Pacifism in America, part two: Refusing the “good war”

Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2019

In the aftermath of the First World War, called at the time “the Great War” (but only briefly, since it was eclipsed by the war that soon followed), pacifism (as in the principled opposition to war) emerged with unprecedented prominence. Five new pacifist organizations were founded. Their influence remained small in the big picture of American society, but at the end of the 20th century each one remained active and fruitful.

Interwar pacifism

These five organizations—American Friends Service Committee, Catholic Worker, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Mennonite Central Committee, and War Resisters League—represented distinct streams of philosophy and practice. They do not exhaust the varieties of pacifism, but did reflect a wide spectrum—from the explicitly Christian and confessional character of the CW and MCC to the explicitly non-religious WRL with the more ecumenical AFSC and FOR somewhere in between.

Even with their diversity, these five pacifist streams shared important characteristics. Each of them, in its own way, rejected the assumption that the only two options in response to evildoing are to fight or to flee. At the heart of the appeal of America’s warist policymakers to their country’s citizens has been an implicit assumption that military force is the first-choice option for dealing with international conflicts. All too often it was the only option considered. The other part of the appeal for support and participation in warfare has been the articulation of high ideals for democracy and civilization and self-determination. These ideals provided the motivational bases for engaging in warfare—and tend to be linked with an assumption that military force is necessary to achieve those ideals.

Our pacifist groups challenged those war-supporting assumptions on several levels. They generally agreed with the ideals of democracy that underwrote the propaganda in favor of American participation in World War II. However, they rejected the assumptions of “fight or flee” in response to wrongdoing and of the necessity of using war in order to achieve the ideals of self-determination and disarmament. In fact, these pacifists argued that war is incompatible with democracy. They believed the ways democracy had been achieved in the past several centuries had been in spite of warfare, not because of it. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part two: Refusing the “good war””

A New Book on World War II’s Moral Legacy

December 3, 2014—Ted Grimsrud

Cascade Books has just published my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. Here is the home page for the book on my website, with links to other sites where it can be previewed and purchased.9781625641021

This book is, in essence, a pacifist’s attempt to answer the question, “what about Hitler?” or “what about World War II?” using the moral reasoning of the just war tradition and common American values.

How the book is unique, as far as I know, is that it not only interrogates the War itself, it also traces the impact of the War on American national security policy in the generations since—as well as looking closely as the story of the war opponents and their legacy. Continue reading “A New Book on World War II’s Moral Legacy”

Is pacifism for when “life happens”? A response to Rachel Held Evans

Ted Grimsrud—September 29, 2014

From time to time, I like to return to the core motivation that led me to start this blog. This blog is a place to think and converse about pacifism. I always wish I could find more time and energy to write, because I am thinking about pacifism all the time. But when I look back, I see that I have managed to squeeze out quite a few words over the past nearly four years—and have probably repeated myself numerous times.

To keep my thinking current, I like to write posts when I can where I articulate convictions off the top of my head without going back to what I have written before. This is how I think about pacifism now. The other day, blogger extraordinaire Rachel Held Evans (who I greatly admire) wrote a short comment on Facebook that asked some hard questions about pacifism. These provide a good stimulus for me to take a moment to talk again about Christian pacifism. Is it a serious option for today in the “real world”?

This is what Rachel wrote: Truth: So I’m a terrible pacifist. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not a true pacifist at all. When I hear people preach about nonviolence, and when I read the Sermon on the Mount and Shane Claiborne, I find myself nodding along – convicted and resolved that we can never overcome evil with evil (or killing with killing) but only overcome evil with good. I dream of a world where there is no more war, no more senseless bloodshed, no more child refugees, no more revenge. But then…life happens. And I have to admit I have a hard time saying that the British, when they were being bombed on a daily basis during WWII, had many other options. I have a hard time saying that the woman getting pummeled by her husband shouldn’t fight back in self-defense. And lately, I’ve been watching all this news about ISIS, and I gotta say, I’ve got mixed feelings about what the U.S. and other nations should do about it. It’s like, on the one hand, I believe non-violence is the posture Christians should cultivate and practice. But on the other, I have a hard time saying non-violence is the right response in every situation. Is this a lack of faith? A lack of understanding? Does anyone else struggle sometimes with ideals and practicality?”

