The Anti-Iraq War Movement is a Far Cry From Vietnam

Today's temperate anti-Iraq War movement is a far cry from the turbulent one that mobilized during Vietnam. But it has the potential to be more effective.

Big marches on Washington are mostly a thing of the past -- although two activist coalitions will sponsor a massive one on Sept. 24. The Internet has replaced them.

The groups opposing the war have diverse origins. The largest, MoveOn.org, was organized by a pair of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to promote a "progressive vision" through the Internet. Some of its 3 million online members recently volunteered 150,000 beds in their homes for victims of Katrina. MoveOn.org teamed up in August with True Majority, an online outfit organized by Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, to support antiwar Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan. They organized 1,627 "quiet vigils" across the country.

"These vigils," according to a MoveOn.org e-mail, "aren't rallies or places to give long-winded speeches. They are moments to solemnly come together and mark the sacrifice of Cindy and other families."

Win Without War, a coalition of 40 national organizations that links the National Council of Churches, the NAACP and the Sierra Club to relative newcomers like MoveOn.org, is working on several fronts to make the case that the war undermines our security. Former Maine congressman Tom Andrews heads the coalition.

Americans with connections to the military have also joined the opposition. They include four separate veterans organizations, two of them composed exclusively of Iraq vets. In addition, Military Families Speak Out, composed of relatives of active duty personnel, was founded during the run-up to the war and now has 2,400 families as members.

Contrast this antiwar activity with the opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and '70s. Then, students spurred much of the protests and a youth revolt against authority vastly complicated the work of the antiwar movement. Some rebellious youths undertook the most extreme forms of protest, which were broadcast to America on television. When a handful of protesters in a demonstration of thousands carried Viet Cong flags or burned their draft cards or even burned American flags, their actions would be seen on TV that evening as the face of the antiwar movement.

When I coordinated the first non-student march on Washington for peace in Vietnam in November 1965, I had to contend with a tiny group of radicals who insisted on carrying Viet Cong flags in the demonstration. I couldn't keep them out. Much of the media gave equal coverage to those flags and the 35,000 other demonstrators who, in the words of one leading newspaper, resembled "shoppers at Macy's."

Shortly after the march a few of us, including Dr. Benjamin Spock, met with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had been out on the stump attacking student protesters. After congratulating us for sponsoring the "first demonstration to strengthen the doves in the (Johnson) administration," Humphrey again blasted the students. "They remind me of the Commies I fought in Minneapolis in the fifties," he asserted. I had known Humphrey for five years and felt emboldened to reply, "It's not the fifties, you're not in Minneapolis and they're not Commies, but if you keep attacking them you're going to drive them in that direction." The Vice President was taken aback. I was pleased that he met soon afterward with a group of student critics on the Berkeley campus, but he later resumed his attacks.

By 1968 polls showed a majority of Americans against the war -- but a bigger majority against the war protesters. The combination of extreme forms of protest and the sensation-hungry media silenced many citizens who were sick of Vietnam. To express their opposition was to get in bed with the flag-burners. So was born the "silent majority," enabling Richard Nixon to prolong the U.S. role for four more bitter years.

Ben Cohen believes that for today's antiwar movement to succeed, growth must come from the middle of the political spectrum. Trends in public opinion show this to be realistic. Americans began to sour on the Iraq War within a year. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll in May 2003 found that 27 percent judged the war "not worth fighting;" that rose to 53 percent this past August. Now a New York Times-CBS News poll reports that, for the first time, a majority of Americans favors pulling out of Iraq immediately. And with a nod toward Katrina, 83 percent said they were concerned that the Iraq war is draining resources needed at home.

As mainstream support for the Iraq war dissolves, antiwar activists find themselves in a very different position from their Vietnam War counterparts. Can this momentum be sustained, and focused into concrete demands on when and how to pull out from Iraq? One rallying point may be a resolution, introduced in the House by two Republicans and two Democrats, calling for troop withdrawal to begin no later than Oct. 1, 2006. Called the Homeward Bound Act, the resolution is seen as a major step toward an exit strategy.

A new, antiwar "silent majority" is finding its voice. Even the cries of radicals among marchers this weekend may not drown it out.

PNS contributor Sanford Gottlieb worked in the peace movement from 1960 to 1993. He was executive director of SANE, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

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