U.S. gulf buildup bolsters ranks of peace activists

November 25, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK -- Less than four months into the Persian Gulf crisis, the rapid buildup of U.S. troops in the Middle East may be on the verge of resuscitating the anti-war movement.

Although protest actions have been diffused and small in scope thus far, organized anti-war activities are starting to multiply. A growing number of teach-ins are being staged at churches, colleges and universities around the country. And new peace groups continue to spring up, almost on a daily basis.

"It's beginning to happen," said Cora Weiss, a veteran peace activist. It took about two years of heavy fighting and casualties in Vietnam to produce the level of public skepticism that has been reached after 16 weeks of the gulf crisis, in which U.S. forces have yet to confront hostile fire, she said.

A turning point, organizers say, was Mr. Bush's decision this month to ensure an "offensive option" by ordering more than 150,000 additional troops to the region, the largest deployment since the Vietnam War.

Almost half the nation, or 47 percent, now agrees that the administration was too quick to get involved militarily, an 11-point jump since the crisis began in August, according to a CBS News/New York Times survey. In just two months there has been a twofold increase, to 30 percent, of those who think the United States should have stayed out altogether.

For the moment, anti-war groups still find it tough to scare up a crowd.

A rush-hour rally outside New York's Pennsylvania Station last Wednesday, one of the busiest travel days of the year, drew fewer than 200 demonstrators and scant attention from passers-by on the crowded sidewalk.

"Most people can't believe there's going to be a war," explained Joseph Mangana, 34, a volunteer with the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, displaying a clipboard with just a few dozen signatures on petitions urging President Bush to bring the troops home now.

But Mr. Mangana, conservatively clad in trench coat and Topsiders and wearing earplugs to shut out the loudspeakers, believes that will change. He predicted that masses of Americans would begin actively opposing U.S. military involvement "once the blood starts flowing."

Since the end of the military draft in the early 1970s, there has been relatively little activism on college campuses, the focal point of the 1960s protests and one of the easiest places to build a big crowd. But the recently announced gulf reinforcements are prompting fears among students that the start of hostilities in the desert could lead to a resumption of conscription.

"In the last two weeks, there has been a wave of student groups formed. It's almost like a wave in a football stadium," said Leslie Cagan, coordinator of the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East.

"People are getting ready for a major mobilization," she said. "What is motivating people is a sense that maybe we can stop this thing before war breaks out."

Students are not the only people beginning to act on their concerns.

"I was very supportive of the idea of moving within the United Nations and getting an international coalition. I thought it was a wonderful idea. But this doubling of forces has led many of us to change our minds," said Jim Stewart, a private business consultant who has become active with the Washington Peace Center, which sponsors weekly demonstrations across from the White House.

"To risk thousands upon thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that would be killed in a U.S. invasion has made me believe that this is totally counterproductive."

Mr. Stewart, like the leaders of the anti-war groups formed since August, came of age in the Vietnam era, or earlier, and was involved in the peace movement of the 1960s. But today's activists are quick to draw distinctions between their movement and the one that flourished more than two decades ago.

Among the major differences is the involvement by families of servicemen and women and by relatives of U.S. hostages. The Wisconsin-based Military Families Support Network, which opposes the massive deployment of U.S. ground forces in the region, claims to represent more than 2,500 families of those now serving in the gulf.

With administration officials, including Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, predicting heavy casualties if war begins, anti-war leaders believe public sentiment against U.S. involvement in the Middle East would grow rapidly as soon as body bags began to come home. Plans have already been made for dozens of demonstrations around the nation on the day after any outbreak of fighting involving U.S. forces, for instance, and a mass protest in Washington probably would follow in three weeks.

Less certain are the prospects for significant growth of anti-war sentiment in the absence of a war.

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