Social Movements Between Woodstock and the Web

In the coming year, we will see a deluge of observances of the 40th anniversary of 1968. TV specials, T-shirts, conferences, websites, and reunions will mark this defining moment in U.S. history. I certainly respect the movement activists who fought for a better world in the 1960s and we still have much to learn from them. But I am also troubled that successful social movements are being situated only in a decade that is (for young people) in the distant past. 

I was only six years old in 1968, and came into activism in the early 1980s. Today I’m teaching in a relatively progressive college, watching a new generation of antiwar and social justice activists come of age. Many of the students are learning about the 1960s and early 1970s and are finding plenty of resources about Vietnam, civil rights, women’s liberation, and other movements. 

Recently, I’ve gotten some questions about the surge of activism that took place in the 1980s. Students want to know more about Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal. But there is a “black hole” in the public memory after Woodstock and before the Internet. The late 1970s and the 1980s were not as cool as the 1960s, and not as digitized as the 1990s. True, we didn’t invent tie- dye, but we did have punk Mohawks. We didn’t give Hendrix or the Dead to the world, but we did have the Clash and Grandmaster Flash. We can compare Papa Bush to Baby Bush or Cheney, Gates, and Rumsfeld to …Cheney, Gates and Rumsfeld. And we can tell you how much Mitt Rom -ney reminds us of Max Headroom. 

The implicit message of much of the 1968 nostalgia is that the world needs a massive political mobilization and countercultural revolution in order to create any real social change. Pundits are, for example, constantly comparing the current movement against the Iraq War to the much larger movement against the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, movements were definitely smaller, less vibrant, and the mood was more conservative and apathetic. In other words, the 1980s were more like today. Nevertheless, the 1980s movements had some notable successes that can provide some positive inspiration. Activists were able to persevere against great odds and win victories (or partial victories) that remain relevant in the 2000s. Several examples come to mind. 

Successes of the 1980s 

Anti-apartheid. The African American community joined with student groups to form a powerful movement to end government and corporate collusion with the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the mid-1980s, they held rallies and sit-ins to pressure campuses and city councils to divest from companies doing business on the backs of black South Africans. By kicking out the U.S. buttress supporting apartheid, they can claim part of the credit for the final collapse of the white dictatorship and the 1994 election that brought the African National Congress  to power. 

Central America solidarity. The peace movement opposed U.S. support for the right-wing death squad regime in El Salvador fighting leftist FMLN rebels. It also opposed aid to the right-wing Contra rebels fighting the Sandinista revolutionary government in Nicaragua. The powerful movement against “another Vietnam” won a congressional cut-off of aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, forcing the Reagan administration to use surreptitious means to fund the rebels. Through the Witness and Sanctuary programs, the solidarity movement gave a human face to Central American refugees. It did not prevent the invasions that toppled nationalist governments in Grenada and Panama, but it did help to prevent full-scale U.S. invasions of Nicaragua and El Salvador. 

Nuclear freeze. When medium-range missiles were stationed in Europe by the Carter administration, an enormous global movement erupted against the growing threat of nuclear war. The widespread sentiment later pressured President Reagan to make an agreement with Soviet leaders to slowly withdraw the Euromissiles. The European movement against the nuclear arms race fueled the growth of Green parties opposing corporate globalization—long before the anti- globalization movement was popular.

Anti-nuke. The nuclear power plant accidents at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl galvanized horror and opposition to civilian nuclear energy. Huge rallies, concerts, and local site occupations effectively halted construction of new atomic reactors and uranium mines in the U.S. (though construction continued in some other countries). Reviewing the anti-nuke literature of that era can remind us that more radioactive waste would not be a solution to global warming. 

ACT UP. In the early stages of the HIV epidemic, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) began to use creative direct actions to create public awareness, using the slogan “Silence=Death.” The activism was obviously unsuccessful in halting the epidemic, but after Reagan it helped direct some government resources toward medical research and may have alleviated the homophobic ostracism that patients received. ACT UP became the most visible example of the larger LGBT movement (remaining active to the present) and sparked more organizing in the community. 

Clinic defense. When the fundamentalists of Operation Rescue harassed, blocked, and sometimes attacked women entering abortion clinics, feminists rallied to escort the women. The pro-choice movement successfully defended many women’s rights to a safe and legal abortion, though many poor, rural, and young women effectively lost access to that right. 

Why Study the 1980s? 

Whether it was pro-choice, ACT UP, Witness, Sanctuary, anti-nuke, or divestment, the 1980s movements did not rely on lobbying or presidential elections to pressure for change, but took direct action on a grassroots level. Before the Inter- net, we had to organize through mailings, phone trees, and something called face-to-face contact (not to be confused with Facebook). By relying on listserves and online petitions, we sometimes forget the powerful combination of personal organizing and direct action. 

When an historical era is ignored and not accurately taught, the vacuum will inevitably be filled with lies. The late Carter administration activated the doctrine for Middle East interventions, yet today Carter is hailed as peacemaker. The Reagan-Bush administrations rationalized the secrecy and militarism we now see in the Bush-Cheney administration (with some of the same leading figures), yet today Reagan is credited for ending the Cold War. Most of our current crises can be traced to the policies of the 1980s and studying the lessons of that era can help guide decisions we make today. 

Vietnam Syndrome. After the U.S. lost the Vietnam War in 1975, the U.S. public was reluctant to support intervention in another debacle. The Carter and Reagan administrations defined this reluctance as the Vietnam Syndrome and began treating the “disease” with fearmongering, Rambo movies, and a series of interventions against Iran, Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, etc. We can anticipate a healthy “Iraq Syndrome” following the current disastrous war, but should not relax if the U.S. withdraws from Baghdad. For example, there are direct parallels between support for right-wing death squad governments in El Salvador in the 1980s and in Colombia today; and between the destabilization of socialist governments in Nicaragua in the 1980s and in Venezuela today. 

