Remember the '80s
By ZOLTAN GROSSMAN
January 3, 2008
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 year in U.S. history, and try to
define its legacy. 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 movements of the
'60s and early '70s, and are finding plenty of books, websites and
other sources about Vietnam, civil rights, women's liberation, and
But recently I've gotten some questions about the upsurge of activism
that took place in the 1980s. Students want to know more about Ronald
Reagan, Rambo, and the Iran-Contra Scandal. But when they try to find
any relevant information, it's simply not there. For one class I
searched the web to find photos and stories of the anti-apartheid and
Central America solidarity movements, and was shocked by how little I
found. A library search was even less useful.
There are specific reasons why the generation of 2008 knows more
about 1968 than about 1988. The problem is partly technological,
because the period before the Internet took off in the 1990s was
simply not recorded or archived as it happened. The problem is also
cultural, since the 1960s have been so ingrained into the popular
consciousness that its memory (or at least the accepted version of
its memory) has not been lost.
But there is a "black hole" in public memory after Woodstock and
before the Web. The late '70s and the '80s were not as cool as the
'60s, but not as digitized as the '90s. 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
toCheney, Gates and Rumsfeld. And we can tell you how much Mitt
Romney 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 '80s, movements
were definitely smaller and less vibrant than in the '60s, and the
mood was more conservative and apathetic. In other words, the 1980s
were more like today.
Nevertheless, the '80s movements had some notable successes that
resonate today, and can provide some positive inspiration. Activists
were able to persevere against great odds and win victories (or
partial victories) that remain very relevant in the 2000s. Several
examples come to mind, but there are certainly many more.
Successes of the '80s
* Anti-apartheid. The African American community joined with student
groups to form a powerful movement to end government and corporate
collusion with the apartheid (racial separation) regime in South
Africa. In the mid-'80s, 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 (ANC) 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 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 anti-globalization was cool.
*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 slightly 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 around the country rallied to escort the women.
The pro-choice movement successfully defended many women's rights to
a safe and legal abortion, yet many poor, rural and young women lost
access to that right.
Whether it was pro-choice, Act Up, Witness, Sanctuary, anti-nuke or
divestment, the '80s movements did not rely on lobbying or
presidential elections to pressure for change, but took direct action
on a grassroots level. Before the Internet, 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 on-line petitions, we sometimes forget the powerful combination
of personal organizing and direct action.
Why Study the '80s?
When a 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
Administration 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: "Same Shit, Different Century."
Vietnam Syndrome. After the U.S. lost the Vietnam War in 1975, the
American public was reluctant to intervene in another debacle. The
late 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 '80s and in Colombia today, and between the
destabilization of socialist governments in Nicaragua in the '80s and
in Venezuela today.
Scare tactics and lies. If you think that "War on Terror" scare
tactics are harmful to civil liberties today, you shoulda' seen the
anti-Communist hysteria of the late Cold War. Instead of possibly
building a single dirty bomb, the "Evil Empire" had thermonuclear
missiles aimed at our cities, with both sides always on a
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. We
forgot that peoples are perfectly capable of overthrowing their own
dictators, without being undermined by outside military intervention.
This lesson, had we learned it, may have later proven useful in
Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
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
future 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. Col. 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
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 only exacerbated
the regional crisis. Benazir Bhutto has lost her life under
Musharraf's watch, just as Zia executed her father, also a former
prime minister. In the 1980s, Pakistani intelligence aided the
jihadists who would later become al-Qa'ida (though you wouldn't learn
this by viewing the new film Charlie Wilson's War). If you're looking
for "9/11 Truth," 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. The true
"conspiracy" was part and parcel of U.S. imperial history, not
outside of that history.
Failures of '80s movements
Like the '60s movements, the '80s 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 peoples feared the West's military power or were
drawn 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
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.). 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 problems were carried forward.
Revisiting the '80s
Mindful of these and other failures, veterans of 1980s movements have
never drawn much attention to our experiences. We've been reluctant
to tell the stories of the '80s, lest we sound like the '60s movement
veterans who rest on the laurels of their past glories. But it has
become important to revisit our memories of the '80s, as the media
focuses on memories of 1968.
It's time to look in the basement and garage for those old boxes
crammed with treasures found nowhere on the Internet. Dust off those
old glossies and 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. Assign students to 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.
But ultimately, neither 1968 nor 1988 can really provide models for
the generation of 2008. Today's generation shouldn't have to recycle
the images of by-gone eras, or follow the templates of past student
groups. Instead of always chanting the golden-oldie slogans from the
Vietnam era or the WTO rallies, they can be creating their own new
forms of protest, more appropriate to these wired times. But it
always helps to have a fuller view of the past, to figure out what to
keep and what to discard.
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
Zoltan Grossman is a member of the faculty at The Evergreen State
College in Olympia, Washington, and a longtime justice and peace
organizer. His website is at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz
and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org