What the Peace Movement Should Do Now

In April, FPIF published an essay by historian Lawrence Wittner on the future of the U.S. peace movement. His call for a large, national peace organization generated a flurry of responses, which we published collectively in What’s Next for the Peace Movement. Here we publish three final comments from Robin Hahnel, Michael Foley, and Matt Meyer.

Robin Hahnel

While it is important for supporters, activists, and leaders of the peace movement to engage in some thoughtful soul searching over program and strategy, I am concerned that the most urgent activity the peace movement should be organizing is going neglected. We need a massive showing of anti-war sentiment in the fall of 2007, and this can only happen if the major peace organizations launch the initiative now.

An overwhelming majority of the American public wants the war in Iraq ended and the troops brought home now. If anyone believed the Democrats in Congress were going to end the fiasco without massive pressure from the peace movement, that illusion just flew out the window with the Democrats acquiescing in funding the war without even any deadlines for withdrawal. Whether one thinks of it as making more Democratic lawmakers afraid to anger the peace movement, or showing sympathetic Democrats that the peace movement can cover their backs when Republicans try to pin the disaster on any who vote to cut off funding, is of little practical importance. The overwhelming antiwar sentiment that already exists must be mobilized.

It has to be in the fall of 2007 because spring 2008 is too late. First, most Americans understand that every month that passes is more American and Iraqi lives lost for absolutely nothing. Second, the Democrats in Congress will face important choices in September, so that is when the pressure needs to be applied. And third, by spring 2008 too many supporters and activists in the peace movement will be drawn into primary campaigns. Unless we have made ourselves vocal and visible as an oppositional movement, the pressure to subordinate peace politics to the strategies of the candidates will be overwhelming.

While it would have been easier had preparations begun a few months ago, there is still time to organize massive outpourings for the end of September. I believe it is possible to put hundreds of thousands in the streets of Washington DC (or New York City), hundreds of thousands in the streets of San Francisco (or Los Angeles), and half as many in the streets of Chicago (or Detroit) all on the same day in late September. One could make a case for massive local actions in hundreds of cities and thousands of towns on the same day instead — since that might demonstrate even more convincingly how deeply the peace movement has penetrated communities where we have not traditionally been strong.

Unless there is a national call for an all out effort of some kind, I know that local peace groups will be less rather than more active. I live in southern Maryland in a red county in a blue state. This means I know most of the local peace activists whether they be members of my own Southern Maryland Greens local, anti-war faculty and students on the local college campus, or peace advocates from the local Friends meeting house and Unitarian Universalist church. If there is a call to organize a massive outpouring in the fall we will be catalyzed to organize locally. We will organize meetings and teach-ins and reach out to the majority of our community who are now sick of this war but traditionally reluctant to support the peace movement — some of whom will march with us for the first time. If there is no national call I suspect we will do little.

Michael Foley

I am grateful that Larry Wittner has started this conversation. I have always admired his dedication as both an historian and an activist, and this piece shows why. It is thoughtful and provocative. That said, I don’t agree entirely with the premise of the essay – emphasizing failures of the peace movement – nor with the prescription to solve the problems he identifies.

For one thing, as Wittner ponders the possible explanations for the peace movement’s relative lack of influence/success, he misses other important variables. I’d mention two, related issues. First, the administration learned some valuable lessons from Vietnam when it comes to undermining dissent. Mostly, they’ve done this by shielding Americans from the true horrors of the war. Instead of seeing gruesome images on the nightly news (Vietnam style), Americans generally see American GIs or tanks or helicopters on patrol. They don’t see dead or wounded GIs (either in Iraq or at Walter Reed), and few dead civilians. The Pentagon’s co-opting of the media through “embedding” and the rules ensuring that dead/wounded soldiers not be shown has worked brilliantly to remove the most likely impetus for mainstream Americans to get outraged.

