WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of protesters gathered peacefully Saturday in bitterly cold weather here to denounce President Bush's preparations for a war against Iraq. The demonstrations were replicated in San Francisco and on a smaller scale across the nation and in Europe, the Middle East and Asia in what antiwar activists hoped would mark a turning point in rallying public opinion against a possible war.
The coordinated protests came as the Bush administration continued a military buildup in the Persian Gulf and expressed confidence it can make a "persuasive" case by the end of January that Saddam Hussein is not cooperating with United Nations weapon inspections.
The largest turnout was in Washington, where the rally and march attracted a wide spectrum of demonstrators, from sign-toting grandmothers to college students to gay activists to parents with babies in strollers. Organizers estimated that more than 200,000 people converged on the Mall. Authorities would not confirm that number but said the crowds were larger than last fall's antiwar protest here.
Regardless of the exact numbers, the scale and the passion -- given the 20-degree conditions -- evoked strong emotions and memories of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Many of the demonstrators and most of the speakers -- including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic and former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark -- were united in questioning Bush's motives for threatening a new war. "This is a great day for America," said Kovic, who was carried to the open-air stage. "I lost three-fourths of my body [in Vietnam]. You will find strength. You were born to take this country back! ... No blood for oil."
One major difference between political conditions now and in the 1960s is the effect of Sept. 11, a factor that many of the speakers alluded to, if indirectly.
Sharpton, who plans to file papers Tuesday declaring his candidacy for the Democratic Party's nomination for president, criticized Bush for negotiating with a nuclear North Korea while readying for war with an Iraq that remains open to U.N. inspections.
He asked, "Are we talking about weapons of mass destruction? Or are we talking about a political game of mass distraction?"
Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1984 and 1988, said protesters represented "many more people at home" who are unpersuaded by Bush's stated basis for threatening war.
"Most Americans are not convinced that this is about our security, but [that it is] about our politics, and about hegemony, about the oil, about defense contracts," Jackson said in a brief interview.
One of the day's loudest crowd reactions came when a figure from the Vietnam era, former Atty. Gen. Clark, called for articles of impeachment to be brought against Bush. The president was at Camp David for the weekend.
"Let's impeach him!" shouted the 75-year-old Clark, who served under President Lyndon B. Johnson and who more recently has represented a string of high-profile criminal defendants. Afterward, Clark said "the evidence is there" for articles of impeachment but that he would not "prejudge" whether it merited Bush's conviction by the Senate and removal from office.
The San Francisco crowd rivaled the Washington showing, with throngs of noisy but peaceful protesters converging on the Civic Center. Police estimated the crowd size at more than 40,000, but Richard Becker, a march organizer with Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, said the number was closer to 200,000.
Becker attributed the turnout to "a growing disenchantment with the Bush administration [and] an urgent situation, because Jan. 27 could be a deadline for war."
A preliminary report by U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq is due on that date.
Donna Sheehan, who organized a recent photo of Marin County women spelling out the word "peace" with their naked bodies, brought a more modest protest. Her group dressed in black plastic and black-fabric hoods in mourning for victims of war.
Environmentalists conducted a separate march of an estimated 5,000 people, with 100 electric and hybrid vehicles, to underscore the view that any war on Iraq would be a play for control over Middle East oil. Marc Scruggs, a retired property manager, said he hoped the demonstrations would help "push all the alternatives to get us off the big oil addiction we have."
Scruggs said he became an activist after seeing the horrors of war firsthand as a soldier in Vietnam. "It's extremely important for the people who believe that war is wrong to see how many other people are prepared to come out and say it," he said.
In Washington, Academy Award-winning actress Jessica Lange argued that the administration is planning "an immoral war," adding: "What I'm saying to you, Mr. Bush, is we don't want these sins visited upon the heads of our children."
In an interview before her speech, Lange, whose first brush with political activism came during the 1968 presidential run of her home-state U.S. senator, Minnesota Democrat Eugene McCarthy, said she came to Washington out of an obligation to dissent.
