Peace Movement Blues

Where is the U.S. peace movement when the White House is preparing to escalate the Afghanistan war for the second time since President Barack Obama took office over 10 months ago?

The Bush era antiwar movement has ebbed and flowed a few times since it abruptly materialized just after 9/11 and then exploded into a massive force in the months leading up to President George W. Bush’s unjust and illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This was actually the high point of mass activism. A decline began with the invasion and the bipartisan congressional declaration of support for the new war, but the movement remained huge and mounted many large national and local demonstrations for years.

The Democratic victory in the 2006 Congressional election signaled a further erosion of peace activities because of the erroneous assumption that the new Congress would end the wars. Antiwar forces were hardly visible during the 2008 campaign, despite the mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan, because many efforts we focused on electing Sen. Barack Obama, whom many Democrats considered to be a peace candidate.

The low point was reached earlier this year — a remarkable development during two ongoing wars — about the time President Obama reignited the Afghan war by ordering another 21,000 troops to the battlefield.

The hard core of the movement has remained intact, but is relatively small. The national peace organizations and coalitions are still in place, though most have become less active as their numbers fell off and funding diminished. The left wing and the pacifist sector are engaged and active, now focused on ending the Afghan war, and there will be growth as Obama continues to escalate the war.

But the mass base of the movement that confronted the Bush Administration’s wars — the Democratic voters — are standing on the sidelines, unwilling to publicly criticize the president of their choice. This is despite the fact that opinion polls report a majority of the American people now oppose the Afghan war, including some 70% of Democrats.

Over the last year or so I’ve spoken to a number of local and national peace leaders and many rank-and-file activists about the drop in antiwar numbers. Everybody has felt the decline. As an organizer for the last 15 years in New York State’s Hudson Valley region I have witnessed it close up.

For example, seven years ago in October 2002 our group at the time organized an antiwar demonstration of 2,500 people at Academy Green Park in the small city of Kingston. On the same day several buses full of local activists traveled to Washington to attend the ANSWER Coalition’s big peace rally that drew up to 100,000 people. The war hadn’t even started. It was five months away. This was the beginning stages of the largest “preemptive” antiwar movement in U.S. history.

On Oct. 17 a couple of weeks ago in the same city park, with two wars in progress, 20 co-sponsoring groups and an excellent speaker list— our antiwar rally attracted 100 people. There was no Washington protest to draw crowds away, and the anticipated rain didn’t fall. We knew half the participants by name. There were antiwar actions in some 40 cities that day, but the ones we heard from all had much lower numbers than in the past. The Capital District movement to our north brought out between 200-250 people for a well publicized and organized Albany demonstration, but a couple of years ago they attracted a crowd of over 600.

Here’s one more example. Over the years my co-organizer Donna Goodman and I have arranged for 22 bus trips to bring Hudson Valley activists to distant peace rallies, mostly in Washington. We average between three and five buses. That’s roughly 150 to 250 people. Our biggest success was in January 2003, two months before the Iraq war, when we sent seven buses to DC to join an ANSWER protest that attracted a half-million people.

Six years later this March, as President Obama was expanding the war by deploying another 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, we managed to bring 37 people to a demonstration in Washington. Some 10,000 people showed up for a good rally and an exciting march. We were empowered by the rally and proud to have made the effort, but it was dismaying to see how our numbers had dwindled.

In our talks with people about the movement’s decline, the main emphasis always pointed to the fact that the constituency upon which our broad peace movement reposes was disintegrating. At issue is figuring out exactly why, and then how to help rebuild our forces.

The question of “why” isn’t difficult. Since over 85% of our 3,500 Activist Newsletter readers voted Democratic last November, we decided to talk to a number of them, in person and mainly via email, as well as to movement organizers and unwavering activists. The conclusion is that the Democratic voters who have stopped showing up do so for one or more of three reasons: (1) The big majority simply don’t want to publicly oppose a war waged by a Democratic president — especially when he is under strong attack by the Republicans. (2) Some think it is a “good” war. (3) Some believe peace demonstrations “don’t do any good,” and that we’re “just talking to ourselves.” Let’s examine this point by point.