I appreciate Rachel providing this concise statement that raises core issues and has stimulated me to produce a response. [September 30 update: Rachel has linked to this post and elicited a lively conversation in response to what I write here.]

Two complementary strands in Christian pacifism

I find it helpful to think of two types of reasoning in relation to Christian pacifism, two complementary strands that both need to be part of a rigorous account of Christian pacifism: “principled pacifism” and “pragmatic pacifism.” Continue reading “Is pacifism for when “life happens”? A response to Rachel Held Evans”

Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part two)

[This is the second of two parts of the final section of the conclusion to a just completed book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. The first part of this section is here.]

Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2013

I believe that the critical reflection on the story of World War II that I have offered in this book might help in the needed (if impossible) work of redirecting our overwhelming spiral of militarism. I will briefly mention ways this story might help us reverse World War II’s moral legacy. Reversing this moral legacy will help us 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.

Speak accurately about the War. We may start by naming World War II for what it actually was. It was not a necessary war, certainly not a good war, for the United States. It did not serve the roll of protecting American 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.

Rigorously apply Just War principles. 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. In this book, I have attempted to apply criteria such as just cause, non-combatant immunity, and proportionality to the events of America’s involvement in World War II. I have concluded that the American war effort did not satisfactorily meet those criteria and hence that World War II was an unjust war. Continue reading “Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part two)”

Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part one)

[The final part of the conclusion to the book I have written about World War II, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy, reflects on how peacemakers might respond today to World War II’s moral legacy. I post these reflections in two parts. You are reading part one; here is part two.

Earlier in the conclusion, I speculate a little about what choices the U.S. could have made to avoid what became (I argue in the book) a moral disaster. I posted that section in two parts the other days. Here is part I and here is part II.

Several earlier blog posts will also be incorporated into the conclusion (“Was World War II a Just War?” “Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 1” “Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 2”). Earlier, I posted rough drafts of the other ten chapters of the book.]

Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2013

We have seen that World War II and its long shadow, at least in the United States, have played a central role in the expansion and hegemony of the National Security State. The domination of the institutions of militarism and the ideology of necessary violence seem nearly irresistible. The strength of the current that moves the American nation state toward the abyss of self-destruction seems overwhelmingly powerful.

Until we actually reach the abyss, people who hope for self-determination and disarmament everywhere on earth will (must!) always hope that the current may be slowed enough that it may be redirected. Such people will (must!) devote their best energies to such a redirection.

However, to be honest, 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. Continue reading “Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part one)”

The disaster that was World War II: Could things have been different? (Part II)

[This is the second of a two-part post. I am just about done with a book I have written about World War II: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. My last step is writing a conclusion. One part of the conclusion will be to speculate a little about what choices the U.S. could have made to avoid what became (I argue in the book) a moral disaster. Yesterday I posted Part I that discusses five aspects of the lead up to World War II that could have been different—and less disastrous. This post will discuss five more aspects.

Several earlier blog posts will also be incorporated into the conclusion (“Was World War II a Just War?” “Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 1” “Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 2”). I will conclude the conclusion with some reflections on what this all means for us today. I hope to post some of those reflections within the next several days. Earlier, I posted rough drafts of the other ten chapters of the book.]

Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2013

(6) Overtly work to aid threatened Jews in Germany after the Nazis came to power. The plight of Europe’s Jews actually had little effect on the American entry into the conflict nor on the way that the War was prosecuted once the U.S. became a full participant. So more early efforts to help threatened Jews would not have themselves provided an alternative to going to war in the actual event.

However, to the extent that the War is at least after the fact justified as necessary for the sake of the Jews, we could say that earlier intervention would have made the war less necessary. One of the great ironies of the events in the lead-up to the War is that it was in fact the principled pacifists who worked the hardest to try to address the emerging crises for Europe’s Jews. Some Quakers even intervened directly, drawing on their positive reputation in Germany due to post-World War I relief efforts to lobby with Nazi leaders for openness for Jewish emigration. The hold up came not from the Nazis but from the American and British leaders who refused to make allowance for more than a tiny number of Jewish immigrants and, later, refugees.

It would seem that hundreds of thousands of Jews who perished in the Holocaust could have escaped that fate had the nations of the world been willing to allow them refuge. The tone-setters for the refusal to do so were the Americans and British.

