Letter from the Haifa Conference

December 9, 2013

Posted on December 7, 2013 by  in CommentaryMAPA NewsOur People // 0 Comments

jjk130hI arrived in Ben-Gurion Airport via Rome on Wednesday night and had the most routine entry to Israel ever.  Not a single question, even after I asked not to have my passport stamped and told the agent I was there to attend a conference until Sunday.  The Haifa International Conference for a Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (http://wmdfz.org/) began on Thursday morning at the Dan Panorama Hotel overlooking Haifa Harbor from the top of Mount Carmel.  I’m estimating around 150 registered delegates, with perhaps 100 or so in the room at any one time. Although the Conference was officially non-partisan it was clearly under the auspices of the Israeli far left, principally the electoral Front for Peace and Democracy (Hadash in Hebrew, Jabha in Arabic, “The Front”), which includes the Israeli Communist Party.In my experience, the Israeli Left is the only social space in Israel where Arabs and Jews mingle in cordial equality.  Here the Palestinians tended to speak Arabic among themselves, but they addressed the Conference in Hebrew.The crowd was a little on the “gray” side, but not so much as similar gatherings tend to be in the US.  And although the Israeli Left is regarded as a small radical fringe by most of the Jewish population, Hadash/Jabha has 4 Knesset members (out of 120) and a strong base principally in the Arab Palestinian communities; Meretz, also represented at the Conference (think DSA), has 5 Knesset members.  The mayor of Haifa welcomed the Conference.I’m staying at the apartment of two elderly Communists in their 80’s.  Colman Altman, who met me at the train station, was born in South Africa to Lithuanian parents and emigrated to Israel in he 1950’s. He’s a retired academic physicist.  His wife Janina, is a chemist from Lvov, now in Ukraine, but known as the Eastern Polish city of Lviv before the Second World War. (Earlier it was Lemberg in Austrian Galicia, the home of the novelist Joseph Roth.) Janina lost her entire family to the Nazis and came to Israel in 1950—where, ironically, she traded her parents’ Zionist ideal for revolutionary politics.  She said the inequality she experienced in Israel and especially the treatment of Arabs was her inspiration.There were delegates from a number of Foreign countries – perhaps a half-dozen  or more from the US, including three from the US Peace Council, two (including myself along with Madeline Hoffman from New Jersey) and a woman representing WILPF; others were from France, Francophone Africa (Senegal?) Germany, Belgium and perhaps other countries I may have missed.The morning program opened with a very moving address by Prof. Tadatoshi Akiba, the mayor of Hiroshima until 2011.  He was introduced by Naomi Chazan, an Israeli academic with a  long record of fighting for human rights. (When I spoke with Akiba later, he called Boston his “second home”, having studied for years at MIT.)Akiba pointed out that if “Official” Israel refused to participate in the movement toward the abolition of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, then is was up to political/progressive people to press the issue.  He said he spoke on behalf of the many thousands of “Hibakusha” or nuclear bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who are demanding the complete abolition of nuclear weapons “in their lifetime. (Their average age is in the 70’s.)  Their slogan resonates tellingly here in Israel:  “Never Again should any people suffer as we did.”Akiba spoke about some hopeful signs in the struggle to eliminate nuclear weapons:In October 2013 there was a conference of 56 countries like Sweden, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, “Able But Unwilling” to develop nuclear weapons.  That is, they possessed the technical ability and nuclear programs necessary to produce nuclear weapons but chose not to do so. They cited the influence of anti-war domestic politics as the key element opposing weapons development.In November of this year the signatory nations of The Red Cross/Red Crescent met in Sydney, Australia to reaffirm the same goal of moving the nuclear abolition goal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.Finally, the international “Mayors for Peace” now has almost 6000 members and provides hope that urban and civil society will be able to push their governments. Akiba pointed out that cities, unlike nations, do not have armies.The goal of the 60,000 surviving Hibakusha is the elimination of nuclear weapons by 2020 – “While we are alive”.  Akiba said a goal is “A dream with a deadline” and that for the Hibakusha it meant success “within our lifetime.”Former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg spoke next about the politics of a Middle East WMDFZ.  I’ll report on that in a subsequent p

Our latest, published by The Hill, on the absurd nuclear weapons budget: Days of blank checks are over for the nuclear weapons establishment

April 26, 2013


By Kevin Martin, Peace Action and Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch New Mexico - 04/26/13 11:20 AM ET

Many of America’s Cold War weapons are in the hands of one of its most obscure government agencies. It’s called the National Nuclear Security Administration, and it was the subject of a senate budget hearing this week. The agency’s obscurity to most taxpayers is exceeded only by its astonishing failure to acknowledge political and fiscal reality.

