Pacifism in America, part five: Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War

Ted Grimsrud—June 12, 2019

Pacifists in the United States in the mid-20th century sought to influence the world toward a more peaceable future following the massive destruction of World War II. We saw in Part Four of this series how this work took the form of widespread service work. In this post, we will look at a few large-scale efforts to resist war.

The initial response to nuclear weapons

Except for the small handful of people involved in its creation, the advent of nuclear weaponry with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 came as a shock to everyone. Overall, the American public strongly affirmed the use of these bombs. Those few who had opposed the War itself responded to Hiroshima and Nagasaki with unqualified horror. Selling out to warfare, they argued, has led to 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 brief time, some “prowar liberals” expressed opposition to nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons seemed to go beyond what was necessary. Lewis Mumford, a leading liberal pro-war advocate, stated, “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 came out in 1946 and expressed opposition to the use of nuclear bombs on Japan.

The other main expression of dissent about bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from within the very community that had created these terrible weapons (see Lawrence Wittner, One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953). The one scientist who left the top secret Manhattan Project over moral objections was Joseph Rotblat. “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 helped found the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. As part of the Pugwash organization, he won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.

The emergence of opposition

By 1954, 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. Their urgency was intensified as the hydrogen bomb was developed—a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. “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” (Lawrence Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970).

Through the rest of the 1950s, this movement 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 its greatest support in the “West” (North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australasia) where earlier peace movements had been established. These protests mobilized as many as half a million people simultaneously for street demonstrations and other popular manifestations against the Bomb in dozens of nations.

The anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s and 1960s 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.

Even so, the movement did have an impact. As historian Lawrence 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. 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.”

The anti-nuclear 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.

The actual impact of the positive moves that resulted from the 1954-64 peace movement was more than matched 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 in general. Along with the 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 challenging the U.S. dominance.

The humiliation the Soviets faced in the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s 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. Yet, 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.

Antiwar activism

In the 1960s, peace activists turned their energies in another direction. The expansion of the American war effort in Southeast Asia gradually met with resistance (see Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era). As with the anti-nuclear movement, the antiwar effort never coalesced into a large, unified force—and, as with the anti-nuclear movement, the antiwar effort did not succeed in gaining its core goals. Yet, also as with the anti-nuclear movement, the antiwar effort did accomplish a gargantuan task in the face of an intransigent state committed to expanded militarism: it helped prevent the worst case scenario from occurring.

Organized opposition to the Vietnam War began in the early 1960s with the witness of many of the pacifist organizations we have met already—the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Catholic Worker, the War Resisters League, and the American Friends Service Committee (with its allied organization, the Friends Committee on National Legislation). In time, war opposition expanded greatly and in many ways departed from its pacifist roots.

The basic stance of most of these pacifist organizations in the early 1960s was one of principled opposition to Cold War militarism and to an American foreign policy that tended to respond to the efforts of formerly colonized peoples to gain self-determination with military interventions. The anti-nuclear weapons movement provided the foundation for the emergence of the anti-Vietnam War movement that succeeded it in the mid-1960s.

The critique that emerged focused on four concerns. First, critics argued that the American military intervention was immoral. By this time, Americans were beginning to implement “scorched earth” policies such as the use of napalm, highly toxic chemical defoliants, and the forced relocation of peasants. Second, critics strongly doubted whether it would ever be possible, especially through the method of massive military violence, for the US to cultivate a genuinely independent, anti-communist South Vietnam (the stated goal of the intervention). Third, this intervention quite likely would endanger rather than enhance, regional and global political stability. Finally, expanding this war in the face of domestic dissent would lead to a stifling of this dissent with disastrous consequences for American democracy.

These four points remained at the heart of the antiwar argument for the next decade. The pacifist elements of the movement especially focused on the moral critique. They articulated persuasive arguments—but the broader antiwar movement tended to focus on the pragmatic parts of the critique. As the war’s lack of success became more apparent, even in the face of the Johnson administration’s dramatic expansion, opposition widened. But with the widening of the movement, many pacifist concerns were marginalized.

A particularly important fruit of the activists’ antiwar work was the development of an alternative narrative to the government’s pro-war propaganda. For example, the journal Liberation, largely founded and sustained by the War Resisters League, provided an outlet for thorough and sophisticated examinations of American policies and their consequences. The Friends and Mennonites, among others, provided an important resource by sending young people, often conscientious objectors performing alternative service, to Vietnam to engage in relief and development service. These on-the-ground participants supplied first person witness to the devastating consequences of the American intervention (see Keith Graber Miller, Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves: American Mennonites Engage Washington ).

The Catholic Worker peace witness provided a powerful catalyst for what came to be some of the most widespread and influential expressions of Christian antiwar activity. Several young Catholic pacifists, including James Douglass, who as a graduate student in Rome had consulted with several bishops on peace issues during Vatican II, and Tom Cornell, who first burned his draft card in 1960, joined with the prominent Catholic writer-monk Thomas Merton to form the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CFP) in 1964. CFP members Daniel Berrigan and his fellow priest brother Phil, became prominent antiwar activists during the Vietnam years. Both brothers sustained their radical pacifist witness in the decades following.