We’ve encountered point number one before. Many Democratic voters were extremely reluctant to criticize President Lyndon Johnson during the first couple of years in which he widened the Vietnam war. But by the end of LBJ’s first full term many Democrats turned on him to the point that he decided not to run for reelection. He was responsible for the passage of progressive domestic legislation far beyond anything Obama will achieve, but his war policy destroyed him.

On the other hand, Democratic voters, with the liberals in the vanguard, stuck with President Bill Clinton during his unjust and illegal bombardment of Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999. Clinton learned the big lesson from Vietnam: Launch a short war with few American deaths. He wisely did his dirty work in only three months. And while thousands of Yugoslavs were killed and much of the civilian infrastructure was wrecked, no American died because the war was conducted from the air beyond the reach of anti-aircraft fire. Now, of course, there are American drones assassinating people in western Pakistan. Sometimes they hit their target, sometimes a wedding party.

Bush served two terms despite his long imperialist wars, in part because he kept the U.S. deaths relatively low (the GI death toll in Vietnam was nearly 13 times greater). Bush was reelected in 2004 because the Democratic Party not only refused to oppose the war but candidate John Kerry kept telling the voters he would be much better at winning than blundering Bush. Given the choice between two pro-war candidates, the voters decided not to change war horses in mid-carnage.

There was an active antiwar movement during Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign but most peace people fell in line behind Kerry, as did United for Peace and Justice, the biggest coalition, and most moderate peace groups. ANSWER stood apart and picketed both political conventions, not just the Republican affair in New York. A week after Bush’s depressing reelection we called a local rally to get people up and running again. I opened by remarking that “98% of the American people just voted for war.” A woman in the front row interrupted, “No! We voted for Kerry!” Neither Kerry nor Obama (who made it clear in the campaign that he wanted to fight in Afghanistan) was a peace candidate, but most Democrats seemed to think they were.

The American peace movement has to win back the Democratic voters on the issue of ending the Afghan war, and bring them back into the streets to demand peace. Even if a majority of voters want an end to war, the ballot box is meaningless unless there is a candidate running on a genuine antiwar platform. We respect and support the antiwar members of Congress, such as our region’s Rep. Maurice Hinchey, but they are up against a large pro-war bipartisan majority and always get aced out. Put a million people in the streets on the same day and we’ll begin to get results; do it again and again, and maybe we’ll end a war.

This brings us to point two, the fact that some peace Democrats think the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is a good war. Government and mass media distortions have succeeding in confusing many people. The movement is partly responsible by focusing over the years almost exclusively on Iraq. Now that the Obama Administration is widening the Afghan war it is essential for the peace forces to increase their educational efforts.

We’re trying to do our part in this issue of the newsletter. The two-part article “The U.S. in Afghanistan” contains information that will be useful to our readers in assessing this war, particularly those who think it is just. The article on Afghan Women and the War is important because we’re all worried about their situation, which remains deplorable, but the women quoted in this article perceive two oppressors: the Taliban and the U.S.-NATO occupiers (Check out the CNN video link). Also, the Afghan war article by Bill Moyers (“Bring Back the Draft”) provokes some interesting thoughts.

I’ve heard point three regarding the alleged inefficacy of peace protests, and that we’re talking to ourselves, many times. The Vietnam era was filled with it, and yet — as the Vietnamese government will tell you, the peace struggle in the U.S. was an essential ingredient in ending the war and reunifying the country.

Many people think that because the mass media usually ignores our actions that what we do has no effect. Some say “we demonstrate and nothing happens.” I’ve often been told that all we do is speak to each other. Some say we’re so irrelevant the White House isn’t even listening. All this is wrong, and I’ll try to explain why.

