No wonder it feels so damn frustrating. It's
like 1968 all over again.
The United States is bogged down in a bloody counter-insurgency war on the
other side of the globe, a war that the majority of the American people believe
we should have never entered. Polls consistently show it is the number one issue
on the minds of American voters in the weeks leading up to a close presidential
election. The majority of Democrats and independents and a growing minority
of Republicans believe that the war is unwinnable and we should get out.
Despite that, both Republicans and Democrats have nominated presidential and
vice-presidential candidates who have supported the war from the beginning and
have pledged to continue fighting it for years to come.
Both Hubert Humphrey and John Kerry were once considered leading liberals in
the Democratic Party. They took great political risks early by taking highly
principled positions (Humphrey in his support for civil rights and Kerry in
his opposition to the Vietnam War), only to estrange their supporters by backing
an unnecessary, illegal, immoral and disastrous U.S. military intervention in
the Third World.
Humphrey was a decent and intelligent man with a long and distinguished career
in public service. He really deserved to be president, but he so angered and
alienated his liberal base through his defense of the Vietnam War that he lost
a close election he should have otherwise won handily. It is looking increasingly
possible that Kerry may suffer the same fate.
Despite his public support for the Vietnam War, Humphrey appeared personally
torn and troubled by his position; within a year of his defeat, he finally came
out against it. Kerry may very likely be harboring similar doubts about the
war in Iraq, particularly given his Vietnam experience. Perhaps that's why I
along with many others, I think feel the same kind of bitterness
and anger toward Kerry that I did as a young teenager toward Humphrey, thinking:
"Why the hell doesn't he just admit he was wrong and come out against the
As in 1968, the idea of Republican victory is really scary. Still, anger at
the betrayal by this erstwhile liberal who, like Humphrey, successfully
fought back popular antiwar challengers in the primaries for supporting
the war has led large numbers of rank-and-file Democrats to declare their refusal
to back their party's nominee.
There are some important differences between th 2004 and 1968 presidential
election campaigns, however:
The Democrats were then the incumbent party responsible for getting us into
Vietnam and were largely blamed for the quagmire. Despite the fact that, once
again, the two major parties lack any significant differences regarding the
ongoing conflict, Republicans are more likely to suffer the consequences. In
1968, Nixon offered a (now known to be fabricated) "secret plan" to
end the war, siphoning off some antiwar votes from the Democrats. Despite Kerry's
pro-war position, Bush will not get the votes of many antiwar liberals, though
antiwar conservatives who might have been willing to vote Democratic
if the Democrats had opted for an antiwar nominee will likely stick with
There is no equivalent to George Wallace, the right-wing populist governor
of Alabama who ran as an independent that year and won five southern states.
(Today's Republican Party has fully integrated that far-right faction of American
politics into their ranks, including the party's Congressional leadership.)
This time, the strongest challenge to the two major parties comes from the left
in Ralph Nader's independent bid, which while not nearly as strong as
Wallace's challenge on the right thirty-four years ago could still make
a difference in the election's outcome.
Vocal and visible antiwar demonstrators dogged Humphrey and his running mate
Edmund Muskie at virtually every campaign appearance, reminding voters across
the country of the Democratic nominees' unpopular pro-war stance. By contrast,
antiwar protesters have been much less visible at events featuring Kerry and
his running mate John Edwards.
In many ways, though, it is even harder for antiwar activists to support Kerry
in 2004 than it was to support Humphrey in 1968:
Under Humphrey's leadership, the 1968 Democratic Party convention allowed for
a platform challenge by antiwar elements of the party, including a vigorous
nationally-televised debate on the Vietnam War. Under Kerry's leadership this
year, however, no such public debate was allowed, raising concerns as to whether
Kerry as president would be willing to listen to anyone outside of the pro-war
wing of the party in formulating his foreign policy.
Humphrey was a strong believer in the United Nations and international law.
While his support for the Vietnam War forced him to stretch the notion of collective
security to an almost unrecognizable form, it is hard to imagine that he would
have ever supported as did Kerry such a flagrant violation of the
UN Charter as the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In terms of other U.S. Middle East policy issues, Humphrey was a passionate
supporter of Israel, but this was at a time when the moderate Labor Alignment
was in power and the PLO and Arab states were still on record calling for Israel's
destruction. He supported the then-prevailing consensus that, in return for
security guarantees from its Arab neighbors, Israel should withdraw from territories
seized in the 1967 war. Kerry, on the other hand, is an outspoken supporter
of the rightist Likud Bloc and has defended their rejection of Arab peace overtures
as well as their expansionist agenda of colonizing and annexing much of the
Still, the stakes this election year are a lot a higher:
In terms of his knowledge, intelligence, experience, aptitude, and more, Kerry
is probably more qualified to become president of the United States than any
major party nominee in decades. By contrast, despite nearly four years of on-the-job
experience, George W. Bush may be the least qualified major party presidential
nominee in modern history.
In terms of the politics, Bush and Dick Cheney make Richard Nixon and Spiro
Agnew look like flaming liberals (and I'm not convinced that they are any
less corrupt, either).
And, perhaps most importantly, the consequences of a failed U.S. policy in
the Middle East are much greater. While U.S. policy in Southeast Asia was responsible
for enormous human suffering, the costs of that failed policy to the United
States despite the loss of over 50,000 soldiers, the drain on the economy,
and the enormous divisions in the body politic that are yet to heal were
relatively small by comparison. The costs of a failed U.S. policy in the Middle
East, however, are much greater.
Indeed, it is important to remember that, despite all the heinous crimes the
United States committed against the people of Vietnam, the Vietnamese never
flew airplanes into buildings.