In the first installment of this series, I lamented the nonexistence of a strong anti-war movement in the United States despite the need for one being greater than ever. The amount of destruction abroad that continues to murder civilians and foster resentment towards American imperialism rises with each new presidential administration, yet much of the American electorate remains silent. What little noise does surface comes from fledgling organizations formed within the past year such as 2016 Green Party Vice Presidential nominee Ajamu Baraka’s Black Alliance for Peace. The larger efforts historically stem from the libertarian wing of the populace than anywhere else, giving libertarians a step above progressives in being progressive.
But if there is anything I despise more as a political writer and broadcaster than a systematic problem going unaddressed, it is the swarm of people all too eager to point out these problems and spout all the answers while providing none of the solutions. I will not be one of them. In this piece, I’d like to reflect on the roots of past anti-war efforts and explore how the same driving forces behind them could be revived or replicated for today’s American left.
Two primary examples come to mind when considering mass resistance to American imperialism in modern history: the Vietnam War and the Second Gulf War AKA the Iraq War. These two periods of anti-war protest differed in multiple ways, and those differences shaped how the American people interacted with their government in challenging United States imperialism. Some of these differences were more influential than others in determining how those interactions took place, but the media world serves as the connection between all of them. Analyzing how media outlets large and small handled war propaganda, and the citizens’ collective response to such presentations, offers crucial insight into how the anti-war resistance rose in response to each armed conflict.
Of the two wars listed above, the Vietnam War carries the more infamous legacy among the majority of Americans. The resistance to the invasion of Vietnam has been well-documented in the decades since the war’s conclusion, and many events associated with that resistance stand out as some of the most famous moments in American history. The Mahayana Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest of the treatment of Buddhists by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government; champion boxer Muhammad Ali being stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to enlist because “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger”; the eruption of college campus protests organized by such student groups as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention in which journalist Dan Rather’s skull was almost cracked open by security personnel. These events and more are as familiar to Americans as the flag raising at Iwo Jima or Washington crossing the Delaware.
How did those events come to be so significant? Through a media machine that served as an unauthorized fourth branch of government enlisted by the citizenry to keep the other three branches in check. Like most progressive movements, the initial waves of protests against the war stayed relegated to smaller gatherings facilitated by organizations like SDS. The availability of information contradicting the government’s claims of success and the willingness of large media figures to spread such information enabled that fervor to grow into a movement of national strength and scale. Information and images contrasting with official government accounts began leaking like a broken nose, and the average American’s trust in their beloved government began to falter on a national scale for the first time in modern American history. It culminated with the famous 1968 CBS broadcast when Walter Cronkite, hailed as “the most trusted man in America” at the height of his career, reported on national television that the generals he met with in Vietnam were no longer confident in a victory. The sentiment that the entire war effort was fruitless graduated from the independent media circuits to mainstream television in that crucial moment. The resulting shockwave through the nation was so fierce that the federal government’s counterpunches were powerless to stop it. It destroyed President Lyndon Johnson’s standing among the American people and he abdicated the presidency in 1968 on the certainty that the voters would rather elect a jar of mustard.
Understanding the power of the media to shatter the federal government’s wall of propaganda and reverse public sentiment in less than five years involves examining the various entities’ experience with the concept of mass media itself. Television as a widespread staple of American homes on the national level had barely reached its tenth birthday in the middle of the 1960s. Prior television availability consisted of regional stations that had nowhere near a national broadcast reach, and the 6,000 or so homes that owned a tube watched programs based on the preceding network radio format. This meant less emphasis on spectacle and more on simple information delivery. News anchors were shoved on screen to sound like Steven Wright afflicted with crippling depression before departing in favor of audio-based programming reminiscent of the prime radio programs of the 1940s. Investment in television as a major medium of communication by media giants like NBC and CBS in the early 1950s grew the Tube faster than staph on an unwashed wrestling mat, and half of all U.S. homes owned televisions by 1955.
New inventions that reach the scale and influence of television in such a short amount of time are difficult for governments to control. Predecessors to the Johnson Administration had been given the time and experience necessary to control radio narratives detailing World War II and the Korean War. Independent radio circuits existed at those times, but their meager reach could not even wrinkle the skeleton of the national radio behemoth tethered to the U.S. government’s lifeline. Television offered a communication medium independent of government influence in most respects, and the unprecedented rapidity of its growth did not allow sufficient time to implement the same controls placed on the radio industry. Thus, by the time the Vietnam War was in full power mode and dissenting information began to be released, a Johnson Administration inexperienced with this new medium stood no chance of stopping the momentum. It lacked the time and resources necessary to consolidate the young and ambitious television networks in such a way that it could shape the narrative before Americans’ eyes the way it had done with radio in the decades prior.
