"One of the few things that helps us right now is the public distaste for violent doves . . ."
--From a 1967 letter from National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy to President Johnson
THE WAR WAS GOING BADLY. As the death toll mounted (an average of two dozen soldiers were dying every day) and the president's approval ratings over the war plummeted (to 38 percent), a series of protests across the country demonstrated just how pervasive the anti-war sentiment had become: 35,000 marched on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.; 100,000 showed up in San Francisco; nearly 500,000 protested at the United Nations in New York City.
That was 1967, and conventional wisdom credits anti-war demonstrations with triggering a shift in American strategy in Vietnam. Yet, as these protests became increasingly violent, another reality emerged: As unpopular as the war had become, the activist anti-war movement was reviled even more. Put-off by the viciousness of the anti-war protests--which came to be characterized more by the prevalence of drugs, sex, rioting, bomb-throwing, and a general disregard for authority than by a sincere desire to sow peace--many Americans were alienated by the so-called peace movement.
Opinion polls highlighted the popular sentiment. A 1968 University of Michigan study asked respondents to place personalities and groups on a 100-point scale. Anti-war protestors received a zero from a third of all respondents, and only 16 percent put them anywhere in the top half.
All of which created a paradox. As historian Adam Garfinkle has noted: "at the very time when the war's unpopularity was growing in the country at large, the image of irresponsibility and anti-patriotism conveyed by the anti-war movement muted what might otherwise have been a louder expression of dissatisfaction on the part of both elite and public opinion."
Fast forward 40 years, and the mood in America appears strikingly similar to that of 1967. The president's approval numbers are languishing, and a majority of the public now believes the war was a mistake.
But, once again, ugly aggression by the so-called peace movement may be just the thing to help a struggling president.
Consider these recent events:
* During a January anti-war march in Washington, D.C., left-wing radicals spray-painted the Capitol steps, trashed an Army recruiting office and put a pink tiara on the Statue of the Lone Sailor at the Navy Memorial.
* During a recent protest in Portland, a U.S. soldier was burned in effigy, while other marchers carried signs reading "F**k the Troops," and "No Gods, No Country, No Masters."
* Anti-war extremists recently vandalized the district office of Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers. The vandals spread red paint on a sign that read, "Support our troops," and posted another sign that said, "Rogers--there is blood on your hands."
* Anti-war protestors have also targeted injured U.S. soldiers, protesting in front of Walter Reed Army Medical Center with signs that read "Maimed for a Lie" and "Enlist here to die for Halliburton," while using mock caskets lined up on the sidewalk to represent the death toll in Iraq.
* In March, on the fourth anniversary of the war, 57 anti-war activists were arrested in San Francisco protests. Some blocked noontime traffic by sprawling on the ground to mimic war casualties.
* CODEPINK has held sit-ins from Capitol Hill to California, disrupted congressional hearings and argued publicly with policymakers--even anti-war ones such Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Six anti-war groups recently staged an "occupation" of the Hart Senate Office Building before being arrested.
Forty years ago, the radicalization of the anti-war movement created a backlash, which, some scholars contend, contributed to Richard Nixon's narrow victory in the 1968 presidential election.
Today, it is the height of political irony that the president's most ardent detractors may yet bolster his flagging support.
A hint of a backlash was evident in March when, after news of the January vandalism at the U.S. Capitol hit the media, thousands of fed-up citizens took action, pouring into D.C. from all over the country to protect the monuments and make it clear that the anti-war Left doesn't speak for them. Later, as the anti-war march crossed the Memorial Bridge into Virginia toward Arlington Cemetery--where over 300,000 war heroes from all 12 American wars lie in peace--it was met by a large gathering of vets who unfurled a banner reading, "You dishonor our dead on hallowed ground."
Further rallies to support the troops have been planned. Rolling Thunder, an organization that works on behalf of POW-MIA issues, has organized a rally in Washington D.C. to take place on Memorial Day weekend.
Even more revealing are the opinion polls showing little public support for the extremes of the anti-war Left, which demands nothing short of immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq, cutting off of all funds for the troops, and the impeachment of President Bush.
While much was made of the March Gallup poll which showed that for the first time a majority of Americans (59 percent) says the Iraq war was a mistake, the data also found that 61 percent of Americans opposed denying the funding needed to send additional U.S. troops to Iraq. Another recent Gallup poll found a plurality of Americans (47 percent) still believes the U.S. will definitely or will probably succeed in Iraq, while only 16 percent says it wants the troops brought home immediately.
Clearly, while the country may be suffering a loss of confidence in how the war is being managed, that concern is not translating into an alignment with the activist anti-war crowd, for whom victory is never an option.
In the weeks and months ahead, as the anti-war Left continues to step up public protests of the war (CODEPINK has planned dozens more protests and "occupations"), they may find that the only sparks they create are in the hearts of Americans who long to see dynamic defenders of the home of the brave and the land of the free.
Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.