Two decades after the Cold War, the U.S. is reducing the number and the role of its nuclear weapons, and is committed to providing international leadership on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Meanwhile, the federal budget is extremely tight; cuts are being proposed in all manner of government programs, including, unwisely, Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, apparently indifferent to federal belt-tightening, thinks it needs a big raise. Stuck in the Cold War, the hey-day of nuclear spending, the agency in charge of the nation’s nuclear weapons is calling for more spending in almost every category.

The nuclear weapons budget request is $7.87 billion, in real terms a 16.7 percent increase above last year’s levels, virtually unheard of in all other federal agencies given our nation’s fiscal constraints. That large increase is especially ironic given the agency’s chronic cost overruns and mismanagement in both construction projects and nuclear weapons programs. The agency also plans to increase its nuclear weapons budget to $9.29 billion by 2018, an 18 percent increase.

In a time when the U.S. nuclear arsenal is shrinking and the Obama administration seeks further mutual arms reductions with Russia, this overreach by the National Nuclear Security Administration is hard to understand. The nuclear weapons laboratories and production facilities have long enjoyed a privileged existence, thanks to powerful supporters in Congress, presidential administrations, and weapons corporations. Any large, powerful bureaucracy will naturally resist, vigorously, attempts to reduce its budget or weaken its clout.

But there seems to be something more here in nuclear overseers’ chutzpah in proposing lavish budget increases when the rest of the government, and many Americans, face harsh austerity.

The nuclear weapons establishment has, for decades, woven a cloak of secrecy around nuclear weapons technology. Nuclear insiders enjoyed a serious lack of accountability on how funds are spent and programs are run. “The nuclear priesthood” is a good shorthand for this dynamic, and one need not conjure visions of a bunch of Dr. Strangeloves running around our nuclear weapons laboratories to understand they fear their time is past, as it should be if we are to move toward a nuclear-weapons free world.

Nuclear administrators serve the country’s national security interests, not their own. This budget request is just a wish list; Congress, acting on behalf of we taxpayers, doesn’t have to fund any of it.

Congress needs to very carefully scrutinize the budget requests for exorbitant, controversial, and failing programs. The National Ignition Facility, Uranium Processing Facility and MOX (mixed oxide) fuel program are just a few examples of nuclear programs that are both mismanaged and unnecessary. Most Americans have never heard of these programs, yet American taxpayers will spend more than half a trillion dollars over the next decade on these and other nuclear capabilities that irrelevant in the 21st century.

NNSA and its managers won’t like congressional oversight or fiscal responsibility. They should remember that they work for us, and Americans would rather invest our tax dollars in education, health care, job creation, and local law enforcement – the people who protect us everyday, not the people who watch over Cold War relics. The nuclear priesthood’s blank check days are over.

Martin serves as executive director of Peace Action. 

Coghlan serves as executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Read more: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/296397-days-of-blank-checks-are-over-for-nuclear-weapons-establishment#ixzz2RaSALJZe
Follow us: @thehill on Twitter | TheHill on Facebook

Kansas City MO anti-nuke ballot initiative – vote is tomorrow!

April 1, 2013

Peace activists and groups in Kansas City, Missouri, including our Peace Action affiliate PeaceWorks KC, have been waging an impressive local struggle around the oddball government-corporate (Honeywell – don’t buy their products!) partnership that was concocted to build a new plant in KC that will manufacture the non-nuclear components of U.S. nuclear bombs (why such a thing is needed as we downsize our nuclear arsenal is quite a head-scratcher). They succeeded in getting an initiative on tomorrow’s municipal ballot to prevent such shenanigans from being repeated or expanded in the future. The local NPR affiliate ran a story on the issue this morning, give it a listen and if you have friends or relatives in KC, make sure they vote yes on Question 3!

