Internet is providing outlet for movement opposing war in Iraq

Protest: Learning from Vietnam War-era mistakes, American anti-war activists are using the Web as a tool in the fight to gain public opinion.

February 20, 2003|By Johanna Neuman | Johanna Neuman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Bettina Aptheker says she remembers standing outside the Berkeley Co-Op back in 1966, clipboard in hand, offering a petition against the Vietnam War. If she stood there all day, says the activist who now teaches feminist history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she could get three dozen signatures - maybe.

These days, those opposing war in Iraq have the Internet. Eli Pariser, the 22-year-old international director for MoveOn.org in New York, says his organization can gather 8,000 signatures in an hour, or an average of two a second - faster than the human hand can write. Spawned as an e-mail effort to get Congress to "move on" from the Clinton impeachment trial, the Web site has morphed into a grass-roots anti-war powerhouse claiming 750,000 members - an increase of 100,000 in the last month alone.

Middle class' role

Vietnam-era peace organizers and scholars who have studied pacifist influences on American history marvel at how quickly the anti-war movement has galvanized its supporters to take to the streets. It took three years of ground combat in Vietnam, often televised, before activists could amass 250,000 in mass rallies against the war in 1968.

But with a majority of Americans supportive of war against Iraq, according to the latest polls - although the numbers drop if conflict comes without United Nations support or with heavy U.S. casualties - the struggle for public opinion is very much a contest for the mainstream. Marshaling the middle class against the war in Iraq in time to prevent it is all but impossible, scholars say.

"No major peace movement in modern American history has stopped a war," said Melvin Small, a historian at Wayne State University in Detroit and author of Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America's Hearts and Minds. But "they did affect the trajectory of war."

The anti-war movement has not only assigned itself the historically unprecedented goal of preventing war in Iraq, it has also signaled a willingness to stay in the streets over any U.S. mission to invade foreign countries in the name of fighting terrorism. Fear of terrorist attacks propels many Americans to support war in Iraq, but activists believe their greatest argument is that war will only increase the risk.

"What I see is a bigger and bigger movement over the question of what kind of world order we want," said Tom Hayden, a longtime organizer of anti-war efforts. While Vietnam-era protests grew out of the Civil Rights movement, with its emphasis on peaceful pressure to achieve political goals, "this grows out of anti-globalization movement," Hayden said. "Whatever happens in Iraq, the movement will continue to grow because of discontent over the strategy of American empire."

Lessons learned

With public opinion up for grabs, both sides have taken great pains not to repeat the public relations mistakes of the Vietnam era - particularly in dealings with the news media.

During Vietnam, the Nixon administration made a concerted effort - often through the rhetoric of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew - to marginalize protesters as hippies, druggies and basically unpatriotic. The news media, particularly on television, fueled the impression by homing in on the most colorful, often sandal-clad demonstrators with long hair and tie-dye shirts. The tactic backfired when protests grew mainstream.

Now, the White House has been careful limit comment on the demonstrators, and protesters have tried to emphasize the middle-class nature of their crowds.

Anti-war groups say they have also learned another lesson from the Vietnam era - to make a distinction between opposition to U.S. policy and opposition to U.S. troops. If the United States goes to war against Iraq, however, support for U.S. soldiers could dampen anti-war sentiment.

"We're being very careful not to direct animosity to troops," said Pariser, of MoveOn.org, which is run by six people, mostly from laptops in their homes. "They're just trying to do their jobs, but it's irresponsible to put their lives on the line when the inspections regime could lead to disarmament."

Targeting politicians is one similarity between strategy surrounding Vietnam 1968 and Iraq 2003. Hayden, a former California assemblyman and state senator, recalls the effort to attract a presidential candidate to the anti-war banner, and thinks the current anti-war movement will have to adopt a similar strategy.

"This is sure to attract the attention of the Democratic contenders," he said. "That's how this dynamic works. You create the climate that allows politicians to find voice and courage."

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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