Even more ironic, then, is that the main response America had to German tyranny was military-centered, ultimately total war. This response pushed the Nazis toward genocide rather than deportation as their means of dealing with the “Jewish problem.” Even after it became known on the outside that the genocide was happening, America’s war leaders insisted on ignoring that set of atrocities in favor of focusing on simply winning the war and achieving “unconditional surrender”—making it possible for the Nazis to come much closer to their goal of total eradication of Europe’s Jews. Continue reading “The disaster that was World War II: Could things have been different? (Part II)”

The disaster that was World War II: Could things have been different? (Part I)

[I am just about done with a book I have written about World War II: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. My last step is writing a conclusion. One part of the conclusion will be to speculate a little about what choices the U.S. could have made to avoid what became (I argue in the book) a moral disaster. This blog post (Part I) contains some of that speculation. Here is Part II.

Several earlier blog posts will also be incorporated into the conclusion (“Was World War II a Just War?” + “Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 1” + “Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 2”). I will conclude the conclusion with some reflections on what this all means for us today. I hope to post some of those reflections within the next several days. Earlier, I posted rough drafts of the other ten chapters of the book.]

Ted Grimsrud—May 29, 2013

I have tried in this book to focus on the actual events that happened in the lead up to World War II, in the War itself, and in its aftermath. I have argued that what did actually happen was a moral disaster for the United States—both the War itself and its aftermath. Here I want to spend a bit of time on a thought experiment. I will imagine various events leading up to and during World War II that could have been handled differently and possibly led to a morally better result.

I hope to make the point here that nothing was inevitable, that the disastrous events need not have happened like they did. More than make a case concerning the moral failures of decision makers, though, I want more simply to emphasize that we need not continue on the same spiral toward continuing disasters that the U.S. seems stuck in. If those decisions could have been different, so too could current and future decisions.

As well, I argue in this book against the mythology that valorizes World War II as a necessary war, a good war, that was fought in the morally most just way possible. To suggest a number of ways things could have been different might lead us even more to question the necessity, goodness, and justness of the War in ways that could lead us to reject the logic that links the “goodness” of World War II to the need today to prepare for future possible “necessary” wars.

Finally, this exercise might also stimulate we who are not directly involved in foreign policy decision-making to recognize our need to treat with suspicion  claims by the foreign policy elite. We should especially doubt the claims they make that decisions to resort to violence are necessary or even pragmatically appropriate. If we treat such claims for necessary violence with skepticism we might be freed to refuse consent and to seek both to challenge the elite to less violent policies and to seek ways outside of the governmental structures to further self-determination and disarmament.

I have chosen ten examples of how things could have been different—with less disastrous results. I tried to avoid series of hypotheticals where one is dependent upon one or more earlier hypothetical. Generally, each example accepts that earlier alternative scenarios did not happen. I focus mainly on decisions Americans made (or did not).

Almost all of these follow from just war criteria and ideals. None assume pacifism. All would have been pragmatically preferable for American interests (that is, the interests of the American people, if not the American business and political elite). Continue reading “The disaster that was World War II: Could things have been different? (Part I)”

Are pacifists moral relativists?

[Ted Grimsrud]

I first read Nicholson Baker’s controversial book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, in the summer of 2008, shortly after it was published. At the time, I thought it was a brilliant book (I reviewed it here). It obviously met with innumerable hostile reviews from both academics and general readers. This was not surprising given how the book challenges head on the assumptions so many make about American and British goodness in entering and fighting World War II. I can hope that many people open-minded enough to question those assumptions found Human Smoke helpful. I sure did.

Partly inspired by Baker’s book, I spent my sabbatical during the 2010-11 school year researching and writing a book on the moral legacy of World War II in the United States (here is some early fruit of that work—I hope to finish the final draft of the book by May 2013). After reading dozens of books and thinking strenuously about these issues and writing several hundred pages, I believe even more in the value of Baker’s work.

The assertion that pacifists are moral relativists

I was just recently stimulated to think more about Baker’s argument while reading Michael Burleigh’s book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II (I have the original British edition—the book was later published in the US as, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II). Burleigh is one who dismisses Human Smoke out of hand—which is not at all surprising or unusual. In seeing his dismissal this time, though, I paused to reflect a bit.