Nixon’s hostility

Though Richard Nixon defeated Johnson’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey in the closely contested 1968 presidential election by claiming to have a “secret plan” for peace, he came into office planning to squash the anti-war movement. “For Nixon, antiwar activists were not communists. They were worse. They were Americans whose attack on the creed of global toughness represented an irresolution which for the president was the Achilles’ heal of democracy” (DeBenedetti). With this attitude, Nixon followed Johnson’s approach in trying to discredit war opponents at anti-American with the help of often illegal activities by the CIA and FBI.

In the fall of 1969, the antiwar movement organized its largest protests, the October Moratorium. At this point, a clear majority of American people polled identified themselves as “doves” (55%) rather than “hawks” (31%) and about 80% were “fed up and tired of the war.” Yet, fewer than half of those polled supported the Moratorium action and about 60% agreed with Nixon’s contention that “antiwar demonstrations aided the enemy.”

The antiwar movement gained strength by 1971 from an influx of veterans who, with great credibility, spoke against the war. Another element that increased its influence was the draft resistance movement, and the willingness of potential draftees to seek conscientious objector status. By 1971, the Selective Service System had become overwhelmed with protests and appeals for reclassification and reached the point of collapse, leading the Nixon Administration to end the draft in 1972.

For almost certainly the first time in world history, a massive protest movement opposing a nation’s war arose in the midst of the war being fought. The antiwar movement clearly restrained the war-making proclivities of the American government—during the Vietnam War and in the years since. In the end, even after Nixon’s resignation in disgrace as a result of his illegal efforts to undermine the antiwar movement, the American government’s support for the war could well have continued indefinitely had not Congress finally pulled the plug on funding—due largely to the impact of the antiwar movement. After thirty years of continuously conscripting young Americans into the military, widespread resistance to the draft brought it, seemingly permanently, to an end.

And yet, the antiwar movement did not turn the tide against American militarism. Those responsible for the U.S. entering and prosecuting this terrible and self-destructive war suffered few repercussions. American militarism survived this period more or less intact, ready for reinvigoration in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s contra war in Central American and expansion of nuclear weapons programs. In the years after 9/11/2001 with the “war on terror,” militarism expanded yet more. This sustenance of militarist dynamics even in the face of such a major failure as Vietnam stands as witness to the transformation wrought by the creation and sustenance of the American National Security State directly as a consequence of the nation’s investment in total war during World War II.

The key element of the story of the opposition to the Vietnam War indeed may not be the movement’s ineffectiveness nearly so much as the intransigence of the American federal government. Key policy makers realized after Lyndon Johnson’s decision to expand the American military intervention that the war was unwinnable already in the mid-1960s. The realization eventually spread to the highest levels (e.g., Johnson’s defense secretary Robert McNamera and eventually Johnson himself). Yet the U.S. continued to visit tremendous destruction upon this small corner of the world for nearly a decade more—mainly for the purpose of international appearances. Sustaining this war profoundly damaged American democracy despite the extraordinary efforts of the antiwar movement.

Renewed opposition to nuclear weapons

After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, activists turned the focus of their concern back on the arms race. They gained hope from the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, a victory in part based on Carter campaigning as a peace candidate. He entered office with sincere hopes to help stem the momentum toward an accelerated arms race. He early challenged the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to reduce America’s nuclear arsenal significantly; rather than being satisfied with “arms control,” Carter hoped to achieve “disarmament.”

According to James Carroll, 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 its 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?” (James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power).

As it turned out, 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. By the end of his one term in office, Carter had actually initiated major increases in military spending.

At the urging of the American government in 1979 (with Carter in office), the nations that were part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced a decision to expand significantly nuclear weaponry stationed in western and southern Europe. In response, anti-nuclear activists in Europe issued a widely endorsed 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 stimulating a widespread disarmament movement. That hope was fulfilled over the course of the next several years (see Lawrence S. Wittner, Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement 1971 to the Present).

The END movement organized massive demonstrations throughout Western Europe. 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. The success of the European anti-nuclear movement was seen in NATO’s decision 1987 to withdraw the nuclear weapons whose deployment in 1980 had triggered the rebirth of the movement.

The attempt to “freeze” nuclear weapon development

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

The formal nuclear freeze campaign began with a conference in Washington, DC, only two months after Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration. This campaign did not succeed in fully achieving its goals. However, its challenge to Reagan’s militarism from the very beginning of his presidency prevented the arms race causing even more damage. The freeze campaign gained wide support from its beginning, quickly becoming perhaps 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 a few weeks. Two out of three congressional districts across the country had freeze chapters.

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. Reagan 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 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 moved to the brink of actual legislative accomplishment.

Simultaneously with the popular and widely embraced freeze movement, another group of peace activists took a more radical stance. The leaders of this “Plowshares movement,” Daniel and Philip Berrigan, with 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.

Between 1980 and the end of the millennium, Plowshares activists performed about one hundred public actions (see Arthur J. Laffin and Ann Montgomery, eds., Swords Into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament, Peace, Social Justice). The Plowshares movement was more about witness than social transformation. On the other hand, the Freeze movement, working in the mainstream of American society, had sought social transformation, but ended up in many ways being outflanked by 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.

Lawrence Wittner concludes, at the end of his authoritative three volumes on the anti-nuclear movements from 1945 to 2003, that the leaders of the great powers, with a couple of exceptions, never intended truly to achieve disarmament. These important exceptions (Olof Palme of Sweden, Andreas Papandreou of Greece, Rajiv Gandhi of India, and Mikhail Gorbachev) 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.”

[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.]

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