Here’s the text of the story on KCUR radio:

The National Nuclear Security Agency contracted that work to a company called Bendix (after a merger, it’s now called Honeywell).  At the height of the Cold War, in the 1980s, the factory employed some 8000 workers.

That was when psychologist Rachel MacNair first got involved in the movement against nuclear weapons.

“Back in the 1970s and 80s, people were really afraid the world was going to end in a nuclear holocaust,” MacNair says.

She joined a group in Kansas City that advocated converting the Bannister facility to a factory that made some other product.

“At the time it was a pie-in-the-sky, starry-eyed idealist,  easily-dismissed kind of idea,” MacNair says. “And then the Cold War ended. And the Cold War has been over for a couple of decades.  And nowadays we have retired military people, we have military experts, we have the same people who set up mutually assured destruction saying that it’s time to get rid of nuclear weapons.

According to The Kansas City Star, the Honeywell plant currently employs about 2000 workers, who “maintain the W76 missile warhead, a submarine-based weapon which is seven times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.”

The factory is getting old, though, and Kansas City officials were afraid of losing the plant, and the jobs, to New Mexico. So, they offered tax incentives to a private developer. And in 2010, ground was broken on a $1 billion new facility.

MacNair thought the project made no sense, since the Obama administration is talking about reducing nuclear arsenals.

“I just could not stand the idea of building a whole new plant as if we were going to be making new parts for decades.”

Anti-nuclear weapon activists in Kansas City tried to stop the incentives with previous petitions. And two years ago, some 50 people were arrested in a protest at the construction site.

The building’s complete now. The NNSA and Honeywell have been transferring operations already. It’s supposed to go online in August of 2014.

The question on the ballot isn’t about shutting down the new plant down, but rather, it prohibits the city from offering any futures incentives to “facilities that produce or procure components for, assemble, or refurbish nuclear weapons.”  This would apply to companies that work exclusively with Honeywell or any future nuclear weapons plant.

According to city councilman Scott Taylor, this makes Kansas City look like an unappealing place to do business.

“A company, regardless of the size, is looking to locate a new facility.  They will usually have a site selection process, that has multiple sites,” Taylor says. “And if one of those sites happens to have something that’s different from all the others, that’s a little strange and  really might require some additional legal work, or research to see if they have some legal issues, they’ll just take us off the list and move to the other options because it will be a lot easier for them.”

Taylor is the at-large councilman in District 6, where the new plant is located.  He says the new building has already helped bolster Kansas City’s construction industry through the recession. And he’s hoping it will anchor development in a struggling part of town.

‘Specifically in South Kansas City, we’ve really been fighting hard for the Three Trails re-development, the old Bannister Mall,” Taylor says. “We’ve had an incentive package on all that property; it’s already in place, we’ve already done that. If a company has any ties to this facility there’s a question as to whether they can even locate there if they wanted to. If they can’t locate there, it’s just as easy for a lot of these companies looking to locate near this plant to locate in Overland Park, Leawood, Grandview and other areas.  I’d rather have them in South Kansas City.”

Taylor says the old Bannister facility is on federal land, so it doesn’t generate taxes for the city and the school district.  The new plant is on private land, so despite the incentives, it will bring in property taxes for Kansas City, Missouri, as well as the Grandview school district, which dips into KC at that spot.

Taylor says he understands the intent behind the ballot question.

‘We all agree that it would be nice if all countries would disarm nuclear weapons,’ Taylor says. “But that’s not the world we live in and quite frankly the language of this doesn’t address disarmament or doing anything with the federal government specifically.  My concern is that the unintended consequences of this would be very dramatic for our local economy.”

Other opponents say that the ballot question would not stop the production of nuclear weapons, anyway, that it would just shift the jobs elsewhere.

But proponents say they want to raise awareness that the nuclear weapons plant is here, and that it’s controversial.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.

Cuban Missile Crisis + 50 Years – please share your memories or lessons learned

October 25, 2012

–Kevin Martin, Executive Director

For me, the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis has a very personal angle. On this day fifty years ago, I was still in my mother’s womb, and she, like many people at the time, thought a nuclear war might well be imminent. She was afraid she’d never get to see her first child be born. Luckily, the crisis passed (and many government officials do in fact attribute luck, as much or more than any smart decisions by Kruschev or Kennedy, with averting catastrophe).

