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It was 50 years ago that the American escalation in Vietnam began, leading to the first antiwar protests. Over the course of the next decade, Howard Zinn wrote, “there developed in the United States the greatest antiwar movement the nation had ever experienced, a movement that played a critical part in bringing the war to an end.” Despite the historic scale and impact of that vast struggle, the movement for peace in Vietnam has been erased from history, unremembered and dismissed by some as irrelevant or worse—a disloyal fifth column that snatched defeat from supposed victory.

This past week in Washington DC, two significant events occurred to reclaim the history of that tumultuous time. Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute partnered with the New York University’s History Department to sponsor a scholarly conference, “The Vietnam War Then and Now: Assessing the Critical Lessons,” while former antiwar activists organized the public conference, “Vietnam: The Power of Protest. Telling the Truth. Learning the Lessons.”

Andrew Bacevich discussing the Lessons of the Vietnam War for US Foreign Policy

Andrew Bacevich discussing the Lessons of the Vietnam War for US Foreign Policy

More than 75 scholars and analysts participated in the academic conference to hear 26 distinguished experts present papers that addressed a wide range of questions: Was the war just and necessary? Was it a national revolution, a civil war, a war of aggression, all of the above? Was the war winnable? What were its consequences for the people of Vietnam and the soldiers who fought it? Were diplomatic options available for ending the war sooner? What was the impact of the antiwar movement? What are the principal lessons of the war for U.S. policy today?

Keynote speaker and former member of Congress Elizabeth Holtzman described the war as a product of U.S. ignorance (a misunderstanding of Vietnamese nationalism) and arrogance (a false faith in American military invincibility). Executive branch actions during the war may have involved war crimes, she argued, and undermined democratic accountability and constitutional checks and balances. A member of the House Judiciary Committee during the historic Watergate hearings, Holtzman traced the crimes that led to Nixon’s impeachment to White House attempts to suppress antiwar dissent and prevent public disclosure of critical information such as the Pentagon Papers. The war finally ended, she said, when the American people pressured the White House to withdraw troops and Congress banned U.S. military action in Southeast Asia and cut off further funding for the war. The video of Holtzman’s address is available here.

Cora Weiss discussing the role of antiwar protests in ending the Vietnam War.

Cora Weiss discussing the role of antiwar protests in ending the Vietnam War.

The scholarly conference overflowed with new insight into the history and meaning of the war. It deepened our understanding and appreciation of a catastrophic conflict that took the lives of millions of people in Southeast Asia and more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers, while causing the greatest civil unrest in American society since the Civil War. The Kroc Institute will work with the One Earth Future Foundation to produce a policy report on the lessons of the war. We will also work with conference presenters to produce an edited volume that preserves their valuable scholarly contributions for future scholars and students.

Following the scholarly conference more than 800 people gathered for the “Power of Protest” event at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington near the White House. The program included an opening ceremony emceed by Phil Donahue that featured Congresswoman Barbara Lee and honored movement elders such as Daniel Ellsberg, Cora Weiss, Staughton Lynd and Marcus Raskin. The “Power of Protest” program included a plenary panel discussion with Juan Gonzalez, Tom Hayden, Wayne Smith and former Congress members Patricia Schroeder and Ron Dellums; dozens of workshops and mini-plenaries on a wide range of topics; and a march to the Martin Luther King Jr.  Memorial on the National Mall. The program at the memorial honored Dr. King’s courageous and eloquent opposition to the Vietnam War.  It was emceed by Danny Glover and featured remarks by Julian Bond, who recalled King’s warning: “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Phil Donahue hosting 'Honoring Our Elders' session at the public event

Phil Donahue hosting ‘Honoring Our Elders’ session at the public event

The “Power of Protest” program was one of the most moving experiences of my life—a return to the issues and social movement that shaped my life and set me on the path of working for peace that I have followed ever since. It was a moment of reunion with many former colleagues, and an opportunity to meet and engage with others I knew only by reputation. It was an event of recognition and recommitment—a passing of the torch to a new generation of activists who are addressing today’s issues of war, social injustice and climate change.

