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Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict




Mark Van Ells


NOTE: All of the materials referred to and depicted in this essay were collected by the author in Madison, Wisconsin, particularly in the areas around the State Capitol and on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, during 1990 and 1991. These flyers and many others are currently available to researchers at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Research Center in Madison, where the author was employed during the Gulf War.

The Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 enjoyed great public support in the United States. The destruction of the Iraqi army in just weeks provided Americans with a powerful anodyne for the painful memories of defeat in Vietnam. Americans sported countless yellow ribbons on their lapels and on their homes to demonstrate their affection for the US troops in the Gulf. At the war's conclusion, the returning heroes received lavish homecoming parades. Indeed, one scholar has even argued that many Americans saw the Gulf War as entertainment, akin to the "recreational violence" often seen on film, television, and video games (Ebo, 1995). However, US intervention in the Persian Gulf was not universally popular among Americans. The lingering images of yellow ribbons and parades often obscure the divisions the war caused in American society, particularly in the days and weeks surrounding the outbreak of combat in January 1991. In that month, for example, an estimated 500,000 Americans participated in antiwar protests (Elbaum, 1991, p. 143). While many Americans shouted the slogan "support the troops," others offered an alternative cry, "no blood for oil."

Nearly 10 years have passed since US troops helped to eject Iraq from Kuwait, but the American protest movement against the war has received little scholarly attention. The small body of existing literature on Gulf War protest makes one point clear: the movement lacked focus and unity. As Barbara Epstein (1992) has pointed out, a bewildering number of groups protested the war, mostly on the left side of the political spectrum. However, those who opposed the war did so for a myriad of reasons. Environmentalists saw the war as the result of a failed energy policy, for example, while Gay and Lesbian groups argued that the war against Iraq distracted the public from the war on AIDS. Because the protest movement was so fragmented, Epstein argues, no effective national organization emerged to coalesce antiwar sentiment into a cohesive, politically potent movement able to affect public opinion. Ten years of conservative resurgence had sent the American left into retreat. Suspicion between different antiwar groups -- namely the political left and religious organizations -- also kept segments of the antiwar movement apart. The protest movement against the Persian Gulf War, Epstein claimed, was "the worst defeat the peace movement has suffered since the late 1940s" (p. 115).

Because of the fragmentary nature of opposition to the Gulf War, scholars must examine specific groups or communities in order to understand why some Americans opposed the Persian Gulf War. This essay will examine the ways in which residents of one city--Madison, Wisconsin-- protested the Gulf War. A state capital and university city with a colorful history of social and political activism, Madison is not typical of most American communities. However, Madison's unusually high level of activism provides a broad spectrum of American thinking about the Gulf War. Madison has a distinct left wing political tradition, melding contemporary intellectual currents from the University of Wisconsin with the outlook of Middle America (Buhle, 1992, pp. 1-42). It held a prominent place in the history of New Left and the protest movement against the Vietnam War. Civil rights protests in Madison dated to the 1950s, for example, and the city's first anti-Vietnam War rally occurred in 1963. In 1970, antiwar radicals bombed a military research facility in Sterling Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus, a shocking event that, in the words of one historian, marked "a general retreat from violence" for the antiwar movement both nationally and locally (Bates, p. 55). Madison retained a key role in American leftist thinking after the Vietnam War. It is, for example, home of The Progressive, one of America's leading left-of-center political commentary magazines. What follows is not a standard historical narrative tracing the events and evolution of Madison's antiwar movement, but rather an interpretation of ephemeral literature generated by antiwar activists. From August 1990 to the end of 1991, protesters in Madison generated a flurry of handbills, leaflets, and related materials. Activists distributed the vast majority of these materials in downtown Madison, especially around the State Capitol, the University of Wisconsin campus, and surrounding environs. Many were published by organizations or coalitions of protest groups. However, this literature captured the opinions of individuals as well. Frequently, local artists expressed their antiwar sentiments in posters, postcards, or other works. On occasion, concerned citizens would simply tack up a crude flyer expressing their thoughts and feelings about the war. This body of material is striking both in its language and in its imagery, and provides a remarkably rich and vivid portrait of antiwar sentiment in Madison during the Gulf War. These materials are especially revealing about the thinking and feeling of the antiwar movement, as they convey the protesters' messages directly, without the filtering of the media or the hindsight of oral history. This ephemeral literature captures not only the message of Madison's antiwar movement, but its spirit as well.