I was born several weeks later (a month premature, but stress about possible nuclear war didn’t cause that, according to my mom, Linn Martin), and, perhaps fittingly or ironically, I grew up to be a peace and disarmament activist. (Maybe my Mennonite and Quaker heritage, and outrage at Ronald Reagan’s sabre-rattling foreign policy, had as much to do with my career choice as did my being born after the missile crisis.)

While the Cold War never should have justified the insane nuclear weapons buildup between the U.S. and Soviet Union, people at the time (and now, looking back) would have said there was a substantive reason for it, namely the global competition of idealogies and geo-strategic interests between the two superpowers. Yet it was, in large measure, the mere existence of the weapons themselves (and their placement, by both the U.S. and Soviet Union, dangerously and provocatively close to the other’s territory) that caused the crisis.

Today, that fact is even worse. While we have far fewer nuclear weapons in the world, the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of warheads poised to be launched against the other, or some other country, on a moment’s notice. Why? There is no good reason to continue to hold humanity hostage with these grotesque weapons, other than the other side has them. So there is no “strategy” behind our nuclear arsenals, they have become, through inertia and apathy, self-justifying. Why do we have ‘em? Because they do. Why do they have ‘em? Because we do.

Peace Action, of course, does not accept this situation, and will initiate some exciting new campaigns early in the new year to press the case for the global abolition of nuclear weapons. For now, I’d love to hear your reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, both remembrances and lessons learned, or not, and their applicability for today. (So one need not to have been born at the time to share your comments.)

Honor Nuclear Weapons Treaty

August 13, 2012

Salt Lake City Tribune

By Christine Meecham And Deb Sawyer

Published August 9, 2012 1:01 am


For much of this year, the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state has been a major international concern. As members of the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, we have a perspective we’d like to share concerning the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons.

We both grew up in Utah during the Cold War, when the threat of mass annihilation was very real. As young adults we were hopeful when the Non-Proliferation Treaty was put into force in 1970. The grand bargain of the NPT was simple: Nations that did not have nuclear weapons agreed never to acquire them, while the five nuclear states, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, agreed to share the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology as they pursued the elimination of their nuclear arsenal. Making sure that both ends of this agreement are honored is essential to the long-term viability of the NPT.

Now the countries with nuclear weapons also include Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Unlike the Cold War, today our greatest national security threats come from the breakdown of the non-proliferation regime and nuclear terrorism. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are at least 40 other nations with the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, which brings us back to the current conflict with Iran.

Despite the censures, sanctions and embargoes, Iran continues its nuclear program claiming that it is within its rights to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and threatening to withdraw, as did North Korea, from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Iran withdraws from the NPT, efforts to ensure that its enriched uranium not be diverted to develop nuclear weapons would no longer be subject to oversight by the UN nuclear agency. In addition, it would bring us one step closer to another war in the Middle East.

We believe it is time to take another tack. Many of the NPT non-nuclear states believe that the nuclear-weapon states have not complied with their side of the bargain. In an attempt to reassure the non-proliferation regime, President Obama, in his Prague speech in April 2009, outlined a series of initiatives that would honor our disarmament commitment and lead to a nuclear-weapons free world. One of the first steps toward this end is putting a permanent ban on nuclear weapons testing.

Twenty years ago in 1992, President George H. W. Bush signed a moratorium on nuclear testing and other states followed. In 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed, but the Senate failed to ratify it in 1999.

What if the United States surprised the world and ratified the test ban treaty? Since our experts maintain that we don’t need to test nuclear weapons to keep them viable, doesn’t it make sense to make this moratorium permanent? Wouldn’t it go a long way in affirming our commitment to nuclear disarmament?

One thing is certain, if we continue to bolster our nuclear capabilities, no amount of persuasion or sanctions will keep non-nuclear states, particularly our political foes, from eventually acquiring these weapons of mass destruction. In contrast, if we honor our commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, we will be leading the global community towards a greater security for all.