This is from Burleigh’s brief comments about Baker’s book: “A . . . fear of armed force has resulted in a dubious moral relativism, exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s pacifist tract Human Smoke, in which all belligerents were as bad as one another. . . . He implies that because Churchill may have drunk too much, or because Eleanor Roosevelt was an anti-Semitic snob in her youth, they were on par with a dictator who murdered six million Jews. The leaders of the English-speaking democracies allegedly went to war to benefit a sinister arms-manufacturing military-industrial complex, a view which much appealed to extreme US isolationists in the 1930s, and which resonates with the international left nowadays. This [is an] exercise in extreme moral relativism (and crude conspiracy theory)” (p. x). Continue reading “Are pacifists moral relativists?”

One problem (among many) with the just war theory

[Ted Grimsrud]

Though I am strongly committed to pacifism (hence the name of this blog!—here are links to many of my writings on pacifism), I am finding myself more and more intrigued with the just war theory. For one thing, the theory provides our language for thinking about war morally, especially for thinking about specific wars. I also think that just war thought has potential for encouraging opposition both to specific wars and to war preparation in general. However, I say “has potential” intentionally, though, because I think the potential has largely been unrealized.

I think one of the big problems most writers on just war have that makes understanding the tradition more difficult is acting as if the two basic options in the Christian tradition in relation to war have been pacifism or just war. What is left out (a huge elephant in the room) is what has been by far the majority view towards war: what I will call (following John Howard Yoder, see Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution) the “blank check.” The blank check is the basic attitude that when it comes to war a citizen should essentially simply obey one’s government (i.e., give the government a blank check in relation to responding to war).

Perhaps we could say that someone such as Augustine argued for “just war” in relation to (a precious few) governmental leaders, though not at all in a rigorous way. By the time of Machiavelli, the overt argument for “realism” mainly simply stated what governmental leaders actually did much more than suggest a change from “just war” to straight self-interest. But from the start (meaning from the time in the fourth century when Christians began thinking of their ethics in terms of being responsible for the state), for ordinary citizens the basic stance toward war was “blank check” not “just war” (Augustine himself insisted that Christians should obey their governmental leaders, leaving discernment of the justness of war to those in charge of the society).

For this reason, we find next to no emphasis throughout the history of Christianity on what people should do when being expected to fight in unjust wars. And the just war theory has mainly played the role of providing bases to evaluate the relative justness of wars after the fact in totally non-binding ways.  Continue reading “One problem (among many) with the just war theory”

Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part two)

Ted Grimsrud—May 28, 2012

[This post is a continuation of a two-part set of reflections on the moral legacy of World War II. Part one may be found here. An earlier post in the series, “Was World War II an unjust war?” may be found here.]

The national security state and the quest for world hegemony

The years immediately following World War II were determinative for the moral legacy of that war. The rationale given to the American people for the extraordinary costs paid to execute such an all-out war combined a strong dose of fear with an equally potent emphasis on idealism. As postwar events proved, fear won out.

The idealism found succinct voice in President Roosevelt’s State of the Union address on the “Four Freedoms” in January 1941 and in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up by Roosevelt and Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in August, 1941. Out of these statements came the mantra that the U.S. was fighting this war to provide for the self-determination of people from throughout the world, to defeat tyranny and spread the possibilities of democracy.

The public relations efforts of the American and British governments focused on the ideals of these two purpose statements. The Atlantic Charter was agreed upon by all the nations who allied themselves with the Americans and British in the war effort (including the Soviet Union!). These allies took the name, the “United Nations.” After the War ended in an Allied victory, the Charter provided the core values for the formalizing of the United Nations as an international organization of all the nations of the world for the purposes of peace and cooperative relationships.

Many people who had been anxious about negative consequences of total war for democracy and international peace put a great deal of hope in the newly formed United Nations in the immediate postwar years. Regardless of what was thought about the War itself, it could be seen as serving a good end should it lead to an effective and widely embraced United Nations. And the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms ideals provided bases for such hopes.

At the same time, many among the American leadership class believed that decisive victory in the War provided a not-to-be-missed opportunity for establishing their country’s economic and military domination. They faced a crossroads in the years immediately following the War. Would the U.S. demobilize in the dramatic manner that characterized the country after the Civil War and World War I? Or was this instead an opportunity to sustain the extraordinarily powerful status the country had achieved through its war effort (and, of course, through the devastating losses all its possible rivals had sustained)? Continue reading “Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part two)”