In Madison, opposition to the Gulf War emerged almost immediately after American involvement in the Gulf crisis. Within a month of the introduction of American troops to Saudi Arabia in August 1990, an organization named U.S. Out Now had formed and held protest rallies at government buildings and on the University campus. As the US troop buildup proceeded, many other protest groups spoke out against American involvement in the region. Many established activist organizations protested the war--the International Socialist Organization, the Progressive Student Network, the UW Greens, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War were among the most prominent. Local religious organizations, including the Interreligious Voice for Peace, the Lutheran Peace Fellowship, the Quakers, and the Freiheit Jewish Progressive Forum, also spoke out against the war. Additional groups formed in response to US involvement in the Gulf, such as the Gulf Information Group and the Women Against Intervention in the Gulf. By January 1991, Madison was the scene of antiwar marches and rallies that attracted hundreds--impressive numbers considering the size of the city's population (190,766 in the 1990 census) and its bitter winter cold. One protest march, held the evening American air raids on Iraq began, "snowballed into the frigid night" to involve approximately 800 persons (Wisconsin State Journal, January 17, 1991). Madison's antiwar protesters-- like those around the country--were a varied group. "About half appear to be college students," observed the Wisconsin State Journal (January 20, 1991) at one protest rally, "the others are teachers, ministers, labor leaders, and Vietnam veterans. Their children sometimes play in the snow while the adults listen to political speeches."

Despite the diversity of the antiwar movement, several common themes emerge in Madison's protest literature. Perhaps the most prevalent criticism was the economic nature of American involvement. Madison's antiwar protesters commonly portrayed US involvement in the Gulf War as nothing more than the cynical protection of American economic interests--in particular the Persian Gulf's vast oil supplies. One of the first antiwar flyers to appear in Madison, distributed by the International Socialist Organization, called on people to "Organize Against US Imperialism" (Figure 1). "The U.S. deployment of troops to Saudi Arabia is a blatant act of imperialism," claimed the group, "designed to maintain economic and political power in the Middle East--especially corporate control over vast oil supplies in the region." The poster contained images of soldiers watching over American economic interests: In the center sailors with binoculars scan the horizon for threats, while a soldier stands guard at left. At right is an oil derrick, one of the objects the military personnel seek to protect. Socialists were not the only protesters to criticize the economics behind American intervention. Images of gas pumps and nozzles appeared frequently in protest literature generated by numerous other groups and by individuals. Substituting the dollar sign for the "S" in US was another common way to express the sentiment that American involvement in the Persian Gulf was economically motivated. For example, a flyer signed "Winning by Losing, Inc." asked "how low can the U$ get?" and warned that "war i$ habit forming." It also contained a pictographic mathematical equation in the lower right corner (Exxon logo + peace hand gesture = Edvard Munch painting "The Scream"), suggesting that oil companies were actually instigating the war.

President Bush and other American leaders denied that American intervention was economically motivated, and argued that the US had an obligation to uphold the international order and the "self-determination" of nations, both of which were threatened by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. War supporters frequently painted the conflict in stark, moral terms, suggesting that action against Saddam Hussein was the equivalent of opposing Adolf Hitler and the Nazis fifty years earlier. President Bush assured Americans that the military build-up promoted "peace" in the region, and that the restoration of Kuwait's "freedom" was necessary. Madison's antiwar protesters rejected such reasoning, and through handbills and posters highlighted what they believed were fallacies in the rationale for intervention. Protest literature frequently pointed out that the people of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were hardly "free" at all, but rather lived under two of the most politically and socially repressive regimes in the world. To antiwar groups, for America, the self-proclaimed protector of democracy, to use a word like "freedom" with regard to Persian Gulf nations was the height of hypocrisy. One U.S. Out Now handbill (Figure 2) used a local newspaper editorial cartoon juxtaposing images of freedom (represented by American troops) and repression (represented by the Arab sheiks) to highlight the inconsistency of the American government's position. Another flyer suggested that the government's rationale for war was nothing less than a corruption of language and reason akin to the "doublespeak" made famous in George Orwell's classic political novel 1984:

Ignorance in strength.

