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Not Your Mother's Peace Movement 

Major anti-war groups change strategy, hoping to win over mainstream voters the Bush administration can't ignore

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
Peter Ferenbach is courting a woman. As he discusses the thoughtful strategy designed to win her favor over coffee in a Berkeley cafe on a warm Indian summer day, his determination seems unshakable.

She's nothing special, really, this person he's after; in fact, ordinariness is the point. The woman of Ferenbach's desire is an unexceptional, middle-class individual who could be persuaded to share his passions and ideas, so they might build a lasting relationship. Fondly, he's taken to calling the woman "Jane Q. Fresno."

Of course, she's not real, but a composite woman whose values do not, Ferenbach believes, include supporting a U.S. attack on another country, or selling arms around the world, or the use of weapons of mass destruction. As executive director of California Peace Action, Ferenbach would like to invite Jane (and millions of her friends) to join him in a new campaign for peace.

He thinks he's got a chance with her. And them.

A little more than a year after the terror attacks of last fall, it is clear that the national peace movement is gaining public notice. Concurrent peace marches last month in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., attracted crowds of 40,000 and 100,000, respectively. Religious organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, have joined academic communities and civil rights groups in opposing the Bush administration's planned invasion of Iraq. Poll numbers show slightly more than half of Americans supporting the idea of sending troops into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein; support is even lower if military intervention begins without backing from the United Nations.

The reasons for public uneasiness with war on Iraq are doubtless varied. But even centrist observers note the uncertainty.

"I think that the natural caution of the American people is keeping them from fully supporting this," says Morris Fiorina, a professor of political science and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. "The argument is being made that Saddam is an imminent and critical threat. Debate begins, and some people who are in no way associated with the peace movement are questioning [war with Iraq].

"Quite a few of our constituents have said, 'I'm not convinced.' They'd like to know that there's more of an actual threat before they commit."

That general skepticism, only a year after the United States was attacked at home, has presented peace activists with a political opening. And since the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a subset of the U.S. peace movement clearly has changed strategy, focusing itself on attracting moderates to a reshaped cause. Rather than attempt to adapt long-standing anti-war rhetoric to a shocking and frightening situation, these activists took to the conference room, emerging with a strategic plan to meet, and win over, people who didn't know them.

California Peace Action, the state's largest anti-war group, forged a new overall approach that focused on an "alternative foreign policy" to appeal to mainstream America, rather than just opposing Bush administration initiatives one by one as they came out of Washington. Another major peace group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, concentrated on showing off its research on the effects of war and nuclear weapons and linked itself with clergy in Los Angeles to deliver the message.

During the past year, the "new" peace movement has not been shy about using a mainstream method of reaching Middle America and its political leaders: advertising. Peace Action hammered its message with ad campaigns in newspapers in the districts of California's congressional leaders and on billboards near their offices in Washington, D.C. Other groups ran advertisements in the New York Times, featuring prominent academicians questioning the use of military force in Iraq.

At the same time, peace activists aiming for broader influence took a page from the playbook of their right-wing counterparts. Peter Ferenbach spent hours on talk radio during the last year, and Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, recently launched her new Nuclear Policy Research Institute, designed specifically to provide experts who can match media appearances with the talking heads of conservative think tanks.

And, in the first major anti-war movement since average Americans incorporated the Internet into their daily lives, e-mail is in wide use. Organizations regularly spread the word to members on pending changes in Washington in a matter of minutes, and rally crowds with the push of a button.

But as it tries to sway public opinion, this particular peace movement focuses on using its political muscle to influence Congress.

Last year, California Peace Action persuaded constituents to send more than 30,000 postcards to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asking her to oppose a proposed national missile defense system. In June, the organization had several thousand volunteers fan out into 28 different congressional districts throughout the state, knocking on doors, speaking about the use of missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and signing up thousands of people as financially contributing members.

Some of them, no doubt, were named Jane.

The modern U.S. peace movement has stalled and started repeatedly in response to changes in U.S. foreign policy, but organizational failings also have diminished the influence of anti-war groups in American public life.

After the Vietnam War, the peace constituency, lacking a central magnet around which it could organize, unraveled. In the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan's aggressive nuclear arms policies, particularly the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe and a general buildup of U.S. nuclear capabilities, brought together a huge number of new and former peace activists. In fact, some of the largest peace demonstrations in American history took place between 1982 and 1987. But, participants were never organized for the long term, and with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the call for peace again fell to a whisper.

The 15-year history of Peace Action has paralleled the chaotic rise-and-fall pattern of the overall peace movement. The organization was born in 1987 from the merger of two nonproliferation movements whose fortunes were waning: the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which gained public notice with spokespersons including Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Benjamin Spock, and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, which grew in the 1980s with support from U.S. Sens. Ted Kennedy and Pat Schroeder.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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