Peace movement revives, but not in Vietnam style

December 17, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Although the prospect of diplomatic talks with Iraq has muffled criticism of the Bush administration in some quarters of Congress, it apparently hasn't slowed the momentum of the nation's small but growing anti-war movement.

"We expected it [a slowdown]," said former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who in late October organized the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East. "It even seemed possible that the diplomatic moves were calculated to defuse the peace movement. But whatever the reason was, I do not detect anything of the kind. . . . There are outpourings and rallies and demonstrations all over the place."

Daniel Ellsberg, who helped lead protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, also sees heightened interest after bemoaning only a month ago the apathy of the public.

"Before it was hard to even call it a movement," Mr. Ellsberg said Thursday. "But now I would say it really seems comparable in size to the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War."

Perhaps the clearest indicator of the peace movement's growth is the burgeoning Military Families Support Network, which sprang up in response to the publication of an emotional anti-war letter to President Bush by Alex Molnar, the father of a Marine.

But Mr. Molnar's organization also marks the point where similarities with the anti-Vietnam War movement end.

Vietnam-era protests were dominated by college students subject to a now-dormant military draft. Today's movement, while fortified by a graying element of the anti-Vietnam crowd, comes from a wider range of the political spectrum.

"It's the damnedest coalition I've ever seen in my life," Mr. Molnar said. "We've got right-to-lifers and pro-choicers, Democrats and

Republicans. This is really Main Street America."

One result is that the anti-war protests of today carry an air of patriotism and respect for the armed forces not seen in the 1960s.

"I think there is a real consciousness that our cause needs to be pitched in terms of 'Support our troops, bring them home now,' " said Leslie Cagan, director of the New York-based National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East.

"Since the war in Vietnam, a lot of people have seen -- in a way that you couldn't while the shooting was going on -- that the men who fought there were victims of a terrible injustice in almost LTC every way and paid a terrible cost for it," Mr. Clark said.

Those kinds of sentiments, when coupled with the political diversity, are likely to increase the movement's clout with policy-makers, Mr. Molnar said. "This is the same constituency that melted the wires when the government tried to foist off the tax agreement," he said.

Partly because of that aspect, Mr. Ellsberg said, "I think the most significant part of this movement is the military dependents network."

Mr. Ellsberg is also impressed by how quickly such a diverse group has coalesced on the anti-war side. "To listen to them, you'd think they'd been reading left-wing critiques all their lives," he said. "They really have heard the message."

Buttressing this image of ideological diversity have been some uncharacteristic dove coos from the political right, including right-wing columnist Patrick Buchanan and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga.

But other than sharing some opinions, those elements aren't forming any alliance with the protest groups, and the groups don't seem to want any.

"They're welcome to march with us," Ms. Cagan said. "But I don't think we're going to sit down with them and map out strategy."

In charting the growth of their movement, organizers cite President Bush's announcement last month that he would send a "substantial" number of extra troops to the Persian Gulf to bolster offensive capabilities, as the biggest catalyst.

"It was awakened then," Mr. Ellsberg said.

Then, when Mr. Bush announced last week that he would send Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad for diplomatic talks, some activists anticipated a falloff in interest.

In Boston, where organizers were expecting perhaps 4,000 people for a rally on Boston Common, "We thought, well, maybe no one will come now," Mr. Ellsberg said.

Instead, 8,000 showed up, he said. Boston police estimated the number at 10,000.

On the same weekend, a protest in Washington's Lafayette Park drew about 2,500 people, five times larger than the previous high for protests on each of the preceding 15 Saturdays. "We got one guy who called in beforehand and asked, 'Are you still demonstrating every Saturday?' and that was the only question we got," said Phyllis Englebert, coordinator of the Washington Peace Center.

Mr. Molnar said his organization now has volunteer chairmen in 42 states and is organizing at the county level in California. In south Texas, the group is translating its materials into Spanish.

Just about the only thing that's missing, leaders said, is a major presence on college campuses.

That, too, is changing, Ms. Cagan said. But any growth of the movement among students is likely to be stunted as students begin heading home for extended holiday breaks.

For now, anti-war organizers are pointing most toward a Jan. 19 national rally scheduled for Washington. After the United Nations Security Council set a Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to move its army out of Kuwait, some pushed for an earlier date. But others argued successfully to keep the date the same, citing the return of Congress for the president's State of the Union speech, set for Jan. 23.

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