Freedom is slavery.
Love is hate.
Peace is war.

Indeed, the reference to Orwell's novel --a portrait of a totalitarian police state where "Big Brother" controls all information--insinuated that the government was twisting the truth in a mind-numbing propaganda campaign designed to convince Americans to support the war.

Protest literature also showed rather vividly what going to war would mean for Americans, particularly for young people like the students at the University of Wisconsin. War means combat, protest literature reminded, and combat means casualties. One common motif in protest literature was the flag-draped coffin. A flyer published by the Alliance to Save Ourselves (Figure 3), for example, contained a flag-draped casket with the assertion that "If George Bush has his way this could be you or someone you love." A poster published by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War also contained a flag-draped coffin, reminded readers of their own war experiences:

58,000 OF OUR FRIENDS DIED IN VIETNAM IN A RICH MAN'S WAR. NOW THEY WANT TO SACRIFICE ANOTHER GENERATION FOR OIL. As veterans we say no! No, to another war for profit. No to another memorial to the dead. No to V.A. hospitals filled with victims, forgotten by the media, the Congress, and the President.

An International Socialist Organization poster from the fall of 1990 showed the photograph of a grieving widow next to an image of President Bush behind the wheel of a golf cart. The handbill quoted the president as saying: "I don't like taking questions on serious matters on my vacation." While you or your loved ones suffer in the Gulf, the flyer suggested, those responsible for plunging America into war are unmoved and unaffected. Some flyers took a lighter approach. "Congratulations!" began one poster, "you may have already won an all expense paid trip to the Persian Gulf!" It compared being sent to the Persian Gulf War with a vacation, as if being called up for duty was the equivalent of winning a sea cruise in a contest. Despite its sarcastic tone, the meaning of war for young people came through: A lonely soldier appears in the upper left corner of the flyer, artillery is being fired just below, while to the right a flotilla of warships awaits action.

Protest rallies and marches abated as the American military found success with few casualties, but activist groups continued to voice their objections to the war. After American and Coalition forces ousted the Iraqis from Kuwait in late February 1991, committed antiwar activists took on the mission of telling a nation overwhelmed with the spirit of triumph that the war had had some serious consequences. Much of this literature suggested that the war was not nearly as bloodless as the general public wanted to believe. While American casualties numbered in the hundreds, Iraqi casualties numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In March 1991, the UW Greens, in association with numerous other antiwar groups in Madison, organized a "funeral procession" (Figure 4) to point out to a euphoric nation that hundreds of thousands had been killed by American military might. This flyer also contained a list of local war dead published in the newspaper. Antiwar activists addressed numerous other postwar issues. In a flyer from the spring of 1991, US Out Now gave a laundry list of problems left unresolved by the war, including the continuing American military presence in the Persian Gulf region, the fate of democratic reform in Kuwait, arms sales to developing nations, America's dependence on foreign oil, and the fate of the "peace dividend." With the Iraqi army destroyed and the Cold War winding down, US Out Now (and others) hoped that money spent on the military would be diverted to social concerns. "If the money for a six week war were put into the environment and family farms," US Out Now wondered, "what would the result be?"

