In the last major war involving Americans — Vietnam — the television news seemed to show us as much about antiwar protests as it did the war itself. Estimates suggest as many as 5 million Americans participated in protests back then when students took their antiwar passions to the streets.
While America prepares for war in Iraq, the streets and campuses have been relatively quiet. Does this mean Americans are united behind a war effort? Hardly. Polls indicate that at least one-third of Americans oppose a war, and even more if you count those who believe we should not fight without United Nations support or broader international consensus.
So where are this generation's antiwar protesters? Is the passion gone? Are students too busy? Will the war be fought and won before large-scale protests are even organized?
The truth is that an antiwar movement is developing, but in much different ways than we saw in the 1960s. The crowds are smaller and not necessarily student-led. Recent protests in Washington and San Francisco, for example, drew peaceful crowds that were no more than half college students. On campuses, students are more interested in learning about the war issues through teach-ins than protesting through sit-ins. And much of the action is taking place out of sight, on the Internet.
To put it plainly, this is not your father's antiwar protest. This is a different generation facing a different kind of war from the one their parents fought and protested in Vietnam. To see where the antiwar movement is likely to go this time, consider the important differences between the Baby Boomers protesting Vietnam and their children's view of a possible war in Iraq.
Unlike Vietnam, this war is not personal. With the military draft, and the draft lottery, the prospect of going to war was very real and personal to students of the 1960s. Practically everyone knew a classmate from high school or college who had gone to war and come home to a hospital or a cemetery. Professional armed services lower the risk for today's college students and keep their passions below the boiling point.
War against Iraq is still theoretical, while the Vietnam War was in every living room every night. We forget that the conflict in Vietnam was under way for years before Americans started dying in large numbers and the protests heated up. At this point, students are more interested in policy and intellectual debates about the various diplomatic and military options in Iraq than they are in taking to the streets with action. Don't forget that the only war today's students have experienced — the Gulf war when they were around 10 years old — was largely a technological battle and was over in a matter of days.
This generation of college students is itself quite different from its parents' generation in the 1960s. Today's students are more interested in themselves, their careers, families, and communities than they are larger political issues. Surveys of college freshmen have shown a major decrease in political activism among college students from the 1960s to the present. Their idea of civic engagement is much more oriented around community service than antiwar protest. Many students ask, "What good would an antiwar protest do, anyway?" They feel helpless to influence American military and foreign policy.
In the end, there is no student consensus against a war on Iraq compared with widespread student dissent about the Vietnam war. Most college students agree something needs to be done about Saddam, though there is disagreement about precisely what American policy should be. Unlike Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, President Bush enjoys about as much support among students as he does the nation as a whole. In other words, there is no student counterculture to fuel antiwar protests.
Whatever antiwar movement there is this time also uses different tools. The ubiquitous Internet is at the heart of things, collecting signatures, organizing groups and disseminating information. While protesting on the technology superhighway is less dramatic than taking it to the streets, such an approach better fits this generation, which is both less confrontation in style and less political in nature. Don't look for this generation to develop a counterculture and protest approach. It's not their bag, baby.
David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.