Growing public opposition in the United States to the Bush Administration's policies in Iraq is energizing the U.S. anti-war movement. This Saturday (1/27) in Washington, D.C., tens of thousands participated in an anti-war rally on the National Mall. As Vietnam War protestors did during the late 1960s and early 70s, today's demonstrators exercise their constitutional rights of free speech and peaceable assembly. And they have high hopes that their protests - and calls for an end to U.S. involvement in Iraq - will find receptive ears in Washington.
The anti-war movement has a long tradition in the United States that's rooted in the country's Quaker and Unitarian religious communities. But it was not until the 1960s and the deepening U.S. military engagement in Vietnam that large numbers of Americans came together to organize massive anti-war protests. Movement leaders in the Vietnam War era were mainly college students, but even this group of amateur organizers was able to bring 25,000 anti-war demonstrators to Washington, D.C., in April, 1965.
The movement grew stronger when civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke out against the Vietnam war in 1967. Reverend King's support brought legions of civil rights activists into the anti-war coalition, creating a broader and more credible resistance movement. But most Americans remained supportive of the Vietnam war through the late 1960s, and anti-war activism was widely seen as a leftist fringe.
Barry Romo is a national coordinator of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which was founded in 1967 after six Vietnam veterans marched together to protest the war. Romo says today's political climate is quite different: public opposition to the war in Iraq has grown quickly since the 2003 invasion. "In Vietnam, it took a lot longer than it did in Iraq," Romo recalls. "It was literally 6 years before we got demonstrations of 500,000 people. We are looking now to the fact that 60 percent of the population think the war is wrong."
One of the groups helping to organize anti-Iraq war protests is a coalition called 'Act Now to Stop War and End Racism,' better known by its acronym, "ANSWER." Richard Becker is a member of the group's national steering committee. He says ANSWER was formed to protest U.S. military policies in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks. The group actively opposed the U.S. invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Becker credits the anti-war movement's growing strength to the fact that public opinion on Iraq has shifted dramatically. "What is more important than anything else for the people inside the U-S -- along with people all over the world -- is to speak out, make clear that their opposition to the war is strong and that they are dedicated to ending the war. It is only people who can really stop the war."
Becker concedes that anti-war activism in the 1960s did not bring an immediate end to the Vietnam war, and despite large protests in 2003 and 2004, has so far failed to halt the war in Iraq. But the veteran protester says that in a democracy, the impact of mass anti-war demonstrations on those conducting the war is real and, ultimately, effective.
"During the Vietnam period," says Becker, "the Nixon administration pretended not to listen, but later when we read the memoirs of the leaders, we found that they were really not only extremely concerned, but sometimes terrified by the demonstrations. And they pretend to ignore them up till the moment when they are forced by mass pressure to concede."
Richard Becker and other organizers believe a series of planned marches between now and the 4th anniversary of the Iraq war in March will bring tremendous pressure to bear on Congress and the Bush Administration to bring America's engagement in Iraq to an end.