Second, in this age of information/sensory overload, the overwhelming majority of Americans are too busy (or at least think they are too busy) to pay enough attention to their government’s crimes. It’s easier to be told how to think by Bill O’Reillys and Brian Williamses of the world. This is a bit like Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone” argument: with more and more Americans working longer and longer hours (to pay off more and more debt), commuting long hours, and filling most of their leisure time watching one of 1000 direct TV channels, it’s awfully hard for the peace movement to compete. Most Americans are so tired that when they finally come home, they want to watch American Idol. If they can stand some dissent, it has to come in the form of The Daily Show or Bill Maher. I think these are substantial areas worth Wittner’s attention.

As for his solution, I find myself feeling skeptical. It’s the kind of thing that will sound good on paper to some people, but most likely would never work, for the reasons that Frida Berrigan and others mentioned. My favorite line in Berrigan’s response is “We need to act as though our actions matter.” A national peace movement directed/led by Peace Action will quickly fail to get people to act as though our actions matter. Just ask UFPJ. How many times have hundreds of thousands of people turned out for one march after the other and feel (a la the movie Groundhog Day) that they are re-living the same event and nothing much gets accomplished beyond that day. People go home, back to their lives, UFPJ begs for more money to keep going, and then there’s another march just like the last one; the war, torture, and the administration just keep going. I know this may sound overly cynical, and that the marches do help recruit more people, but we’re long past needing to raise the ante with the warmakers. Therefore, as Berrigan points out, there has to be room for Code Pink, Witness Against Torture, Billionaires for Bush, Brandywine Peace Community, and all the others in all their forms….

The one tweaking of Wittner’s suggestion that seems plausible to me is Scott Bennett’s. Maybe there could be some value in having a federation of peace groups that supports each individual organization’s autonomy, but also draws on the federation’s diverse resources and talents to at least appear as big and powerful as, say, the AFL-CIO once did. Certainly, there could be some value in approaching elected officials and saying that the peace federation represents X million people and that includes X thousand people in your district, etc. Obviously, that would require an additional layer of organizing – a national conference, national officers drawn from member groups, loads of funding to pay lobbyists, etc – but it might be worth a try. On the other hand, I can also imagine a federation forming only to be paralyzed by infighting; it’s not hard to foresee a national body that winds up being too timid or uninterested in direct action, for example. In 1949, the AFL-CIO kicked out nearly 1 million members belonging to about ten unions, simply because those unions were regarded as too leftist in those scary days of HUAC and McCarthy. I’d be worried about that with any national organization. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, though.

These days, I find myself – as both historian and activist – looking more to the civil rights movement for inspiration. In my view, periodic peace marches and demonstrations in Washington and New York have mostly run their course. Even voting in more antiwar Democrats into Congress has, so far, yielded few results. We need a present-day equivalent to the mass civil disobedience campaigns enacted at lunch counters and bus stations in the segregated south in the early 1960s. Like the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer, we need to build toward an “Iraq and Guantanamo Summer” in which thousands of activists fan out to communities across the country on both educational and civil disobedience campaigns – to take the message to the war makers that the peace movement is everywhere and is willing to take greater and greater risks until the killing and torture stops.

Matt Meyer

In reading the series of important issues brought up in FPIF’s excellent round table sparked by Lawrence Wittner’s essay, I find myself most concerned by the historic omissions from Wittner’s own introduction. The question is undoubtedly appropriate, and Wittner’s framing of possible explanations for weakness — ending in the fact of corporate militaristic hegemony — is useful and correct. But his own review of recent movement history for solutions is seriously flawed. Yes, progressive organizations have been challenging elite dominance for some time, but unlike Wittner’s models of unity there is little to suggest that One Big Centralized Peace Union would be the most effective means of countering corporate moves for continuous war.

The history of the U.S. peace and justice movements of the 1950s to the present is in dire need of careful review. These essays cannot adequately address this need, so I will simply attempt to highlight some of Wittner’s errors in as succinct a form as possible, for further discussion and review.

