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. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service”

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””

Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance

Ted Grimsrud—May 31, 2019

The United States has an extraordinarily ambivalent legacy when it comes to war and violence. On the one hand, we originated, in the view of many, as the victor in a war of rebellion against the British Empire; we have engaged in war and after war throughout our history; we are the only country ever to drop a nuclear weapon on another country; and now we are the world’s one “superpower” that spends more on its military than virtually all the other countries in the world combined.

Yet, on the other hand the United States has a long legacy of peace movements, acceptance of the rights of conscientious objectors, and the development of philosophies of nonviolent social action. The US from its early years provided a home for members of the “historic peace churches” and provided them a largely persecution free home in contrast to many other places in the world that had driven pacifists out.

I recently listened to an interesting series of podcasts on the history of nonviolence that reminded me of much of the peace legacy in the US. The third season of “The Thread” focused on the history of nonviolence. In six episodes, the series discussed key figures in that “thread,” moving backwards from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Bayard Rustin to Mohandas Gandhi to Leo Tolstoy to William Lloyd Garrison. There are many details in this series that I could nitpick about, but overall I found it interesting and inspiring—and I would recommend it.

One inspiration that emerged for me was to post some things I have learned about this history. I will share some thoughts in several installments about the history of pacifism in America, starting today with background to the emergence of pacifist opposition to World War II—opposition that obviously had little impact on the execution of that war but that planted seeds for a number of significant efforts to oppose war and injustice nonviolently in the decades that followed. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance”