The Long Shadow—World War II’s Moral Legacy (09. Social Transformation)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

9. Social Transformation

Ted Grimsrud—February 25, 2011

The first phase of the 1950s Civil Rights movement

If we would capture the moral impact of World War II in just a few words, perhaps we could say it like this: as never before, the War simply obliterated the basic human belief in the preciousness of life. It simply boggles the mind to list the countries where at least one million people were killed: Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Germany, perhaps others.

Many would have said that one of the pillars of authentic human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life. That is why we put so many resources into, for example, healthcare, education, sanitation, and agriculture. We seek to make it possible for human life to thrive. Even our criminal justice systems in some sense could be seen as founded on the belief that life is precious.

Powerfully countering all this momentum toward enhancing life, the wars of the twentieth-century treated human life as shockingly expendable. The best and most creative resources of western civilization focused on killing, not on enhancing life. And, as we have seen in the present book, certainly at least in the United States, the moral legacy of World War II underscores that transforming our nation’s priorities from death toward life seems impossible.

At least some of those who have recognized this problem have tried to overcome it. For these people, in the words of historian Joseph Kip Kosek, “the problem of the twentieth century…was the problem of violence. It was not, as such, Fascism, Communism, economic inequality, or the color line, though all of these were deeply implicated. It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness.”[1]

We have seen strong evidence that the extraordinary resources that the United States has devoted to resisting Fascism and Communism have in fact not resulted in enhanced human wellbeing. Surely one reason for the counter-productivity of those efforts has been that they have not recognized as fundamental the profound problem of violence. By using violence to counter these twin ideologies over the past seventy years, the U.S. has found itself on a rapid descent toward militaristic self-destruction.

One could understand the rise and fall of Soviet Communism in the twentieth-century as a testimony to the self-destructiveness of seeking to overcome the problem of economic inequality while ignoring the problem of violence. The legacy of the Soviet Union, among other things, is a legacy of the failure of coercive force to achieve a sustainable economic reordering from inequality to equality.

The fourth problem Kosek mentions, “the color line,” provides us with our one counter-example. The American Civil Rights movement, in important respects, reflects an attempt to keep the problem of violence at the forefront and to challenge a devastating social problem in light of the centrality of the problem of violence. By refusing to subordinate the problem of violence to some other problem, for a brief but extraordinarily fruitful moment, the American Civil Rights movement actually made enormous progress in genuine social transformation.

This transformation came out of unexpected origins. The peace movement that arose in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s found itself reduced to a tiny remnant by the end of World War II. Not only did almost all Americans, including those who had opposed war in the 1930s, support the American entry into and full prosecution of the War (following the attack on Pearl Harbor), the smashing victory of America in that war seemed to vindicate those who had advocated going to war.

The institutions that arose during the War to prosecute the full-out war and that were validated after the War (such as the Pentagon, an independent Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the nuclear weapons structures) achieved high levels of public acceptance by the late 1940s. Such acceptance assured that the U.S. would continue along the path of militarism rather than turning away from militarism as had been the case in previous full-out wars.

Those few who retained their strong opposition to warfare and other types of inter-human violence did not disappear however. For one thing, the War had left the much of the world in tatters. The opportunities for service work to meet the survival and self-determination needs of countless people were endless. These opportunities provided the context for the expansion of peace church agencies such as the American Friends Service Committee and Mennonite Central Committee. We will look at those expressions of alternative political strategies below.

As well, the conclusion of the War in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with previously unimagined destructive power shocked many who had doubts about the moral validity of warfare. When the great powers responded to the development of nuclear weaponry by moving into a competitive mode, what came to be called the “Arms Race,” instead of taking the opportunity to develop structures that would enhance the possibilities for peaceful coexistence, antiwar sentiment was galvanized into various anti-nuclear disarmament movements. I will also look at these movements below.

First, though, I will focus on the Civil Rights movement as one way a commitment to a nonviolent approach to resisting evil and cultivating social wholeness found fruitful expression.

The American entry into World War II, justified as it was by appeal to ideals such as the Four Freedoms message of Franklin Roosevelt and the Atlantic Charter—ideals of economic and political self-determination and the pursuit of freedom—contained a powerful irony. The American moral basis for committing to this total war existed alongside virulent racism that shaped life across the United States. An earlier American exercise in total war allegedly for the sake of social justice (the Civil War) had failed actually to bring genuine freedom and self-determination to African-American people. Eventually, though, the injustices that remained after the Civil War fueled social movements devoted to overcoming American racism.

These movements made little progress in the early decades of the twentieth century, with minimal impact in the broader society. The emergence of the creative practice of Mohandas Gandhi in resisting the British in India raised possibilities of effective nonviolent resistance by those with little hope of mounting successful violent revolutions. Several leaders in the American Civil Rights movement, most notably Howard Thurman of Howard University, recognized the potential of the Gandhian approach for the American Civil Rights movement. Thurman visited Gandhi in the 1930s and began to advocate for nonviolent activism in America, though not yet with widespread support.

During the War, the federal government gave the African American community in the U.S. mixed messages. African Americans were drafted into the military and expected to fight in the War, as many did. The arms manufacturing industries also called upon African Americans to work in the factories. However, in both cases the power of racism minimized the opportunities for advancement and also led to many incidents of discriminatory violence.

Not a few African Americans noted the contradictions as they devoted time and energy, and risked their lives, for the sake of a country that continued to treat them as second class citizens. The experience of African American soldiers and arms industry workers during the War reinforced their sense of deep-seated American racism. They had some hope that things might change after the War, but in general, returning soldiers found themselves once again bitterly mistreated, especially in the segregationist South.

Bayard Rustin was a different kind of World War II veteran. As a Quaker, he philosophically opposed war and spent several of the war years imprisoned as a draft resister. In 1941, the FOR hired him as a staff person, along with a fellow African American pacifist James Farmer. Farmer was a founder of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942, a ministry of the FOR, and Rustin joined with him shortly thereafter.

Farmer published an important essay in 1942 that connected nonviolence with the work for racial justice. He discussed two key themes related to ending racism while avoiding a bloodbath in the U.S.: universalism and a commitment to nonviolent methods. Christian pacifists, in Farmer’s words, affirmed “the Judeo-Christian faith in the universal community, the world fellowship, the unity of the human family.” War violates this fellowship, acting as a kind of fratricide—in a parallel way, racism also violates human fellowship.

Conscientious objection to war, not military service, provided Farmer’s model for winning the struggle versus racism. He linked opposition to war with a positive appropriation of Gandhian approaches to exercising power. Farmer wrote: “What we must not fail to see is that conscience should imply not only refusal to participate in war, but also, so far as is humanly possible, refusal to participate in, and cooperate with, all those social practices which wreak havoc with personality and despoil the human community.” Farmer insisted on an inextricable link between active opposition to war and to racism. He believed that COs’ opposition to the War would prepare them for on-going civil rights activism.[2]

The work of CORE and other civil rights groups, such as the older, more traditional National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Highlander School in Tennessee, emphasized training in nonviolent techniques. Progress was slow for many years. In 1955, a longtime Civil Rights activist in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, almost accidently became a catalyst for a major step ahead for the movement and its nonviolent activism. Parks, an NAACP member for many years and a trainee at the Highlander School, worked as a seamstress and after a tiring work day on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated city bus. She was arrested, an event that triggered an attempt to challenge the system—an African-American boycott of the Montgomery bus system.