It is important to understand that we are involved in a very long struggle for peace. We are trying to change the policies of history’s most powerful military state, which has been engaged in a hot or cold war, openly or clandestinely, without interruption since it entered World War II, 68 years ago. Many of Washington’s martial actions have been neither legal nor just. The mass media is a virtual adjunct of the government as far as foreign military policy is concerned. The U.S. is a militarist state and spends more money each year on wars past, present and future than the military budgets of every other country in the world combined. It has between 700 and 1,000 military bases circling the globe.

This is a tough nut to crack. Our side, the peace and justice side, often doesn’t win. And when we do win it sure doesn’t happen overnight. Of course the mass media ignores us, but that doesn’t invalidate our efforts. Sure, we often demonstrate and nothing happens. We’re up against big odds. It’s a matter of unceasing struggle, protest after protest, meeting after meeting, leaflet, after leaflet.

Mass demonstrations are essential. They are the collective expression of the opposition of the American people to the aggressive wars conducted in their name by their government, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Yugoslavia and Nicaragua, or Vietnam and Haiti. Our mass protests are acts of public solidarity with the victims of unjust war, and help to strengthen their resistance. And mass protests in Washington, the seat of government and the Pentagon, are necessary to turn attention directly to the warmakers.

Frequently we do speak to ourselves, and it is important to do so. That’s why the great religions have been meeting once a week for thousands of years. It’s what keeps their movement together, and ours as well. In our own experience, we have found that under normal conditions, between 15% and 20% of the people at every rally or bus trip we organize have shown up for the first time, and many come back. At the beginning stages of new wars the proportion is much higher.

It’s untrue that the White House doesn’t listen because we’re irrelevant. All presidents make a show of indifference to our protests. But when we are of mass size they are supplied with detailed reports about the status of our forces. President Nixon made a big point of laughing off the peace movement, but if you read Robert Dallek’s “Nixon and Kissinger” for instance, you will understand he was obsessed with the antiwar movement and carefully calculated its impact.

It is essential for us to keep on protesting against aggressive wars or Washington will run riot with military adventurism. The only significant opposition to a bigger war in Afghanistan will come from that sector of the peace movement willing to confront the power in Washington regardless of who is president. And some members of Congress will speak up, too, and they are strengthened knowing our mass movement is out there.

I believe without doubt that in the cynical and conservative atmosphere choking our country today this movement remains our principal instrumentality against Washington’s unjust wars and imperialist escapades. Without this movement we have no voice! Let us make that voice ever louder as we rebuild the movement and go forward toward the attainment of peace.

  • From the Activist Newsletter, Nov. 5, 2009.
  • Jack A. Smith is the editor of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Jack.

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    1. bozh said on November 7th, 2009 at 10:48am #

      Is ther anything in US constitution that says explicitly that a gov’t wld heed any protest and a war protest in particular?
      Only a strong people’s party can alter the course of any US war. Spain’s socialist party did that when it brought back ist troops from iraq.
      Lenin had sued for peace with germany and got it.
      US warlords solely decide when to wage and end a war! It is in constitution; not in streets. tnx

    2. Sam said on November 7th, 2009 at 4:02pm #

      What Peace Movement Blues? There has to be a peace movement before it can be blue. The peace movement is essentially dead—at least here in the States—just like the traditional Democratic Party has been dead since 2000. Even during the latter days of the Bush regime with the “Repug Team” in power, protests (of which I took part in all of them) were getting smaller and smaller and fewer and fewer. Our protests had no effect on anything. The protests stopped nothing because the Repug White House and the D and R congress didn’t care what we protesters thought. I recall that even John Conyers (he claims to be a Dem) said that the people protesting in the District of Columbia don’t represent the “American people” and that there are no people protesting in DC from his district. Uh huh, that’s what he said. I don’t know how he would know that since he didn’t attend any of the protests. The Nut. Now that the pro-war corporate “Dem Team” is in power, their disciples who protested the Bush regime feel they should not criticize the Obama regime (for doing the exact same things as the Bush regime) because the Dem disciples have been brainwashed to think that they are not supposed to criticize or protest anything that their “team” does. They been brainwashed that they must support their “team” and their “savior” no matter what, or at least be quiet. Doesn’t this pathetic mentality remind you of the sports and religion mentality? That unconditional blind support, or at least be silent if you disagree with your “team.” I’ve heard it repeatedly from the pathetic Dem kool-aid drinkers and Obamabots.

