Not Your Mother's Peace Movement

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

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.

The Oct. 26 peace march in San Francisco was the 
largest here in decades.
Paolo Vescia
The Oct. 26 peace march in San Francisco was the largest here in decades.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee is one of only a few politicians 
endorsed by California Peace Action; rather than 
endorse candidates, the group usually tries to obtain 
promises from them to vote in favor of peace issues.
Paolo Vescia
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee is one of only a few politicians endorsed by California Peace Action; rather than endorse candidates, the group usually tries to obtain promises from them to vote in favor of peace issues.
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.

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.

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.

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.

"American people are not the problem. If I want to win their agreement, I need to talk to them. Americans, in their concern about terrorism, did not sign off on a pre-emptive strike policy."

Meanwhile, the California and national Peace Action groups bought 25 billboard ads targeting the Washington, D.C., subway stops most used by congressional staff workers. By then, of course, the door-hanger postcards were beginning to arrive in Washington, as well. "This was all about demonstrating to them at this point that we're just getting started," Ferenbach says.

The targeting of Congress is not surprising; California Peace Action has focused its efforts nearly entirely on gaining political clout, with about 80 percent of the group's budget earmarked for lobbying. "We've definitely put our eggs in the legislative basket," says Ferenbach.

The organization produces "report cards" on California's congressional delegation, distributing them each year on at least 150,000 door-hangers. In fact, door-to-door canvassing goes on constantly in parts of the Bay Area and Los Angeles to build membership.

In L.A., Physicians for Social Responsibility also had introspective discussions about what to do immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. "There was this time of getting into an emotional space, mourning the loss of lives and not concocting a spin out of the ashes," says Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of PSR in Los Angeles. "To come out and criticize the president about his plans to immediately go into Afghanistan -- as a secular organization, we didn't have the political cover at that time."

So PSR helped create a coalition of interfaith leaders opposed to war.

"We decided to work with the religious community because you could hear things from rabbis and priests and imams and respect it, at that time," Parfrey says. "It was pretty harsh out there."

As months passed, PSR began to act on its own again, though it remains part of the Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice. Basically, the physicians' group went back to its roots, educating people about the health-related consequences of using nuclear weapons.

Earlier this year, the organization produced a conference with the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health and a handful of government agencies on the subject of weapons of mass destruction and the potential terrorist use of those weapons. "To look at it on the face, it sounds like it would be a theme for a right-wing Republican Party conference," Parfrey jokes.

The idea was to examine the threat head-on, to see what would happen if terrorists detonated a 12.5-kiloton nuclear weapon in the middle of downtown Los Angeles during lunchtime. In the UCLA conference scenario, about 117,000 people within a 19-mile-diameter circle area nearest the blast would die immediately, and more than 300,000 people would suffer from radiation sickness.

"We came to the conclusion that there is nothing that the medical community can do to prepare for an adequate response to that," Parfrey says. "Therefore, the only way to deal with it is to prevent it from happening."

The group rallied more than 7,000 people at an event highlighting the hazards of nuclear weapons in October and has beefed up fund-raising activities, which include a concert scheduled for this week.

There are numerous reasons to believe that the electoral middle could be receptive to anti-war messages.

Public opinion polls taken during September and October show that Americans who mostly were unified in support of military action after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks now seem to have much different feelings about a war in Iraq.

For instance, CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls taken a year ago showed that 74 percent of respondents said they favored sending American ground troops to the Persian Gulf to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Asked the same question in mid-September, only 57 percent said they favored the idea.

Similarly, recent polling by Zogby International, a market research firm, showed that a majority of Americans (52 percent) oppose a war with Iraq if it were waged without significant United Nations or international support. Respondents were split in their opinion of a war in Iraq if it meant sending in hundreds of thousands of ground troops, with 45 percent in support and 46 percent opposed.

Also during the last two months, political opposition to a military action has come from organizations not generally listed among the usual peace suspects.

