Student protesters helped drive Lyndon Johnson — in so many ways a powerful, progressive president — out of office because of his war. In 2004, George W. Bush — in so many ways a weak, regressive president — was re-elected despite his war. And the campuses were silent.I've long wondered about this. I was a student on the University of Michigan campus from 1969 to 1973, and I've been here at the University of Wisconsin campus throughout the present era, so I have lots of strong first-hand perceptions. The atmosphere now is completely different. I walk through the main crossroads of campus -- the Library Mall -- nearly every day, and I see virtually no anti-war activity. I see some environmental efforts, as individuals with clipboards ask me if I "have a minute for the environment." (What kind of clod says "no"? You don't have one minute? No!)
There was a brief burst of protest when America first invaded Iraq. But if there is a college movement against the war, it’s hiding pretty well. Vietnam never had the moral clarity that the 9/11 attacks provided to this generation’s war. But in Iraq that proved to be a false clarity, and a majority of Americans now say they oppose the war and no longer trust Mr. Bush’s leadership of it.
By contrast, I saw 20,000 people gather in the Library Mall a few days after 9/11 for a memorial, and 800 people showed up this past weekend to demonstrate against an irrelevant bunch of fools who called themselves Nazis. But efforts to get an in-person anti-war demonstration going around here are amazingly unsuccessful. Here's a wan little display I photographed last November. If there were more things going on, I would photograph them, I assure you. I'm not seeing student speakers in the Mall trying to assemble an audience. Occasionally, some group tries to get something going with sidewalk chalkings and some music on the Mall, but students walk past, going about their own business. I am not seeing the outward expression anger and outrage among the students.
Rosenthal points to polls that indicate indicate that a majority of Americans oppose the war and don't trust Bush, but mere opposition doesn't necessarily translate into the kind of anger and outrage that we felt on campus in the Vietnam days. These polls may express a sad disappointment that things didn't turn out better or simply a statement of belief that we are not winning.
IN THE COMMENTS: As I expected -- it was in the Rosenthal piece too -- many say that the draft made the difference, but a set of multiple causes is developed in the comments.
It's interesting to see how many people think that today's would-be demonstrators are substituting internet activities. (That makes it so easy for people who want to ignore them to ignore them.)
I think a key point is that in the Vietnam era, young people romanticized the enemy and even imagined that its ideology might be an improvement on our bad old materialistic society. Communism seemed to fit with the Age of Aquarius. But Islamofascism is alien to American youth culture. I don't think many kids today are going around thinking: Would it really be so bad if the other side won?
Another good point is that a peace demonstration in the Vietnam era had big social and sexual benefits. It was fun and -- commenters keep saying -- a great place to meet women who had joined the sexual revolution. Going to a peace rally requires more anger and grim determination.