Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

David Swanson

David Swanson is a longtime peace and justice activist and author of 'War Is a Lie'

May 24th, 2012 6:53 PM

Why Even Failed Activism Succeeds

I enjoy reading histories of past activism, including memoirs by long-time activists, such as Lawrence Wittner's new book, Working for Peace and Justice.

Almost every such account includes belated discoveries of the extent to which a government has been spying on and infiltrating activist groups.

And almost every such account includes belated discoveries of the extent to which government officials were influenced by activist groups even while pretending to ignore popular pressure.

These revelations can be found in the memoirs of the government officials as well, such as in George W. Bush's recollection of how seriously the Republican Senate Majority Leader was taking public pressure against the war on Iraq in 2006.

Of course, activism that appears ineffectual at the time can succeed in a great many ways, including by influencing others, even young children, who go on to become effective activists -- or by influencing firm opponents who begin to change their minds and eventually switch sides.

The beautiful thing about nonviolent activism is that, while risking no harm, it has the potential to do good in ways small and large that ripple out from it in directions we cannot track or measure.

Wittner participated in his first political demonstration in 1961.  The USSR was withdrawing from a moratorium on nuclear testing.  A protest at the White House urged President Kennedy not to follow suit:

"Picking up what I considered a very clever sign ('Kennedy, Don't Mimic the Russians!'), I joined the others (supplemented by a second busload of students from a Quaker college in the Midwest) circling around a couple of trees outside the White House.  Mike and I -- as new and zealous recruits -- circled all day without taking a lunch or a dinner break.

"For decades I looked back on this venture as a trifle ridiculous.  After all, we and other small bands of protesters couldn't have had any impact on U.S. policy, could we?  Then in the mid-1990s, while doing research at the Kennedy Library on the history of the world nuclear disarmament movement, I stumbled onto an oral history interview with Adrian Fisher, deputy director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.  He was explaining why Kennedy delayed resuming atmospheric nuclear tests until April 1962.  Kennedy personally wanted to resume such tests, Fisher recalled, 'but he also recognized that there were a lot of people that were going to be deeply offended by the United States resuming atmospheric testing.  We had people picketing the White House, and there was a lot of excitement about it -- just because the Russians do it, why do we have to do it?'"

Yes, Kennedy delayed a horrible action.  He didn't, at that time, block it permanently.  But if the picketers in 1961 had had the slightest notion that Kennedy was being influenced by them, their numbers would have multiplied 10-fold, as would the delay have correspondingly lengthened. 

Yes, our government was more responsive to public opinion in the 1960s than now, but part of the reason is that more people were active then.  And another reason is that government officials are doing a better job now of hiding any responsiveness to public sentiment, which helps convince the public it has no impact, which reduces activism further.  We also focus far too much on the most difficult individuals to move, such as presidents.

In 1973-1974, Wittner visited GI coffee houses in Japan including in Yokusaka, where the Midway aircraft carrier was in port.  The Japanese were protesting the ship's carrying of nuclear weapons, which was illegal in Japan, and which the U.S. military, of course, lied about.  But U.S. soldiers with whom Wittner and other activists had talked, brought them onto the ship and showed them the nukes.  The following summer, when Wittner read in a newspaper that,

"a substantial number of American GIs had refused to board the Midway for a mission to South Korea, then swept by popular protest against the U.S.-backed dictatorship, it occurred to me that I might have played some small role in inspiring their mutiny."

Soldiers can still be reached much more easily than presidents, more easily in many cases in fact than the average citizen.  War lies are harder to sell to the people who have been fighting the wars.

In the late 1990s, Wittner was researching the anti-nuclear movement of decades past.  He interviewed Robert "Bud" McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan's former national security advisor:

"Other administration officials had claimed that they had barely noticed the nuclear freeze movement.  But when I asked McFarlane about it, he lit up and began outlining a massive administration campaign to counter and discredit the freeze -- one that he had directed. . . .  A month later, I interviewed Edwin Meese, a top White House staffer and U.S. attorney general during the Reagan administration.  When I asked him about the administration's response to the freeze campaign, he followed the usual line by saying that there was little official notice taken of it.  In response, I recounted what McFarlane had revealed.  A sheepish grin now spread across this former government official's face, and I knew that I had caught him.  'If Bud says that,' he remarked tactfully, 'it must be true.'"

When someone tells you to stop imagining that you're having an impact, ask them to please redirect their energy into getting 10 friends to join you in doing what needs to be done.  If it has no impact, you'll have gone down trying.  If it has an impact, nobody will tell you for many years.

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... www.theonion.com President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States www.theonion.com WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract pando.com As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors pando.com If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa ...by Nick Turse www.michaelmoore.com Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 www.theguardian.com Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? www.huffingtonpost.com I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | RootsAction.org act.rootsaction.org The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Enron billionaire John Arnold thinks everyone should believe him when he says we've got to cut pensions because he's so incredibly rich: John...

Mar 5th
4:20 PM
Read More

More in David Sirota's continuing series on the billionaire takeover of PBS: More PBS conflict woes as activists move to eject David Koch from board of...

Mar 3rd
12:35 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles