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Picking Up the Peace Movement

Searching for a Strategy in the Wake of Desert Storm

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It has not been a good year to be a peacenik. Consider the story I heard from Connecticut state representative Jessie Stratton, who was active in SANE and the FREEZE before becoming the first Democrat ever to represent her district. During the gulf crisis, a friend of hers who's a small-town volunteer fireman and ambulance worker "happened to be in the ambulance with a 55-year-old blue-collar guy whose son had recently joined the Army. He was worried that his son might go to the Middle East. He was sick about it. He hung his head over the steering wheel in anguish. Was this what he had wanted for his son? What would be the purpose of it? There was this incredible searching.

"Well, the war started, and his son did go. And when she came across him a month or so later, it was as if their first conversation had never occurred. He was completely gung ho for Desert Storm."

David Cortright--a Vietnam veteran, former executive director of SANE, and now a visiting fellow at the University of Notre Dame's Institute for International Peace Studies--saw the same quick-change phenomenon on his campus. "The peace movement here surfaced in the first week of November. We had teach-ins every night for a week, with 200 people attending, several rallies with 300 to 400 people, a petition drive that got 1,800 signatures. That's probably greater than what happened here during Vietnam." (In the Vietnam era, he adds, there wasn't this much protest nationwide until 1968 or 1969, after 30,000 GIs had died.) "But after the war broke out, the movement deteriorated very quickly. Our meetings dropped off from 40 people to 10 or 15, and we never did have another big rally.

"The peace movement really had no way to stop the enormous momentum behind U.S. policy. The only way would have been if the war had dragged on. Some of us would discuss the horrible situation over a few beers. Sometimes that's when you see more clearly, I guess. We knew people over there, and we didn't want another bloodbath. But we also knew we'd be blown away if the war was short."

It was, and they were. When U.S. casualties turned out to be light, the "No Blood for Oil" slogan lost whatever punch it had had, and the peace movement was left with a Herculean task: convincing the U.S. public that a dead Iraqi weighs just as heavily in the scales of justice as a dead American.

The movement has even had trouble holding on to its deep-rooted belief that if the American people knew the truth they wouldn't go along with government policy. For those who cared to notice, the truth wasn't deeply buried. Every reason for war Bush came up with fell apart in his hands: protecting small countries against aggression (Panama? Lithuania?), protecting the world against a Hitler (whom did we back throughout the 1980s in his war with Iran?), "liberating" Kuwait (for its own autocrats?).

Writing in Messenger, a small Church of the Brethren magazine published in suburban Elgin, editor Kermon Thomasson vented his despair frankly: "I can scarcely believe how completely this country has succumbed to its darker self, when egged on by a president who resorts to war on a whim and whips up support by calling for the worst form of 'patriotism'. . . . Where is the mind of the American people? How can we so blindly ignore the hypocrisy of what we have done? How can we be sucked in by such patriotic hogwash that would have shamed even the Crusaders? What kind of mentality does it take to believe that some puffed-up general is presidential timber? Where have the Christians of this country mislaid their New Testaments? How can we rejoice like Viking barbarians returning from a raid?"

Andrew Greeley is even more forthright in the current issue of the Critic: "I am convinced that history will judge Bush and Cheney and their advisers as war criminals and the American people, with all their flags and yellow ribbons, as guilty of complicity in war crimes."

It hasn't been a good half century to be a peacenik, for that matter. Desert Storm and its opposition simply repeated recent history (on fast forward) for at least the fifth time since World War II. The "scientists' movement" against the atomic bomb (1945-1950) gradually expired in cold-war hysteria and McCarthyism. The test-ban movement (1957-1963), sparked by fear of fallout, vanished quickly after Kennedy and Khrushchev signed an atmospheric-test-ban treaty in 1963, even though the treaty merely drove weapons tests underground without slowing the accumulation of nuclear overkill. The anti-Vietnam-war movement (1966-1971) drove one president out of office and set limits on the war-making options of his successor, but eventually foundered as a result of its own sectarian excesses and Nixon's Vietnamization scheme. The push for a nuclear freeze (1980-1985) captured an unprecedented ground swell of support and put more pressure on the Reagan administration than most of its other opponents, but could find no satisfactory political outlet.