In their handbills, flyers, and posters, Madison's antiwar activists frequently expropriated the symbols of the war's supporters to make protest statements. Some materials turned the yellow ribbon into an antiwar statement. For example, an artist identified only as "Safety Orange" distributed a postcard of a yellow ribbon tied onto a hand giving the peace gesture (the ribbon is tied onto the middle finger). Antiwar activists were particularly adept at turning remarks supporting and justifying the war into protest statements. For example, protest literature frequently used the popular wartime slogan "support the troops." Indeed, most antiwar posters were careful not to condemn those who served in the military. We do not support the war, the antiwar groups seemed to suggest, but we are protesting the policy and not the people asked to carry it out. "SUPPORT THE TROOPS," one International Socialist Organization flyer proclaimed, "BRING THEM HOME" (Figure 5). The Vietnam Veterans Against the War asked "do you support the troops? Keep them alive!" One flyer, published in February 1991 by the Alliance to Save Ourselves, demanded "that these brave women and men be brought home to do the job they enlisted to do.. serve their country!" In Madison, literature portraying American soldiers as murderers was unusual, but not wholly absent. One flyer, for example, asked "Support the Troops?" In the center was an image of the charred remains of an Iraqi soldier killed in an American air raid, with the words "Support Murder!" below. It asked readers to "wake up," to "make an individual choice not to let this happen to your world."

President Bush and other war proponents argued that American intervention in the Gulf War, along with the attenuation of Cold War tensions, might usher in a more peaceful "new world order" in international affairs. Many flyers used the term "new world order" to protest American actions in the Gulf. One, for example, distributed by the Progressive Student Network, (Figure 6) compared President Bush with another world leader alleged to have used the term--Adolf Hitler. In the wake of Gulf War victory, President Bush crowed that the United States had finally "kicked the Vietnam Syndrome." US Out Now wondered whether America might suffer from a new affliction, the "Iraq Syndrome," which the organization defined as "the illusion that the U.S. can beat any adversary, anytime, anywhere." After the Gulf War, US Out Now feared, ". . . the propensity to use force will be much greater. Is El Salvador next? The Philippines? Cuba? Peru? The overconfidence gained from an "easy victory" may, in the long run, cause more ruin than a two-sided Gulf War could have caused."

The memories of America's failed military venture in Vietnam haunted the nation during the Persian Gulf War. President Bush assured the public that the Gulf War would "not be another Vietnam," but instead would be a quick and decisive victory. The president's words resonated with millions of Americans. Many in the United States hoped that victory in the Gulf would exorcise the demons of Vietnam. As one scholar has suggested, many Americans donned yellow ribbons in order to make amends for the treatment the nation afforded Vietnam veterans, and in some cases actually "bury" the unpleasant memory of the war in Southeast Asia (Tuleja, 1994). But while war supporters hoped to move the country beyond the Vietnam experience, war opponents looked back to the 1960s as a model for antiwar activism. The experience of the 1960s provided a common language and symbolism to a fragmented antiwar movement faced with the sudden onset of the Gulf War. However, in looking to the past the antiwar movement during the Gulf War was seriously out of touch with American public opinion. A style of war protest reminiscent of the 1960s only seemed to remind Americans of the turbulence and pain they longed to forget.

Antiwar protest literature drew comparisons between Vietnam and the Persian Gulf early and often. One U.S. Out Now flyer from September 1990, for example, contained the slogans "NO MORE OIL WARS" and "NO MORE VIETNAMS" side by side. Numerous other flyers linked the two wars. During the Persian Gulf War, many flyers announced showings of the 1979 award-winning documentary "The War At Home," which chronicled Madison's anti-Vietnam War movement. One flyer (Figure 7) drew some rather explicit parallels between the Vietnam and Persian Gulf antiwar movements. The film's title, "The War at Home," recalled the protests of the 1960s, as did the names of noted personalities from Madison's famed anti-Vietnam War movement listed on the flyer (including Madison's mayor during the Gulf War, Paul Soglin). The references to the 1960s were then juxtaposed with images of young people in the 1990s protesting the Gulf War, carrying signs reading "no blood for oil profits" and "we still won't go."