This principle helps explain why conquering the propaganda around 9/11 and the resulting invasion of Iraq many years later would be more of a challenge for the next generation of anti-war progressives. Thirty years passed between the end of the Vietnam War and the second Gulf invasion. This provided the time and proficiency necessary for the federal government to establish the media control it lacked in the Vietnam years. Several pieces of legislation consolidated media outlets into a smaller group of owners and removed regulations on ownership in any given political unit. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 stands as the most blatant example. The law destroyed any barriers to merging that existed, allowing larger companies to buy out smaller competition faster than a Conor McGregor knockout. Prior to the Telecom Act, merging between media conglomerates could only take place under specific circumstances, and companies could only own one media outlet per municipality even if a merge took place. Newspapers, radio, magazines, and television all began to fall under a shrinking roster of owners as the competition the bill (allegedly) sought to create evaporated overnight.
The Vietnam War machine had little experience controlling widespread media dissemination, and they needed to navigate a climate without the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that consolidated power among media conglomerates down to a handful of entities. The Iraq War machine, by contrast, juiced itself to the gills on deregulation of information spread and was much better-equipped to handle the attacks from the fourth branch. The reliable watch dog of the establishment had been through a thirty-year training camp to become that same establishment’s armored attack dog.
But even that wasn’t enough. Even in the face of this new and improved propaganda machine, Americans still brought the giant down and recognized the invasion of Iraq as the colossal failure it was. It only took two years for the Iraq War to become a contentious election issue that no politician wanted any attachment to. George W. Bush’s legacy became tainted in the same way Lyndon Johnson’s had in the 1960s. How did Goliath fall a second time, even with the years of preparation and power consolidation?
Turns out Goliath wasn’t the only beast pounding horse meat and whey protein all those years.
Think back to Walter Cronkite being named America’s most trusted man at the peak of his career in the Vietnam years. Who on American television qualifies for such a title today? On a more fundamental level, who qualifies to even be compared to somebody like Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow in 21st century American media, or late-20th century American media for that matter? This is somebody accepted as a reliable source by an overwhelming majority of news consumers regardless of political affiliation and who carries a flawless record of fact-checking.
Can’t think of one? Neither can I, nor can most of us in the world of professional journalism.
Thirty years is a long time for groundbreaking domestic events to take place, and many such events in that wide period of American history eroded confidence in the government to a level below Satan’s wine cellar. Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal serves as the most potent example as Americans learned their government was capable of committing profound deceit to tamper with the election process, something as sacred to the principles of the U.S. as ammosexuality and apple pie. Many Americans may have suspected this prior to the events of the 1972 election, but few were ready to admit it even to themselves. Trust in the government shattered and has never recovered in the decades since.
Paralleling the government’s fall from grace was rising skepticism among Americans concerning the news media, the same media that instigated the outrage over Vietnam. Consolidation of media outlets and the companies owning them blurred the messages across networks together. The rise of figures like Roger Ailes fanned the flames of political extremism by promoting antagonistic rhetoric around the clock on a level never before seen in the country. This new breed of programming sought not just to convince you your side was correct, but that all dissenting voices were inherently evil and must be destroyed. The aforementioned consolidation of media outlets thanks to Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 threw ownership of 90% of all types of American media outlets to a total of six companies, and more possible mergers such as one proposed between CBS and CNN threaten to reduce this number further every year.
These changes did not escape the notice of American news consumers. Us Americans may not always identify the right issues to expend our energy combating, but we can still identify a turd in a chocolate box if given enough cues. By the dawn of the 21st century, most of the country chose to avoid large media networks out of cynical skepticism that what they were watching was pure advertising. The rise of the Internet as the next generation of information delivery also contributed to this phenomenon as people began to abandon desires for objectivity in favor of what financial journalist Matt Taibbi termed “information shopping” or the deliberate seeking out of narratives to confirm one’s own viewpoints above all else. This mass skepticism of the media’s truth-telling capabilities caused the Iraq War media machine to crumble after only being active for two or three years. The government spent thirty years building a mechanized world champion kickboxer only to discover the opponent across the ring brought an EMP grenade.
