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Radical Pacifism in Modern America

Radical Pacifism in Modern America illuminates the complex relationships between gender, race, activism, and political culture, identifying critical factors that simultaneously hindered and facilitated grassroots efforts at social and political change.

Radical Pacifism in Modern America
Egalitarianism and Protest

Marian Mollin

2006 | 272 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Acronyms and Abbreviations

Chapter 1: The War for Total Brotherhood
Chapter 2: The Peacemakers' Alternative Vision
Chapter 3: Familialism and the Struggle Against the Bomb
Chapter 4: Reviving the Compact of Brotherhood
Chapter 5: Reversing the Traditional Pattern
Chapter 6: No Bars to Manhood


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Radical Pacifism in Modern America tells a story of contradictions. Its subject, the members of the American radical pacifist movement, were militant activists committed to counter-cultural revolt but mired nonetheless in mainstream social and cultural values. These organizers and grassroots leaders preached the gospel of open-mindedness in their political pursuits; at the same time, they remained profoundly closed to self-criticism and change in their political practice and personal lives. Ardently egalitarian idealists, they nevertheless replicated many of the hierarchies of power they explicitly sought to undermine. Although they were willing to risk their freedom and their safety, they were unwilling to risk questioning the basic assumptions that defined their lives and their work. This history of contradictions is the history of the American radical pacifist movement from World War II through the era of the Vietnam War.

From 1940 to 1970, American radical pacifists stood at the cutting edge of a wide range of efforts for social and political change. Most of their work focused on campaigns against the broad sweep of American militarism: they refused to cooperate with conscription, they protested against war and U.S. military interventions overseas, and they resisted the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. Their efforts, however, went far beyond a purely pacifist agenda. Radical pacifists rejected war on an absolute and personal level, but were also deeply committed to the pursuit of social justice and firmly believed that nonviolent direct action was the key to bringing about fundamental social and political change. Through their words and their deeds, the members of this movement struggled to implement a far-reaching and egalitarian vision of social change that included work for civil rights, civil liberties, cooperative economics, and support for anti-imperialist struggles. Their commitment to change reached into the private dimensions of their highly politicized lives. Radical pacifists built communities of support, shared the burdens and risks of their organizing efforts, and challenged the cultural conventions that defined politics and identity in modern American life.

Radical pacifists were a small and self-selected group whose influence far exceeded their numbers. The men and women who served as the movement's leaders and public spokespersons, activists such as A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Barbara Deming, David Dellinger, and Daniel Berrigan, also stood at the vanguard of labor activism, the black civil rights movement, feminist pacifism, revolutionary nonviolence, and Catholic radicalism. These prominent activists carried the tactics and philosophy of radical pacifism's distinct style of nonviolent direct action into the broader currents of American dissent. At great personal and political risk, they experimented with tactics and strategies that other movement groups only adopted after their potential to galvanize people and capture public attention had been demonstrated. Their history as part of this vanguard highlights the extent of what it was possible to achieve during the three decades that followed the start of World War II.

What they hoped to achieve was a world defined by their uniquely egalitarian and utopian vision. Radical pacifists ardently believed in what they called human "brotherhood" within the "family of man," a set of what were then gender-inclusive kin terms for relationships that deliberately disregarded differences based on race, class, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. This outlook framed their pacifism: in their eyes, violence against another human being was an unconscionable and immoral act akin to fratricide. Uprooting violence in all of its forms, including the myriad varieties of violence that generated, enforced, and resulted from social inequality, defined their political agenda. This was a comprehensive perspective that led radical pacifists to promote cooperative economics, radical trade unionism, socialism, and interracial justice alongside world peace. It was a commitment that informed everything that they did.

The Possibilities and Limits of Egalitarianism

Like female activists in other explicitly egalitarian movements, including the radical abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century, communists and socialists of the early twentieth century, grassroots trade unionists of the early and mid-1900s, and civil rights workers from the Civil War through the present, the women of the radical pacifist movement took the language of equality to heart, believing that it referred to them in the same way as it did to their male counterparts in the struggle. Women interpreted the rhetoric of "brotherhood" to mean that they deserved equal standing within their political movement even if they could not achieve such equality within society at large. Defying the prevailing patterns of their time, radical pacifist women stood shoulder to shoulder with male activists on the front lines of protest, where they worked as courageous risk-takers whose pluck and endurance at times exceeded that demonstrated by men. Women simply assumed that this was where they belonged.

