Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service

Ted Grimsrud—June 5, 2019

 The resilient response to World War II by those few who retained their pacifist commitments insured that when the war finally ended, there would be peacemakers to devote themselves to overcoming the effects of the massive violence. As we will see, these efforts often took the shape of nonviolent direct action for social change. However, the experience of a world at war also greatly stimulated expanded works of service from pacifist groups.

The Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements sought directly to transform American culture through social activism. They were ad hoc uprisings made up of a variety of citizens whose energies ebbed and flowed over the time of the movements’ activities. Their significance lies in their quest, at times remarkably successful, for genuine democracy from the bottom up, based not on coercive force but on the exercise of self-determination.

Alongside these transformation-seeking movements, we should also be attentive to several long-term efforts, largely motivated by pacifist sensibilities, to work for self-determination and disarmament through acts of service. The first of these “service committees” was the American Friends Service Committee. I will also discuss two other quite different but parallel service-oriented groups, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Catholic Worker.

American Friends Service Committee

AFSC established a presence in numerous international locations during the inter-war years, but also invested significant time and money in working inside the U.S. in relief and development work during the Great Depression. AFSC leaders worked skillfully with government officials—even to the point that long-time AFSC director Clarence Pickett developed a strong working relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and through her had significant contact with President Roosevelt himself.

AFSC had links with numerous Quaker centers throughout Western Europe that had begun with the post-World War I relief work. With the rise of Nazism, these Quakers, with support from AFSC, sought to facilitate the emigration of beleaguered Jews. They met with resistance from the American and British governments, so were unable to help nearly as many people as they wanted to. But they helped some, they sounded the alarm (too seldom heeded) about the increasing danger faced by Jews, and they challenged (not successfully enough) the political structures in the U.S. to respond to this crisis.

AFSC also worked to provide alternatives for military service for draftees. With their years of work with government, Quaker leaders were uniquely situated to lead peace church efforts to shape government policy toward conscientious objectors. They worked with government officials to create and operate what became the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program in collaboration with Mennonite Central Committee and the newly created Brethren Service Committee.

As it turned out, the Friends CPS camps attracted a wide range of COs from various traditions (the Mennonite camps were populated mostly by Mennonites; and the Brethren camps had a strong Brethren identity), partly due to a disappointingly small number of Quakers who chose to be COs. Throughout the war years, AFSC leaders debated the validity of the agency cooperating so closely with the war-making government. In the end, when the government insisted that the CPS camps continue for nearly two years even after the War ended, AFSC opted out of its involvement with CPS.

As with World War I, so also in the devastating aftermath of World War II, AFSC effectively devoted extraordinary resources to relief work. This work was recognized when AFSC and its British counterpart the Friends Service Council were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their relief work in 1947. During the Cold War years, AFSC continued with its relief and development work, giving special focus to aiding victims of warfare. As had been the case since its founding in 1917, AFSC gained wide respect from various sides in these conflicts as genuinely oriented toward humanitarian aid and not political partisanship.

At the same time, within the United States, AFSC did take strong stands critical of the American National Security System. One influential AFSC publication, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, was issued in 1956 and gained wide attention for its critique of American (and Soviet) nuclearism and its articulation of an alternative vision for the international order based on “the effectiveness of love in human relations.” AFSC provided important support and leadership in the early development of the Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements. When the American participation in the Vietnam War grew during the mid-1960s, AFSC joined with various other long-term peace organizations (such as Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and War Resisters League) to provide organizational resources for the anti-war movement.

Throughout the Vietnam War years, AFSC worked hard at antiwar activities, provided widespread draft counseling in aiding prospective inductees who sought CO classification, worked with members of the military who sought help in dealing with their traumatic experiences, and engaged in extensive aid and development work in Southeast Asia.

During a time of intense debate, agitation, turmoil, aggressive protest, and polarizing conflicts, AFSC provided a distinctive presence. On the one hand, operating from a consistently pacifist perspective, AFSC offered a rigorous critique of American involvement in this war. This critique also included skepticism toward the various public relations efforts by American governmental officials. Yet, also drawing on its pacifist convictions, AFSC rejected the more militant and at times even violent reactions by the antiwar movement against American policies and policy-makers.

After 1975, AFSC worked hard at reconciliation efforts with the Vietnamese, actively but futilely seeking the normalization of relationships between the United States and Vietnam. AFSC also actively participated in efforts to resist American intervention in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America during the Sandinista years. Probably most controversially, AFSC has supported the Palestinian resistance to Israel.

