Who has not clambered onto a bus, headed off to a protest demonstration and stood amid sparse company in the rain, thinking, "What's the use?" Who has not listened to some plucky orator rasping through a bullhorn, "Let our message go forth ... " and thought privately, "Forth to whom? Who's listening? Who cares?"

These days, there's a spirited movement growing across the United States opposing a war against Iraq. There have been some big events, like the rallies in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, attended by vast throngs. But there have also been rallies and vigils by the score in small towns.

Are they making a difference?

Of course they are, just like the demonstrations in Europe, the Middle East, Australia and elsewhere. U.S. ambassadors and CIA heads of station may deprecate and downplay the world protests in their reports, but they cannot dismiss them, any more than can the White House. How can you ignore a turnout of 500,000 in Florence?

In short, protests count, just as they did in the very earliest days of organizing against the war in Vietnam. This organizing was undertaken by far-left groups, small Trotskyist and Maoist sects moving far ahead of the mainstream.

When did these efforts begin? Back in 1963 and even earlier, half a decade before the huge throngs began to muster in Washington, D.C. In the past few weeks, many veterans of these early marches have been pooling their memories. Here's a recollection to me of one of the earliest, from Lawrence Reichard, who these days works as an organizer in Stockton, Calif., defending rural workers.

"In the spring of 1962," Reichard says, "when I was 3 years old, my mother dragged me to a demonstration against the U.S. war in Laos in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There were five people at that demo. My mom, my older brother, me and two others." Then, "In 1969, I rode in a VW bus from Charlotte, N.C., to Washington, D.C., for an anti-war demo that drew 500,000. According to Daniel Ellsberg, that demo made President Nixon reconsider the madman recommendation of his Joints Chiefs of Staff to nuke Vietnam within a few miles of the Chinese border."

That trip was especially memorable for him, Reichard continues, because he made it with the family of Norman Morrison, who immolated himself in front of the Pentagon in protest over the war. Reichard recalls that he read later that Lyndon B. Johnson's aides cut mention of Morrison's death out of his newspapers so he wouldn't see it.

"On the rare occasion that I'm asked to speak at a demo, and the turnout is low," Reichard concludes, "I speak about the turnout in Cedar Rapids and the turnout in D.C. years later, as a way to rally the troops and lift spirits. Imperialism and colonialism are not stopped in a day!" He points out that "it is also noteworthy that in 1954 or 1955 the American Friends Service Committee wrote a letter to the Eisenhower administration warning against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Needless to say, the anti-war movement of today is way ahead of the movement that brought out five demonstrators in Cedar Rapids in the early '60s."

Reichard ended thus, "The anti-war movement has much to be proud of. To the absolute fury of the right wing, the anti-war movement of yesterday and today still, to this day, shackles this country's ability to wage unfettered war. Right off the bat, they have to forget about any war that might last more than six months or cost more than a few hundred U.S. lives. For this, you can thank the peace movement and the Vietnamese, who, at tremendous cost, beat us militarily. The entire world owes a tremendous debt to the Vietnamese."

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.