      I got an e-mail the other day from someone I argued with before the election about this shit. He was an Obamabot during the campaign. He bought the Obama marketing slogans completely. I repeatedly stressed Obama’s Bush regime-enabling voting record from the senate but Obama’s voting record meant zero to this guy. In his e-mail he was not cheer leading for his “savior” Obama, which is new for him. He did however write the typical Dem kool-aid Obamabot spew: that stuff about the Republicans are much worse than Obama and most of the Dems. Oh give it a fuking rest! They are all scum, except for Kucinich and maybe 1-2 others. Both teams are paid by the same corporate people. Both teams work for the military industrial complex, they are both for the USA Patriot Act, torture, rendition, illegal spying, war and occupation and they are both for becoming as wealthy as possible at the expense of you and me. Check this out:

      Google: 237 millionaires in congress.
      The article is on http://www.politico dot com

      I said to this guy in the e-mail, well I can’t stand either D or R but if the Repugs were much worse why is that your beloved Dem-controlled White House and Dem-controlled congress continue the Cheney/Bush agenda (as I and others said Obama and the Ds would do)? Hmmmmmmm? The only “changes” have been some window-dressing stuff to pacify some of the sheep.

      The Dem kool-aid drinkers want so hard to believe that their beloved Dems are supposedly better than the other “team.” They have been brainwashed to believe that simplistic mentality.

      Then he wrote this spew: “we have to push them and force them to do the right thing.” I said to him: well again, if your Dems are supposedly better than the Repugs as you previously claimed, they wouldn’t need to be pushed or forced to do anything. They would do what “you/we” want them to do **all on their own** because they would know that is the correct, fair and just thing to do and they would want to do that as part of their job as working for We The People and because they are our employees. I would remind you that people have been “pushing them” since 2000 with e-mails, phone calls, faxes, letters, sit-ins, petitions, national and international protest in the streets and you see the state of things, don’t you? THEY DON’T CARE WHAT WE THINK. PERIOD. You haven’t figured that out YET? The so-called Dems are not going to be forced to change because they don’t work for you or me. They don’t take their orders from us. How do you think 237 members of congress became millionaires? You still haven’t figured that out yet either? Man, some people are thick. How much more evidence do you need to see to confirm what I’ve said?….assuming you want to see it, that is. Therein, probably, lies your problem, as it did during the campaign. You and others refuse to see it because you don’t want to.

      P.S. And I am reminded that many D and R voters (suckers) actually send $$$$$$$$$$ to these millionaire war criminals in congress for their campaigns. Why would anyone send $$$$$$$$$$$ to a millionaire? Duh. How stupid is THAT! It’s often people who are living on a limited income who send $$$$$$$$$$$$ to these millionaire trash in congress. Incredible. How naive, gullible and stupid is THAT! And that goes a long way to explain why we are where we are today.

    3. bozh said on November 7th, 2009 at 5:51pm #

      I conclude US is governed by WH, congress, judiciary and supported by cia, fbi, armed services, ‘religions’, much of middle class.
      And as directed by US constitution or rather by the interpretation of that constitution.

      Only an opposing political party wld be able, if elected, to appoint own judges that wld come up with different interpretations than the judges appointed by one party.
      Constitution may remain the same but being an interpretative document any given of its utterances can be interpreted differently by different judges.

      Judges that respect-value all americans equally, wld surely come up with an interpretation that wld differ from that of judges appointed by either of the two wings of one party and which serves mostly rich and very rich americans.