Prominent Quaker sociologist and peace educator Elise Boulding offered this recent evaluation of the efforts of the AFSC:

“The AFSC had gone far in acknowledging kinship with and staying in relationship with groups whose lifeways differ sharply from those of middle class pacifists, groups that sometimes seek more far-reaching changes than the average pacifist feels called upon to support. This has led the AFSC into uncomfortable situations that many of us have never had to confront. Keeping a steady and loving spirit in those situations, and upholding the commitment to nonviolence requires great inner strength. Certainly the AFSC has made mistakes. But they have been the mistakes of love and concern. We can choose to stay in risk-free spaces where the purity of our pacifism is never questioned, or we can choose to move into those spaces where humanity’s growing pains are more acutely on display.”

In spite of, or perhaps in some sense because of, the messiness of its direct engagement in peacework in the midst of intense conflicts, an engagement that has certainly included remarkable and exemplary relief work but also has gone beyond relief work to attempt to address causes of conflicts and take sides on behalf of the victims of warfare (hot and cold), the AFSC has embodied a powerfully transformative ethic of servanthood. Part of the power of the AFSC surely has followed from its rootedness in a particular Christian tradition. It has certainly practiced an impressive inclusiveness both in welcoming as its workers people from a variety of religious and non-religious traditions, and in offering its services to all in need regardless of ethnicity or creed. Yet it has also remained firmly anchored within the Quaker tradition and drawn most of its support from Quaker sources.

Mennonite Central Committee

American Mennonites’ experience during World War II shaped their pacifist convictions in several important ways. The generosity Mennonites had expressed through MCC’s relief work in the 1920s was also expressed in the churches’ financial support for the CPS program. Mennonites supported their own CPSers, but their contributions also underwrote the expenses for other COs who lived in the Mennonite-operated CPS camps.

For many, CPS participation led to greatly expanded horizons. If prior to World War II, Mennonites had tended to think of their pacifist convictions primarily in terms of living faithfully as “quiet in the land” who practiced their nonresistant faith in neighborly ways in their isolated communities, as a consequence of their exposure to the wider world, many accepted the challenge to apply their convictions much more broadly after the War ended (see Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism).

This urge to apply Mennonite peace convictions more broadly led to an expanded ministry for Mennonite Central Committee. In 1940, MCC’s work was mainly focused on offering aid to impoverished Mennonites in the Soviet Union and those who had migrated from the Soviet Union to South America. Over the next several years, MCC work began in England, France, Poland, India, China, Egypt, and Puerto Rico. Immediately following the War, MCC entered seventeen more countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. MCC sought to be non-involved in partisan politics. However, in a broader sense, MCC’s work was deeply political. MCC did seek to further self-determination everywhere on earth—echoing the ideals of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter—without the use of coercive methods.

When the United States reinstated the military draft in the late 1940s, the policies concerning alternative service changed. Instead of requiring COs to take assignments in government-operated Civilian Public Service camps, nongovernmental agencies could provide assignments for COs. As well, the service was no longer restricted to North America. Consequently, during the 1950s and 1960s, MCC accepted thousands of COs performing alternative service and placed them throughout the world (see Calvin W. Redekop, The Pax Story: Service in the Name of Christ, 1951-1976).

One major impact of World War II on Mennonite young adults was an exposure to the wider society through their CPS work. For many, this exposure led to an interest in applying their pacifist convictions to problems of the day. They also tended as a consequence to have a more positive attitude both toward other peacemakers outside their Mennonite communities than had been the case in earlier generations and toward society and the state in general. The long-term, deep-seated Mennonite suspicion toward “political involvement” began to lessen.

Numerous Mennonites responded positively to Martin Luther King’s active nonviolence. For example, Guy Hershberger, the prominent author of the standard book on Mennonite peace convictions, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (1944), made an effort in the 1950s to understand King’s work and ended up as a supporter, even arranging a King visit to Goshen College, the Mennonite school where Hershberger taught.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s, led by King and inspired by Gandhi’s practice of nonviolent resistance, made a strong impact on many Mennonites. Vincent Harding, an African-American pastor for a time affiliated with Mennonites, worked closely with King and thus also helped to acquaint Mennonites with nonviolent resistance. Harding also played a major role as King’s own peace witness became more radical. He wrote the initial draft of King’s widely noticed speech, April 4, 1967, that provided a sharp critique of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Mennonites responded much differently to the Vietnam War than they had to World War II. A Kansas Mennonite, James Juhnke, won the Democratic nomination and ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress as a peace candidate. A number of Mennonites practiced tax resistance, joined in public antiwar demonstrations (including civil disobedience), and for the first time in the U.S., some Mennonite young men refused to cooperate with the draft, choosing prison or exile in Canada over alternative service.