Many antiwar symbols and images from the 1960s reappeared during the Gulf War. The peace symbol, for example, made frequent appearances on anti-Gulf War literature. One poster, for example, announcing a benefit dance for the Military Families Support Network (Figure 8) contained eight peace symbols. A hand-drawn poster announcing a "peace walk" through the University of Wisconsin's family housing complex contained 35 peace symbols, as well as a dove with an olive branch in its beak. Though the peace symbol is commonly associated with the Vietnam War, it never really went out of fashion with peace activists. During the Persian Gulf War its use, appropriately and predictably, increased. The outbreak of combat in January 1991 coincided with the holiday celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights activist, proponent of non-violent civil disobedience, and outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. During January, the image of Dr. King appeared on several flyers. "The Dream Lives!" assured one antiwar flyer bearing King's likeness, "STAND AGAINST WAR!"

Not only were the language and symbols of the Vietnam years applied to the Gulf War, so were specific modes of protest. For example, Madison antiwar groups during the Gulf War sponsored frequent "teach-ins," one of the most popular and effective protest techniques of the 1960s. A flyer for a February 1991 teach-in, for example, announced talks on the draft, the economic aspects of the war, the war's impact on people of color, and news media coverage of the antiwar movement. A teach-in sponsored by the International Socialist Organization in March 1991 focused on the theme "1968: The Fire Last Time." The flyer announcing the event noted planned discussions of the events of 1968 in the United States, France, and Britain, and told readers that "1968 offers up its lessons to today's activists." Women Against Intervention in the Gulf sponsored a modified version of a teach-in for Valentine's Day 1991 (Figure 9). The organization combined the concept of the teach-in with famous George Bush quote from his 1988 presidential campaign, "read my lips, no new taxes." The result was a "kiss-in." At the bottom of the flyer announcing this event was another modified slogan from the 1960s, "make out, not war." Madison's protesters also engaged in civil disobedience and non-violent direct action reminiscent of the 1960s. "SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE," one flyer said, BUT WHILE WE'RE STOPPING TRAFFIC U.S. PLANES ARE BOMBING IRAQ." "YOU MAY BE DELAYED," the flyer said, "BUT PEOPLE ARE DYING."

There were those within the peace movement who were uncomfortable with the rhetoric and symbols of the Vietnam years. As antiwar protests in Madison escalated in January, some activists turned to violent rhetoric and even violent actions--similar to the evolution of the Vietnam War protest movement. In one instance, protesters attempted to break into a nationally-televised basketball game at the University of Wisconsin Field House, prompting a scuffle between demonstrators and basketball fans. In another case, protesters pounded repeatedly on the doors of Madison's federal building, while others burned an American flag nearby. (Wisconsin State Journal, January 20, 1991). One flyer, a hand-written personal statement signed by an antiwar activist named Francis Hoss, was sharply critical of the violent rhetoric and actions of some protesters. "Haters!" he begins, "You're not going to mess up this peace movement like the last one!" At a January 14 antiwar rally, the author claimed, one speaker bragged about how he still had some 'relics' from the truck that blew up Sterling Hall in 1972. (The explosion killed an innocent researcher.) He paused for a moment, apparently waiting for the crowd to ooh and ahh, or at least applaud, and instead everyone was silent. Such glorification of a violent antiwar past, Hoss declared, had "no place in this movement. It's the 'undecideds' that we must reach, and nobody follows a hater." Advocates of violence in a peace movement were "hypocrites," in Hoss's view. "Please be advised," he assured advocates of violence, "if you are a hater and in your speeches you claim to be one of us, we will publicly disavow you from the podium when your speech is over." Hoss's comments reveal that while protesters against the Persian Gulf War looked to the 1960s as a model, they could not agree on what the lessons of the Vietnam experience were.

Reliance on the 1960s as a model also gave the war's supporters a convenient weapon to use against the antiwar movement. The war's proponents portrayed antiwar protesters as living in the past, their criticisms irrelevant to the problems and concerns of the 1990s. Pro-war flyers in Madison were rare, but several appeared--especially on the University of Wisconsin campus. One pro-war Madisonian, for example, took a newspaper editorial cartoon widely printed in the nation's newspapers, reproduced it, and posted it around the University campus. The cartoon transformed the peace symbol into a fictional pie chart of antiwar sentiment. The categories on the chart are less than flattering--"nostalgic, middle-aged hippie pacifists," "professional activists for hire," "mediocre leftist actors" and "students without dates." One hand-written poster, posted in the UW Memorial Union after the cease-fire, was even more blunt:


