For an anti-war activist of the Vietnam era, the current search for a political strategy for ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq brings to mind the very similar problems facing the movement to end the Vietnam War in 1968-69. In fact, a review of the strategy that the anti-war movement pursued at that juncture of the Vietnam War helps clarify the choices before the present movement and their likely consequences. It should serve as a warning against ignoring the possibility of embracing the negotiation of a compromise peace agreement with those resisting the U.S. occupation as an anti-war strategy.

The political dynamics surrounding the occupation of Iraq are strikingly similar to those surrounding the comparable phase of the Vietnam War. As in Vietnam in early 1968, the U.S. war in Iraq suffered a serious setback last year, and most Americans concluded that the intervention had been a mistake. In fact, public opinion has soured on the current occupation even faster than it did for the occupation of South Vietnam. It was in August 1967, slightly more than two years after the first major U.S. troop commitment to Vietnam, when a majority of U.S. citizens expressed the belief that it had been a mistake to go to war in Vietnam. In the case of Iraq, a majority of Americans concluded that it was not worth fighting a war over Iraq as early as May 2004, a little more than a year after the invasion.

Opponents of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq are struggling to find a way to translate widespread disillusionment with war into effective political pressure on the administration to withdraw, just as was the case in Vietnam in the late 1960s. The dominant influence of the ideologically driven right wing in the Republican Party, the Republican control of Congress, a divide within the Democratic party, and the influence of conservative media present formidable obstacles to a campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. A different set of obstacles, including a significant fraction of the population who wanted to escalate the war further and a majority that was viscerally opposed to anti-war demonstrations, stood in the way of effective pressures on Nixon to get out of Vietnam.

The strategy adopted by the Vietnam anti-war movement in the late 1960s was to demand unilateral withdrawal and to mount mass demonstrations to demonstrate public opposition to the war. In retrospect that approach can be seen as a strategic error that allowed the Nixon administration to prolong the war for four more years. The error lay in the failure to focus on developing a proposal for the negotiated withdrawal of U.S. troops under a peace settlement at a time when it could have been an effective form of pressure on Nixon.

Advancing such a plan for peace negotiations now would avoid a battle over unilateral withdrawal that the anti-war forces are unlikely to win. Instead, it would outmaneuver the administration, making it far more difficult for it to justify the occupation. Such a plan would avoid the administration’s political strengths while taking fullest advantage of the political strengths of the anti-war forces.

A Look Backwards

A review of the strategy of the anti-war movement in Vietnam during 1968-69 underlines the fateful importance of the missing policy alternative of negotiating a compromise peace. In the aftermath of the Tet offensive of early 1968, anti-war forces focused entirely on getting an anti-war candidate nominated for president rather than on crafting a legislative alternative to administration policy. But when Hubert Humphrey emerged as the Democratic candidate that summer, there was no clear, credible proposal for peace negotiations around which Congress and the public–or candidate Humphrey himself–could rally. That fact certainly contributed to Richard Nixon’s election in November 1968.

That same political dynamic was evident during the 2004 campaign, which was held in the shadow of the shocking success of the Iraqi insurgents in several cities in April. John Kerry could not point to a policy alternative that had been introduced by credible political figures nor did he develop one himself. And again that missing piece almost certainly contributed to the reelection of George W. Bush.

In the wake of Nixon’s election, anti-war forces spent an entire year preparing for and carrying out the massive national demonstrations against the war–the “Vietnam Moratorium” of October and November 1969. Although those demonstrations showed the breadth of the anti-war movement, they were not coordinated with a well-thought-out legislative strategy that could result in serous pressure on the administration. The opportunity to maneuver Nixon into negotiating a compromise peace agreement in 1969 rather than 1972-73 was lost.

It was only in 1970–five years after the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam–that the anti-war movement seriously pursued a legislative strategy, and it remained focused on a timetable for unilateral withdrawal, not on demanding a compromise political settlement. By then, Nixon had been able to reduce the urgency of the issue of withdrawal by undertaking his own unilateral withdrawal. Congressional support for a timetable for complete withdrawal always fell short of a majority. The McGovern-Hatfield amendment of September 1970, which set a date of the end of 1971 for complete withdrawal, failed 55-39. In June 1971, the same legislation lost by a 55-42 vote.

Although it was inevitable that the U.S. occupation of Vietnam would be ended by a negotiated settlement rather than by a complete victory for one side or the other, peace negotiations did not play a significant role in the anti-war position from 1968 through 1970. Not until George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign did a proposal for negotiations emerge as a serious alternative to Nixon’s diplomatic position.

The idea that putting enough people in the street would provide the political muscle to face down the Nixon administration was mistaken. Nixon was able to rebuild public support to prolong the war in part by exploiting public resentment felt by more than half the population–including many who were not pro-war–toward the mass protests. And the war continued for another four years.

A Negotiated Settlement for Iraq

The occupation of Iraq is also likely to end in a negotiated settlement of some kind. The only question is when and how. Defining the terms of a negotiated settlement under which U.S. and other coalition forces would withdraw completely from Iraq–including all U.S. military bases–should actually be easier than it was in the case of Vietnam. The leaders of the Iraqi insurgents are not claiming to represent an alternative government in Iraq, as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. If they are fighting for the withdrawal of foreign troops as they claim, a surrender-for-withdrawal agreement is feasible and in everyone’s interest.