Democracy in Decline

Democracy and civil liberties have been diminishing all over the world in the past decade. This alarming trend has been thoroughly documented in recent years by the nongovernmental group Freedom House, and yet no one seems to be paying attention.

The most recent annual survey by Freedom House confirms the problem. “For the ninth consecutive year the condition of global political rights and civil liberties showed an overall decline,” the report states. Developments in 2014 were “exceptionally grim,” with nearly twice as many countries showing declines in political freedom compared to those experiencing gains. The last nine years have witnessed the longest continuous period of decline for freedom in the organization’s nearly 50-year history of publishing annual ratings.

What’s behind this worrisome trend? Freedom House does not attribute the decline in freedom directly to any single factor, but it emphasizes the harmful impact of repressive measures that have been imposed in many countries.  Civil and human rights are eroding “due to state surveillance, restrictions on internet communications, and curbs on personal autonomy.” The worst reversals were in the areas of “freedom of expression, civil society, and the rule of law,” the report concludes.

The measures responsible for this decline in freedom are often adopted in the name of countering terrorism. In response to terrorist threats the United States and other countries have imposed measures that increase the power of police and state security agencies, reduce judicial protections and due process rights, expand government control over information, and limit personal freedoms. What used to be known as the ‘free world’ has become decidedly less free in the process.

As I point out in a recent article published in Global Observatory, many of the measures adopted in the name of fighting terrorism are of uncertain effectiveness. In some cases they are counterproductive and may intensify the feelings of marginalization and repression that feed extremism.

Protections against terrorist attack are necessary, but we will not overcome violent extremism by eroding the conditions of democracy and human rights that are necessary foundations of peace.

A recent Washington Post article reports that South Africa has a significant stockpile of highly enriched uranium and has rebuffed US entreaties to relinquish the bomb-grade material. According to the article:

  • South Africa has 485 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to build half a dozen large nuclear weapons. This is the fissile material that was melted down from Pretoria’s nuclear weapons program when the country abandoned the bomb in 1990.
  • The Obama administration has tried to persuade South Africa officials to give up the highly enriched uranium, in exchange for a steady supply of lower-grade uranium for reactor fuel, but Pretoria has refused.

In rejecting U.S. proposals, South Africa cites U.S. hypocrisy. Washington tries to remove nuclear capability in other states while clinging to nuclear weapons itself. Like many other countries in the developing world, Pretoria has long insisted that the U.S. and the other nuclear weapons states must fulfill their obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to negotiate for disarmament. The NPT is a bargain: states without nuclear weapons are required to forego nuclear weapons, while those with the bomb agree to move toward disarmament.

South Africa has special status in this debate as the only state to develop nuclear weapons and then give them up. Pretoria will have an important voice at the international nonproliferation treaty review conference that convenes next month in New York at the UN. They will join many states in urging the nuclear states to fulfill their part of the bargain and get back to the process of progressive denuclearization.

President Obama has said the United States supports the goal of achieving a world without nuclear weapons, but some in his administration seem not to have gotten the memo. The Washington Post article has a stunningly cynical yet honest quote from the former White House Coordinator for Arms Control Gary Samore, replying to South Africa’s nuclear negotiator:

“Nuclear disarmament is not going to happen…It’s a fantasy. We need our weapons for our safety, and we’re not going to give them up.”

This from the person responsible for managing the President’s supposed commitment to disarmament. Hypocrisy indeed.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is not the only one worried about a possible U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. The leaders of Saudi Arabia are also concerned.  They fear that if Washington reaches an accommodation with Tehran on its nuclear program, the two countries will begin to cooperate on other issues—including Syria, the fight against ISIS, and Afghanistan—which would give Iran greater influence in the region.

The U.S. is already working in parallel with Iran in Syria and Iraq, although officials in Washington deny any direct coordination. The two sides have similar interests in opposing the rise of ISIS. Both want to see an end to the civil war in Syria and are concerned about the spreading violence and instability in Iraq. The two countries also share the goal of attempting to stabilize Afghanistan and reduce Taliban influence.