During the entirety of World War II, virtually no American Mennonites went to prison as draft resisters. With Vietnam, several dozen Mennonites did go to prison and numerous others exiled themselves to Canada (see Melissa Miller and Phil Shenk, eds., The Path of Most Resistance: Stories of Mennonite Conscientious Objectors Who Did Not Cooperate with the Vietnam War Draft). This resistance reflected a growing acceptance of non-Mennonite sources for war resistance such as Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. Many of these Mennonite resisters had contact with the wider anti-war movement.

Though the actual number of Mennonite draft resisters was quite small, their stance did gain the official approval of the two largest Mennonite denominations. Later, when President Carter reinstated draft registration in the late 1970s as a means to “show resolve” toward the Soviets, a number of Mennonite young men refused to register. The denominations offered support for these resisters (while not recommending that course of action for all registrants). The main governmental sanction for non-registrants has been the refusal to allow non-registrants to receive government financial assistance for college. So the Mennonite Church USA offers grants for non-registrants partially to offset that loss.

With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the focus of Mennonite peacemakers changed to several new initiatives with links to MCC, as well as continued relief and development work. MCC had earlier established a “Peace Section” to further reflection on peace issues in light of Mennonite theology and a “Washington Office” to aid in listening to federal political issues and to provide a base for witnessing to legislators. Early in the history of the Washington Office, MCC facilitated testimony to Congress by various MCC workers who had served in Vietnam during the war years.

The Catholic Worker

World War II changed everything for the Catholic Worker movement. Dorothy Day and her closest colleagues remained resolute in their opposition to all warfare, even in the face of strong support for the War among their main constituencies. As a whole, Catholics supported the War at least as strongly as the wider American population. During the war years, support for the Catholic Worker shrank drastically. Numerous houses of hospitality had to close due to lack of support and circulation for the Catholic Worker newspaper dropped to a fraction of its prewar numbers.

However, the Catholic Worker’s costly pacifist stance became a foundation for the expansion of Catholic peace activism in the following generation. Two Catholic converts helped shape the Catholic Worker peace witness in the Cold War years. Robert Ludlow, a World War II CO, wrote about Gandhian nonviolence in the Catholic Worker, presenting it “as a potential substitute for war and as ‘a new Christian way of social change.’” Ammon Hennacy, a World-War-I-socialist CO and a lifelong political radical, joined with the Worker and pushed the group to more direct engagement in peace activism.

Dorothy Day herself made the news beginning in 1954 for being arrested due to her refusal to participate in legally mandated civil defense drills—participation that she believed implied an acceptance of American nuclear weapon policies. This was the first step in what has since become a long tradition of Catholic pacifist civil disobedience.

With Catholic Worker urging, Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace group founded by French and German Catholics in 1945, established an American branch in 1962—notable for bringing together pacifists and non-pacifists. Two years later, a new group with an overt pacifist commitment also got underway—with the intent of complementing the work of Pax Christi. The Catholic Peace Fellowship, with strong Catholic Worker connections, affiliated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The FOR connection signaled a new—and permanent—bridging of distance between Catholic pacifists and organized Protestant pacifism (see Peter Brock and Nigel Young, Pacifism in the Twentieth Century).

Another inspiration for American Catholic peace activism was the brief, transformative papacy of John XXIII. John convened Vatican II that moved Catholics into the twentieth century. Shortly before he died, John issued the encyclical Pacem in Terris, a call for peace that made it possible for “good Catholics” to begin to consider pacifism as an officially acceptable option. At the Vatican II council, two Americans, well known Trappist monk Thomas Merton and a lay theologian, James Douglass, lobbied for pacifism. Both men helped to shape the further development of American Catholic pacifism.

Merton, a prolific writer read far beyond Catholic circles, advocated for Gandhian nonviolence and sharply critiqued America’s war in Vietnam. While Merton’s understanding of peacemaking continued to develop, his conviction about “the essentially nonviolent character of the Christian message” remained firm. He believed that nonviolent tactics were always best in responding to evil and oppression. Douglass, also a prolific writer, had a major impact as a creative antiwar activist—most notably with his Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action near Seattle in the 1970s and 1980s. Douglass’s writings, beginning with The Non-Violent Cross in 1968, broke important ground in catholic theology by presenting Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary.

The names most commonly associated with Catholic resisters to the Vietnam War are Daniel Berrigan and his younger brother Phil (see Murray Polnar and Jim O’Grady, Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Life and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Brothers in Religious Faith and Civil Disobedience). Both were priests, and they collaborated with close colleagues to perform a series of acts of civil disobedience beginning in 1968 that stretched Catholic peace concern to new extremes.