The main reason for the neglect of the negotiating option up to now has been the general belief that the insurgency is led by hardcore Saddam loyalists and foreign terrorists, which has prevailed in the media and politics. But the evidence now available suggests that most insurgent leaders, many of whom are too young to have been close to Saddam, would be willing to surrender in return for immediate and total U.S. withdrawal and major concessions to Sunnis in the new political order. A major incentive for them to agree to such terms is that they would be honored by the population of the Sunni triangle for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The Sunni insurgents coordinate their efforts in a broad sense and were united under a single group of leaders in Fallujah when they controlled that city last year, but they operate without a single command structure. This is not an insurmountable obstacle to peace negotiations, however. If the opportunity to negotiate the withdrawal of U.S. and other occupation forces were presented to them, they could find a way to consult on a common negotiating position. Sunni leaders with legal status but ties to the insurgents–most likely the leaders of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which represents thousands of mosques throughout the Sunni triangle–could represent their position in such negotiations. They would negotiate simultaneously with U.S. officials on a military settlement and with Iraqi government representatives on a set of political arrangements aimed at reassuring the now unrepresented Sunnis that their political interests will be protected in the new political system.

A negotiated settlement need not have the participation of every nationalist group to serve the interests of peace. The foreign terrorists in Iraq aligned with al-Qaida are certainly not going to be part of any peace settlement, but relations between the nationalist resistance leaders and their followers, on one hand, and the foreign terrorists who bomb Shiite mosques and behead foreigners, on the other, quickly became very tense last year. It seems likely that most of those in the resistance would be unwilling to tolerate the presence of foreign jihadists in the country once the American troops have departed. Turning those nationalist against their erstwhile foreign allies through a peace settlement, therefore, is the surest way to end the recruitment and training program of the terrorists in Iraq.

Some leaders of nationalist insurgent organizations might well hold back from such an agreement as well. But if the bulk of the resistance leaders were to participate, and the agreement resulted in the visible pullout of American troops from one or two Sunni strongholds and their immediate departure from Iraq, it would profoundly change the political context in which the remaining insurgents would have to operate in the Sunni triangle. Support for and cooperation with the military activities of holdouts on the part of Sunni public could be expected to diminish dramatically. U.S. withdrawal and the prospect of peace would put more effective pressure on what remains of the armed resistance than all the counterinsurgency offensives of the United States of the past two years.

A Plan for the Peace Movement

By putting on the table a proposal for a negotiated peace settlement under which most of the resistance organizations would surrender and the foreign jihadists and other holdouts would be isolated, anti-war forces would gain a tremendous political advantage over the Bush administration in Congress and public opinion. It would put the administration on the defensive and pave the way for a political campaign to ask Congress for a resolution calling for such a negotiated withdrawal.

Today opponents of the occupation have far greater capabilities for mounting an effective campaign for a negotiated settlement than those available to the Vietnam era anti-war movement. Once the anti-Vietnam war movement turned to a legislative campaign in the early 1970s, it was relatively difficult to mobilize large numbers of activists to participate. No anti-war organization existed with truly broad reach in the society. Sandy Gottlieb, who organized a lobbying effort on behalf of anti-war legislation for SANE, recently recalled that the only way to find large numbers of activists for such a campaign was to go to college campuses.

Now, however, the Internet and the new mass political organizations that have harnessed its potential (e.g., Move-on and the followers of Howard Dean) make it possible to have timely two-way communications with millions of activists. Moreover, a much larger proportion of the population today is knowledgeable and thinks critically about the issue of occupation and war than had a similar level of sophistication in the late 1960s. Much more information and analysis about the negative consequences of the U.S. occupation of Iraq now reaches the attentive public through websites and blogs than reached the public from 1968 to 1970.

It may be argued that a mass movement calling for setting a certain date for unilateral withdrawal could just as easily take advantage of these capabilities as one calling for peace negotiations. But a legislative strategy for withdrawal from Iraq cannot succeed without Republican support. A proposal for a negotiated peace settlement has the potential to win over a critical number of Republicans, whereas the demand for unilateral withdrawal cannot.

More important, however, mounting a campaign for a negotiated settlement could heal the breach in the anti-war ranks between those who want to fight over unilateral withdrawal and those who reject that demand. That deep division now represents a serious obstacle to the mobilization of a broad popular movement against the U.S. occupation, without which political pressure through Congress for U.S. withdrawal cannot be achieved.

Failing to take advantage of the opportunity for a peace settlement that removes U.S. troops is likely to result in a much longer occupation than is necessary. This is the lesson of the Vietnam experience for today’s movement against the occupation of Iraq. Anti-war activists can ignore that lesson only at the peril of their mission.

Gareth Porter was codirector of the Indochina Resource Center, an anti-war lobbying organization in Washington, DC, from 1974 to 1976. He has written about negotiated settlements of wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines and is the author of Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, forthcoming from University of California Press.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.