Christine Meecham and Deb Sawyer are members of the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Both live in Salt Lake City.

(Note – the Utah Campaign is an organizational member of Peace Action.)

Kev’s Summer Reading List

July 9, 2012

Here are four books on Peace Action related issues I’ve read recently, all written by colleagues (okay maybe I need to balance these now with some non-political books!). What are you reading this summer? Please share your favorites, whether political or peace-related or not.

–Kevin Martin, Executive Director

Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink: Women for Peace and Global Exchange

Medea Benjamin, an indefatigable drum major for peace and justice, provides a real eye opener to how U.S. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) or “drones” are not only killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries (most of whom the U.S. is not at war against), but how drones are lowering the bar for warmaking and spying on Americans. Clear, concise, well-argued and passionate, featuring interviews with drone victims and activists working to limit the proliferation of drones and other robotic warfare technology, this book is a must-read for peace activists wanting to learn more about this pernicious threat to peace and our civil liberties and how to stop it.

Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual by Lawrence Wittner, Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Albany and a member of the Peace Action national board of directors

Perhaps because I admire and like Larry Wittner so much,  I really enjoyed this coming of age story of a shy, intellectual boy from Brooklyn who went on to become a civil rights, labor and peace activist, and the authoritative scholar of the global nuclear disarmament movement. While I enjoyed that “political” part of the book, Larry’s personal journey is very compelling too, as he overcame numerous serious personal and professional obstacles to become a much-respected and well-liked stalwart in the fields of academia and activism.

Here is the blurb I wrote for the book:

Larry Wittner’s life and work are inspiring on their own, but he recounts them in such a frank, open manner that he has crafted a real page-turner. Working for Peace and Justice takes you along on a joyful ride of discovery through the life of a model citizen/scholar/activist.”

The Peacekeeping Economy:  Using Economic Relationships to Build a More Peaceful, Prosperous, and Secure World by Lloyd “Jeff” Dumas, Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas

If you are looking for a Marxist screed about war and capitalism, Jeff Dumas’s latest work is not the one for you. But if you like practical ideas on how a more just U.S. and global economy could work better for everyone, and how a more peaceful world is possible with more equitable economic policies, then you will dig into this book, part of “an unintended trilogy” by Dumas. For good measure, he throws in a fascinating chapter on nonviolence. It’s a bit of a serious, somewhat academic read, but very rewarding, even to someone who was not very strong on Economics in my academic career! Dumas’s aim is true, and he aims to make a difference, not wow you with economics wizardry.

 Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military Industrial Complex by William Hartung

Okay I only got to read part of this book, but it was great, as everything Bill Hartung writes always is. It’s a fascinating history of how Lockheed began as a small airplane company and then metastasized into the largest merchant of death on the planet. As anti-corporate organizing grows, we need to sharpen the focus on some of the worst corporations, those who profit from and lobby for endless wars, bottomless weapons contracts and gargantuan military budgets. This book is an invaluable resource for doing just that!

Appeal to the Youth of the World from Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Chicago

April 26, 2012

A smart and inspiring appeal from the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Chicago, which our National Field Director Judith Le Blanc is attending on behalf of Peace Action and International Peace Bureau, which won the Peace Prize in 1910 (Peace Action is a long-time member of IPB, and we were honored to be asked to send a representative to the Summit by IPB).

The Appeal quotes one of my favorite sayings by Martin Luther King, Jr., a Nobel Peace Laureate, “those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war,” still so true today.

The appeal is attached here as a pdf


Chicago May 18 & 19 – 99% vs War and Injustice

March 21, 2012

By Judith LeBlanc
Peace Action and the American Friends Service Committee have initiated a network of peace, faith, economic and racial justice groups to convene a Counter Summit for Peace and Economic Justice in Chicago on May 18 – 19.

While the NATO Summit meets at McCormick Place in Chicago we will gather at the People’s Church on 941 West Lawrence from Friday morning until Saturday afternoon.

While they discuss the Afghanistan war, we will map out campaigns for a future free of wars, occupation and the costs of a militarized foreign policy.

The conference will bring together representatives of the 99% from the US and around the world who oppose the policies which generate wars and impoverish our communities. Register now.

