Not Your Mother's Peace Movement

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

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.

Even after the merger, the organization continued to struggle, and California Peace Action pulled away from the national organization in 1990, retaining an affiliation but incorporating as a separate entity. "Everybody had three jobs," recalls Ferenbach, who's been director of California Peace Action since its founding.

Peter Ferenbach, executive director of California 
Peace Action.
Paolo Vescia
Peter Ferenbach, executive director of California Peace Action.
California Peace Action believes it can persuade 
moderate voters to share its views.
Paolo Vescia
California Peace Action believes it can persuade moderate voters to share its views.

Similarly, the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility has also incorporated as an organization separate from its national colleagues. Founded by doctor and nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, the Nobel Prize-winning organization grew up in the 1960s, helping to end atmospheric nuclear testing. Since then, Physicians for Social Responsibility has focused on educating the public on the dangers of nuclear war, environmental pollution, and gun violence.

Ferenbach proudly notes that California Peace Action, now the largest state peace group in the country with 35,000 members, has grown in membership and budget every year since its founding. In the last six months, though, the group has been aiming for an even larger audience, and so have the doctors at Physicians for Social Responsibility.


In the days immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, peace activism was frozen in the same kind of stunned limbo as the rest of America.

Until then, the agenda of most peace organizations had pretty much focused on stopping a Bush administration plan to deploy a missile defense system and decreasing U.S. military involvement in Colombia's civil war. In fact, congressional support was increasing on the anti-missile front, and it looked as if there was a good chance of blocking Bush's proposal.

Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, California Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and many other anti-war organizations put out official statements offering condolences and urging caution in the nation's response. In subsequent months, some of the more strident peace groups took to the streets in relatively small anti-war marches.

Others paused for introspection.

After a great deal of thought and discussion by staff and board members, Ferenbach says, California Peace Action began to create a strategy for moving forward in what was suddenly a new, insecure America. Essentially, the group realigned all of its campaigns -- for eliminating the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for stopping arms sales, and for promoting human rights -- into one overall alternative foreign policy.

"Our expectation, going back to September, was that the administration would have the kind of response that they have had, and that people would increasingly realize that it is dangerous," Ferenbach says. "We said, 'Let's get busy promoting an alternative now, and stick with it for the next several years.'"

The message was carefully crafted to resonate with people in Bolinas -- but in Bakersfield, as well. "One of the most important things was to promote an overall foreign policy in positive terms," Ferenbach explains. "If you're going to lead the country in a certain direction, it has to be something that the majority of people can support."

In other words, there needed to be a message that would resonate with Jane Q. Fresno.

In June, California Peace Action rolled out its new mission -- "to promote a foreign policy built on democratic values" -- in an advertising blitz that included full- and half-page ads in national and local newspapers. The ads put forward the following messages:

- U.S. troops and the American people will be safer when the United States bans arms sales to governments that abuse human rights.

- Real security will come from eradicating nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

- International cooperation can make us safer.

- The United States should increase support for international economic development.

The ads that ran in local papers named the congressman representing those localities in big, bold letters at the top. A few days after the ad campaign hit print, California Peace Action coordinated 58 groups in a massive, one-day, door-to-door canvass that distributed more than 100,000 door-hangers in cities across California. The literature included postcards for constituents to mail to Congress. "I spent the day in Salinas in a neighborhood where there were several homes with American flags," Ferenbach says. "And I found that people were really open to us.

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