The United States especially needs Iran’s help in Iraq and Syria. Tehran has sufficient leverage in Baghdad and Syria to encourage the political concessions and diplomatic compromises that will be needed to reduce the appeal of ISIS and stem the tide of political instability and war in the region. The U.S. knows this, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons the Obama administration is so intent on finding a solution to the nuclear standoff, which would pave the way for engaging Iran on other issues.

If Tehran and Washington reach an accommodation on the nuclear issue, Iran will begin to emerge from its political and diplomatic isolation. Sanctions will ease and new economic development opportunities will emerge. Iran will become a major regional player.

This is exactly what worries the Saudis. They do not want to see the rise of Iranian influence. Saudi leaders are concerned about Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the possibility of Iranian support for their own restless Shia communities. Saudi Arabia views Iran as its principal rival for primacy in the Gulf region, and as the source of revolutionary Shiite Islam which competes with Riyadh’s ultraconservative Sunni Wahhabism.

The Saudis are also very worried about ISIS, however. They are participating in the U.S.-led campaign of air strikes against ISIS, and they are bolstering their northern border against possible ISIS incursions.

The irony is that in the fight against ISIS Saudi Arabia needs Iran, just as the U.S. does. Through its support for the Shiite militias in Iraq, Iran is one of the major bulwarks against ISIS. From an objective security perspective, Saudi Arabia should be cooperating with Iran to deter and push back ISIS.

Saudi Arabia has deep geopolitical and ideological differences with Iran that prevent it from considering such cooperation, but conditions could change if the outcome of the nuclear negotiations is successful (still very uncertain) and the threat from ISIS intensifies. If their longtime allies in Washington begin to work alongside Iran, Saudi leaders may begin to do the same. Much would have to change for this to happen, but the result could be a united front against ISIS and greater security in the region.

I have a story to share about Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach who passed away this week.

I met Coach Smith in early 1983, the year following North Carolina’s national basketball championship. This was the time of the nuclear freeze movement, which was sweeping across the United States like a proverbial prairie fire.

As executive director of SANE, I was working with our North Carolina chapter on a statewide radio advertising campaign. We were debating who would be the right person to narrate the messages. We wanted someone with breakthrough appeal—someone “who walks on water in this state,” as one of the chapter leaders put it.  We all agreed. Dean Smith was the one.

But why would the prestigious Coach stick his neck out on an issue like the nuclear freeze? Someone recalled that Smith had been among the first major college coaches to desegregate his teams. “He’s a man of dignity,” another said, “I’ll bet he’s for the freeze as well.” We decided to give it a try.

I was asked to write to the Coach and ask if he would be our spokesperson. Two weeks later came the prompt reply, “Coach Smith will be glad to participate in your campaign. Please call to arrange a time to visit.” We were ecstatic.

A couple weeks later we were there, entering Carmichael Auditorium, the scene of Tar Heels basketball heroics. We stared in awe at the many championship banners hanging from the ceiling and the dozens of trophies and plaques bearing witness to the rich traditions of North Carolina basketball. At the coach’s office we exchanged pleasantries with his assistants and were ushered into the inner sanctum, speechless in the presence of the great coach.

Smith was warm and amiable, rising from his desk in an unassuming manner to greet us and urging that we make ourselves at home. We brought with us some draft scripts. He sat down at his desk, looked them over, scribbled changes here and there, and then addressed the microphone.

Hello, this is Coach Dean Smith. Winning the national championship was a great thrill. But there is one contest nobody wins – the international arms race. We all lose in a nuclear war, and the risk grows greater every day unless we do something about it. A majority of Americans support the bilateral nuclear freeze. But it won’t happen unless you take action. … Add your voice to the growing demand for a nuclear freeze.

In another script he made a self-deprecating reference to his controversial practice of freezing the game, instructing his players to keep passing the ball rather than shoot. This was before the introduction of the shot clock in basketball. Chuckling lightly he read:

We can debate the merits of a freeze in a basketball game, but there is one freeze we can all support, the bilateral nuclear weapons freeze.

