Presidents often discount protests, but historians say have an affect

By Bill Lambrecht St. Louis Post-Dispatch (KRT) WASHINGTON _ While Vietnam-era war protests raged outside the White House, Richard M. Nixon watched a college football game and told protest organizers they could send him a letter. Likewise, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that the anti-war protesters would never alter America’s course in Vietnam. He later complained that they were “on the sidelines kicking and crying” while Americans were dying. Presidents back to Franklin Roosevelt have dismissed anti-war protests, much like George W. Bush did in declaring he wouldn’t be swayed by the millions of people around the world who gathered last month to protest a looming American-led invasion of Iraq. Several million people massed to voice criticism of the United States’ policy in the Middle East in 600 cities in 60 countries. Looking back, historians say it’s hard to know if anti-war protests changed foreign policy, even during the turbulent era of the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, they say, Vietnam taught us how long-running social rifts can have a profound effect on society, leading to diminishing respect for authority and fueling anti-establishment sentiment. And even if Nixon and Johnson dismissed demonstrators, historians say that the turmoil in the streets weighed heavily on both. Despite Nixon’s cavalier attitude toward protesters, he ranted about the “bums” in the streets, according to White House tapes from that era made public several years ago. Historians say that the protests played a role in the “paranoia” that Nixon later admitted to, a fear of enemies that would prompt him to set in motion events leading to the Watergate burglaries. Meanwhile, Johnson was so upset at divisiveness in the land that he surprised the nation in 1968 by declaring that he wouldn’t seek another term in office. Observed historian Doug Brinkley, “He was devastated by the sense that Americans had abandoned his presidency. When a man filled with ambition like LBJ walks away from the White House, you realize the impact protests had.” The Iraq situation differs from the Vietnam War in many ways. There is no full-fledged war in Iraq at this point, while the Vietnam conflict was America’s longest, stretching from the early 1960s until its conclusion in the mid 1970s. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked to reporters last week that comparing the present day with the Vietnam era is “a real stretch. Any comparison to that period and that long, long, long conflict with enormous numbers of young people killed is not relevant.” Another key difference between now and then is the public attitude toward war. In Vietnam, it took several years _ until August of 1968 _ for overall public opinion to turn against the war. Bush continues to enjoy backing from the American public. A Gallup Poll of 1,002 adults recently found that 59 percent of Americans are in favor of invading Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. But the poll also found that a plurality now wants passage of a second United Nations resolution before doing so, a shift from earlier Gallup polls. Nonetheless, if and when a conflict begins, opinion experts predict with certainty an immediate “rally around the president” response that will gird Bush for the initial stages of the war effort. At this early juncture, Bush still may have the political luxury of tuning out the protesters. “The key question is whether the protests are representative of a broader public opinion or just a narrow slice. So far, the protests are representative of a narrow slice,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “But if that slice broadens into half the pie, then Bush will have no choice but to pay attention,” he added. The massive demonstrations abroad are another story. Protests from Melbourne to Manila, from Brussels to Berlin, provided a stark reminder of burgeoning anti-American sentiments and of the new capacity for mobilization in the era of the Internet. The gatherings were especially notable in European capitals, where the United States needs backing for an Iraq invasion and where throngs turned out to demonstrate. In Britain, where more than 1 million protesters gathered, Prime Minister Tony Blair _ Bush’s unflinching ally up to now _ saw his own approval rating plummet to 35 percent in a recent poll. Jim Lindsay, of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said the protests in Europe are having an impact. “It puts tremendous pressure on European leaders to begin distancing themselves from George Bush. We’ve already seen some evidence of that taking place. The prime minister of Italy responded to having a million people marching through the streets of Rome by publicly calling on his good friend, George Bush, to think wisely before acting,” Lindsay said. But Lindsay, a former National Security Council official, said that he did not envision European leaders denouncing an American-led invasion. Regarding Blair, he added, “It’s in for a penny, in for a pound. He’s firmly committed to the policy.” Experts agree that the huge protests probably came too late to stop the war. In the future, the strength of mobilizations would depend on factors that are unknowable at this point, among them the success of an invasion, the number of casualties and the reaction of Arab states to occupation of a historic country in their midst. ___ Philip Dine of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington bureau contributed to this report. ___ ‘copy 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 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