The boycott galvanized the Montgomery community, and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed to organize the ongoing resistance. A young Baptist pastor, newly arrived to Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., agreed to serve as president of the MIA. King’s charismatic leadership and the success of the boycott due to the solidarity of Montgomery’s African-American community energized the broader movement.

King became a national spokesperson for the movement and, with several colleagues, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC) to further the work of desegregation. A powerful speaker and creative visionary, King’s influence spread rapidly. The highly educated leader (a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University) knew Howard Thurman well, had been influenced by hearing lectures from A.J. Muste, and had learned of Gandhi and other theorists of nonviolence from pacifist professors.

In 1955, King had not yet personally fully embraced nonviolence as a principled commitment, but he well understood that a Civil Rights movement, to be effective in the United States, would not be able to rely on violence. Nonviolence thus became a central part of his message and the broader message of SCLC. King took as a mentor on nonviolence the FOR’s southern field worker, Glenn Smiley. In a November 1956 public address that announced the end of the bus boycott, King asserted the need for the movement to remain nonviolent and echoed Gandhi’s emphasis on the difference between cowardice and committed nonviolence: “Now I’m not asking you to be a coward. If cowardice was the [only] alternative to violence, I’d say to you tonight, use violence. Cowardice is as evil as violence….What I’m saying to you this evening is that you can be courageous and yet nonviolent.”[3]

Over the next several years, King used his constantly growing platform to preach for nonviolent action to transform the racist south. He gained a wide hearing, but his influence was to some extent more inspirational than tactical. He had hoped mightily that once the success of the Montgomery boycott that showed the power of nonviolence became widely known, the black church (his own institutional base and the base of the SCLC) would join the movement in mass numbers and provide the context for a powerful transformative movement.

However, as it turned out, many African-American church leaders were not ready to embrace King’s movement.[4] In fact, some bitterly opposed him. While both the centrality to King of his Christian convictions and his social location led King for the rest of his life to work within the church, he in time realized that his hopes for a unified and galvanized church working for racial justice were not going to be fulfilled.

By the late 1950s, King knew that the movement needed more concrete strategies for moving the work ahead. However, he wasn’t sure how to make this happen. None of the major Civil Rights organizations (e.g., SCLC, NAACP, CORE, and the Urban League) seemed able to find ways to do this, so the movement remained stalled.

The Civil Rights movement, part 2

The answer to Civil Rights movement’s dilemma—how to find concrete ways to expand the movement and actually bring about direct change—came almost as an accident. Leaders and activists such as Bayard Rustin and James Farmer had deep roots in the antiwar community that had opposed World War II. Older educators such as Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays had strong Gandhian tendencies. And King himself, along with some of his close colleagues[5], increasingly found himself moving towards a principled pacifism. However, the movement as a whole had yet to find a truly effective way to move ahead on a Gandhian path.

Then, in 1957, King met a young Methodist pastor, James Lawson, who provided the needed direction and leadership that helped the movement take some crucial steps forward. The way forward, as it turned out, involved both brilliant strategic choices and a deepening of the explicit philosophy of nonviolence.

Lawson brought some distinctive perspectives to his work. He had grown up in the North in the largely white United Methodist Church, the son of a minister. From an early age, he had committed himself to be a pacifist and to be committed to Civil Rights work. While he was in college, Lawson became convinced of a moral link between segregationist laws and the laws that enforced the military draft.

These convictions led Lawson to refuse to cooperate with the draft, even though he was eligible to receive a ministerial exemption. As a consequence, he spent a year in federal prison during the Korean War as a draft resister. During this time, Lawson became a part of the FOR and well acquainted with several FOR leaders active in Civil Rights work such as A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and Glenn Smiley. He also became deeply attracted to Gandhian philosophy, and upon his release from prison spent a couple of years in India with a Methodist mission program and studied the Gandhian movement firsthand.

By 1957, Lawson returned to complete seminary. He planned then to move to the South and combine church ministry with civil rights work. A chance encounter with King sped up Lawson’s timetable. King was intrigued by Lawson’s training and commitment, and he insisted to Lawson that the need was urgent. King convinced Lawson to head south immediately. They chose Nashville as a good location for a campaign. Nashville was still fully segregated, but the city had a self-image as a progressive center in the South. Some effective actions without unleashing an intense backlash might be feasible.

The FOR hired Lawson as a fieldworker. He also enrolled as one of the first African American students at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Once in Nashville, Lawson began recruiting mostly college students to come together for a campaign to integrate Nashville.[6] Under Lawson’s guidance, the Nashville campaign proceeded carefully and meticulously. A period of thorough training prepared dozens of activists to initiate a series of sit-ins intended to integrate lunch counters in downtown Nashville.

Lawson’s training emphasized both the need for activists to be willing to risk physical abuse in putting themselves in the way of the segregationists and the need to refrain from either physical or verbal retaliation. Some students accepted the full message of nonviolence that underlie the training, others more understood this primarily as a potentially useful tactic.

In the event, the activists retained a remarkable sense of discipline, patience, and restraint, even in the face of physical abuse and arrest. They called upon other African Americans in Nashville and their supporters to join the effort by boycotting the businesses in downtown Nashville that refused to integrate their lunch counters.

The desegregation campaign met with great success, following the rules of a Gandhian satyagraha campaign to the letter. It gained national attention and, because of the self-discipline of the activists, gathered wide support. The downtown businesses capitulated in time, accepting integration at the lunch counters. Over the next several years, the willingness to integrate spread across most of the city.

Several of the college students who joined in this campaign became significant leaders in the broader Civil Rights movement, taking with them deep commitments to nonviolence. James Bevel became an important colleague of Martin Luther King and played a major role in several of the crucial events where King’s impact fostered key advances. Diane Nash, John Lewis, and Bernard Lafayette also had influential roles.

About the same time as the Nashville campaign’s successes, a number of activists linked with CORE, decided to push the confrontations further to the South—that is, further into the heart of segregationism. They organized a mixed-race group that would travel into the Deep South via the interstate bus system; they called this action a “freedom ride”. Their intent was to challenge the segregated policies in the bus stations. They began in Washington, DC, and almost immediately faced resistance when they stopped in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was when they got to Alabama, though, that the strong resistance to their actions led to overt violence. The bus they rode on was stopped and burnt and several of the activists (including a World War II draft resister we met earlier, Jim Peck), were severely beaten. The level of violence surpassed the expectations of the activists and they abandoned their action.