First, though SANE and Women’s Strike for Peace undoubtedly gained one significant piece of reform legislation in 1963, there is little evidence to suggest that their work or the Test Ban Treaty itself secured any kind of lasting peace or peace sentiment. Indeed, the years following 1963 saw dramatic increases in Cold War rhetoric and arms build-up, as well as hot war realities all over the globe. In fact, the purging of Communists from the ranks of SANE during this same general period may have caused lasting damage in the movement as a whole, especially regarding the class and race issues which the CPUSA and socialist forces gave special emphasis to. Since many respondents to the Wittner article call for greater analytic and programmatic integration of the issues of race, class, and militarism, there is reason to believe that that the early 1960s SANE example balances more on the minus than the plus side.

Second, SANE/FREEZE, though gaining numerical superiority in the peace movement of the 1980s as far as membership was concerned, was far from the central force uniting the movement for nuclear disarmament at that time. In fact, a careful review of 1980s disarmament history will reveal that the history-making June 12, 1982 United Nations Special Session demonstration, which brought over one million people to the streets of New York City in what was the watershed event of the period, was led by none other than Leslie Cagan of the Mobilization for Survival, now the co-chair of United for Peace and Justice. Sometimes bitter disputes arose in the months building up to that demonstration, where representatives of pre-merger SANE and FREEZE and others argued that a single-issue focus on freezing current arms level should be the major movement demand. Masses of grassroots groups that had been building the work for years, however, ultimately demanded that the movement link the freeze with more general anti-nuclear arms and anti-nuclear power issues. Direct actions targeting all of the world’s nuclear powers enabled demonstrators to make connections particular to their own ideologies (in a day of coordinated civil disobedience, for example, anti-Stalinists sat in protest against the Soviet nuclear arsenal at the same time that anti-apartheid activists targeted the South African government). The delicate and temporary federation of diverse forces that made the anti-nuclear and freeze movements so significant in the 1980s were championed by structures and peoples resembling the UFPJ, not SANE/FREEZE.

Third, the NAACP has hardly served as a unifying or centering point in the U.S. movement for racial justice, at least since the time of W.E.B. DuBois. Indeed, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not some coincidental occurrence. The groups that preceded SCLC and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee were not seen as up to the task of rousing the potential constituents of a new civil rights movement. Since King’s time, the NAACP has, if anything, faced greater difficulty in playing a central role. Its historic significance as the oldest anti-prejudice group is clear, but Wittner’s suggestion that it provides cohesion and programmatic direction is invalid.

Fourth, similar concerns can be stated about the AFL-CIO. Though undoubtedly central to organized labor in a structural sense, the AFL-CIO had nevertheless been unable to successfully organize more people into joining unions or supporting a working class ideology.

In summary, Wittner has provided us with little proof that a centralized organization would bring greater cohesion or power to the peace movement or, if it would, that Peace Action (growing out of SANE/FREEZE) would be that organization. Though the purpose of this missive is to raise questions and not solutions, I do wonder whether part of the problem, as alluded to in some of the response essays, is an over-emphasis on single-issue, single-tactic centralization. Indeed, challenging corporate dominance may require a movement willing to state that, politically, it has goals beyond merely reform. This is where the examples of the NRA and the AARP get truly confusing; there is little in common between Political Action Committees for fairly narrow causes or very specific constituent groups and an energized and united movement for lasting peace.

Spiritually and strategically, the revolution we must call for will need to be nonviolent in nature in order to reach the largest number of people and secure our anti-militarist goals. But revolutionary nonviolence must be rooted, first and foremost, in both a careful understanding of the history of past movements as well as in an understanding of the connectedness between means and ends, between decentralized and democratic process and a more centralized and coordinated search for liberatory power. As Dave Dellinger, that pioneer of so many past movements, wrote in an essay attempting to summarize the lessons of the anti-Vietnam War movement and to paraphrase A.J. Muste, “there is no way to revolution, revolution (in our own lives, in the organizations and methods through which we struggle) is the way.”

Robin Hahnel is recording secretary for the Southern Maryland Greens, professor of political economy at American University, and author of Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation (Routledge, 2005). Michael Foley is a historian on the faculty of the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island. Matt Meyer has served as national chair of both the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the War Resisters League. He is author, with Bill Sutherland, of Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan Africanist Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle, and Liberation.