Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda

Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2019

Escaping war’s long shadow

Past American wars, especially World War II and its long shadow, have played a central role in the expansion and hegemony of our National Security State. The domination of the institutions of militarism and the ideology of necessary violence seem nearly irresistible. The strength of the current moving the American nation state toward the abyss of self-destruction seems overwhelmingly powerful (see Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy).

Until we actually reach the abyss, people who hope for genuine peace on earth will (must!) always hope that the current may be slowed enough that it may be redirected. Such people will devote their best energies to such a redirection. However, I see very little hope that the current toward the abyss will be redirected. This is our paradoxical, almost unbearable, situation: We must redirect our culture (American culture, for sure, but truly all other dominant cultures throughout the world) away from the abyss toward which institutionalized redemptive violence pushes us. But we actually have very little hope of doing so—at least on a large scale.

Creating space to be human

The movement in Central Europe that in the 1970s and 1980s resisted Soviet totalitarianism gives us a crucial image. Activists recognized that large-scale, top-down reform seemed impossible. Violent resistance against the systemic domination of the Communist regimes tended strictly actually to empower the sword-wielding state. So thoughtful resisters, recognizing that acquiescing to the System was intolerable while overthrowing it through direct resistance was impossible, articulated their hopes is exceedingly modest terms.

They spoke simply of creating spaces to be human. In doing so, they self-consciously rejected the story of reality told by the System, but they did not devote their energies to reforming it or ever to overthrowing it through violent direct action. More so, they focused on establishing relatively small spaces where they could build communities, express creativity, and patiently chip away at the portrayal of reality that filled the official media.

As it turned out, these small acts of resistance and counter-culture formation coincided with large-scale crises of legitimacy at the top of the Soviet empire. The System crumbled and major changes happened—though sadly the changes did not go as far as hoped in enabling self-determination and disarmament (for example, the U.S.-led militarization of Western alliances through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization absorbed several of the former Soviet-bloc nations who provided large markets for military hardware).

However, this emphasis on creating spaces to be human remains instructive and inspirational. If it is the case that a top-down transformation for peace is impossible in our current militarized national milieu, the possibilities for small-scale spaces for “being human” in peaceable ways do exist. And we never know what impact cultivating those spaces might have on the bigger picture.

We should also notice that the ways of creating spaces to be human practiced in the Central European freedom movement were not at all separated from an awareness of issues on national, social policy levels. The activists did not require “seats at the table of power” to embark on their transformative practices—but they were ready and willing to participate in the larger arena when opportunities arose. And in many instances, at least, they participated in ways that remained faithful to their core convictions.

Likewise for peacemakers today. Our ways of making peace, our practices of resistance, and our creating of alternatives do not depend upon getting “seats at the table.” To be effective over the long term we likely need self-consciously to resist extensive compromise in order to gain approval of political and corporate power elites. And yet, what the world needs are large solutions and alternatives. So peacemakers need to be thinking in ways that allow for exercise of effective influence on as wide a scale as possible (while remaining faithful to their core values).

A three-pronged approach

We may think of three broad elements of peacemaking where each plays an essential role in our imaging a healthy future. The first is resistance, the second is transformation, and the third is service.

Resistance. Activists recognized, for example, the evils of the nuclear arms race and the U.S. war on Vietnam. In both cases, mass movements arose that sought to turn the nation back from those misguided and terribly destructive policies. In both cases, the movements fell far short of their goals. The arms race continued until one side (the Soviet Union) surrendered leaving the U.S. the unchallenged victor—a victor that nonetheless continues the race. The Vietnam War did finally grind to a close, with the American withdrawal and the victory of the anti-imperialist forces. But it was in many was a pyrrhic victory by the time it came given the extraordinary level of destruction the American forces visited on that small nation.

However, these movements of resistance did create restraints that slowed the policies of death a bit. They also energized masses of activists and stimulated peacemaking activities that ripple down to the present. Other resistance movements (e.g., opposition to wars on Central American and Iraq and the current effort to resist policies that exacerbate climate change) have arisen in the years since Vietnam, inspired and guided by the experiences of that pioneering effort to, through mass resistance, slow down and even stop a war that is in progress.

In all of these resistance movements, education has played a major role. Partly, to learn more about the various archaeologies of the social ills strengthens the attraction to and the ability to act in resistance. Partly, the process of education has unveiled many of the undemocratic, authoritarian ways that the American power elite has pursued such destructive policies.