After a couple of flawless takes, Smith was finished. He smiled and thanked us for coming. We were thrilled at having met the Coach but more importantly in gaining his support for our campaign.

SANE’s radio spots hit the airwaves the following week: nearly 300 spots on dozens of stations throughout the state. News of Coach Smith’s support for the freeze was everywhere, on the front pages and in the sports section. Articles on his involvement appeared in every major newspaper in the state and on all the major television and radio stations. The widespread news coverage and the hundreds of ad placements meant that Smith’s appeal to end the arms race saturated the North Carolina market and reached millions of people.

It was a major boost for North Carolina SANE and for our efforts to build public support for the nuclear freeze. Smith was not only a great basketball coach but a person of social conscience and moral courage.

A Litany of Failure

It is commonly believed that military force is an effective way of countering terrorism and violent extremism.

But the use of military force often fails to achieve its objectives and can be counterproductive. According to former General Rupert Smith, one of the UK’s most distinguished military leaders, the United States and other powers have engaged in wars of intervention in recent decades that “have in one way or another spectacularly failed to achieve the results intended.”[i]

Consider some of the most recent examples:

  • Iraq, an unnecessary war of choice that shattered the state and produced a society riven by sectarianism, now under siege by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with the U.S. re-engaged militarily and the death toll among civilians rising
  • Afghanistan, America’s longest war, in support of one of the world’s most corrupt regimes, against a revived “industrial strength” Taliban insurgency, with violence and civilian and military casualties increasing
  • Pakistan, site of more than 400 U.S. drone strikes, where the Tehreek-e-Taliban and other insurgent groups in the northwest region have remained strong, with violence and instability continuing
  • Libya, where U.S. and NATO forces intervened to protect civilians but ended up supporting armed regime change, the government now in ruins and the country in chaos as rival militias fight for power and oil wealth
  • Yemen, site of dozens of U.S drone strikes, which President Obama cited as an example of “successfully pursued” objectives, where the government has collapsed, and insurgent forces have taken over the capital

It is probably safe to say that in the countries listed above, the number of armed militants and violent extremists is greater now than before the U.S. intervened.

The lesson for counterterrorism strategy should be obvious. Stop relying on ineffective military means that make matters worse.

[i] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 4.

How do you measure the failure of America’s wars of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan? The most basic indicator is the high level of violence and instability that continues even after most U.S. troops have gone home.

Recent reports of increasing casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan paint a grim picture of the consequences of U.S. war policies. Americans are no longer dying in large numbers, but fatalities among Iraqis and Afghans are at record levels.

According to Iraqi figures recently cited in the New York Times, more than 15,000 civilians and government security personnel died in Iraq in 2014, making it one of the deadliest years since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The actual figures in Iraq for 2014 are probably much higher. The usually reliable independent organization Iraq Body Count estimates civilian casualties for last year at 17,000. According to the group, “Current trends are among the most alarming since we began recording civilian casualties in 2003.” The group estimates fatalities among government and insurgent combatants at approximately 30,000. That means the estimated total death toll for Iraq last year was 47,000.

In Afghanistan, official figures indicate that more than 5,000 government security personnel were killed in 2014, the highest level of the 13 year war. Civilian casualties last year were also at the highest level since 2001. According to UN figures, more than 3,100 Afghan civilians died from January through November 2014. Again, actual figures are probably higher, since the official numbers do not include deaths among insurgent forces. The total death toll for Afghanistan last year was probably greater than 10,000.

These figures do not count casualties from the related war in the neighboring border areas of northern Pakistan. Many thousands of civilians, insurgents and Pakistani army troops have died in that war over the years, but reliable figures for the past year are not available.

Decision makers in Washington invaded Iraq and Afghanistan ostensibly to counter terrorist violence and build stability and freedom. Instead they sowed the seeds of rising violence and continuing death and destruction.

This is failure at the most basic human level. U.S. policies sparked a horrific wave of killing that seems to be getting worse.

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