Find out more information on the NATO Free Future website. http://www.natofreefuture.org/

Join the low volume announcement list to get updates on plenary speakers and workshops.

We will raise our voices with an alternative vision to NATO’s wars. One that is premised on diplomacy and international sovereignty. Between now and May 18, you can invite speakers to come to your area and be a part of the dialogue.

In the months leading to the  NATO meeting and the G8 meeting at Camp David, it is an opportunity for popular education about NATO and  the G8 and the impact on our communities.

Check out the speakers bureau. In every region of the country there are experts, historians and organizers who can come and speak at events, or your own local Counter Summit for Peace and Economic Justice.

Join us in Chicago!

Bonjour from France!

November 15, 2011

Last week and weekend in Paris, I was honored to represent Peace Action at the international conference of our good colleagues le Mouvement de la Paix (French Peace Movement). I was the only U.S. person there, among a few hundred peacemongers from France, Israel, Senegal, Germany, Britain, the U.K., Belgium and Russia (and I may have missed a few countries!).


Le Mouvement de la Paix (like our British colleagues at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, whose conference I attended last fall) is very similar to Peace Action, both in terms of its grassroots organizational structure (they have chapters all over France) and the issues it focuses on.


Topics addressed at the conference ran the gamut of peace concerns, from the economics and human rights angles of creating an international culture of peace, to more specific issues and campaigns such as global reductions in military spending and the arms trade. I spoke on the last two topics, as well as nuclear disarmament, from the perspective of Peace Action’s and the U.S. peace movement’s current organizing campaigns.


Also, I met twice with leaders from key European peace organizations regarding plans for organizing around the NATO/G-8 Summit next May in Chicago (more on that in the coming months). Our allies from Europe, as well as Canada, plan to come to Chicago to stand with us as we address the issues of war and the international economy, and call for more peaceful and sustainable alternatives. We are already at work on planning a speaking tour, an educational conference and street actions around this opportunity next spring.


The conference and meetings, though sometimes a bit challenging with language differences, were a terrific relationship and fellowship building experience for me, and I hope by extension for Peace Action. We have worked for a long time with peace movement colleagues around the world as a trusted ally, and this conference was just a continuation of that work. I always come away from interactions with our sisters and brothers from many different countries, cultures and backgrounds exhilarated to learn from their struggles. I am always convinced that not only is another world possible, it is inevitable!


–Kevin Martin, Executive Director


Essay on Pacifism in NY Times

August 29, 2011
Peace Action is not an explicitly pacifist organization as some colleagues are, on the other hand I don’t believe we’ve ever supported any US war or use of force in our 54 year history, and our efforts are to dismantle the war machine and make war obsolete.



Give Pacifism a Chance

Published: August 27, 2011

Louisa Thomas is the author of “Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War I.”

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Two London children display a peace banner in Regent’s Park in 1898.

Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.

DURING World War I, a conscientious objector named Evan Thomas faced a court-martial for refusing an order to eat during a hunger strike. The prosecutor’s real attack, though, was on Thomas’s refusal to serve in the Army.

“The very foundation of every civilized government from the first beginning of history down to the present time has been based absolutely upon force of arms,” the prosecutor argued. “Gentlemen, if we don’t punish these cowards who appear in this land like the sore spots on our bodies to the fullest limit of the law, this government cannot survive.” Then he asked for Thomas to be given the death penalty.

Such a scene would seem preposterous today, and not only because it is hard to imagine such a prosecutor. It is also hard now to picture a man like Thomas, who was my great-great-uncle: an Ohio-born Princeton graduate, a son of a middle-class minister — and a strict pacifist.

Pacifism is a curiosity. Even those few who call themselves pacifists are usually quick to qualify the word; they’re “realistic” or “pragmatic” pacifists. Rarely does anyone question the tragic view of human nature: man is aggressive, violence is a fact and some wars are necessary. It is tempting to say this is knowledge learned of experience. Fascism, communism, nuclear bombs, genocide and terrorism seem to confirm the futility of strict nonviolence. As President Obama said while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, recognition of the moral and practical necessity of force “is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

A recognition of history, however, also compels us to remember that many Americans — as disparate as Andrew Carnegie and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — have held another view. These pacifists (an imperfect, but useful, term) rejected organized violence on principle. They had different and contradictory motives and tactics, but their repudiation of war challenged the idea that man’s imperfections, and reason’s limits, made war acceptable. They were often naïve — but so were leaders who pursued policies that made armed conflict more likely, or who assumed that violence could be governed by good intentions and expertise.

