WASHINGTON -- Bettina Aptheker remembers standing outside the Berkeley Co-Op back in 1966, clipboard in hand, offering a petition against the war in Vietnam. If she stood there all day, recalls the activist who now teaches feminist history at UC 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 group can gather 8,000 signatures in an hour, or an average of two a second. Spawned as an e-mail effort to get Congress to "move on" from the impeachment trial of President Clinton, the Web site has morphed into a grass-roots antiwar powerhouse claiming 750,000 members -- an increase of 100,000 in the last month alone.
As organizers prepare for Saturday's antiwar rallies in New York and throughout Europe, Vietnam-era peace activists and scholars who have studied pacifist influences on U.S. history marvel at how quickly the movement has galvanized its supporters to take to the streets. It took three years of ground combat in Vietnam, often televised, before activists could rally 250,000 in mass antiwar rallies in 1968. Saturday's organizers in New York hope to double that number -- against a war that has not yet begun.
But with a majority of Americans supportive of war against Iraq -- although the numbers drop if conflict comes without U.N. support or with heavy U.S. casualties -- the battle for hearts and minds is very much a contest for the mainstream. Marshaling the middle class against a war 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 current antiwar movement has not only assigned itself the historically unprecedented goal of stopping war in Iraq before it starts, but it has also signaled a willingness to stay in the streets for any U.S. mission involving the invasion of foreign countries in the name of fighting terrorism. Fear of terrorist attacks propels many Americans to support a 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, an organizer of antiwar efforts then and now. While Vietnam-era protests grew out of the 1960s civil rights movement, with its emphasis on peaceful pressure to achieve political goals, "this grows out of the anti-globalization movement," Hayden said.
"Whatever happens in Iraq, the movement will continue to grow because of discontent over the strategy of American empire," he added.
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, President Nixon's 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 television, fueled the impression by homing in on the most colorful, often sandal-clad, demonstrators with long hair and tie-dyed shirts. The tactic backfired when protests grew mainstream.
Now, the White House has been careful to refrain from comment on the demonstrators, and protesters have tried to emphasize the middle-class nature of their crowds. The antiwar groups are still smarting, however, over the news media treatment of their movement -- including slight coverage last fall by major newspapers and continued hype on TV -- particularly CNN's use of a protester burning a U.S. flag as an icon for coverage of January's rallies.
Antiwar groups say they have also learned another lesson from the Vietnam era -- to make a distinction between opposition to U.S. policy, and U.S. troops. If the United States does go to war against Iraq, however, support for American soldiers could well dampen antiwar 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 laptop computers 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."
Historians are still debating whether the Vietnam-era protests actually stopped the war or protracted it. Some think Nixon pursued victory at all costs in part because he did not want to appear to cave in to public opinion. Others note moments when pivotal mass marches forced Presidents Johnson and Nixon to scale back their military plans.
Already, a similar divide haunts the movement against a war in Iraq. Some activists think protests last fall helped persuade President Bush to seek congressional and U.N. support, delaying an invasion. Others worry that increasing dissent will only strengthen his determination to proceed.
Targeting politicians is one similarity between Vietnam 1968 and Iraq 2003. Hayden, a former California assemblyman and state senator, recalls the 1960s effort to attract a presidential candidate to the antiwar banner, and he thinks the current antiwar 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."
In 1968, the antiwar movement attracted Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and later, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, whose assassination, coupled with the antiwar riots that broke out at the Democratic convention in Chicago, took oxygen out of the movement.
"The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King cut off potential political turnaround much earlier," Hayden said.
"Had they lived, they could have affected the 1968 election outcome and ended war. That was my hope, that the antiwar movement would galvanize a presidential candidacy."
Instead, the war dragged on for seven more years.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times