      One constitution, one interpretation by one party, one party means more warfare and more misery for working classes.
      Few lands have only one party system. It is any wonder that the middle and higher classes support the one party system that much?
      Countries that have two or more parties treats its low classes much better than US governance.
      In US better treatment of people in other lands is known as “geting s’mthing for nothing”.
      No protest will change the governance in US; only a viable political party can do that. tnx

    4. Obstreperous said on November 7th, 2009 at 6:20pm #

      bozh, agreed that viable alternative parties are needed for real change to occur. But that needs to be coupled with grassroots protest…against war, against rampant government growth & oppression, etc. The powers that be must know that this division of Americans along their particular interests in order to continually expand the scope and power of government must stop. Americans have disagreements and differences of opinion, but they do not need a government that uses these divisions to control their lives. We need liberty. We need smaller government. We need more true open discussion of issues and the opportunity for peace and justice.

    5. beverly said on November 7th, 2009 at 6:56pm #

      Well said Sam!!!!!

      Good point bozh. Nothing in the constitutional saying the govt has to heed the will of the people. Given fact that despite polls showing support for matters such as ending the war and enacting single payer, Congress and the President continue to legislate the exact opposite, I doubt millions protesting in the street would make a difference. I’d like to think that it would, but these days I’m not so sure. The only thing these politicians heed is being voted out of office and as they via their media stooges keep the public ignorant and in a haze, they don’t have to worry about too many losses at the ballot box. Plus, if they lose, they can always come back as lobbyists and exact the same amount of influence.

      The only way to get any effective “peace” movement is to reinstate the draft. When the threat of becoming roadside bomb fodder becomes a possibility for someone other than just the poor and working classes, we’ll see a crap load of potential draftees and their families come out of the woodwork. Yes, many of them will have connections to stay off the front lines but not all of them.

    6. bozh said on November 8th, 2009 at 10:00am #

      obstreperous, respectfully
      As i see it, US governance, in its intent, stays nuch or completely unchanged.
      Again, as i see it, US governance is run by also unelected and elected individuals.
      In US you have private and public armies, spy agencies;privately run healthcare, etc.
      Privately run army is as constitutional as WH. And if for no other reason than that supreme court finds it constitutional and any gov’t which wld attempt to do away wth private ownership of transport, heatlhcare, defense, education, etc., wld probably be removed from office and by force if that gov’t wld not obey the judges.

      The new democratic party [NDP] had been established by canadian socialists. I do not know anything about its history; so i can’t say what effects grassroot had in its establishment.
      With time it became so strong that it formed socialist gov’ts in, i think, at least 5 provinces.
      NDP was instrumental in obtaining healthcare for all of us. Federally, however, we represent ab 20% of the parliament. Not enough to have prevented sending troops to afgh’n.
      Of course, it does matter how and where a grass roots start a party that wld at least ask for healthcare for all; right to be informed [without that right, not much good can be expected], etc.
      Such orgs can easily be infiltrated and destroyed in just days! tnx

    7. Obstreperous said on November 8th, 2009 at 10:44am #

      The American public has largely been used to the two party system. Third party candidates do not have the name recognition, nor the $ to gain that recognition, to make much headway. Individuals who are know can run Independent, such a Lieberman. Perot’s campaign and all of his resources only served to drain off enough votes to get Clinton elected. Bot the left and the right are now sufficiently disgusted with D & R that we may see more thired party candidates. The extremes of anti-capitalists and ultra libertarians will not succeed. Most Americans want reason, honest discussion and balance. Personally, that’s where I also stand, since I find the standard parties platforms to be self-contradictory in many cases, meaning no party existing completely addresses my hopes for the country I like to leave for my children. I do not fear infiltration and destruction of honest, non-violent political groups. There are plenty of violent and dangerous groups for the government to focus their attention on. However, this current Administration has made efforts to quiet honest disaggreement to an extent that is unprecedented and worrisome. This may be a self-defeating stance to take in a country that allows a vote.