Few people today openly espouse pacifist beliefs, even as the impact of 20th-century pacifism — from the United Nations to the Civil Rights Act — is everywhere apparent. In part that’s because some of the movement’s goals have come to pass: war is now usually less lethal and involves only professional soldiers, who take pains to minimize civilian casualties. Meanwhile, pacifists’ emphasis on the moral issues surrounding violence could be turned against them, especially during humanitarian crises or acts of foreign belligerence. War, in other words, has become harder to object to. But that doesn’t mean it’s not objectionable, or that pacifists don’t have a point.

BOTH pacific and martial currents run through American culture, and pacifism has struggled as much with its own principles as it has with the nation’s abiding militaristic streak. Seventeenth-century Anabaptists believed that nonresistance was purifying in a corrupted world. Colonial Quakers thought their refusal to fight would serve as a witness to God’s kingdom of peace and the sacred quality of individual life.

Early pacifists — long before they called themselves “pacifists,” a 20th-century word — were sectarian, but the winners of the Revolution also dreamed of lasting peace. Most were suspicious of standing armies and concentrated power, and they respected not only equality before the law but also the unruly demands of the individual conscience.

In the 19th century, faith in the rational, moral improvement of mankind, along with a revival of religious enthusiasm, spurred the peace movement. After the unpopular War of 1812, nonsectarian peace movements sprang up across the North, mostly appealing to well-educated white Protestants.

As the threat of war with the South grew, though, peace advocates struggled to define the limits of their stand. Were defensive wars permissible? Was peace that allowed terrible injustice worth keeping? And here the movement splintered. “O, yes — war is better than slavery,” wrote Angelina Grimké Weld, a political activist and strident peace advocate. The movement could not easily overcome the conflict between justice and peace — not then, and not a century later. Slavery had been abolished, but some 620,000 men in uniform had died.

The end of the war and the years of peace that followed, however, allowed many to put off the question. Late-19th-century Americans placed their faith in the progress of history. After the carnage of the Civil War and, in Europe, the Napoleonic wars, many believed that humanity had learned its lesson, and that world peace was a real possibility. Peace societies flourished. Activists formed international networks. A Swiss businessman established the Red Cross in 1863. At peace conferences at The Hague in 1899 and 1907, delegations established rules for neutrals and treatment of prisoners of war, and even an international arbitration court, in the hope of restraining warfare. (The most urgent reforms, like arms limitations and enforcement mechanisms — anything that might really limit state power — were off the table, but the conferences seemed a start.)

Money fueled the hope. In 1896 the inventor of dynamite died and left a will establishing the Nobel prizes, including one for peace. In 1910 Carnegie gave $10 million to found the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Business pacifism” became a first principle of the Gilded Age. “Dead men buy no clothes,” said one industrialist in 1907.

But the difficulties of reconciling pacifist ideals with the reality of global politics remained. When world war came, most of the peace advocates in Europe and, eventually, the United States joined the fight, not because they were rejecting their own beliefs but because they were told repeatedly that it would be a war to end war. Only a tiny minority, including Evan Thomas (whose lifetime prison sentence was reduced to 25 years before he was released on a technicality), refused to fight.

Many would come to regret their support. Some retreated into isolationism. But others redoubled their efforts. International peace movements revived. Governments tried outlawing war (the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact is still on the books). Students held antiwar protests and signed pledges to refuse to fight. Peace advocates and statesmen wrestled to build the League of Nations. Time magazine chose Mohandas K. Gandhi man of the year in 1931. For a brief moment, pacifism seemed to be a driving force in international politics.

It wasn’t to last. And while some peace activists quickly recognized the danger of fascism, others wanted to wish the threat away. Isolationists and pacifists formed awkward alliances, until even the most ardent of them admitted that war had become unavoidable. In the United States, for the most part only absolute pacifists resisted the war after Pearl Harbor. In the eyes of most Americans, including erstwhile pacifists, the war seemed to disprove for good the belief that all violence was bad. There was, it appeared, such a thing as not only a just war but a “good” war.