The Berrigans had close connections with the Catholic Worker, FOR, and Catholic Peace Fellowship. They valued Merton’s writings highly and drew deeply on Jesus’ teachings (more than on the Catholic natural law tradition). Their additional step was to perceive a calling to go so far in their protests as to destroy government property. They believed, though, that such protests remained consistent with nonviolence—even as they burned draft board files or despoiled them with demonstrators’ blood. In face the of the horrendous war they were ready to become “criminals for peace.”

The Catholic resistance sustained its activities—moving after the end of the Vietnam War to anti-nuclear activism and involvement in the sanctuary movement that resisted American intervention in Central America. Philip Berrigan especially received prison sentences on many occasions. He worked closely with Catholic Worker communities, which had retained a thoroughly pacifist witness after Dorothy Day’s death in 1980.

The influence of Catholic pacifists became so extensive by the early 1980s that they played a major role in the writing and discussion of the American Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear war, The Challenge of Peace (see Philip J. Murnion, Catholics and Nuclear War: A Commentary on The Challenge to Peace, The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Letter on War and Peace).

The letter did not fully embrace pacifism. However, to an unprecedented degree it affirmed pacifism as a fully legitimate option for Catholic Christians. Notably, at this time several American bishops did publicly express thoroughgoing pacifist convictions—including the influential bishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, who worked closely with James Douglass and the Ground Zero Community. Hunthausen and the other pacifist bishops also cited Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker as an important influence along with the writings and witness of Thomas Merton.

[This post is part of a series of posts on the history of pacifism in the United States adapted from the third section (“Alternatives”) of Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy (Cascade Books, 2014). Here is a list of the posts in the series:

  1. The roots of war resistance
  2. Pacifism in face of the “good war”
  3. Making peace through service
  4. The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
  5. Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War
  6. Civil society and peacebuilding
  7. A pacifist agenda

Check out this link for more on that book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters.]

8 thoughts on “Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service

  1. I have some comments regarding what you say about the AFSC. You talk about their “operating from a consistently pacifist perspective.” You also say, “drawing on its pacifist convictions, AFSC rejected the more militant and at times even violent reactions by the antiwar movement against American policies and policy-makers.”

    I disagree. When I was part of a 3-year peace vigil in front of the White House during the Vietnam War, we contacted the AFSC interested in becoming part of a particular effort of the AFSC resisting the War which had a name I don’t remember exactly but I am sure it had “nonviolence” or “nonviolent” in the title. The response to our request to cooperate in this effort from the directors of that office had a closing that seemed to us to be supportive of violence. We sought clarification, and they said it was their intent to support the military efforts of the Vietnamese opposing the U.S. imperialist intervention. We decided not to cooperate with them. I wrote my father, who was on AFSC’s Peace Education Committee at the time, about the problem with AFSC nonviolence staff supporting military action. This resulted in a mild warning to those pro-violence staffers about what they say, but no change in having advocates of violence run the program.

    You sort of hint at the growing estrangement of the Quaker community with the AFSC. Part of that was indeed due to this community of white privilege being upset with increasingly involvement of non-white, non-middle class people in AFSC work, as you imply. But another part of it was the concern about AFSC abandoning Quaker principles, specifically the peace testimony.

    You also say, “it has also remained firmly anchored within the Quaker tradition and drawn most of its support from Quaker sources.” This I believe is also inaccurate. By the time of the Vietnam War, a large part of its current financial support (for a time, over half of its budget came from dead people – bequests – and these were probably mostly Quaker) was from non-Quaker sources, far in excess of what it was getting from Quakers. Also, Quakers became a minority on the AFSC Board of Directors. The AFSC has made some effort since that era to rebuild bridges with the Quaker community, and I’m not sure how successful these have been.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective and your experiences, Bill. I don’t have a lot invested in my portrayal of AFSC as I was mainly trying to summarize what I learned from reading Peter Brock and Elise Boulding. I guess mainly your argument would be with them.

      I do wonder a bit about the bigger picture, though. In thinking about Mennonite Central Committee, which I do know a lot about, I think there are lots of different perspectives out there, some of which even on the surface are contradictory. But most of the perspectives have some of the truth. I suspect it might be similar with AFSC.

      I tend to think that even with the tensions between AFSC and many Quakers, and ways the organization has distanced itself from the Quaker constituency (much more than MCC from the Mennonite constituency), nonetheless there may still be something deep-seated that remains representatively Quaker with AFSC. Quaker communities have always been diverse—and have not for a long time been very committed to thorough-going pacifism (even back in WWII, fewer than 10% of Quaker young men were COs).

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