Each of these movements left an institution or two behind, and at least two of them (or three, depending on how you count) will be in Chicago this month. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, originally the organ of the scientists' movement and still published monthly in Hyde Park, never left. And this weekend (August 9 through 11) Loyola University hosts the annual convention of the SANE/FREEZE Campaign for Global Security, which resulted from the 1988 merger of SANE (test-ban and Vietnam years) and the FREEZE. According to its statement of purpose, SANE/FREEZE seeks to organize "a citizens' movement with the sustained political power to reverse the arms race, abolish nuclear weapons, and construct a world of peace and justice." Since the merger, membership and funding have declined, but SANE/FREEZE still has roughly 125,000 members nationwide and a budget of $1.6 million. The Illinois state affiliate's 5,000 members have their own $150,000-a-year budget and four full-time and five part-time staff members.

While the peace movement has come and gone, come and gone, the institutions that plan and prepare for war have moved from strength to strength. They don't just command more money and more weapons, they permeate the entire economy. According to Seymour Melman, professor emeritus of industrial engineering at Columbia University, that diffuse thing President Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex" has long since been rationalized and organized under the Pentagon's central administration. Military contractors working under its direction employ more than three million Americans. Between 1949 and 1989, Melman calculates, the Defense Department spent more money ($8.2 trillion in 1982 dollars) than it would cost to rebuild every single factory, road, bridge, airport, and sewer line in the country ($7.3 trillion).

The peace movement hasn't been totally ineffective. It did limit the war in Vietnam. In all likelihood, judging from the extent of the unconstitutional antics of Oliver North et al, it prevented an overt war against Nicaragua in the 1980s. It helped prepare the U.S. to accept Gorbachev's peace initiatives when they came. A few of its backers are in positions of power (one is John Cox, Lynn Martin's successor in the U.S. House of Representatives).

But despite these dents, the military-industrial juggernaut rolls on, making minimal cuts but still finding new enemies and pushing new weapons systems and selling them to other countries so as to be able to keep arguing that "the world is a dangerous place" and keep the money flowing. Worse yet in the short run, it is cozier than ever with the media, which rarely covered Desert Storm protesters and then made them seem even more marginal than they were. According to War Watch newsletter--a publication of Out Now in Salinas, California, which has advisers from Sojourners, Mother Jones, Pledge of Resistance, and GIs for Peace, among others--"Many activists feel particularly angry at National Public Radio, which has historically been seen as an alternative to the mainstream media. During the Gulf war it served up the same News Ready to Eat as everyone else."

Whatever NPR did, American Public Radio is still one-sided. APR began its July 24 Marketplace with a glib single-source story claiming that there was never any "peace dividend" available after the cold war, only a "peace deficit" due to closing military bases and weapons factories. The report did not mention the possibility of converting plants to civilian production or how tax money formerly spent on military goods might be redirected. Marketplace may have been guilty only of lazy reporting, but the program is funded by a major defense contractor, General Electric. With enemies like that, the peace movement will need all the friends it can get.

Actually, the peace movement has lots of friends, but few supporters. Richard Healey, former editor of Nuclear Times, has been quoted as saying that in the post-Vietnam years the movement gained in popularity without gaining power--meaning that people are often propeace on specific issues, but still wind up voting for Reagan and Bush.

Why is the movement still stuck in a largely ineffective boom-bust cycle, while environmentalism, for instance, has penetrated popular culture? The movement has plenty of specific problems: historically it has been very white, even though many of its potential constituents and sympathizers are black. Its members are often reluctant to undertake the face-to-face outreach that brings converts. It depends on foundations' ever-shifting funding priorities.

But even a peace movement composed of wealthy multiracial extroverts would still divide over the big question--what does the movement need in order to get moving again?

There are three ways one could answer this question. The movement needs more strategy. It needs more morality. Or it doesn't matter: no peace movement inside a major world power can hope to be more than a gadfly minority, regardless of its approach. (We can duck this third point, since even if it's true the gadfly will still want to make the best possible choice between answers one and two.)