So resistance remains essential—even if one of the main lessons from these past mass efforts to resist has been just how intransigent the System actually has been.

Transformation. The most instructive movement to effect social transformation in the U.S. since World War II has been the Civil Rights movement. I believe we still have a great deal to learn from the effectiveness and limitations of that movement. One of our main lessons, that we still need to grapple with, is the power of coherent, organized, self-consciously nonviolent mass action.

The accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement were enormous. It is hard to imagine that someone who lived in the American South during the early part of the 1950s could have envisioned how widespread the changes that were about to come would be—and how little violence would actually be required to effect these changes. However, we all know that the U.S. still falls terribly short of the required eradication of dehumanizing racism and discrimination. Perhaps part of the reason the transformation sought by the Civil Rights Movement did not fully happen was the slide away from nonviolence.

Regardless, strategies and organized movements to effect social transformation remain a necessary part of peacemaking work, along with widespread resistance. Peacemakers learn about the systemic violence of the status quo and about strategies and policies that power elite follow to prevent that systemic violence being rooted out. This learning leads to saying no, to disillusionment, to acts of resistance. And, peacemakers come together to organize movements that seek positive transformation away from the systems of violence toward what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “beloved community.”

Service. The service aspect is often left out of discussions of social change. However, the efforts directly to meet the needs of the needy, to provide food and water to the hungry and thirsty, to aid in enhancing the power for self-determination for vulnerable people around the world are part of the work of peacemaking along with resisting the National Security State and direct action for social transformation.

Works of service to help meet immediate human needs and, by doing so, provide possibilities for better futures. They also provide the possibilities for constructive work even in face of severe limitations and hostile reactions that hinder efforts of resistance and transformation. The work of American conscientious objectors who served in Civilian Public Service illustrates this possibility. The state essentially stifled and even crushed dissent and repressed efforts at constructive intervention that might have provided alternatives to war making in addressing international problems.

The one avenue that remained open for peacemakers was doing works of service, such as caring for America’s forests and farmlands and providing much-needed assistance for people institutionalized with mental illnesses. These acts were of value in themselves, but the performing of alternative service also provided contexts for future more interventionist peacemaking work, including leadership in Civil Rights and anti-nuclear efforts and a great expansion of humanitarian aid offered throughout the world after the War by organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and Mennonite Central Committee.

Reversing warism

Reversing the American warist legacy will create space to be human—work that is not dependent upon the state, an institution in our current setting that seems unalterably wed to the dynamics of the National Security State.

