April 13, 2011— -- Hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters turned the public tide against the war in Vietnam decades ago, altering the course of history, but years after a "sea of humanity" marched on Washington protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those wars continue.
Meanwhile, according to a new study, the antiwar movement in this country is on life support, its numbers diminished, its composition much more radicalized, its bank accounts running on empty.
The mainstream Democrats who once dominated the movement moved on with their lives, abandoning the movement to a relatively small cadre hardcore antiwar activists.
And the White House continues to wage wars that were easier to start than to end, despite the fact that candidate Obama pledged in 2008 to end the wars.
The study, published in Mobilization: An International Journal, was conducted by political scientist Michael Heaney of the University of Michigan and sociologist Fabio Rojas of the University of Indiana. The two met while graduate students at the University of Chicago in the late 1990s and they have been following the antiwar movement ever since.
"The antiwar movement should have been furious at Obama's 'betrayal' and reinvigorated its protest activity," write Heaney and Rojas. "Instead, attendance at antiwar rallies declined precipitously and financial resources available to the movement dissipated."
Antiwar Movement Was Never Just About the War, Study Says
So what happened? According to the study, the antiwar movement was never just about war. It was also about George W. Bush. With him out of the picture, the issue does not seem as "threatening" as it once did.
The researchers conducted brief surveys with 5,400 demonstrators at 27 sites across the country, mostly in Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, from January 2007 to December 2009. In addition, they interviewed 40 antiwar leaders and attended many smaller rallies.
The largest membership in the movement consisted of Democrats, according to the study, but their numbers plunged from 37 percent in January of 2009 to 19 percent in just 11 months.
'The World Says No to War' Protest Mobilized 10 Million People
"Democratic departures left the antiwar movement fragmented and empowered radical elements within the movement," the study says.
That's a vastly different picture than the one just six years earlier when protesters around the world took part in "The World Says No to War." Approximately 10 million people were mobilized in hundreds of cities worldwide for that event, described as "the largest internationally coordinated protest in history."
Heaney, lead author of the study, was an antiwar protester himself in those days, he said in a telephone interview.
"In January of 2003 I was part of a march that involved hundreds of thousands of people marching on Capitol Hill. "There was just a sea of people. An unending, unbelievable mass of people just marching down the street."
In early 2007, with Barack Obama in the wings, participation in antiwar rallies began to drop "by an order of magnitude," according to the study. By October 7, 2009, the researchers "counted exactly 107 participants at a Chicago rally."
Wars Continue But Antiwar Movement Dwindles
"The threat to peace from the Obama administration, as perceived by the grassroots constituency of the antiwar movement, must have been very small," the study concludes. The reduced numbers proved "devastating to the financial base," leaving antiwar leaders with little choice but to move from the streets to the Internet.
"What's left in the antiwar movement today is the hardcore," Heaney said in the interview, "the people who are more or less professional activists. It's just a small group of people that's left."
But the wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now, to a much lesser extent, Libya. So where have all the flowers gone?
As a former antiwar protester himself, Heaney was willing to go well beyond the scientifically-based research that resulted in the study and offer a few personal opinions. Does he feel "betrayed," to use his study's own word, by Obama.
"I feel disappointed he has continued some of the Bush policies," Heaney said, but not betrayed. After thinking about a question for what seemed like a full minute, he said he never really expected Obama to bring a quick end to the wars, which he described as "very intractable."
Political Climate Is Different With Obama, Study Author Says
Besides, the problem wasn't just the wars.
"The movement was an antiwar movement in the sense that all of the people who turned out were against the war," Heaney said. "But they saw the situation as particularly threatening because of Bush. There was this belief that Bush could cause a wider war and he was looking to take the world to war."
The situation is quite different with Obama, he added.
"I'm not afraid that Obama is going to try to take over Syria, Or Iran," he said. "I don't feel a sense of threat so I'm not mobilized to action in the way I was during the Bush years. There was this risk that things could get much worse."
Reluctantly offering his personal opinion about an emotional subject that occupies much of his professional research time, he offered this insight:
"Research is often really about ourselves. I'm really the typical person in this study in the sense that I'm a Democrat and I voted for Barack Obama."
Do Antiwar Rallies Matter Today?
OK, but do antiwar rallies really matter today? Can they make a difference? Vietnam, for all its similarities to Afghanistan and Iraq, was also quite different. There's no draft today, eliminating the mandatory service of nearly all of America's able-bodied young men. Antiwar protesters were shareholders in that war, even if they didn't believe in it. At least 58,000 Americans died there.
The Middle East wars are fought by Americans -- women as well as men -- who chose the military for a career. It doesn't make the dying any easier, but it's easier to understand why they are there.
So does an antiwar rally really make a difference?
Admitting he can't prove it, Heaney said he thinks they can.
"My own personal opinion is yes, because they help the formation of public opinion, which started to turn very strongly against the Iraq war in 2004. The demonstrations validated the feeling that people in the vast public saw the war on television and thought, hey, this isn't right."
So here we are on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, this country's bloodiest, confronted once again with the likelihood that there will always be wars. And there will always be politicians saying something they know they can't really do. But the number of people willing to take to the streets to change public opinion and challenge national leaders may continue to diminish.
And there may always be people like Heaney, who worried about a war in a distant land and thought he "could do something about it. There was a sense that I was contributing to something that could make a difference.
"There isn't that same sense now."