However, rather than let the momentum die, a number of the activists who had served in the Nashville campaign decided to try the freedom ride idea again. They embarked on the second freedom ride in May 1961. Again, the bus drove into a maelstrom of hostility and violence. This time, though, with greater numbers, a clearer sense of what to expect, and a stronger support structure, the freedom riders sustained their action. John Lewis nearly lost his life due to a beating, and several others also suffered severe injuries. But the ride continued into Mississippi, where the activists were arrested and sent to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary. By this time, the riders had gained national attention. In good Gandhian fashion, the riders remained committed to nonviolence and allowed their opponents to undermine their own moral standing through their violent reaction.

Out of the sit-in movement, which also had a strong presence in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SNCC) provided some funding in 1960 to begin a new organization that would center its efforts on providing guidance and support for younger activists. This organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in its early years proved extraordinarily effective in embodying Gandhian nonviolence in ways that brought genuine change.

Though originating at the initiative of the SCLC, SNCC from its founding took an independent path. SNCC activists drew heavily on the teaching of James Lawson and other advocates of nonviolent direct action. Several of the Nashville activists, most notably John Lewis, provided leadership for the SNCC actions. Along with public actions such as the freedom rides and mass demonstrations in cities such as Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, SNCC also undertook significant (and highly dangerous) education and voting registration campaigns in rural areas in Mississippi, Alabama, and other southern states. The relationship between SNCC and the SCLC became tense. King himself appreciated the breath of fresh air that SNCC brought to the wider movement. Under his influence, the two organizations retained a mutually supportive (if constantly uneasy) relationship.

The American Civil Rights movement in the decade between Rosa Parks 1955 Montgomery action that initiated the bus boycott and the passing the Voting Rights Act in the U.S. Congress in 1965 was mainly characterized by practical (if not always ideological) commitments to nonviolence. This nonviolence had important roots in the anti-World War II communities (seen in the influence of A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer as well as the inspiration James Lawson received from his draft-resisting predecessors). Martin Luther King, Jr., provided a public articulation of the practical and (increasingly as his own convictions deepened) philosophical bases for nonviolence.

The reaction to the Civil Rights movement by supporters of segregation was breathtaking in its intensity and extreme violence, reaching its apex in the murder of King himself in 1968. The Civil Rights campaigns were aided by the emergence of television as a popular medium that during this time entered the homes of vast numbers of Americans. The campaigns retained their nonviolent, non-retaliatory practices in face of the extraordinary violence of the defenders of the racist status quo. Such steadfastness exerted enormous impact in pushing legislators and public opinion in general toward a growing willingness to include racial minorities as full participants in the nation’s common life. This willingness grew alongside the ever-intensifying violence of the segregationists. This phase of the Civil Rights movement culminated in new federal legislation and willingness of the government to enforce the legislation. This level of success surely owed a great deal to the practice of nonviolence.

As it turned out, though, the country could only partially accept the gifts offered it by the Civil Rights movement. When, under King’s leadership, the movement extended its activism to the North, it met with shocking resistance. President Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to social justice in the United States, unprecedented in relation to any other American president before or since, ran aground in face of his simultaneous commitment to a disastrous war in Southeast Asia. The Civil Rights movement itself could not sustain its commitment to nonviolence.

King himself grew ever more committed to principled nonviolence, leading eventually to his costly but deeply consistent sharp critique of the American war on Vietnam. However, other committed pacifists such as James Lawson and John Lewis were driven to the margins of the movement by those who did not share this commitment. The ongoing violent intransigence of those opposed to the Civil Rights agenda—certainly in the South but also in the North—strengthened arguments of those within the movement who opposed nonviolence.

By the time of King’s murder in 1968, the Civil Rights movement as an expression of transformative nonviolence had lost its momentum. It agenda has remained unfulfilled to a large extent—witness the disparity in the United States today in wealth between whites and blacks; witness also the evolution of the American criminal justice system into a powerful tool of the disenfranchisement of wide swaths of the African American community. However, the achievements of this movement remain of utmost importance. And those achievements may be seen as a direct outworking of nonviolent activism embodied by an enormously creative and dedicated generation of activists.

Anti-nuclear weapons, 1945-1970

Except for the small handful of people involved in its creation, the advent of nuclear weaponry came as a shock to everyone. From the initial bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, down to this present the decision to use this weapon has been controversial—historians always have and probably always will disagree as to the true motives for the American decision-makers who unleashed this tool of mass destruction. Was it really necessary? How could we decide?

Overall, the American public strongly affirmed the use of these bombs, especially when within days of the attack Japan surrendered (more or less) unconditionally and World War II came to an end. Those few who opposed the War responded with unqualified horror. Selling out to warfare, they said, leads to destruction and the possibility that now we can bring an end to human life itself. However, at first the pacifists offered a somewhat muted outcry in that they tended to see the nuclear bombs, terrible as they were, mainly as the logical outworking of the war spirit, just one more step toward the abyss, but not necessarily something qualitatively new.

For a number of others, still a small minority in the society as a whole, the use of nuclear weapons led to some uncertainty about the war they had supported. Historian Joseph Kip Kosek labels those with such uncertainty “prowar liberals.” Prominent thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr supported a “limited” war due to belief that sometimes violence in the cause of justice may be necessary—and recognized the need to use the term “limited” in a very loose sense. In this view, once the War was undertaken, it required sufficient force to bring the conflict to a successful outcome.

However, the nuclear weapons seemed to go beyond what was necessary. The clear moral accomplishment of the Allies’ military victory, in the view of these prowar liberals, may well have been decisively undermined by the degree of destruction visited by the nuclear bombs. Kosek points out that before long, the emergence of the consensus in support of the American side in the Cold War would mute the negative views of the use of the nuclear weapons. However for a brief time “regret flowed freely.” He cites Lewis Mumford a leading liberal pro-war advocate who stated that “our methods of fighting have become totalitarian; that is, we have placed no limits upon our capacity to exterminate or destroy. [The result was] moral nihilism, the social counterpart of the atomic bomb.” A report called “Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith” prepared by liberal Protestant leaders, including Reinhold Niebuhr, came out in 1946 and expressed opposition to the use of nuclear bombs on Japan.[7]

The other main expression of dissent about the morality of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from within the very community that had created these terrible weapons. Several of the nuclear physicists who initially participated in the Manhattan Project did so mainly due to fear that the Nazis might create their own nuclear weapons. At least some of these scientists hoped to contribute to a kind of counterweight to the Germans that would not actually ever be used. Hence, once it became clear that the Nazis did not have potential to create nuclear weapons after all, these scientists advocated that the Manhattan Project be scrapped.

