Journalist Heather Lende has been writing obituaries in the small town of Haines, Alaska, for 20 years.
A congressional vote authorizing the use of force in Syria is on hold, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hold negotiations for the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapons.
Public opinion polls showed most Americans oppose the strikes and President Bashar al-Assad even mentioned that when he argued against the strikes in media interviews.
Tom Hayden, a longtime peace activist, says public opposition made a big difference in the debate.
“It seems to me what is the understated fact of the matter, is the credible threat of democratic people power that has stopped this process from going over the edge,” Hayden told Here & Now.
He thinks the simple act of people calling their representatives in Congress and asking them not to authorize force, worked in derailing the push for a military strike.
“I think it’s the accumulated impact of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, the legacy of people being used and feeling manipulated into wars,” Hayden said. “But people were not only tired of these wars, they acted on that fatigue in the millions.”
Hayden thinks the peace movement is effective even though it is not represented by lobbyists or a central organization.
“We have millions of people who support alternatives to war,” Hayden said, “All we have is the constant force of public opinion expressed through decentralized networks.”
Such a movement, Hayden says, helps put the decisions to go to war back in the American people’s hands.
“One thing that strikes me as an American tragedy is that these decisions about war and peace are determined by a small handful of cloistered national security advisers,” Hayden said. “It’s very removed from public opinion.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, now to the situation in Syria. The diplomacy continues, and a possible military strike remains on hold. Our next guess says anti-war sentiment in this country played an important role in that. Tom Hayden was one of the leaders of the protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s. He later served 18 years in the California legislature. Today he is director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center, and he joins me from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. Tom, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
TOM HAYDEN: Nice to be with you.
HOBSON: Well how do you, as a longtime anti-war activist, think President Obama is handling the Syria situation?
HAYDEN: Brilliant if it works. There's been a lot of talk about the credible threat of military force playing a role in bringing Russia to the table and so on and so forth. And if that argument gets us away from war, I'll give it some credit, but it seems to me what is the understated fact of the matter is that it's the credible threat of democratic people power that has stopped this process from going over the edge.
I was in Washington last week. I talked to a number of officials. They thought that the - a war was going to begin, and by Monday it was quite clear that they didn't have the votes in the House. They were losing the votes in the Senate. The Capitol Hill switchboard was flooded with calls from all over the country, and that gave the president an opportunity to pursue an exit strategy from what was a looming failure.
So here we are, and I'm relieved for the moment.
HOBSON: Well, what have you specifically been doing to stop force from being used against Syria?
HAYDEN: When this broke out a week ago, I met with some friends in Progressive Democrats of America, which is a progressive wing of the Democratic Party, so to speak, and we decided we had to go to work, and one of our objectives was to pressure Congress on the Democratic side to get liberals to diminish their support or dig in their heels against this war authorization.
We know that Libertarian Republicans would be there. We knew from past campaigns against Big Brother spying, against Libya, that there might be 225 votes in the House, and it was possible if we worked quickly. So we took out adds in the Capitol Hill press, and we joined the thousands of people who were making phone calls, and we watched in amazement as the tide started to roll back from the brink.
It was an awesome experience.
HOBSON: And you think that it was calls coming in to members of Congress, letters being sent to them, or do you think this was about social media and people all across the United States letting it be known that they didn't want action against Syria? Or you could say there were a lot of polls done, and it was clear that the majority was against the idea of force.
HAYDEN: All of the above. And I think it's the accumulated impact of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, the legacy of people being used and feeling manipulated into wars, the dire situation with the economy, issues like climate change, health care, budget cuts.
But people were not only tired of these wars, they acted on that fatigue in the millions.
HOBSON: How would you describe the anti-war effort in 2013 or even really in the last 10 or 15 years in the lead-up to the Iraq War, as compared with the way that it was back in the '60s?
HAYDEN: Have you got a couple hours?
HAYDEN: I mean seriously, one thing that strikes me as a tragedy, an American tragedy, is that these decisions about war and peace are determined by a small handful of cloistered national security advisors. Somebody from Congress gets elected, they get invited on a trip to Mali. They get taken out and talked to by these experts.
It's very removed from public opinion. And the peace movement is very scattered, very decentralized. Some like it that way. But while we have millions of people who support alternatives to war, we don't have an AFL-CIO. We don't have an NAACP. We don't have a National Organization for Women lobbying for us in Washington.
All we have is the constant force of public opinion expressed through decentralized networks, and they're all over the country. I mean, I speak all over the country, and I see these people. They're the salt of the Earth, and they have an effect because we've been proven right so often before, and the population is now suspicious.
And so it's a very powerful movement, but it doesn't - it can't be capsulized(ph) in one organizational form at all.
HOBSON: And it's not really centered on college campuses anymore, either.
HAYDEN: No, no. College students have been terrific on many issues, particularly climate change, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, the cost of tuition, skyrocketing tuition, and they've been a secondary but very important force in the demonstrations against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
It's hard to describe what the character is of the anti-war movement, but I would say that it's led by people from all walks of life who've had very radicalizing experience of having been lied to by past presidents, being coaxed into wars that turned out to be disasters and very, very concerned about our economic problems when so much funding goes to war.
And they're powerful in both parties, in the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party and in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. There's definitely an outside-inside dynamic. There are outside pressures, and occasionally they awaken people as they have t his week inside the Congress to resist further war.
HOBSON: Tom Hayden is director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City, California. His latest book is "Inspiring Participatory Democracy: Student Movements from Port Huron to Today." Tom Hayden, thanks so much for speaking with us.
HAYDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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