But the good war was also a total war. The Nazis were defeated and the concentration camps liberated, but mankind had also figured out how to destroy itself. Aerial bombing killed indiscriminately and atomic bombs incinerated two cities.

One result was a contradictory postwar world. On one hand, global peace seemed all the more pressing. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took the United States to war, recognized the need for permanent peace from the start: one of his 1941 Four Freedoms was that from fear, which meant, he said, “a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”

The international community built on that dream, trying to redistribute power so that no nation would attack any other. Statesmen established the United Nations in 1945 and worked out strict international laws, greater democratic freedoms and social justice, and enforcement mechanisms for collective security.

Still, the hope was damaged. Visions of permanent conflict, not harmony, prevailed. The peace movement itself spent the early cold war years in the wilderness. The global spread of the bomb would help revive it, but in some important ways it became more strategic than pacifist in its principles. Nuclear deterrence and test bans drew some of the broadest support, appealing to mothers who worried about nuclear contamination in milk rather than nuclear weapons outright. The coalitions were fractured as different groups had their own aims and ambitions, some narrowly antiwar, others for broader social justice. They did not easily coexist. Pacifists were often a minority, and absolute pacifists fewer still.

Indeed, the 20th century not only shattered the hopes of turn-of-the-century pacifists, but its carnage seemed to disprove the possibility of abolishing war. American peace movements could not stop war in Korea, nor keep the nation out of Vietnam. That war, of course, would spur the largest network of antiwar movements in American history. But it succeeded in part by riding a countercultural tide — and, already weakened by internal tensions, it was subsequently hammered in the post-60s backlash. Chastened, many antiwar activists kept their attention on nuclear weapons.

Pacifists had their real success when they focused on organized violence at home — and nowhere more so than in the civil rights movement. Inspired by Tolstoy and Gandhi, pacifists like Dr. King, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin demonstrated the power of nonviolent protest in forcing social and political change, developing techniques still used today in groups as diverse as the National Organization for Women and the Tea Party.

Nonviolent movements continue abroad, most recently in parts of the Middle East. It is not just idealism that drives them to reject force; they also know it works. A study conducted by Erica Chenoweth of Wesleyan University and Maria J. Stephan of American University found that of hundreds of insurgencies from 1900 to 2006, more than 50 percent of nonviolent campaigns worked, while only about 25 percent of violent ones did.

FOR the most part, though, nonviolence and pacifism in the United States are today discredited as utopian, hippieish or narrowly religious, more anti-American than anti-war. There are still people who say that force only destroys, that its consequences are uncontrollable, that it is unethical — but those critiques trouble us on the margins, or in books or movies. There are still a few antiwar groups (not all of them pacifist) — the War Resisters League, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Albert Einstein Institution — but hardly any serious public figures take the stage to defend their views.

Some of what the American peace movement fought for has come to pass: there is no draft, there are no special taxes raised to pay for war, the threat of nuclear Armageddon has receded and the country plays a leading, if controversial, role in multilateral institutions. Rooting out terrorists and intervening in civil conflicts, soldiers often do more police work than conventional combat.

The results have been mixed, though, and in some ways at odds with pacifism’s longer-term goals. Most people don’t want to think of war, and thanks to the lack of a draft, most don’t have to. Huge worldwide protests against sending soldiers into Iraq in 2003 were a sideshow for many people. Significant antiwar sentiment over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has mostly challenged the time, the place, the conduct and the costs of deployment, not the use of force itself. Those who are on active duty — less than one percent of the population — and their families bear most of the burdens.

Such complacency has allowed for the possibility of unending war. Because of the nature of intelligence gathering and weapons technology like drones, the government can use deadly force without popular support or approval. The president has claimed — and we have given him — extraordinary powers.

We should respect the sacrifices of soldiers and the complexity of governing in a dangerous world. But war has a way of coming home, eroding our democratic culture as well as our safety. American pacifists of the past knew that, and we need people like them today: people who don’t believe war is inevitable, who will challenge what we assume and accept, and who will work to end it.


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