Nevertheless, the activism promoted by the radical pacifist movement was a highly gendered phenomenon that shaped the experiences of women and men in different and unequal ways. Male activists actively promoted a definition of pacifist action that equated political militancy with a rough and rugged style of heroic manhood. In their hands, political protest became a way to defend and define their masculinity—a type of direct action identity politics disturbingly similar to that promoted by the culture of militarism, which identified self-sacrifice and courage as the primary markers of manly citizenship. In this ironic historical twist, antimilitarists found themselves and their protests profoundly shaped by the values of militarism itself, whether rooted in World War II, the Cold War, or the conflict in Vietnam. As a result, radical pacifist leaders overwhelmingly celebrated men as the movement's most valued heroes and cast women in supporting roles, imagining them as faithful and nurturing companions who provided succor and assistance to the male activists who put their freedom and safety on the line. Egalitarianism notwithstanding, no matter what women accomplished on behalf of their organizations or where they stood on the front lines of political protest, female activists were most visible as second-class members of the movement, when they were lucky enough not to have their presence entirely erased.

Periodic efforts at interracial cooperation for the advancement of civil rights revealed other limitations in radical pacifism's egalitarian philosophy. From its inception, the radical pacifist movement committed itself to the cause of racial justice. Its black and white members believed that resistance to war and opposition to racism were integrally related in their struggle against violence and inequality. Indeed, pacifists led many early campaigns against segregation and other racist laws and practices, most notably in the 1940s during the formative years of the modern civil rights movement. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, radical pacifists across the nation quickly allied with the Southern struggle and helped extend it into the North. Some of these activists remained relatively anonymous, nonviolent foot-soldiers in the struggle for a better world. Others, especially the black pacifist Bayard Rustin, who worked as an assistant and advisor to two generations of civil rights leaders, gained national recognition for his prominent role in the freedom movement. The shared goal of social justice and a common allegiance to the tactics of nonviolent direct action made these two movements appear to be a "natural" fit, at least from the radical pacifists' perspective. Nevertheless, the relationship between these two causes was fraught with difficulties that proved almost impossible to overcome. Peace and freedom were not always compatible goals; white and black activists rarely saw the connections between goals, strategies, and tactics in the same ways. These differences, which could be covered over in abstract statements of principle, often hampered joint campaigns in practice. Most importantly, they undermined the ability of white radical pacifists to make lasting alliances with black activists devoted to the advancement of the race.

Sadly, where issues that turned on egalitarianism were concerned, radical pacifists seemed to learn very little from their mistakes. This is not a story of gradual progress: neither gender relations nor race relations steadily improved over the three crucial decades covered by this study. Instead, moments of great promise in changing predominant patterns of interaction between female and male peace activists and between black and white advocates of nonviolence were followed by setbacks and stunning missteps that subverted the advances and alliances that activists had made. Women rose to prominence in the antinuclear movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, only to be overshadowed several years later by male heroics in protests against the Vietnam War. White activists earnestly enlisted as pacifists in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, yet made many of the same mistakes as their predecessors fifteen to twenty years before. Only the rare alternative communities of black and white activists who shared their daily lives as well as political struggles, and who rooted themselves in specific localities during the worst period of political repression, sustained gender-integrated and racially egalitarian models of organizing that exemplified the "beloved community" and enabled pacifists to mount effective mass campaigns against racial segregation. But these were the exception, not the rule.

Instead, the movement trapped itself within a maze of contradictions. It provided women with breathtaking possibilities for action which women seized and expanded. But it also constrained women's opportunities for leadership and recognition, leaving them subordinate and marginalized despite years of service and militant risk-taking. Male leaders, for the most part, failed to recognize how their culture of protest privileged men like themselves and rendered women invisible, and they repeatedly dismissed women's critiques of this culture. This predominately white movement also failed to see how racial blinders impeded their work with black activist communities. White activists genuinely sought to ally their pacifist program with the black freedom struggle, but they frequently did so for transparently instrumentalist or airily abstract reasons. Certain that their view of the political and moral universe was more comprehensive than that of black radicals, elevating their interpretation of nonviolent direct action into holy writ, and detaching themselves as moral exemplars from the masses they sought to inspire, they came to seem irrelevant to a freedom movement bent on transforming relations of power. Well before black separatists determined to gain autonomy from white allies, radical pacifists had alienated themselves from the black freedom movement.

These recurrent failures to put principles into practice and to learn from mistakes were not due to a simple lack of continuity in the movement. Radical pacifism's pioneering members remained in positions of influence from the early 1940s through the Vietnam War years and beyond, and they shepherded their movement through successive periods of growth and change. Pacifist leaders and longtime activists successfully passed on critical knowledge about using the techniques of nonviolent direct action as a tool for social change; this information allowed the movement to build on its experience and develop increasingly effective forms of resistance. Veteran activists also acted as sources of inspiration, especially for the young people who entered the movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. Yet, time and again, the movement repeated destructive patterns that reflected the limits of radical pacifism's egalitarian vision. Despite the movement's principled commitment to equality, women were often overlooked and relationships with black activists were often compromised through insensitivity and ignorance. More importantly, when activists did come to constructive conclusions based on their experiences, they failed to pass them on. Many left the movement and took their knowledge with them. Others kept quiet. The kind of social learning that would have promoted real movement toward gender equality and meaningful cooperation with civil rights efforts repeatedly failed to occur.