(1) The peace movement needs more and better strategy. In this view, the movement has depended too much on fear, a weapon easily turned to prowar uses. The fear of dying under a mushroom cloud or in a rice paddy--however well-founded--may cause you to oppose the bomb and war itself, or it may just lead you to oppose the enemy and to support fast, brutal interventions. University of Wisconsin historian Paul Boyer made this diagnosis of the late-1940s scientists' movement in his 1985 book By the Bomb's Early Light: "From the vantage point of the 1980s, the scientists' manipulation of fear, rather than the particular causes they espoused, seems their principal legacy. Indeed, they may have served as unwitting advance agents of the very anticommunist hysteria most of them deplored. The emotions they worked so mightily in 1945-1947 to keep alive and intensify created fertile psychological soil for the ideology of American nuclear superiority and an all-out crusade against communism. . . . The scientists offered one avenue of possible escape from atomic fear; Truman offered another. Truman won." Anyone who attended FREEZE rallies and heard Dr. Helen Caldicott's urgent, shrill invocations of fear and guilt has seen the same phenomenon.

In addition, the peace movement has skipped almost at random from one hot issue to another. The strategies it did profess never quite came off. The 1963 test ban was to be a "first step" toward full disarmament; ending the Vietnam adventure was to be the "first step" in protecting other third-world countries from a rain of American bombs. But the next step never happened, in part because the peaceniks lacked a plan. As Seymour Melman writes in his 1988 book The Demilitarized Society: Disarmament and Conversion, "Even a series of successes in unlinked pro-peace operations can leave the war-making institutions with their decision-power intact. . . . Long-term goals like reversing the arms race, reducing the decision-power of the war-making institutions, planning for conversion from military to civilian economy, are displaced." In a telephone interview he adds, "I was dismayed to learn that within the past year an important peace group was launching a program on the test ban. Sure, that's important, but is it really the leading issue now?"

Melman, who has been studying this subject for 30 years, argues that massive military spending has depleted the U.S. economy in two ways: it has preempted government expenditures for other useful purposes, from bridge repair to medicare, and it has accustomed military contractors--now a significant fraction of the business world--to doing business in a cost-plus, noncompetitive environment. Small wonder, then, that such businesses fail to build cars or stereos or computers as cheaply or as well as their foreign competitors.

SANE/FREEZE does seem to be moving toward at least a partly Melmanesque strategy. Proposals being readied for the August convention to consider appear to downgrade earlier, more scattered projects such as the "Keep Them Shut!" campaign against nuclear-weapons facilities and a campaign in support of the comprehensive test-ban treaty. The organization's strategy committee now gives top priority to what it calls the "Peace Economy Campaign," which calls for cutting the military budget in half over the next five years and applying that money to "community and human needs."

As a strategy, this does have some good points. The connections are newsy and easy to make, even though they rarely air in prime time. David Boyd, administrator of Unity House on South Vincennes and cochair of the Chicago-area Coalition for New Priorities, says, "We have 92 percent less affordable-housing money in Chicago than we had in 1980--and people wonder why there are homeless." And Illinois SANE/FREEZE executive director Kevin Martin adds, "Did all those states with budget crises this summer just happen to get poor and dumb simultaneously? No. That's ten years of increased military spending, domestic cuts, and tax cuts for the rich coming home to roost. People are furious about school closings and CTA fare increases. They're ripe for our message. It's up to us to make these connections clear."

Making those connections is the job of the Coalition for New Priorities, which shares office space with Illinois SANE/FREEZE but has its own board, budget, and staff of one. Besides the groups you would expect to sign on (IVI-IPO, Eighth Day Center for Justice, Physicians for Social Responsibility Chicago chapter, and Illinois SANE/FREEZE itself), the coalition's 55 members also include Access Living of Metro Chicago, AFSCME Council 31, the Center for Arts Advocacy, the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finances, the Chicago Urban League, the Lake Michigan Federation, the Northwest Community Organization, and the Public Welfare Coalition. (Notably absent, says Kevin Martin, are "some large national environmental groups with big budgets--you can figure out which ones," who he says are too comfortable to want to take on the military-industrial complex.)