Scare tactics and lies. If you think that the “war on terror” scare tactics are harmful to civil liberties today, you should have seen the anti-Communist hysteria of the late Cold War. Instead of possibly building a single dirty bomb, we were told the “Evil Empire” had thermonuclear missiles aimed at our cities, with both sides on hair-trigger alert. After the Soviets occupied Afghanistan and Iranians ousted the Shah in 1979, the “Carter Doctrine” created the Central Command to defend Middle Eastern oil fields for U.S. corporations. Since anti-communism was not as potent an excuse as it had been earlier in the Cold War, the media and Hollywood resorted to a demonization of Muslims, which proved more effective to psych-up Americans for war.  

Military pressure and democracy. Reagan followed Carter in 1981 with a massive military build-up, which his supporters credit for bringing down the Soviet Union ten years later. Yet media histories largely overlook the movements of Polish Solidarity workers and Soviet “national minorities” who internally cracked the Soviet bloc. People are perfectly capable of overthrowing their own dictators without being undermined by outside military intervention. 

War with Iran. From the moment of the Iranian Revolution and seizure of hostages in the U.S. embassy, Washington has tried to topple the Shi’ite government in Tehran. In the current Iran hysteria, how many Americans realize that the U.S. has already been at war with Iran? In 1987-88 the U.S. Navy actively sided with Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran by escorting tankers carrying Iraqi oil, attacking Iranian oil rigs, sinking Iranian boats, and “accidentally” shooting down an Iranian civilian jetliner. A war with Iran is not a hypothetical possibility, but a continuation of a long-simmering conflict.

Iran-Contra Scandal. Reagan armed both sides in the Iran-Iraq War, providing naval escorts and intelligence for Iraq, while selling missiles to Iran. Colonel Oliver North secretly sold the missiles to Iran to raise funds for the Contra rebels fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Henry Kissinger advised Reagan to “bleed both sides” in the Iran-Iraq War, much like Bush in Iraq today arming both the Shi’ite-led government and Sunni militias. The secrecy of the Reagan years also laid the basis of the PATRIOT Act after 9/11. Some activists saw Reagan’s “shadow government” as a Republican aberration, while others saw it as an inevitable outcome of imperial expansion—much the same debate as we have about Bush and Iraq today. 

Jihadists in Afghanistan. Carter armed the Islamist mujahedin rebels fighting against the pro-Soviet government of Afghanistan, triggering the Soviet invasion in 1979. Carter’s national security chief Zbigniew Brzezinski knew he was drawing the Soviets into their own “Vietnam,” which they lost within a decade. Part of the U.S. aid went to the northern Afghan groups that later controlled and fought over Kabul in 1992-96. But most U.S. aid went to Pashtun jihadist groups supported by the Pakistanis and Saudis who sent in a young engineer named Osama bin Laden. In this way, the U.S. helped lay the groundwork for Taliban rule in 1996 and the jihadist “blowback” in 2001 when bin Laden successfully drew another superpower into the Afghan quagmire. 

Military rule in Pakistan. Much as Reagan backed Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq as a key ally against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Bush has backed Pervez Musharraf as a key ally against the Taliban. But in both cases, undermining democracy in Pakistan has exacerbated the regional crisis. In the 1980s Pakistani intelligence aided the jihadists who would later become al-Qa’ida (though you wouldn’t learn any of this by viewing the film Charlie Wilson’s War). Stop looking for phantom missiles shot at the Pentagon in 2001 and start looking at the real missiles that the Pentagon sent to Afghanistan two decades earlier. 

Failures of 1980s Movements 

Like the 1960s movements, the 1980s movements made some critical mistakes. The peace movement floundered as U.S. interventions targeted Middle Eastern countries where there were few leftist “good guys” like the ANC or FMLN, and even fewer Christian “good guys” like Archbishops Tutu or Romero. As we expressed solidarity for popular revolutions, we didn’t adequately support civilians caught between two “bad guys,” particularly in the 1991 Gulf War. 

We had also hoped that an independent leftist alternative to the superpowers was possible in countries such as Nicaragua and East Germany. Yet their people feared the West’s military power or were drawn to its consumerism, leading to conservative victories in 1990 elections.  It wasn’t until recently that progressives won electoral victories in Latin America and could again criticize capitalism in Eastern Europe. 

Movements in the 1980s had trouble integrating class and anti-imperialist politics with racial/ethnic “identity politics” and the “new social movements” (feminist, LGBT, environmental, cultural, etc.). These different perspectives were temporarily brought together as the “Rainbow Coalition” led by Jesse Jackson, but it did not last long after his 1988 presidential run. Like in the 1960s and today, white straight males held social advantages that prevented the growth of progressive movements. When activists turned to more domestic issues in the early Clinton administration and another upsurge of activism began against WTO globalization in the late Clinton years, these deep-seated problems were carried forward. 

It always helps to have a fuller view of the past, to figure out what to keep and what to discard. It’s time to look in the basement and garage for those old glossies, xeroxed newsletters, and zines and warm up the scanner. Get those stories and images on the web or, better yet, set up websites where people can post their own memories and apply past lessons to the present day. Students can interview 1980s activists and community organizers, and search for documents in library archives to summarize and put on-line. Hold reunions of old activist groups and videotape them to capture the stories and strategies for new generations. 

For those of us who experienced the 1980s, we should study our past in order to renew our own involvement in social change, to keep trying to make the world a better place. And we’d better hurry up to define our own history, before Tom Brokaw produces a special on the “’80s Generation.”  


Zoltan Grossman is a member of the faculty at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and a long-time justice and peace organizer ( Photos by Ellen Shub.