"It seems to me that if you have the opportunity to say something, to speak out, you really have to seize upon those moments," Lange said. "Because I think to some degree we've [Americans] been silenced
The protesters awoke Saturday to Washington's coldest morning in more than two years. By 11 a.m., the skies were bright and the temperature was about 20 degrees. Bottles of water sat unused; they were frozen solid.
As a circle of protesters locked arms and softly chanted peace slogans, 25-year-old Ben Link, a software engineer, pushed his bundled 10-month-old daughter, Jocelyn, toward the Mall.
"The more we can get out here, the better," Link said.
Nicholas Smith and Mike Amato, students from Northeastern University, said they and two friends drove through steady snow from Boston to Washington. "The issue of war -- this is the first really big thing that I've worked on," said Smith, 20, a freshman political science major.
Asked their opinion about a recent proposal by Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) to reinstitute a certain national policy that returned and ended with the Vietnam War, Amato, a 21-year-old senior, shook his head and said: "That's the draft thing, right? I don't think much of it."
Marushka Walters, 46, said she made the eight-hour drive from Franklin, Mass., because of her son. "To put it simply: My son is 17 and he'll be 18 in a few months. He wants to enlist. I don't think his life is worth this war."
Barbara Nelson, 50, said she was motivated to make the bus trip from New York City, in part, because of her brother. "I lived through the Vietnam era. My brother fought in that war -- and he didn't come back the same way he went," said Nelson, a nurse and an organizer for the Service Employees International Union.
Charles Churchman, 73, of Harrisonburg, Va., wore a Veterans for Peace button in his hat. Churchman, the son of a wounded World War I veteran and a Korean War veteran, said, "I've never been an absolute pacifist, but I know there must be a better way."
The nationwide protests stretched as far as Honolulu, where several hundred people rallied at Ala Moana Park adjacent to the Waikiki Beach area.
"Hawaiians are slow to get angry; maybe it's the weather or something, but we feel the antiwar strength is definitely growing," said one of the protest organizers, Bjorn Marsen, an energy researcher at the University of Hawaii.
The protest came a day after 250 Marines from Kaneohe Marine Base received orders for the Persian Gulf and the destroyer O'Kane departed from Pearl Harbor.
"The Marines and the sailors are my brothers and sisters," said Dwight Tamura, a hotel bellman. "I don't want them dying for something I don't understand."
In Yorba Linda, nearly 800 Southern California protesters marched a mile from a park to the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. The bulk of the activists were college students, senior citizens and parents pushing strollers with one hand and clutching picket signs with the other.
"Not everyone down here could make it on a bus to San Francisco, but we still wanted to show our opposition," said Debbie LeAnceo, 28, a member of UC Riverside's Resistance, an antiwar group. "When this many people come out in so-called conservative Orange County, you know there's millions more out there who feel the same way."
At least one seminal member of the movement to end the Vietnam War, former California Assemblyman and state Sen. Tom Hayden, said the weekend protests have the potential to nudge, if not shift, the political landscape.
"The emergence of a peace movement is a victory in itself," Hayden said in an interview from Culver City, where he continues to recover from heart surgery 14 months ago.
"It's very important that this movement start showing the president that the wind is blowing in his face -- and not at his back. It's important to overcome some of the numbness and the fear and the anxiety caused by 9/11," he said.
Compared with the demonstrations now being staged regarding the possible U.S. war against Iraq, Hayden, 63, noted that protesters were in far smaller numbers in the nascent stages of Vietnam.
"These numbers are bigger than when we first marched in Washington, when Johnson sent troops, in the spring of '65," he said.
"The official count was 20,000. And that was seen as unprecedented, enormous. And we were attacked, for stabbing our boys in the back, for being a front for [North Vietnamese leader] Ho Chi Minh and all the rest of it ....It's not easy to be a dissenter. Never has been."
As the Washington Mall protest wound down amid a bracing wind Saturday, Mary Wilson, a sophomore from Bard College in New York, quietly carried a black-and-white warning: "Rome Fell."
Willman reported from Washington and Piller from San Francisco. Times staff writers Aparna Kumar and Elizabeth Levin in Washington, Tony Perry in Honolulu and Claire Luna in Yorba Linda contributed to this report.