The coalition scored a little-noticed victory in the April 2 primary, garnering 73.5 percent of the Chicago vote (and a majority in every ward) for its platform: "Should the federal government reduce military spending by ten percent (10%) each year for the next five (5) years, and use the savings to provide better housing, health care, job training, environmental protection, education, mass transit and drug abuse prevention and treatment?"

As a strategy, though, the "Peace Economy Campaign" has some problems, mainly that it's an old liberal package in slightly updated wrapping. It goes back to George McGovern's unsuccessful 1972 presidential bid and even to President Eisenhower's oft-quoted 1953 remark: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone, it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." All too true--but why should butter supplant guns now when it never has before? "The butter side of things has to get extremely bad," says Martin. "It may have to get worse. It blows my mind that there are 50,000 homeless people in this city. But it may take 100,000."

It might help if the coalition builders paid as much attention to how military spending hurts the economy as they do to how it hurts the government. By way of example, Melman writes, "The Pentagon has accepted and utilized fighter planes whose performance reliability is so poor that a third to one-half of the planes are, on the average, out of service. Such reliability would be completely unacceptable for, say, a fleet of subway cars."

Out in the real economy, where customers can and do shop around, this lax mentality means declining quality of goods and declining productivity, which in turn make for fewer American jobs at lower wages. "An avalanche of plant closings in . . . machinery-producing industries portends an inability of the U.S. economy to produce the means of production," writes Melman in the Nation (May 20). "This is a hallmark of underdevelopment, a condition well advanced in the Soviet Union." In Chicago, 33rd Ward Alderman Richard Mell has loudly bemoaned the deindustrializing of America. He hasn't offered a clear solution--but then, to judge from its public statements, neither has the Coalition for New Priorities.

(2) The peace movement needs more morality. If you are a true peacenik, you know that all this earnest seeking after strategy is sort of phony. "No More Vietnams," "No Blood for Oil," "It Costs Too Much" are all different ways of saying that war isn't in the United States' self-interest.

But the heart of the peace movement is not in cost-benefit calculations. It is in the shock of recognition when you first see U.S. foreign policy from the viewpoint of its victims, from Hiroshima onward. It's when you realize (in the phrase of the SANE/FREEZE strategy paper) that, to most of the rest of the world, the U.S. as global cop looks pretty much the way the Los Angeles Police Department looked to Rodney King. Or it's the kind of experience that galvanized one Vietnam-era activist who, on a visit to Vietnam, was given a casing from a Honeywell-made antipersonnel fragmentation bomb and asked, "Why are the workers at Honeywell doing this to us?"

The trouble is, not everyone gets to make such a trip, and not everyone who does is so touched. In the Chicago Tribune Magazine (July 14), Nina Burleigh reported hearing the same kind of question over and over on her postwar visit to Iraq. But judging from the published story, hearing it didn't turn her into an activist.

FREEZE founder Randall Forsberg believes that the world is moving toward ending war, but that right now the peace movement is still about where civil rights or feminism was in, say, the 1920s--many people kind of like the idea but they can't quite believe that it's feasible. This would explain the movement's boom-bust cycle and is the reason Forsberg thinks it may not matter which direction the movement takes. "The truth is that during those ebbs you just have to endure."

Now we can appreciate the true genius of Desert Storm. As Michael Klare wrote in the Nation (March 25), Bush's "every move was dictated by his fear of the 'Vietnam syndrome.'" By fighting a quick, cheap war, he succeeded in splitting pragmatic self-interest (answer number one) from morality (answer number two). The peaceniks lost their best public argument, but they still knew the war was wrong.

War Watch newsletter asks, "What do we do when the U.S. wages war that costs very little in terms of money or lives? Is a cheap war a just war? Is the destruction of civilized life in Iraq okay if few U.S. pilots died and the Saudis paid for it? Is what we did to Nicaragua okay because it is relatively cheap to destroy a small country?"

Of course not. Seymour Melman could be proved wrong tomorrow--warfare could be economically good for American society--and it wouldn't cost SANE/FREEZE or Pledge of Resistance a single member. If the peace movement speaks from its heart, it may not be heard. If it speaks from its head, it may win the wrong battle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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