The peace movement is a very important part of American life. Much like the labor movement, the racial justice movement, and the women’s movement, the peace movement is comprised of an array of organizations and millions of supporters. It maintains a visible public presence through meetings, demonstrations, vigils, leaflets, letters to the editor, newspaper ads, art, music, lobbying, and occasional civil disobedience actions. In addition, it inspires the loyalty of prominent cultural figures, intellectuals, and politicians. And many of its key goals—for example, ending the war in Iraq, fostering international cooperation, and securing nuclear disarmament—have broad popular support.

Why, then, is the peace movement not succeeding? The U.S. public delivered a strong rebuff in the November 2006 elections to the Bush administration’s reckless military adventure in Iraq. Yet, the administration is escalating the war, and the Democratic Congress is unwilling to pull the plug on the war’s funding.

Nor does this persistent militarism simply reflect “supporting the troops”—whatever that means. U.S. military spending continues to climb, the Pentagon readies U.S. military forces for new wars (as with Iran), and the U.S. government maintains roughly 10,000 nuclear weapons, with thousands of them still on hair-trigger alert. Key agreements for arms control and disarmament—such as the ABM Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—have been abandoned. Indeed, the Bush administration recently unveiled plans for Complex 2030, a massive refurbishment and upgrading of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. With the prominent exception of Representative Dennis Kucinich, U.S. presidential candidates do not criticize these developments. Instead, they advocate strengthening the U.S. military.

Thus, however vigorous and widespread the American peace movement has been in recent years, it has not developed the strength necessary to prevail. Why?

Some Explanations

One explanation for the weakness of the U.S. peace movement, often expressed by cynics about human nature, is that demagogues spouting patriotic propaganda easily hoodwink people. There is something to this contention, but not quite enough to make it totally satisfactory. People can be convinced to rally ’round the flag, but not all the time and not indefinitely. Both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War provide illustrations of how popular sentiment can grow increasingly dovish as a war’s consequences become clear.

Another explanation, expressed by Green Party supporters and assorted leftists, is that the Democratic Party is a sort of reactionary vampire that schemes, successfully, to drain the blood of the peace movement and other progressive forces. First it seduces them, and then it abandons them—or so the argument goes.

But this explanation begs the issue. After all, if the peace movement were strong enough, would the Democratic Party dare to abandon it? Perhaps the peace constituency is actually one constituency among many that is wooed at election time, but is too disorganized and ephemeral to have more than marginal influence on public policy.

A third explanation for the peace movement’s ineffectiveness is that corporate, communications, and political elites favor policies of militarism and imperialism. Furthermore, as these elites exercise disproportionate influence and power in American life, they can withstand the buffeting of popular pressures against their policies. This explanation has much to recommend it.

But, even if it is correct, what can the peace movement do about it? Progressive organizations have been challenging elite dominance for centuries. Today, certainly, they are working on campaigns to rein in the corporations, establish public access to the communications media, and obtain public financing of elections. But, even if these campaigns succeed, they are not likely to do so for some time. Until then, the movement will have to face the unpleasant reality that simply securing majority support for its programs will not be sufficient to secure victory.

Looking Inward

There is another source of movement weakness, however, that the peace movement can control more readily—and that is its own structure and focus. As anyone who has gone to a demonstration or has received numerous mailings for good causes recognizes, the peace movement is not united. Indeed, it suffers from the great American disease of individualism, atomization, and sectarianism. What it needs is collective action and solidarity. And what it has is thousands of groups, mostly small, each pursuing its own projects and going its own way. Not surprisingly, then, the movement is not as powerful as it likes to claim, and politicians do not always take it very seriously.

Conversely, when the movement has been relatively unified and focused on a particular project, it has been effective. During most of the 1950s, about all that existed of the peace movement in the United States was a collection of small pacifist, religious, and scientific groups with their own programs and concerns. But, in 1957, a group of leading peace activists formed the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), and suddenly a mass movement emerged. Focused on halting nuclear testing, SANE quickly became the largest peace group in the United States. And its widespread agitation against the nuclear arms race not only helped pull other peace groups in the same direction, but, in the fall of 1961, led to the formation of yet another mass-based organization, Women Strike for Peace. Working together, they played a vital role in securing the first nuclear arms control agreement in history: the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. It was a very important victory for the peace movement, and would never have taken place without the popular uprising against nuclear testing generated by SANE.

Another dramatic movement victory occurred thanks to the formation of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. In the late 1970s, Randy Forsberg, a young defense and disarmament researcher who regularly addressed peace groups, was irked by the fact that they were organizationally divided and pursuing diverse agendas. She used the occasion of a Mobilization for Survival gathering in 1979 to propose that these groups get together behind a single issue: a bilateral halt to the testing, development, and deployment of nuclear weapons. The idea quickly caught on, and soon another mass campaign—this one far bigger than its counterpart in the late 1950s and early 1960s—engulfed the nation. During the early 1980s, the Freeze, as it came to be called, developed its own chapters, fundraising, and staff, and transformed public opinion and American politics. It worked with groups like SANE in the United States and with a growing number of powerful peace movements elsewhere in the world, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain, the Interchurch Peace Council in the Netherlands, No to Nuclear Weapons in Norway and Denmark, and Peace Movement New Zealand. Drawing on this strong network at home and abroad, the Freeze effectively reversed the Reagan administration’s foreign policy agenda from nuclear buildup and war to nuclear disarmament and peace.