Two key physicists, Hungarian Leo Szilard and Dane Nels Bohr, spoke especially forcefully to warn against the negative possibilities of continued development of nuclear weapons and the possibilities of a post war arms race.[8] Their efforts failed. During the summer of 1945, as the work to create the bomb neared its successful conclusion, Szilard urgently initiated a petition signed by many of nuclear scientists that urged President Truman not to use the bomb on Japan: “A nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.”[9]

The scientists who signed Szilard’s petition were, like him, refugees from Hitler’s Europe and had an international perspective. They believed that their work on the bomb should as soon as possible be subject to international controls. They opposed an outcome where a single nation could exercise hegemony over nuclear weaponry. For the long term, they feared an arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Closer to hand, they feared that the bomb might be used on a population center. So they opposed the idea of a surprise attack against a Japanese city and hoped that a demonstration of the bomb on an unpopulated area could push Japan to surrender and perhaps would also persuade the Soviets to join in creating an international cooperative arrangement. Thus, as Carroll points out, “in the climactic weeks of the war, with world-historic consequences at stake, the Szilard-led scientists offered…the only dynamic and tightly focused effort to find another way than use of the bomb on Japanese cities.”[10]

As it turned out, this petition was kept from President Truman until after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, was strongly committed to using the bomb at the soonest possible moment and made sure Truman was not deterred from that action. The concerns of Szilard and his colleagues ended up playing no role in the final decision to use the bomb.

Though many of the scientists who joined the Manhattan Project were motivated by concerns for countering the possible German creation of the bomb, only one actually left the Project once it became clear that the Germans would not be getting nuclear weaponry. The one defector was Joseph Rotblat, one of the original scientists who worked in the crucial Los Alamos, New Mexico, laboratory. “When it became evident, toward the end of 1944, that the Germans had abandoned their bomb project,” Rotblat wrote, “the whole purpose of my being in Los Alamos ceased to be, and I asked for permission to leave and return to Britain.” Rotblat, a physicist who had fled Poland for Great Britain several years earlier, was the only Los Alamos scientist to “pause” once it was clear the Nazi nuclear threat did not exist. He sustained his anti-nuclear weapons convictions. “He would go on to be a founder of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international movement of scientists working against nuclear weapons, a commitment that earned him (and the Pugwash organization) the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.”[11]

The other influential scientific organization along with Pugwash that emerged in the years following Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought scientists critical of nuclear weapons together was the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). It was formed November 1945, and within months included as members 90% of the scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb. Szilard played a key role in the FAS, but most of its participants were younger scientists. Its mission from the beginning was “freeing humanity from the threat of nuclear war.”[12]

One of the main efforts of the FAS was to publish the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a major voice in the scientific community and beyond for disarmament. Historian Lawrence Wittner summarizes the motivations of these scientists: “Why did the atomic scientists embrace the antinuclear crusade with such fervor? Some undoubtedly sought to atone for their wartime role. [Robert] Oppenheimer suggested publicly that ‘the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.’ [Albert] Einstein took a similar tack, arguing that, like Alfred Nobel, ‘the physicists who participated in producing the most formidable weapon of all time are harassed by a…feeling of responsibility, not to say guilt.’ In a variant of this theme, the FAS maintained: ‘Our country, the United States, has a peculiar responsibility. We first used the bomb….The bombs are marked “Made in the U.S.A.”’

“Szilard, however, claimed that he ‘never felt any guilt’ at his work on the Bomb project because developing the weapon seemed necessary at the time. But he did ‘feel a special responsibility’ for coping with the ensuing arms race. Certainly, guilt played a role for some—and perhaps even for Szilard—but more widespread was a sense of social responsibility. As [Victor] Weisskopf later observed, ‘maybe’ a ‘feeling of guilt for having participated in devising this new weapon…drove us on,’ but ‘the most important reason was our nightmarish vision of an actual nuclear conflict, based on our particular understanding of the power of the weapon we had made.’ Or as [Bulletin editor Eugene] Rabinowitch contended, the scientists’ participation in the Bomb project ‘convinced them that, with this discovery, a radical change had come in the role of science in public affairs,’ leaving humanity faced ‘with unprecedented dangers of destruction.’”[13]

This movement among American scientists played an important role in providing at least a bit of a counterweight to the momentum created toward ever-expanding the quantity and quality of the American nuclear arsenal. However, though many scientists supported the FAS, the American government never was hindered by a lack of scientists willing to devote their energies to creating ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction.

The anti-nuclear scientists joined with many others who were concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons in placing great hope in the possibilities of world government. The establishment of the United Nations fueled those hopes. However, in time, it became clear that the leaders of the United States were not interested in ceding any power to international agencies that would limit the American nuclear weapons capabilities.

Because of the overwhelming power of the forces in the United States that were committed to pursuing policies aimed at sustaining dominance over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a widespread public movement opposing nuclear weaponry failed to gain much traction throughout the decade following Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

By 1954, though, the numbers of people around the world who were uneasy about the growth of nuclear weaponry began to reach a critical mass that would lead to more significant expressions of resistance. “The rapid development of the hydrogen bomb—a weapon with 1,000 times the power of the bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima—began to revive the idea that humanity was teetering on the brink of disaster. Atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, particularly, stimulated public concern. They scattered clouds of radioactive debris around the globe and, furthermore, symbolized the looming horror of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war. Deeply disturbed by this turn of events, many of the early critics of the Bomb renewed their calls for nuclear arms control and disarmament—measures which appealed to ever larger sections of the public.”[14]

Through the rest of the 1950s, the movement to oppose nuclear weapons grew steadily. In many place around the world, anti-nuclear activists created some of the largest protests their countries had seen for years, if ever. The movement found it greatest support in the “West” (North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australasia) where earlier peace movements had been established. Nonetheless, countries throughout the world contributed to the movement.

The historian of the anti-nuclear movement, Lawrence Wittner, reports that “the nuclear disarmament movement became genuinely international, mobilizing as many as half a million people simultaneously for street demonstrations and other popular manifestations against the Bomb in dozens of nations. Sometimes, indeed, it became transnational, as nuclear protestors surged forth from country to country, usually to the dismay of their governments. Western activists even broke through the ‘iron curtain’ and brought the antinuclear campaign to Communist nations.” Mass movements independent of government control were impossible in Eastern Bloc countries, but the movement did win “converts in high places, particularly among Soviet scientists and other intellectuals, who pressed the Soviet government to halt key aspects of the nuclear arms race.”[15]

As the movement gained wide participation, it especially drew strength from young people. “Its vision of a world saved from nuclear holocaust touched their moral idealism, while its activities—marches, demonstrations, and sit-ins—seemed a welcome relief from the humdrum politics of the early Cold War era.” The movement also drew many participants from the ranks of intellectuals and the broader educated middle class, along with continued support from many scientists. Plus, many women felt a strong pull to work for disarmament. “Deeply concerned about the future of their children and often excluded from mainstream politics, they found in the struggle against the Bomb an appropriate vehicle for social and political activism.”[16]

For all its accomplishments, the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s and 1960s certainly fell far short of its aspirations. Activists galvanized support around a simple demand: Ban the Bomb. Decision-making elite in the nuclear-armed nations well understood that to pursue this straightforward path would require major changes in national security policies. These elite were somewhat responsive to the popular outpouring of sentiment in favor of disarmament, but also worked strenuously, and by and large successfully, to minimize genuine change. “Under great popular pressure, policymakers might limit nuclear testing, regulate the arms race, or draw back from nuclear war. But, for the most part, they were not about to give up their nuclear weapons or, for that matter, reform the international system.” The movement, thus, centered its concerns of weapons rather than the underlying dynamics of international relations. And as a consequence, the potential for genuine change was limited.[17]