  • We may start by naming our past, often-glorified wars for what they actually were. In particular, World War II was not a necessary war, certainly not a good war, for the United States (again, Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t). It did not serve the role of protecting America from invasion, of saving Jews in the midst of genocide, or of resisting tyranny and furthering actual democracy around the world. It was an exercise in extraordinary and largely out of control violence that transformed the United States into a militarized global hegemon and severely undermined American democracy.
  • As we name World War II for what it was—an exercise in mass killing and unleashed militarism—we might also resolve to use the Just War philosophy that many people claim to honor in a way that has teeth. One of the assumptions of this philosophy has commonly been that we apply the philosophy in order to identify and reject unjust wars. Should we actually apply criteria such as just cause, non-combatant immunity, and proportionality to the events of America’s involvement in World War II, we will likely conclude that the American war effort did not satisfactorily meet those criteria and hence that World War II was an unjust war.
  • If indeed that war was unjust, we should name it as such and resolve never again to participate in such a war. To take this point a step further, many people agree that World War II was the most “just” or “necessary” war the United States has ever fought in. Part of the power of this myth of a necessary war has been to make it much, much easier to justify preparing for future wars. However, if we recognize that World War II was an unjust war and that adherence to the Just War philosophy requires us to say no to unjust wars, we quite likely will be led to conclude that the U.S. is almost certainly never going to participate in a just war. Hence, we will refuse to support the preparation for what would almost certainly be unjust wars.
  • One of the main outcomes of the War for the U.S. was the permanent expansion and entrenchment of what we may call the U.S. as National Security State. Key elements that directly emerged from the War were the nuclear weapons program, the Pentagon and greatly enlarged military establishment, and the CIA. Application of Just War philosophy would lead to a repudiation of this arrangement. If we understand that human needs-oriented states should be founded on and have the responsibility to seek “justice for all,” we will recognize that these institutions that emerged from the War are antithetical to what the U.S. government should be like.
  • The purpose statements that emerged to explain to the public the reasons why the U.S. entered and fought World War II actually cohere pretty well with the values of authentic democracy and the Just War philosophy—especially the quest for self-determination and disarmament everywhere on earth. What was lacking during the War and in the generations since has been a steadfast effort to hold the democratically elected government of the U.S. to those stated ideals. One way to reverse the moral legacy of World War II is to insist on holding states to such ideals—and withholding consent when those ideals are ignored or violated.
  • Like many others, I believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the best presidents the United States has ever had. Perhaps the title of H.W. Brands’s fine biography of FDR is a bit hyperbolic: A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, especially the use of the word “radical.” Still, Roosevelt’s New Deal, with all its limitations, moved the American state in a humane direction more than just about any other presidency before and since. Nonetheless, Roosevelt probably more than any other person set in motion the dynamics that led to total war leading to Cold War leading to war on terrorism leading to the abyss. Our lesson should be one of intense skepticism toward people in power. We should always assume the worst about what those in office say and do—things are almost always worse than they seem. We should never give people in power the benefit of the doubt, but treat what they say critically and require strong evidence of actual peaceable action before offering support.
  • The flip side of skepticism toward people in power and the refusal to give consent to the National Security State is the need to cultivate communities of resistance. The work of creating space to be human generally is work that requires a critical mass of people to sustain the work in face of hostility from the System. Back in World War II, the people in the U.S. who most consistently said no to the War and most steadfastly refused to support the war effort were communities of Mennonites. Though these communities had little political awareness and did not see themselves as directly challenging the policies of their government, they did sustain their resistance to participation in the War through consistent education of community members concerning their core convictions, through material support for those who performed alternative service at great financial cost to themselves, and through clear communication to the government and outside world that they would not compromise on their priorities regardless of the cost.
  • The best answer to the standard “what about Hitler” question that is commonly thrown at peacemakers is surely to say that what is needed is work to prevent a Hitler from coming into power again. The idea that the best response to the Hitler question is to prepare militarily is to ignore the past seven decades where we have seen a gradual expansion of the spirit of militarism (one of the main elements of Nazism) in the name of stopping the next Hitler. This gives Hitler a posthumous victory. Instead, the best lesson to learn from World War II is that the conditions that made Hitler possible must be prevented through self-determination and disarmament. Perhaps the Atlantic Charter was mainly a cynical exercise in wartime propaganda and self-righteousness, but the ideals it expressed nonetheless provide one of our best blueprints for preventing the need for such exercises in cynical propaganda—that is, for preventing the quest for “peace” through total war.
  • Finally, we should resolve never to minimize the conviction that all of life is precious. Perhaps the greatest moral legacy of American wars is the practical repudiation of that conviction. The biggest cost of such wars has been the loss of the sense of human solidarity, that we are all together precious beings who should be treated with respect and care. As a direct consequence of our past wars, the U.S. has embarked on a still accelerating process of diminishing the value of human beings by creating and deploying weapons of unimaginable mass destruction and seeking domination around the world at the cost of millions upon millions of direct deaths that result from America’s wars—all fought for unjust causes using unjust means. An unwavering commitment to the preciousness of all life provides a powerful interpretive key for understanding and responding to America’s National Security State with clarity, conviction, and resolve.


[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.]

7 thoughts on “Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda

  1. “One of our main lessons, that we still need to grapple with, is the power of coherent, organized, self-consciously nonviolent mass action.”
    I think that you overestimate this.
    In British India and in the U.S. the basic idea was to influence the lawmakers – and this is not so difficult, if the lawmakers have no personal dog in the fight. Children, by being obnoxious, are rather good at getting their parents around, if there is not too much at the stake for the parents. The decisive point here is not nonviolence, but: that the class of people who have to pay the price are not too well represented in the parliaments.
    This was extremely simple in India where the people concerned were mostly public servants and as such used and obliged to follow their government’s commands, and in effect had to leave India completely. Whereas in the U.S. South, the white working class could be outmaneuvered, but not expelled.
    And the more far-reaching plans of the Civil Rights Movement failed simply because they had no realistic ideas about education or economy. They never overcame the simple play of “get your parents around by being obnoxious”, but the parent-politicians cannot make you clever or (on the whole) rich..

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