Moratorium Day in Washington 1969

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 15, 1969, hundreds of thousands of Americans — students, workers, veterans, activists — gathered on the National Mall to call for an end to the Vietnam War.

Fifty years ago this week, some of the largest anti-war protests in history took place in Washington and across the United States. Organized by young activists who had cut their teeth in the anti-war campaigns of 1968 Democratic presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam took the movement back into the streets, where millions of students, workers, veterans and activists of all backgrounds and ages joined a massive call to bring the troops home.

The moratorium was everywhere, from the smallest towns in Wisconsin to New York City. In Madison, after a rally on the UW campus, veterans led a huge crowd — estimates ranged from 15,000 to 25,000 — on an epic march to the state Capitol. In Washington, a quarter million Americans joined in a candlelight march from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House. They were led by Coretta Scott King, who hailed the nonviolent protests as a continuation of the campaigning of her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for an end to the war that had diverted so much energy and so many resources from the struggle for economic and social justice at home.

The exact anniversary of the Oct. 15, 1969, moratorium came on the same day as the fourth round of this year's Democratic presidential debates. This is a different Democratic Party than the one that rejected its anti-war contenders in 1968. But it is still a party that struggles to define itself when it comes to questions of war and peace, interventions abroad and bloated military budgets.

That process of definition needs to be a focus going forward. Instead of anecdotal discussions that touch on a past vote or the latest crisis created by President Trump, Democrats need to have a full and robust debate on these issues.

I have argued before and will keep arguing that the first tightly focused debate for the Democrats should be on the climate crisis. It is absurd for these candidates to refer to climate change as the existential crisis of our time and, yet, to hold debates in which it is discussed for a few minutes on the way to another review of where the candidates stand on the issues they have already discussed.

The climate debate deserves its own night because it is about the future of the planet. And the war-and-peace debate deserves its own night for the same reason.

Anyone who doubts this should pause and consider the complex questions that have arisen since President Trump pulled back U.S. troops in northern Syria and gave Turkey the green light to attack the Kurds. Should the U.S. have had troops in Syria in the first place? Why were those troops dispatched to Syria without a formal congressional debate and declaration of war? And what responsibility does a president have, once troops have been sent into a conflict zone, and once alliances have been formed, to end the deployment thoughtfully and ethically?

Now, multiply those questions out to cover all the regions of the world to which U.S. troops have been deployed. And start asking about all the expenses — human, diplomatic and economic — that go with those deployments.

It is clear that there are more than enough topics for what is much more than a single-issue debate. It would pin down former Vice President Joe Biden, whose vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq is just one of the issues he needs to address more thoroughly. And it would give candidates who have thought the issues through a chance to shine. I’ve talked with a number of the contenders about war-and-peace issues and, frankly, I’ve been impressed. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is right when he says, “We need to rethink the militaristic approach that has undermined the United States’ moral authority, caused allies to question our ability to lead, drained our tax coffers, and corroded our own democracy.”

So, too, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a lot of sense in September, when she told the Council on Foreign Relations, “Our repeated mistake has been to ignore the relationship between a strong and vibrant America and our effectiveness at advancing our interests abroad. By treating foreign policy as separate from domestic policy, we have repeatedly misspent our strength overseas while leaving vital needs at home unattended. We have the world’s largest economy, but have failed to pursue foreign policies that prioritize American workers. We have the world’s strongest military, but we fight too many wars.”

Tulsi Gabbard has pulled no punches with her declaration: “Our leaders have failed us — wasting trillions of dollars and countless lives in regime change wars and new cold war, bringing us ever closer to nuclear annihilation. As president, I will end this insanity.” And when I interviewed Beto O’Rourke, I was struck by his deep understanding of the blowback the U.S. has suffered from past interventions in Iran, Guatemala, El Salvador, Iraq and other countries. He got to the heart of the matter when he said: “Tell me that any of those wars or covert actions or interventions have made those countries, the world, or our foreign-policy prospects any better. They haven’t.”

A lot of the signals that are being sent are good. But it is one thing to present a position paper or answer a few questions from an interviewer. It is something else to debate the issues, to identify differences between the contenders and to see how comfortable the candidates are with these issues.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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