Even so, the movement did have an impact. As Wittner summarizes: “In the face of bitter opposition from many government leaders, it had helped to end atmospheric testing, secure the world’s first nuclear arms control agreements, and lessen the possibilities of nuclear war. Furthermore, it unleashed a new wave of dynamic social forces—most notably movements among students, women, and intellectuals—as agencies of social change. Even as they put aside nuclear concerns, they took up other issues of great moment, including the Vietnam War, environmental protection, women’s liberation, and assorted campaigns for social justice. Often they drew on the movement’s innovative techniques, including mass marches and nonviolent resistance.”[18]

The movement reached its peak around 1960. Various factors, including implementation of the ban on atmospheric testing as well as the emergence of a more immediate concern in the growing war in Vietnam, led to an eclipse of widespread anti-nuclear activism. Nonetheless, several pro-disarmament organizations that emerged in the 1950s survived, ready to be revived when the times allowed such. “In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the international system again threatened the send the world careening toward nuclear catastrophe, they became the core of a new mass movement. As millions of people poured into the streets of Sydney and New York, Amsterdam and Moscow, Budapest and London, bearing the nuclear disarmament symbol, it became the largest grassroots movement in world history—one which exemplified, through its global nature, the gradual emergence of a world community.”[19]

Wittner concludes the second of his three volumes that give an account of these movements with some moderately encouraging words:

“Today, as we look back on more than half a century of nuclear threat and counter-threat—and particularly on the terrible nuclear explosions and confrontations of the 1950s and 1960s—it is time to face up to what happened and why. Many writers repeat the hoary argument, advanced again and again by government officials, that, paradoxically, nuclear weapons have provided the key to our survival. Despite their confident assertion of this proposition, it remains no more than a hypothesis that can be neither proven nor disproven. But, having explored the growth and influence of the popular campaign against nuclear weapons, we can posit an alternative explanation for our good fortune. It suggests that, even in the midst of a murderous system of international relations, humane considerations can have an impact—indeed, that they helped to curb the nuclear arms race and to avert its most disastrous consequences. More specifically, it suggests the remarkable degree to which our survival, physical and moral, has resulted from the activities of those men and women who worked to free humanity from the menace of nuclear annihilation.”[20]

Anti-nuclear weapons, 1970-1995

The 1950s/1960s anti-nuclear weapons movement met with significant, if only partial success. For the first time, the nuclear powers agreed on an arms limitation treaty. As well, the ending of testing nuclear weapons in the open atmosphere was a major step in lessening the destructiveness of the production of these weapons.

However, the actual impact of these positive moves was more than compensated by major moves in the other direction. As has been typical for American militarists ever since World War II, acceptance of modest limitations masked efforts greatly to expand the arsenal on general. Along with the general effort by the American militarists to avoid letting this new arms control regime actually challenge their core agenda, in the 1960s the Soviets, for probably the only time during the Cold War, actually took major strides in gaining on the U.S. dominance.

The humiliation the Soviets faced in the Cuban missile crisis led to the removal of Nikita Khrushchev from leadership and a renewed effort greatly to expand the Soviet arsenal in order to approach something like genuine parity with the United States. As a consequence, the global threat of nuclear destruction significantly increased following the arms control measures Khrushchev and John Kennedy achieved.

However, partly due to being placated by the positive gains the movement did achieve and partly due to having its energy turned to the more immediate problem of America’s greatly expanded war on Vietnam, the anti-nuclear movement became a greatly diminished force by the end of the 1960s and remained such throughout most of the 1970s.

Of course, even if the anti-nuclear movement shrank, the threat from nuclear weaponry did not. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, more activists turned the focus of their concern back on the arms race. They gained hope from the election of Jimmy Carter as president in 1976, a victory at least in part based on Carter campaigning as a peace candidate. He entered office with what seemed to be sincere hopes to help stem the momentum toward an accelerated arms race.

Early in his administration, Carter challenged the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to reduce America’s nuclear arsenal significantly. That is, rather than being satisfied with “arms control,” Carter actually had hopes to achieve “disarmament.” James Carroll recognizes how radical Carter’s hope would have seemed in the context of the late 1970s:

Carter actually sought to challenge the “invention” of the Cold War itself, “a system of competition in armaments that was a substitute for the hot battle of an actual war. The Cold War arms race, despite its risks and ever more exorbitant costs, had served as its own source of order, and even of control. Carter grasped…that the initiative in the arms race had more or less consistently belonged to the United States: the Soviet buildups in the late 1940s, the early 1950s, the early to mid-1960s, and the 1970s had followed [in each case America’s initiative to enhance our arsenal]. America deployed its atomic bomb in 1945; Moscow did it in 1949. America’s intercontinental bomber came in 1948, Moscow’s in 1955. America’s hydrogen bomb in 1952, Moscow’s in 1955. America’s submarine-launched ballistic missile in 1960, Moscow’s in 1968. America’s multiple-warhead missile in 1964, Moscow’s in 1973. …And now America was ahead on the long-range cruise missile. If America could take the lead on the way up the arms ladder, why not on the way down?”[21]

As it turned out, though, tragically, Carter was not up to the challenge. He did not find a way to exercise his authority effectively in face of the intransigence of the American war system, both inside the Pentagon and outside the official government. Also, Carter’s focus on human rights, in many ways a laudatory emphasis that has had a positive impact rippling down to the present, ended up being twisted into a tactic in the Cold War with an emphasis on scolding the Soviet Union more than seeking to bring about changes within the American sphere of influence. This one-sided focus led to alienation with the Soviets, significantly reducing Carter’s potential to negotiate genuine reductions in nuclear weaponry.

By the end of his one term in office, the Carter administration had actually initiated major increases in military spending. Carter announced the disastrous “Carter Doctrine” in his January 1980 State of the Union speech. With this “doctrine, ” the U.S. laid claim to permanent access to Persian Gulf oil with the intention to sustain this access by “any means necessary, including military force.” Carter thus signaled a change in emphasis. Before this time, American initiative in the Middle East generally was channeled through surrogate; now the U.S. would more quickly directly intervene and greatly expand its military presence in the area. At the beginning of his tenure, Carter had advocated reducing U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf oil; by the end of what proved to be his one term, Carter advocated using the American military to support this dependence. “The consequences of this shift ordered by Carter would be played out in 1991, with the Gulf War, and in 2003, with the war against Iraq. By then, oil imports (still mainly from the Persian Gulf) had risen to more than half of the U.S. supply.”[22]

The final element in Carter’s failure was his inability to win re-election, instead turning the country over to Ronald Reagan, who made no bones about his commitment to crush the Soviet “evil Empire” and moved rapidly to escalate the U.S. side of the Cold War.

However, already during Carter’s tenure other forces in the United States and elsewhere were stirring—forces that within a few years would lead to the greatest public outcry against governmental policies the world had ever seen.