The forces that led to these shortcomings were complex. Critiques of male chauvinism and of white privilege were present in both the Old and the New Left, so a simple lack of consciousness is an unlikely explanation. How much this failure to learn and grow as a social movement was a consequence of powerful waves of political repression that prompted American radicals to assume a low profile is difficult to assess. Yet radical pacifists swam in a sea of sexism and racism, as well as militarism, and their most valiant efforts to forge an alternative culture to the dominant powers in the United States were simultaneously corrupted from within and opposed from without.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

This study explores what radical pacifists discovered and then forgot, as well as what they remembered and passed on, by focusing on what activists did, rather than only, or even primarily, what they wrote and said. Action was, above all else, the distinguishing feature of this movement. Radical pacifism drew its strength as a political force from the willingness of its adherents to put their bodies and their lives behind their rhetoric, often at great personal risk. Militant pacifists embraced the techniques of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. They believed, as longtime activist Dave Dellinger explained in the early 1960s, that "the power of a nonviolent movement stems from the actions it undertakes, not from its political statements or the private beliefs and associations of its participants." Engaging in nonviolent acts of resistance—climbing aboard nuclear submarines, picketing at segregated amusement parks, holding vigils at the Pentagon, or staging jailhouse hunger strikes—placed radical pacifists in direct confrontation with the state. Resistance was also a performance designed to influence public opinion. Actions, more than words, embodied activists' hopes for the future, their commitment to change, and their philosophical and political beliefs; they were a central part of the radical pacifist conception of politics and a vivid expression of the movement's culture and values. Actions were how radical pacifist leaders hoped to create a vanguard political culture that would challenge the most fundamental relations of power in public and private life.

This book analyzes the collective actions of the radical pacifist movement through a chronological series of case studies of critical protest campaigns, always keeping an eye on the dynamics of gender and race. The first chapter analyzes the emergence of radical pacifism during the difficult years of the Second World War, highlighting the explicitly egalitarian rhetoric that defined this nascent movement as well as the distinctly masculine culture of resistance that rose to prominence at this time. Wartime, with its emphasis on a martial model of masculine citizenship, presented pressures that even the most principled of male pacifists found difficult to resist. This becomes evident when examining the gendered political culture that arose within the movement, which bore a striking resemblance to this gendered culture of military life. Chapters 2 through 5 examine how radical pacifism and its culture of protest responded to changes in American society and politics through a peacetime profoundly marked by the Cold War and the escalating nuclear arms race: first the early moment of peacetime possibilities, and then, all too quickly, the frighteningly repressive onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s; the apparently more stable "Father Knows Best" domesticity of the 1950s; and the ferment of the early 1960s, when youthful rebels emerged to challenge the containment, conformity, and consensus that had come to dominate postwar American life. The tug of masculine militancy, both as a personal stance and as a media performance, was ever-present. Nevertheless, the movement's rhetorical commitment to egalitarianism and its willingness to engage in tactical experimentation led to the emergence of alternative models of resistance that simultaneously built on prevailing cultural values and increased women's power and influence. As the book's final chapter explains, the Vietnam War and the movement's concomitant return to more conventional forms of war resistance steered radical pacifism back to the wartime gender roles that cast men as militant heroes and women as stalwart supporters and secondary members of this radical political movement. It was a cycle from which the movement seemed unable to escape.

Ideas about masculinity, femininity, and the power relationships of gender and race played out with vivid complexity in the concrete activities that radical pacifists engaged in. These actions, more than their rhetoric or their consciously articulated ideas, remain the most telling and compelling evidence of what these activists attempted, what they achieved, and where they fell short. Examining their actions as well as their words reveals underlying contradictions that plagued the history of this idealistic movement for social change, as well as that of the society that surrounded it. These contradictions were not only between ideology and practice, but within them. The radical pacifist movement came close to challenging the fundamental relationships of power in twentieth-century American life, but not close enough. Some of its inability to root out the causes of injustice and war reflected forces beyond the power and control of movement activists. But internal decisions and cultural assumptions also constrained radical pacifism's influence. Egalitarianism only went so far, and not all displays of militancy were valued in the same way. Despite its best efforts to the contrary, this deliberately democratic and counter-cultural force of rebellion ultimately betrayed the same fault lines of inequality that divided American society at large.

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