Sorry about the Gulf, man. You guys still have your fingers on the pulse of America! Why not have some more homo dance contests or attack Christmas trees like you did last December? You'll be back in shape in no time. Love ya! Jim Delp

Portrayals of the antiwar movement as being antiquated and out of date were legion in the popular culture and the news media during the Gulf War. An editorial in a Madison newspaper, for example, complained about Madison's "perennial protesters... [who] chanted their tired old slogans" and who, lamentably, gave Madison a "dogged but outdated reputation as an anti-war haven" (Wisconsin State Journal, July 5, 1991). Protesting the Vietnam War may have been fashionable, the popular culture seemed to suggest, but protesting the Persian Gulf War was pass?.

In a 1991 essay, Todd Gitlin, student leader in the 1960s and sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, summed up the quandary of the American antiwar movement during the Persian Gulf War. "The anti-war side has much sensible protest to be proud of," he wrote, "along with much effort expended to paint itself into a corner" (Sifry and Cerf, 1991, p. 320). Throughout the brief but violent Persian Gulf War, the American antiwar movement remained fragmented, with numerous groups protesting the war for different reasons. Indeed, the antiwar movement of 1990-1991 might be best described not as one movement, but as a series of concurrent movements against the war. Unable to articulate a unified position and faced with an American military triumph on the battlefield, the antiwar movement was relegated to the sidelines of public discussion. President Bush's job approval rating soared to near ninety percent after the cease-fire. The antiwar movement had clearly failed.

What does the ephemeral protest literature of Madison reveal about this failed movement? First, despite the great diversity of antiwar protesters, activists seemed to agree on several key criticisms of the war. Critics of the war portrayed it as a cynical attempt to protect American economic interests in the region. Protesters characterized the official government rationale for entering the war--to uphold international law and protect the sovereignty of small Gulf nations--as a lie, and the use of terms like "freedom" and "self-determination" to justify aid to these states as sheer hypocrisy. The antiwar movement also reminded Americans about the consequences of war--separation from loved ones, curtailment of civil liberties, economic dislocation, as well as horror, suffering, and death. Whether the criticisms of Madison's protesters represented the views of protesters in other communities will be revealed only after more research is done on other anti-Gulf War movements. The larger question-- why the antiwar movement failed to coalesce around key points of agreement--also awaits further study.

Second, the antiwar movement of 1990-1991--at least in Madison-- seems to have misread or disregarded the public mood during the Persian Gulf War. At a time when the majority of Americans wanted to "kick the Vietnam Syndrome" and move beyond the turbulent days of the 1960s, the dominant style of the antiwar movement of the 1990s was a revival of the language, symbols, and protest techniques of the movement against the Vietnam War. The 1960s provided a useable model for those who opposed a war that came upon the nation suddenly, and provided common ground for a diverse antiwar movement. However, the reliance on the 1960s model also gave the war's proponents a convenient target at which to aim their barbs, portraying the war's critics as dated relics of the past. Madison's Gulf War protesters could not escape the long shadow of the Vietnam years.

Understanding the protest movement against the Persian Gulf War and why it failed is important in part because the conflict in the Middle East could flare up again at any time. Warplanes of the US and its allies continue to patrol the "no-fly zones" established over Iraq after the 1991 cease-fire. The United Nations continues to seek out and destroy Iraq's capabilities for nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare. On occasion, tensions between the US and Iraq have escalated to the brink of a second Persian Gulf War--perhaps most notably in early 1998. With little notice, Americans may be faced once again with the prospect of war in the Middle East. Even if tensions with Iraq abate, numerous other "hot spots" around the world might spark American military intervention. How effectively American antiwar activists respond to the nation's next war will depend in part on the lessons learned from the protest movement of 1990-1991.


© Mark Van Ells

Mark Van Ells teaches in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He presented a version of this paper at the 1997 Popular Culture Association National Meeting. He would like to extend his gratitude to Lotte Larson who chaired the panel and those in attendance who provided valuable comments.


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