In contrast to the Freeze campaign, the U.S. struggle against the Vietnam War was much more divided—and less successful. Despite the fact that the antiwar movement mobilized large numbers of people, their enormous energy was dissipated in a wide variety of ventures, at least some of them quite counterproductive. For the most part, the movement against the war was leaderless; thousands of small groups participated, but lacked central direction or a common program. Although a number of coalition efforts emerged, they proved short-lived. For the most part, activists “did their own thing.” Ultimately, this organizational chaos did not prove a very effective way to end the slaughter in Vietnam. Indeed, that bloody conflict raged on year after year, taking millions of lives. Eventually, it turned into America’s longest war.

To some extent, the coalition ventures during the Iraq War have been more successful in providing the antiwar movement with cohesion. United for Peace and Justice, Win Without War, and International ANSWER have drawn together substantial elements of the fragmented American peace movement, especially for mass demonstrations. But ANSWER’s left sectarian tone and belligerent style has led to conflicts with the other two groups. Moreover, these coalitions are flimsy structures—national offices with minimal membership participation, grassroots presence, or personal loyalty. It seems unlikely that they will outlive the Iraq War, if they last that long.

Models of Unity

Another, more promising model for greater organizational unity and clear focus is a powerful national organization. The women’s movement has achieved this in the form of the National Organization for Women, the racial justice movement in the form of the NAACP, and the labor movement in the form of the AFL-CIO. Each has competitors, of course. And many of these competitors, like the numerous small peace groups in the United States, do good work. Nevertheless, NOW, the NAACP, and the AFL-CIO provide an important degree of organizational continuity, strength, and central direction to their respective movements.

The U.S. peace movement seemed to be heading in this direction when, in 1987, the Freeze and SANE merged to form SANE/Freeze, a powerful national organization later renamed Peace Action. Committed to going beyond the organizational division of the past, advocates of the merger championed forming “one big peace movement.” And, for a time, that’s what they had.

But, as the overall peace movement dwindled in the 1990s, so did Peace Action. During the Bush administration, it has made a substantial comeback, and can now point to some 100,000 members in about 100 chapters and state affiliates around the country. It also has an appealing program: peace through international cooperation and human rights. Together these elements make Peace Action the flagship of the American peace movement, by far the largest peace organization in the United States. Even so, it does not have the same ability to provide organizational cohesion and programmatic direction that NOW, the NAACP, and the AFL-CIO have within their constituencies.

But what if Peace Action’s 50th anniversary celebrations this year, based on the founding of SANE in 1957, could provide the occasion for a very substantial expansion of its ranks? What if many of this country’s small, independent peace groups—particularly those on a local level —stopped clinging to their splendid autonomy and joined it as chapters? What if the many, many thousands of independent individuals who have participated in antiwar demonstrations or have just sat home and gnashed their teeth in frustration at the militaristic direction of U.S. foreign policy joined it as members? In those circumstances, Peace Action could easily have chapters in every city and town in this nation, with a nationwide membership of a million or more!

Even with this dramatically expanded membership, Peace Action would still face some difficulties on the long march to efficacy. Ironically, one present difficulty reflects the structural problem that plagues the broader peace movement: Peace Action has minimal central authority. Although the Peace Action national office keeps the chapters and the membership apprised of key organizational priorities and efforts, local chapters and state affiliates enjoy a great degree of independence and flexibility. Indeed, most Peace Action dues money goes to the local chapters and state affiliates, leaving the national office relatively impoverished and scrambling to meet its payroll. Of course, peace-minded, dissident Americans—particularly in recent decades, when the authoritarian structure of Communist parties has been widely discredited—are suspicious of centralized authority and prefer a grassroots emphasis. Nevertheless, Peace Action’s loose structure prevents it from realizing the full potential of a national organization.

On the other hand, because it maintains both a well-staffed national office (located in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC) and a vigorous presence in local communities, Peace Action has been able to combine a congressional strategy with a movement-building emphasis on the grassroots level. Operating out of the national office, Peace Action staffers work closely with peace-minded members of Congress, strategizing with them and with members of their staffs to secure cutoffs of funding for the Iraq War, to avert war with Iran, and block nuclear weapons programs. Meanwhile, local activists not only apply pressure to members of Congress in their home districts, but hold public meetings, sponsor demonstrations, stage vigils, organize petition campaigns, recruit new members, and, overall, keep people mobilized in cities and towns across the country.

Another dilemma confronted by Peace Action is how to overcome the peace movement’s traditional whiteness. For years, Peace Action has consciously sought to build a multiracial organization, but with mixed results. Its staff now includes a substantial number of people of color, as does its national board, which is co-chaired by an African American. Moreover, Peace Action maintains excellent relations with outspoken African-American members of Congress, such as U.S. Representatives John Conyers and Barbara Lee. Nevertheless, like other U.S. peace organizations, Peace Action has a membership that is overwhelmingly white. With a substantial expansion of membership, of course, the organization might well become more like the overall U.S. population.

Even that expansion might not be sufficient to enable Peace Action to prevail against hawkish elements in the United States. After all, the institution of war goes back thousands of years in human history, and the current military-industrial complex in the United States has powerful supporters and institutions it can draw upon.

But the bottom line is that, if peace activists are serious about reining in the forces of militarism, they should recognize that a movement composed of small, independent peace groups and large numbers of unaffiliated individuals is simply not up to that task. To attain organizational cohesion, strength, and programmatic direction, the movement needs a powerful national peace organization, with a mass membership. Only then will it be in a position to effectively challenge the masters of war, impress the politicians, and set the United States on a new, peaceful course in world affairs.


Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press). He serves on the board of Peace Action.