On Sept. 17, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to President Bush expressing "serious questions about the moral legitimacy of any preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq." The same organization had, only a year earlier, said the use of force against Afghanistan could be justified if it were carried out in accord with "just war norms" and as part of a much broader effort to stop terrorism.

The National Council of Churches, which represents Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox denominations that have about 50 million members throughout the United States, followed suit within weeks. In an Oct. 8 letter, the council urged Bush to "reverse the momentum toward war." The World Council of Churches, which represents Christian denominations in 100 countries, also has opposed the proposed U.S. war against Iraq.

In mid-October, the NAACP, which pledged support for Bush's war on terrorism a year before, joined the opposition, though in a less forceful statement. The organization stated that it opposed war against Iraq "before all options are exercised, including but not limited to United Nations arms inspection."

Other organizations, among them the 100,000-member California Federation of Teachers, not only stated opposition, but joined a peace march in San Francisco in October.

And that's not to mention advertisements. A group called No Iraq Attack, recently started by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist, is circulating a petition opposing military action; the initiative seems to be moving through academic circles like wildfire, having gained more than 13,000 signatures. Advertisements in the New York Times call attention to the petition, which includes signatures of more than 120 faculty members from Harvard University alone, along with others from Stanford, Princeton, and New York universities and the University of California, Los Angeles, to name a few.

"The movement has become a movement much faster and at a much greater scale than I would have believed given the circumstances -- in the wake of Sept. 11 and the threats to security and the sense of a very strong president," says Zia Mian, research associate and lecturer at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "To have such a rapid movement to challenge [President Bush] on a central part of his foreign policy is surprising.

"If someone had told me a year ago that one year from now there would be a vote in Congress on a resolution giving the president the power to take a military action and that 100 members of Congress would vote against it, I wouldn't have believed it. I think that shows already that they are responding to the fact that their constituents expected them to do this."

It's more difficult, however, to determine whether financial support for anti-war groups also has grown. Philanthropic campaigns are often planned years in advance. Trends in giving generally shift more slowly than public opinion does, which is not to mention that the economic crisis caused by 9/11 has affected donations to charities across the board. Plus, for reasons unrelated to current affairs, some large foundations that had focused on funding peace and nonproliferation initiatives -- notably, the W. Alton Jones Foundation and the Merck Fund -- essentially got out of the business over the last year.

Still, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that new money is coming in to peace coffers, some of it via new organizations that have hit the scene.

Ted Turner and former Sen. Sam Nunn joined forces to start the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused primarily on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Earlier this year, Turner pledged some $250 million to the organization over the course of the next seven years.

And, in the streets, California Peace Action's Ferenbach has seen indications of a boost in financial support along with the renewed sense of enthusiasm for his organization's cause. (California Peace Action is 99 percent member funded, and less attached to foundation grants than some other activist groups.) During the massive door-to-door campaign in June, one of the organization's canvassers signed up a new member -- who promptly wrote out a $5,000 check.

"We've had a lot of major donors crank it up this year," Ferenbach says.

By any measure, the simultaneous marches in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco late last month marked the largest show of force by the American peace movement in a long time. But the movement continues to show internal strain. Some of the more mainstream peace groups were initially reluctant to participate in the October demonstrations because the events' organizer, a group called International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), has strong ties to the radical left and violent protest.

The difference in style between the larger, moderate peace groups and more militant war-and-weapons protesters is a source of some irritation for both sides, says Physicians for Social Responsibility's Parfrey. "They think we're moderates, or sellouts," Parfrey says. "Our people do civil disobedience too, they may just do it in suits."

In the end, last month's marches constituted an expression of opinion, and made no immediate difference to an administration planning a war or to its conservative supporters, many of whom lump suburban parents who aren't sure the United States should go to war with the violent anti-globalization protesters of Seattle.

The idea of the new peace movement, explains Parfrey, is to create a safe place for enough moderate, middle-class suburbanites that the White House has no choice but to pay attention.

"They don't listen to Phish, they're not burning the flag, they're not handing out the Daily Worker, they're not raising their fists," Parfrey explains. "But they want to show that they are wholly against what Bush is doing."

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