At the strong urging of the American government in 1979 (with Carter in office), the nations who were part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced a major intensifying of the nuclear danger to Europe, a decision significantly to enhance the nuclear weaponry stationed in western and southern Europe.

In response, anti-nuclear activists in Europe issued a strong statement in opposition to the deployment of NATO’s new nuclear weapons and to the presence of nuclear weapons at all in Western Europe. This statement, the “European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal” (END), was issued in hopes of stimulated a widespread disarmament movement. That hope was fulfilled over the course of the next several years.

The END movement organized massive peace demonstrations throughout Western Europe. They also organized yearly conventions that met in various European cities, the final one meeting in Moscow in 1991. END worked energetically at forming ties with dissident groups in Eastern Europe, groups that played major roles in the peaceful ending of Communist rule in Warsaw Pact countries by the early 1990s.

The emergence of the END movement helped stimulate a major revival of the work of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a British organization that had been active during the 1950s/1960s movement but had become mostly moribund by the mid-1970s. The membership of CND grew rapidly, jumping from 4,000 to 100,000 between 1979 and 1984.

One sign of the success of the European anti-nuclear movement was the decision by NATO in 1987 to withdraw the nuclear weapons whose deployment in 1980 had triggered the rebirth of the movement.

Parallel with the emergence of this mass movement in Europe, in the United States as well the anti-nuclear activism was re-energized. Two key expressions of this activism were the Freeze movement that gained great traction and the Plowshares movement, a much smaller, more intense effort to raise public awareness of the problems with nuclear weaponry.

A key figure in the Freeze movement was Randall Forsberg, a political science graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who formulated the original call for a nuclear weapons freeze and became one of the major public spokespersons for the movement once it gained a mass audience. This call for a freeze gained traction as the depth of Reagan’s antipathy toward the Soviet Union became clear early in his presidency. Reagan’s administration almost immediately abandoned even pretending to seek arms control agreements.

Forsberg’s freeze proposal sought for simplicity. In its two brief paragraphs, it called upon the two great powers, first, to “decide when and how to achieve a mutual and verifiable freeze on the testing, production, and future deployment of nuclear warheads, missiles, and other delivery systems.” Second, the proposal asked the powers “to pursue major mutual and verifiable reductions in nuclear warheads, missiles, and other delivery systems, through annual percentages or other effective means, in a manner that enhances stability.”[23]

The formal nuclear freeze campaign with a conference in Washington, DC, only two months after Reagan’s inauguration in March 1981. While this campaign did not succeed in fully achieving its goals, its roll in challenging Reagan’s militarism from the very beginning of his presidency surely played a major role in preventing the arms race causing even more damage.

The Freeze Campaign met with widespread support from its beginning, quickly becoming what Carroll characterizes as “the most successful American grassroots movement of the twentieth century.” Within a couple of months of the initial conference, hundreds of city councils and state legislatures around the country passed versions of the freeze resolution. “Official bodies in 43 states passed the resolution. More than a million people signed Freeze petitions in barely more than a few weeks. Two out of three congressional districts across the country had Freeze chapters. Organizations sprung up to join the movement. The membership of one, Physicians for Social Responsibility, founded in Boston by the pediatrician Helen Caldicott, grew quickly to more than twelve thousand, representing almost ever state in the Union—an astonishing number, given that doctors as a group were not known for their social activism.”[24]

In 1982, a Freeze resolution was introduced to Congress and that summer missed passing the House by only one vote. This campaign put Reagan on the defensive. His policies were under increasing fire. Even though Reagan’s policies in general were not popular, his own standing had been given a strong boost when he was wounded in an assassination attempt in March 1981. By the end of the 1982, though, that boost was history and the Freeze (among other factors) had contributed to a major loss of support for Reagan. He “and his advisers realized that the strategic-nuclear-weapons policies the administration had been pursuing could no longer be sustained.”[25]

In a somewhat desperate but masterful and ultimately successful shift of rhetoric, Reagan came out in 1983 as a seeming advocate of disarmament. This followed the victory of the Freeze resolution in the House of Representatives in March 1983. “After the resolution passed in Congress, [Reagan] ingeniously denounced the Freeze because it did not go far enough.”[26] He started talking about doing away with nuclear weapons altogether.

This idea of the abolition of nuclear weapons became something Reagan could suggest because of the emergence of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—a fanciful program that allegedly could obliterate incoming nuclear weapons. The SDI was never actually viable, mostly serving as an immense boondoggle funneling billions of dollars to the arms industry. But it worked rhetorically for Reagan. His new talk about abolishing nuclear weapons helped defuse the Freeze movement just as it was moving to the brink of actual legislative accomplishment.

Simultaneously with the popular and widely embraced Freeze movement, another group of peace activists took a much more radical stance. Daniel and Philip Berrigan, two Roman Catholic priests, had been leaders of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s. The Berrigan brothers and their close colleagues practiced the public symbolic act, gaining their first wide exposure following their destruction of draft files with homemade napalm in 1968, the case of the “Catonsville Nine.” They eventually served several prison terms for their activism, and Philip left the priesthood while still devoting his life to antiwar activism.

In face of the American escalation of the arms race, Phil Berrigan and his fellow activists decided to initiate a new series of public acts as part of what came to be known as the Plowshares movement. “A circle consisting of dozens of people carried out symbolic assaults against America’s nuclear weapons manufacturing sites and military deployments, including attacks on B-52 bombers, Trident submarines, and MX missiles.” The first action occurred September 9, 1980.[27]

Between 1980 and the end of the millennium, Plowshares activists performed about one hundred similar actions. Their “acts, in the military’s view, [were] sabotage, gravely threatening, yet no one was ever injured—not the demonstrators, workers, guards, or arresting officers. Philip Berrigan had been dismayed by the peace movement’s temptations to violence late in the ever more criminal Vietnam War, but with Plowshares he had found a form of protest that was as direct and nonlethal as its objects were denied and murderous. He conducted such raids again and again, and was incarcerated again and again. By the time of his death, in December 2002, he had spent eleven years of his life in prison.”[28]

The Plowshares movement was more about witness than social transformation. The Freeze movement, working in the mainstream of American society, did seek social transformation, but ended up in many ways being outflanked by Ronald Reagan’s devious use of the SDI, actually a program to escalate the arms race, to underwrite his effective use of the rhetoric of nuclear abolition.

Ironically, though, while the Reagan administration never truly believed in disarmament, a new government came into power in the Soviet Union that actually did. With the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev, the pieces were in place for the first time since the arms race began for the hopes of disarmament advocates actually being achieved.

Gorbachev moved mountains to hold Reagan accountable to the latter’s rhetoric about disarmament. And he came amazingly close to succeeding. Without a doubt, the big achievement of the Nuclear Freeze movement was to challenge Reagan to change his rhetoric. As it turned out, Reagan in his own internally contradictory way, did believe in getting rid of nuclear weapons and he was responsive enough to Gorbachev’s initiatives to encourage the Soviet leader to continue on his path toward genuine disarmament.

