WASHINGTON -- The television ads begin airing today, raising the specter of nuclear war if the United States attacks Iraq. They present provocative images of a mushroom cloud aimed at stirring controversy and galvanizing public opinion.
With U.S. military forces poised for possible action in the Middle East, the peace movement has turned to a perennial showstopper: the daisy ad. A remake of the commercial first broadcast during Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign, the new ad shows a little girl counting flower petals in a field of daisies only to have her image replaced by a nuclear explosion.
The ad, to air in 13 major markets including Los Angeles, is part of a campaign by a coalition of peace groups -- from hard-hat union locals to oil-weary environmentalists -- to build momentum against war. Antiwar rallies are scheduled Saturday in San Francisco and Washington. For the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday, activists are poring over the civil rights leader's speeches for sentiments about the war in Vietnam that still resonate. And on Tuesday, citizens who oppose war plan to descend on district congressional offices to urge more time for United Nations inspections.
Antiwar activists face a daunting prospect. Polls so far show continued public support for war, and more and more troops are heading out for duty. So activists have turned to the Internet and television to make their case.
"When the stakes are this high, when we're walking into a situation so dangerous, running a controversial ad seems like the least that we can do to make sure our leaders are thinking about the consequences before they rush into it," said Eli Pariser, one of the organizers of MoveOn.org, which sponsored the commercial.
MoveOn.org was formed during President Clinton's impeachment trial, a grass-roots effort to get Congress to "move on" to other issues. It has since reinvented itself as an online civic group that specializes in mobilizing support through the Internet on issues ranging from campaign finance to tax policy. The group, which claims 650,000 members, says it raised $400,000 in 48 hours, much of it from contributions of $35 or less, to pay for the five-day ad campaign.
The ad is carefully crafted to avoid appearing to be sympathetic to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or hostile to the fight against terrorism. Instead, forecasting the prospect of unintended consequences from a possible war in Iraq -- such as militants seizing control of countries with nuclear weapons -- it urges President Bush to "let the inspections work."
"As long as the United Nations team is still hard at work, there's no reason to send in our troops and unleash forces that could escalate into the overthrow of friendly governments or chemical and biological warfare or even nuclear warfare," Pariser said.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the effects of the first daisy ad and doubts this version will have the same effects. "It's been replicated so often, it's losing some of its ability to shock," she said.
In the 1964 campaign, Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican who was advocating a get-tough policy against the Soviets. To demonstrate that Goldwater's policies could provoke Moscow into nuclear war, Johnson's campaign devised an ad that showed a little girl in a field, counting as she plucks petals from a daisy. An announcer counts down to a nuclear explosion, which appears like a mushroom as the child fades from view.
The ad was so controversial at the time that it was pulled after one airing, amid protests from Republicans that it had portrayed Goldwater as a warmonger.
Jamieson said that then as now, the ploy of portraying one's opponents as likely to start a nuclear war is not designed to sway voters or viewers.
"The purpose of this kind of ad is to break through the clutter, to start a conversation," she said.
But Jamieson said the new ad's backers made a tactical mistake in invoking the prospect of a nuclear incident -- the very possibility used by the Bush administration to justify war. Instead, she suggested, they would have been better off playing to the public's concerns about whether there is justification for war.
"A better ad would have played to the public's dubiousness," she said. "It would say, 'Where's the evidence, Mr. President?' "
Still, sponsors of the ad seem pleased, at least by initial media interest. News organizations descended Wednesday on the offices of Fenton Communications in Washington, eager to pick up copies of the commercial.
"What's great is seeing all sorts of different pieces of opposition to war come together and make noise," Pariser said. "People are alarmed at the speed with which we appear to be going to war and confused about why. People are pulling money out of their pockets to support ads, they're coming out of the woodwork to avert war."
Jason Mark, one of the organizers of Global Exchange, a peace group in San Francisco, agrees that there seems to be a new energy in the peace movement and a new diversity of groups rallying against war. "There is always strength in diversity," he said.
He cited efforts by women's groups, who have been holding weekly antiwar vigils across from the White House, and a new campaign by African American groups, led by Black Voices for Peace. There are also efforts to rally university campuses, and a massive protest is being planned in New York for Feb. 15.
Praising MoveOn.org for its campaign, Mark said the protesters still have to rally.
"It's hugely important for the antiwar movement to be visible, to be out in the streets," he said. "It gives people who aren't in the streets a feeling of real possibility of stopping this war before it starts."