March 27, 1991, Wednesday


LENGTH: 773 words

HEADLINE: Why the Protest Against the Gulf War Fizzled

BYLINE: By Mitchell Stephens. Mitchell Stephens is acting chairman of the department of journalism and mass communication at New York University and author of "A History of News" (Penguin).


WHERE DID ALL the protesters go? That's one of the questions that remains now that the dust raised by the Persian Gulf war has begun to settle.

A major antiwar movement seemed to be mobilizing in the early days of the war. The vote in Congress authorizing the president to use force to expel Iraq from Kuwait was relatively close. And tens of thousands of Americans in Washington and other cities demonstrated their opposition to the war in its first weeks.

But the protests began petering out even before the war ended. Was this because the administration succeeded in convincing most Americans that it was, in fact, a "just war"? One way to answer this question is to examine the fate of previous American antiwar movements.

There have been a lot of them. Active and highly visible dissent accompanied not just Vietnam but every major war fought by the United States, with the exception of World War II after Pearl Harbor (the one time our territory was unambiguously attacked first).

The Revolutionary War, for example, had its inglorious "Tories" - perhaps a third of the population of the colonies. The Civil War had its "copperheads," who staged some of the largest riots in American history.

With perhaps better cause, every Federalist member of Congress voted against the War of 1812. And opponents of the decision to involve the United States in World War I filled Madison Square Garden with their protest meetings.

The intensity of these antiwar movements has always ebbed and flowed with events. The reason dissent faded during the Persian Gulf war becomes clearer when we look at the cause of such variations in the strength of opposition to earlier American wars:

During the Civil War, with Southern armies proving surprisingly formidable, antiwar sentiment in the North was so widespread that President Abraham Lincoln became convinced that he would be "badly beaten" in the 1864 presidential election. The Democratic party platform that year was written by a leading copperhead or "Peace Democrat."

But Lincoln was reelected easily. Support for the war had skyrocketed by the time voters went to the polls. What had happened? The situation on the battlefields had taken a dramatic turn for the better: A Union army had succeeded in taking Atlanta.

The necessity and justice of the Spanish-American War in 1898 had been vociferously debated in the press before the declaration of war was approved (by a margin of only seven votes in the Senate). And after the Spanish were routed, difficulties subduing Filipino insurgents and securing control of one of the spoils of the war almost led to the defeat of the peace treaty with Spain.

But while the fighting with Spain was actually going on, this war was as popular as any in our history. Why? Because it was being quickly and easily won.

U.S. military involvement in Korea began in the spring of 1950 with overwhelming popular support. By January of 1951, however, 49 percent of Americans, according to one survey, believed that sending troops to Korea was a mistake; 66 percent, that we should leave. What had changed? The Chinese had entered the war and American forces began suffering major defeats.

Opposition to the Vietnam War, too, intensified dramatically as the war progressed or, in this case, dragged on. The cause? By the late 1960s, the public began to realize that, despite the impressive body counts and "pacification" programs, the war was not being won - a realization brought on in part by the initial success of the Viet Cong's Tet offensive.

Many base their opposition to wars on principle. Northern abolitionists - including Henry David Thoreau and such Whig members of Congress as Lincoln - saw the Mexican War, which began in 1846, as an "unnecessary and unconstitutional" war of "conquest," designed to add more slave states to the union. The fact that American armies were triumphing did not make this war any more acceptable to them.

Matters of principle also motivated most of the more committed opponents of sending American troops to the trenches of World War I, the hamlets of Vietnam or the oil fields of Kuwait.

However, despite all the debate about "just wars," the bulk of the American people typically seem to base their support or opposition on another consideration: how well a war is going.

The Persian Gulf war went well. The protest movement fizzled.

Our leaders can easily draw the wrong conclusion from this experience. Does it mean that "the Vietnam syndrome" is behind us, that the American people can be counted on to remain united behind future, perhaps less successful, military adventures? It does not.

GRAPHIC: Photo-Mitchell Stephens