure withdrawal of all US combat forces, leaving no permanent military bases behind."

Peace activists who know the Iraq issue well will not be sure whether to laugh or cry. Not vague or fuzzy? This is precisely the kind of vague coded language that Dems have been using for many months now to avoid a clear, forthright call to end the war now.

Removing all "combat" forces will still leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops and many thousands of private security contractors in Iraq. They will be stationed on bases that could be there for decades without formally being called "permanent."

That huge contingent of "non-combat" forces on "long-term" or "enduring" bases would be a recipe for continued war, a lightning rod for the growing number of Iraqis who want to see all U.S. forces leave their country immediately -- which is just what real peace activists want, too. The argument for a genuinely antiwar position -- "bring 'em all home now, soldiers and contractors alike" -- is compelling.

Nevertheless, even knowing all this, peace activists would be wise to support the emerging progressive plank and accept even milder language, if that's what it takes to hold the party together and get Obama elected.

Just remember what happened in 1972, when genuinely antiwar forces took control of the party and nominated Senator George McGovern. Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide.

Democrats and peace activists have yet to fully understand the real lesson of '72: For millions of voters, war is not a policy problem to be solved by analytical reasoning. It's a cultural symbol that stirs powerful passions. A more cautious war position, one that respects the power of symbolism, could be the Democrats' ticket to victory in November.

Todays' advocates of a strong antiwar plank insist that in 1972 most voters were ready to accept a staunch antiwar program. McGovern lost, they argue, because of a host of factors largely unrelated to the war. But their own arguments reveal the crucial role that cultural symbolism played in McGovern's defeat.

Some blame that defeat on intra-party warfare. Though by November, 1972, George Wallace had been shot and removed from the race, many of his supporters deserted the Democrats. Though Hubert Humphrey belatedly adopted an antiwar stance, in the primaries he charged that McGovern was too weak to stand up to America's enemies. After McGovern won the nomination, many Humphrey supporters deserted the campaign (especially in the then-powerful labor unions).

Others argue that even if the party had been united, McGovern would have suffered from two fatal deficits. He chose Thomas Eagleton as his running mate but quickly dropped him when Eagleton's history of depression was disclosed. And he could never overcome the oft-repeated Republican charge that he stood for "acid, amnesty, and abortion." It was the emerging culture war, some Dems say, that led so many who opposed the Vietnam war to vote against the antiwar candidate in1972.

But, in fact, such large numbers of white Southerners, labor union members, and moderate Democrats defected mainly because they drew a direct connection between the culture war and Vietnam. Even many who opposed the Vietnam war heard McGovern's harsh attacks on U.S. policy as attacks on the nation, its troops, and its cherished values.

It made perfect sense to them that "amnesty" for draft avoiders was sandwiched between "acid" and "abortion." They could not separate noisy antiwar sentiment from all the other images of radicalism that had filled the media for the preceding five years, making it seem as if the United States was falling apart. The Eagleton affair merely confirmed their image that the Democrats were the party of disarray and personal weakness.

Nixon successfully presented himself as a bulwark against cultural catastrophe. He promised to withdraw U.S. troops gradually and bring peace while preserving American honor. For millions of voters, "honor" was a code word for keeping the nation's moorings in familiar cultural traditions of the past. They voted for Nixon as a symbolic way of resisting a tide of change that they saw as far too rapid and radical.

Millions of voters still worry about that tide. Few list abortion, the drug war, or other social issues as their highest political priority. The Iraq war has now become a main symbolic battleground for the broader debate between clinging to and crossing, or even erasing, traditional cultural boundary lines. In some sense, we're still stuck in 1972. The debate about Iraq is, to a large extent, another chapter in the ongoing cultural battle about Vietnam and "the '60s."

That's what gives John McCain hope. He wants to take the electorate back to 1972, when he was still suffering in a North Vietnamese prison. He hopes that image will send a clear message: His patriotic wartime fortitude proves he will always hold a firm line against the nation's enemies, at home as well as abroad, and "never surrender."

On the other hand, Barack Obama symbolizes the breaking of America's historically strongest taboo: crossing the once-rigid boundary line between the races. His emphasis on national unity and the very color of his skin send that message of radical change to many voters.

Crossing boundaries and breaking taboos was just what the '60s counterculture was all about. In 1972, Republicans portrayed that as the ultimate danger of a McGovern victory, and they won resoundingly. It could happen again this year, despite the growing opposition to the war.

A McCain victory would take the wind out of the peace movement's sails and relegate it to the margins of American political life for at least four (and maybe eight) years. An Obama victory would create momentum toward the left and open up a possibility for the peace movement to have growing influence (as well as opening the doors of at least lower level staffers in the White House to peace activists).

To take advantage of an Obama victory, though, peace activists would have to accept a hard fact: We have not learned how to frame our message in ways that speak to the cultural hopes and fears of a majority of the voters. Until we learn how to do that, we cannot hope to capitalize on an Obama victory to really build our power. And we should not try to saddle Obama with a war plank that could split the Democrats and help put a Republican in the White House.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This is an expanded version of a column distributed by History News Service.

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