Important achievements followed—such as the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Europe and the shockingly peaceful transition away from Communism as the Soviets voluntarily allowed their empire to be dismantled and accepted self-determination for Eastern and Central Europe peoples. As with the earlier nuclear disarmament movement in the 1960s, the movement in the 1980s only partially achieved its goals. But, also as before, its efforts did help the world to take a step back from the abyss.

The work of the movement joined with Gorbachev’s remarkable initiatives, set the stage for a genuine move away from the abyss (as noted in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moving its doomsday clock to an unprecedented 17 minutes from midnight). Tragically, this move ultimately was in many ways negated by the failure of the American national security system to find within itself the capability of genuinely fulfilling the ideals that Americans had been sent to war to fight for in 1941.

Lawrence Wittner concludes, at the end of his authoritative three volume account of the anti-nuclear movements from 1945 to 2003, that the leaders of the great powers, with a couple of important exceptions, never intended truly to move toward disarmament. These exceptions were important: Olof Palme of Sweden, Andreas Papandreou of Greece, Rajiv Gandhi of India, and Mikhail Gorbachev. This handful of leaders were happy with the emergence of the antinuclear movement.

“But most officials had a more negative view of the nuclear disarmament campaign, for it challenged their reliance upon nuclear weapons to foster national security. And yet they could not ignore the movement, either, particularly when it reached high tide. Confronted by a vast wave of popular resistance, they concluded, reluctantly, that compromise had become the price of political survival. Consequently, they began to adapt their rhetoric and policies to the movement’s program. Within a relatively short time, they replaced ambitious plans to build, deploy, and use nuclear weapons with policies of nuclear disarmament and nuclear restraint. Most of this was accomplished, it should be noted, before the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Thereafter, when the antinuclear movement waned, the nuclear arms race resumed.”[29]

The unconquerable world

One of the lessons we may see in reflecting on these efforts to overcome the problems of race-based oppression and nuclear weaponry is simply how deeply entrenched these problems are in our society. Even such powerful efforts that mobilized thousands upon thousands of people who sought change brought only grudging and fragile improvements. In the case of both sets of issues, the gains sadly were followed by losses and our situation today remains one of peril and injustice.

World War II in some small ways marked a bit of progress in relation to racial justice. Perhaps the main step forward came due to the use of negotiations backed by the possibility of nonviolent labor unrest successfully to pressure a reluctant Franklin Roosevelt to require weapons contractors to move toward more integration. The corporations resisted these moves, but numerous racial minorities did gain employment opportunities heretofore closed to them, even in the face of continued racist hostilities.

In the military, African-Americans were conscripted into a military system where the vast majority encountered deeply racist environments. Again, though, with perseverance they did find their opportunities expanding as the War continued. The postwar years have seen major improvements in overcoming racial discrimination in the military to the extent that many people perceive the American military in general to be one of the most non-discriminatory areas of American life.

However, the vast majority of African-American soldiers left the military at the end of the War frustrated by facing racism even as they answered their country’s call to serve. More so, they faced oppression as they returned to a profoundly racist country that continued to treat these men who had risked their lives out of loyalty to their country as second-class citizens. Not only did African-American veterans return to the same old same old in terms of on-going discrimination, they also found themselves deprived of many of the benefits white veterans received due to their service.

Out of these experiences, the African-American community did deepen its resolve to work for change. So the Civil Rights movement that emerged in force in the second half of the 1950s owed some of its energy to the common experience of the blatant contradictions in American culture between demanding military service for the sake of “freedom” from people continually facing extreme oppression and the denial of many basic freedoms within the borders of their own country.

The nuclear threat of course directly stemmed from World War II. We cannot say what would have happened regarding the development and deployment of nuclear weaponry with the impetus of this war. Without a doubt, though, the actual development of usable nuclear weapons could not have happened without the willingness of the American government to devote extremely large amounts of money and intellectual and material resources to the effort. Almost certainly, no government would possibly have undertaken such an effort with a highly uncertain outcome in peacetime.

As it turned out, the U.S. simply was not morally capable to turning away from the use and then attempted unilateral and monopolistic development of this most destructive of weapons systems once the initial effort began to pay dividends. As Garry Wills has concisely discussed in his book Bomb Power, this willingness by American policy makers to devote such extraordinary amounts of resources to the weapons of death has drastically undermined American democracy as well as placed the entire world in enormous peril. Perhaps most tragically, after the American “victory” in the Arms Race in the early 1990s, the country proved unable to put an end to its years of pouring its treasure into these systems of destruction.

Nonetheless, despite the seeming intractability of these problems, the movements to overcome them contain extremely important lessons for the future of the human species. These movements, with their mass (at times) followings and effective (at times) tactics to bring about important changes make clear that descent into an ever-tightening spiral of violence is not simply the fate of human history.

The violent legacy of World War II has been challenged, effectively. And the challenges to this legacy have created momentum toward change—even if this momentum may not always be obviously discernable. Rosa Parks’ initiating the sit-in campaign in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955, and the emergence of what eventually evolved to be an international mass movement opposing nuclear weapons that was triggered by the decision by American policy makers in 1954 to pursue the hydrogen bomb showed that the trajectory toward more and more violence was going to meet with resistance.

The various social movements resisting the spiral of violence have shared a couple of key characteristics. These provide the foundation for strategies to wrest power from the forces leading us toward the abyss of violence and oppression and to move toward a quite different kind of future. A key step is simply to step out of the pro-violence consensus. Certainly one of the most powerful moral legacies of World War II from the beginning was the basic assumption that violence worked well to defeat the enemies of our country. With this came the assumption that the institutions that emerged as the managers of this violence should be trusted as necessary and appropriate as the heart of our federal government. However, these movements for social change have had at their core a rejection of that necessary-violence narrative.

This stepping out from the narrative of necessary violence as the basis for security manifests one of the central tenets of a Gandhian political philosophy. Gandhi argued strongly that the ability of governing elites to manage their societies depends completely upon the consent of the people being governed. Recognizing what truly is a set law of social reality then provides those who seek social change with a crucial strategic principle. To bring about social change, the change agents must focus on this dynamic of consent. If the consent of enough people will be withheld, the ability of the governing elite to work their will is certain to be profoundly undermined.

The key moments of genuine change—the integration of the American South, the creation of the first arms limitation treaties, the withdrawal of forward-based nuclear weapons from Western Europe, the disintegration of the Iron Curtain (we could also include the remarkably nonviolent dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa)—all had at their core various levels of the withholding of consent to the status quo structures.

As people step out the pro-violence consensus created and sustained by the power elites in Western societies, significant numbers, at times with powerful effectiveness, take the next step and band together in communities devoted to creating change. The “beloved community” of the American Civil Rights movements, the mass movements of protest against the American/Soviet nuclear madness, and others, have found ways (sadly rarely sustainable) to create sufficient critical mass to move society in more peaceable directions.