People began noticing the widespread contradictions in the government’s narrative on the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq and the progress being made in the campaign. One minute our intelligence agencies had identified the terrorist cell harboring Osama Bin Laden, next minute they didn’t know where he was. One day we had taken Baghdad, next day we were still fighting to secure the city. Dick Cheney’s former ties to oil giant Haliburton became known but were never reported by mainstream news networks. The mythical Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that dominated pre-invasion coverage never surfaced despite the government’s continued insistence that they existed. The 9/11 hijackers were confirmed to originate from Saudi Arabia, yet few reporters or journalists on any major network used this information to ask why we had invaded the wrong country. Those few that did were booted out the door without a second thought.
By 2003, the weight of these conflicting stories crushed the government’s credibility in legitimizing the Iraq invasion, and the media machine they relied on to distract from these inconsistencies had lost its influence over the American public long before any 9/11 truther could scream about jet fuel and steel beams. Two years was all it took for Americans to shake off the double vision caused by one of the greatest tragedies in the country’s history.
The original question I set out to answer here concerned what is missing from the American left today to replicate these successful anti-war efforts. Why has it taken so long to pressure our government into pulling out of Afghanistan after almost two decades of occupation? Why are so many on the left supporting the war in Syria despite multiple United Nations investigations concluding that no chemical weapons have ever been used by the Assad regime? Why are supposedly “progressive” Democrats in Congress calling for armed conflict with Russia and Iran with no electoral consequences from their voter bases? Why is being pro-war still an acceptable position not met with genuine questions about that candidate’s sanity?
In examining the above history of the respective Vietnam and Iraq War protests, a common trait among the resistance emerges: skepticism. The Vietnam era taught Americans how to question the government through the rebellion of the fourth branch: an active and independent media circuit concerned first and foremost with bringing the truth to every home. The Iraq War propaganda campaign morphed this circuit into a monstrosity spewing misinformation around the clock, but it was brought down by organic skepticism of both the government and the media fostered by decades of scandal and media consolidation. For better or worse, Americans became conditioned to question everything, even if what they were questioning did not need to be questioned.
The American left has lost its ability to be skeptical. Instead of calling for investigations of chemical attacks in Syria, media figures associated with mainstream leftist politics applaud the Trump administration’s reckless abandonment in handling sensitive armed conflicts. Instead of calling on media outlets to scrutinize government narratives and ensure the truth is being told, viewers offer no reaction when anchors and reporters thoughtlessly regurgitate the statements of intelligence agencies and military spokesmen. Publications once heralded for their unshakable journalistic integrity like the Washington Post and New York Times continue to insist Russian agencies hacked the French presidential election even though French President Emmanuel Macron himself claimed no such interference occurred months ago. An increasing number of states are coming forward with evidence their voting systems were not hacked despite the government’s cries of hysteria. Basic levels of quality investigative journalism would have prevented these instances misreporting, but the skepticism and calls for accountability needed to punish these outlets for their blatant dishonesty is nowhere to be found.
This lack of pressure from the left wing could have originated from President Trump’s open wars with the media and intelligence agencies alike. His avid usage of terms like “fake news” and “the deep state” inadvertently forged an unholy alliance between these inherently conservative institutions and the American left who would rather be shot in the head than be seen in alignment with Trump on a single issue. Trump’s assault on the media may be immoral and dangerous in the context of maintaining a free and fair press, but his antagonism does not render these institutions trustworthy nor should the left regard them as worthy allies. The CIA and FBI are not our friends and never have been. These agencies harbor a long and racist history of stamping out dissent through means up to and including blatant murder. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The Washington Post, and other corporate media outlets are not reliable sources of information given their connection to big money interests, and choosing to ignore those conflicts of interest to appear cleansed of anything Trump-related is a grave miscalculation.
We on the American left must rehabilitate our ability to be skeptical and recognize that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Trump is despicable in almost every possible way, but his charges against corporate media and the evil deeds of American intelligence agencies at home and abroad carry varying levels of truth to them. Restoring our ability to recognize this distinction and translate it into informed action would reignite the anti-war left, and the refined presence of the Internet and mass media sharing could amplify the effectiveness of such efforts to a level even the Iraq War resistance could not have achieved. My suggestion is to seek out the independent media outlets that continue to tell the truth on a matter of principle. Empowerment of these sources and wider sharing of the truths they provide are what can turn smaller anti-war organizations like Ajamu Baraka’s Black Alliance for Peace into the megaforces needed to make being pro-war an unacceptable position among elected officials and media figures alike.
Students for a Democratic Society is now the oldest and largest student organization in the country and it had its roots in anti-war activism. Through the power of media and critical thinking on the part of the electorate, we can create another generation of such groups and leaders. We at Ungagged are up to the task. Come join us and be a part of revolutionary history.