Bringing people together reinforces the moves many make to disbelieve the power elites’ narrative concerning necessary violence. Many people may have questions about that narrative, but finding others of like mind will reinforce those questions and provide possibilities for acting on the suspicions of the pro-violence narrative. One of the key elements in the ending of the Soviet empire was the gradual emergence of various communities that provided confirmation and support for the increasing numbers who were seeking a different kind of world. We see parallel dynamics in the American Civil Rights movement.

An important step in going beyond simple protest is the construction of alternative narratives to the standard violence-is-necessary-for-security story. These movements of protest and emergence of communities of resistance in important ways challenge the standard story. However, they often have not been accompanied by thoroughgoing articulations of different views of how society might be structured based on peaceable values.

The pioneering work of Gandhi has played an important role in the gradual development of alternative social narratives. Martin Luther King brought together Gandhian influences, insights drawn from biblical sources, and an attempt to reframe the American struggle for genuine democracy more as a story of a quest for genuine freedom than as a quest for world domination. The anti-nuclear movement tended either to focus on protest or on working within the present security system for gradual disarmament. However, it has included some elements of thought and advocacy that have worked at imagining the actual parameters of a non-nuclear world.

While these movements did achieve important advances, perhaps their most important contribution was simply to get the ball rolling on the gradual emergence of social developments that have moved humanity closer to what social thinker Jonathan Schell has called the “unconquerable world.”[30] Schell traces the emergence in the twentieth century of the inexorable drive that human societies have for self-determination. The collapse of the great empires of the early twentieth-century (and the German, Japanese, and Soviet empires that emerged later in the twentieth century) made possible the realistic possibility of more political self-determination—a possibility fueled by the stated purposes of World War II.

The unexpected and disastrous insistence by several so-called democracies after World War II to try to delay the end of their empires (for example, France in Vietnam and Algeria, the Netherlands in Indonesia, and Great Britain in Kenya) led to several “peoples wars” that left untold numbers of casualties. Numerous of these “peoples wars” did succeed in ending external domination, but even the successful ones often did not result in the spread of genuine self-determination for most of the people involved due to the imposition of authoritarian post-revolutionary governments.

However, Schell argues that in most cases the key factors leading to the defeat of the external forces were not their military firepower so much as the revolutionaries’ ability to undermine the consent of the governed. It was not military might but the political success of the movements that drove the occupation forces out.

Gandhi’s work in India and then the amazing late 20th-century movements in Central and Eastern Europe and in South Africa made it clear that the revolutionary task may actually be achieved largely through nonviolent means. Schell suggests that the combination of growing clarity about how movements for self-determination might be based on nonviolence and the actual impotence of nuclear weaponry and all-out warfare that becomes ever more clear have, even in the face of the continued militarization of American foreign policy, made genuine peace a greater possibility in the world.

Schell’s type of analysis underscores the importance—and actual possibility—of people in the United States burying the myth that World War II was a “good war” and a “necessary war” that has a positive moral legacy. Americans need to recognize the long shadow of World War II as a major factor in the death-enhancing dynamics that the United States still embraces in its unquestioned militarism. Such a recognition would be a major step toward a shift in trust from violence as a necessity for security toward trust in what Schell calls “cooperative power.”

Schell summarizes: “The power that flows upward from the consent, support, and nonviolent activity of the people is not the same as the power that flows downward from the state by virtue of its command of the instruments of force, and yet the two kinds of power contend in the same world for the upper hand, and the seemingly weaker one can, it turns out, defeat the seemingly stronger, as the downfall of the British Raj [in India] and the Soviet Union showed. Therefore, although it may lead to paradox and linguistic tangles to speak of martyrs as being more ‘powerful’ than the authorities who put them to death, the exercise is inescapable. For it is indeed a frequent mistake of the powers that be to imagine that they can accomplish or prevent by force what a Luther, Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, or a [Vaclav] Havel can inspire by example. The prosperous and mighty of our day still live at a dizzying height above the wretched of the earth, yet the latter have made their will felt in ways that have already changed history, and can change it more.”[31]

In our present day, the self-awareness of the importance of instruments of self-determination that make up what is being called “civil society” and the emergence of global forums that provide voice for those outside the power elite, dynamics that offer genuine hope for a more peaceful world. These instruments stand directly on the shoulders of the Civil Rights and the anti-nuclear movements that emerged in the 1950s as direct responses (ad hoc and fragmented as they were) to the failure of World War II even remotely to live up to its promise as an agent for creating self-determination and disarmament through immense violence.

In the next chapter of this section, “Alternatives,” I will focus on another type of response to the failures of the war system to facilitate human wellbeing. The mass movements discussed above emerged from people’s reaction to immense injustices and fears. Also, though, as we saw, important influences in these movements did come from those who had recognized the inherent problems in the World War II turn towards immense violence.

Next, though, we will look at several examples of movements that have also sought to foster alternative models for achieving humane social dynamics as a direct expression of pacifist convictions. In each case (we will look at the American Friends Service Committee, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Catholic Worker), the pacifist communities faced adversity during World War II due to their principled unwillingness to support that war. Yet by emerging from the War with those principles largely intact—and in fact, deepened in many ways—these communities were well situated to devote immense energies immediately after the War to addressing the survival needs of many devastated by the War. They were then able to move on to work at longer-term peacemaking and service efforts.

One fruit of the expanding work of these pacifist communities is that they were each, in their own way, well situated to make major contributions to an unprecedented mass movement in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s—the widespread opposition to a war in the midst of the conflict that in important ways contributed to the ending of that conflict: the anti-Vietnam War movement.


[1] Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 5.

[2] Quotes from Kosek, Acts, 182-83. The original article was James Farmer, “The Race Logic of Pacifism,” Fellowship (February 1942).

[3] Quoted in Kosek, Acts, 216.

[4] Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

[5] King’s closest colleague, Ralph Abernathy, actually had served in the military during World War II. Like with King, Abernathy came to nonviolence more due to its potential as an effective tactic than as a principled commitment. Also, like with King, his views evolved on this topic.

[6] For an account of the Nashville campaign, see Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 305-33.

[7] Quotes in Kosek, Acts, 193-94.

[8] Lawrence Wittner, One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 22-23.

[9] Quoted in James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 60.

[10] Carroll, House, 60.

[11] Carroll, House, 58-59.

[12] Wittner, One, 60.

[13] Wittner, One, 61.

[14] Lawrence Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 1.

[15] Wittner, Resisting, 463.

[16] Wittner, Resisting, 464.

[17] Wittner, Resisting, 472,

[18] Wittner, Resisting, 472.

[19] Wittner, Resisting, 473.

[20] Wittner, Resisting, 473.

[21] Carroll, House, 364.

[22] Carroll, House, 371-72.

[23] Quote from Carroll, House, 385.

[24] Carroll, House, 386.

[25] Carroll, House, 388.

[26] Carroll, House, 390.

[27] Carroll, House, 419.

[28] Carroll, House, 419-20.

[29] Lawrence Wittner, Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 486.

[30] Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003).

[31] Schell, Unconquerable, 230-31.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Militarism, Pacifism, U. S. foreign policy, World War II

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s