Why Peace Movements Are Important





Dawley is the author of Changing the World: American Progressives in War and Revolution (Harvard Press, 2003), Professor of History at The College of New Jersey, and a member of the Steering Committee of Historians Against the War. The following article was prepared in connection with a conference sponsored by Historians Against the War in February at the University of Texas, Austin.


On the third anniversary of “Shock and Awe” on March 19, 2006, bells will ring to commemorate the growing toll of American and Iraqi dead. Peace activists will stage solemn protests against what they believe is an unjust and un-winnable war. The American public will note with regret the continuation of a war which a substantial majority now believes was a mistake.

And the war will go on.

As the Iraq war enters its fourth year with no end in sight, doubts creep in about the effectiveness of the peace movement. If the largest peace demonstration in world history – perhaps 10 million on February 15, 2003, alone – could not prevent the war; and if a vigorous peace movement has been unable to end it, then it is reasonable to ask whether peace movements can stop wars.

A realistic appraisal of American history suggests the answer is no. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Philippines were conquered in the face of a powerful anti-imperialist movement. Widespread opposition did not prevent U.S. entrance into the First World War. Revulsion against that war produced a peace movement of unprecedented scope, but it did not prevent the outbreak of World War II, nor did it stop the Roosevelt administration from participation even prior to Pearl Harbor. Opposition to the Vietnam War produced the largest demonstration in American history up to that point in the 1969 “moratorium,” but it could not stop the war. What did stop it was U.S. defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese, who, with Soviet and Chinese backing, were determined to be free of foreign domination. In short, peace movements have protested all of America’s modern wars (except Korea), and they have failed to end any of them.

If peace movements do not end wars, does that mean protest is futile? Definitely not. It means we need to approach the matter from a different angle. We should be asking, “How have peace movements shaped history?” Posing the question this way yields abundant evidence of why peace movements are important.

The list begins with setting limits on war-makers. In raising the cry, “Never again!” peace organizations played an important role in bringing about the Geneva conventions against the kind of chemical weapons used in the First World War, just as the campaign for nuclear disarmament helped insure there would be no repeat of the ghastly slaughter at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peace activists helped create a climate that led to a series of nuclear arms limitation treaties, beginning with the atmospheric test ban of 1963 and running through the Strategic Arms Limitation treaties of the 1970s. Seeking to curry favor with an anti-nuclear public, even President Reagan said in 1982, "To those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say: `I'm with you!'" When Reagan sat down with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik to discuss the “zero option” of completely eliminating nuclear weapons, it was clear that this bold idea was more popular with the public than with their respective military establishments.

Setting limits requires the creation of a political climate where politicians who take steps toward peace are rewarded at the polls, not punished. Consider the late stage of the Vietnam War. By the end of 1968 a majority of Americans were telling pollsters the Vietnam War was a mistake, largely because the United States was not winning. Although Nixon remained bent on victory, his policy of “Vietnamization” led to the gradual withdrawal of U.S. ground troops and ended the draft lottery, enabling him to say he sought “peace with honor.” It was a cynical ploy that critics said merely “changed the color of the corpses,” but it helped him win a landslide victory in 1972. Meanwhile, Congressional opponents took the more direct route in 1973 of cutting off funding for future ground operations, thwarting any lingering impulse to rescue the South Vietnamese puppet regime.

Setting limits also applies to peace settlements. Peace movements are important in laying out demands for a just peace. They were especially powerful at the end of the two world wars, when diplomats were under strong pressure to create a world worthy of wartime sacrifice. Peace movements took seriously the extravagant promises of “a world safe for democracy,” “a land fit for heroes,” and “a New Deal for the world,” and they demanded redemption of these pledges in “industrial democracy,” full employment, and racial equality. They pressured framers of the United Nations to prevent future wars by creating international machinery to resolve disputes and by removing the social and economic grievances believed to be the root cause of war.

Peace movements are also important players in the struggle over the distribution of resources. That is evident in their recurrent opposition to militarism. Every era has its version of “money for schools, not for bombs.” In the First World War, the American Union Against Militarism opposed building a 400,000 man army and a navy equal to the British on the grounds that militarism drained resources from civilian needs. Proposing a “moral equivalent of war,” William James called for boot camps for wilderness conservation instead of military training. In the Vietnam era, activists called for a redirection of funds away from the hundreds of overseas military bases toward “model cities” and other Great Society programs at home. In the Reagan years, the nuclear freeze movement called for “economic conversion” from the military-industrial complex to civilian investment, pointing out that school construction and investment in health care produced far more jobs dollar-for-dollar than building costly B-1 bombers.

The struggle over resources leads peace movements towards social justice. As Martin Luther King observed, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the presence of justice.” While many hew to the single issue of war, some leading organizations consciously combine peace and social justice, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom founded in 1919 and today’s largest anti-war organization United for Peace and Justice. From Jane Addams forward, feminists have been particularly prominent in pacifist ranks, while King linked racial and economic justice to ending the Vietnam War. Although the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations were reliably pro-war until recently, many other segments of the labor movement objected to the First World War in class terms as a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” or what socialists like Eugene Debs called “capitalist war.”

Of course, peace and justice movements are no more effective in ending social injustice than in ending wars, but they can be important weights in the social balance of power. For example, advocates of “People’s Peace” and other anti-warriors of 1917-1918 helped labor win concessions from elites in the form of the War Labor Board to settle disputes and a Women’s Bureau to guard against exploitation of women workers.

Peace and justice movements also play an important role in opposing empire. Early in the twentieth century, anti-imperialists sought to preserve a republic free of the overweening influence of finance capital, seen by many populists and progressives as the malign force behind U.S. intervention in the Philippines, the Caribbean, revolutionary Mexico, and Bolshevik Russia. Although most of the credit for forcing U.S. withdrawal from Mexico in 1916 and Russia in 1920 goes to resistance on the ground, anti-imperial forces in the United States also played a hand.

What are the lessons for today? It seems unlikely that the peace movement will stop the Iraq war any time soon, let alone the permanent “war on terror” that started in Afghanistan and Iraq and will expand to who knows where? For the first time in our history, America’s rulers have rested their case for war on fear and fear alone. They make no promise of a better world and ask no sacrifice. To the contrary, they crush civil liberties, slash the social benefits of low income people, and give tax cuts to the rich. The logical outcome is a nightmarish Orwellian world where ordinary people are forced to foot the bill for the corporate-military tyranny that oppresses them.

Fortunately, the current situation suggests other possible outcomes. Opposition to U.S. empire is strong abroad; there are signs of disorder in ruling circles at home; President Bush’s poll numbers put him in the company of Nixon on the eve of resignation. If ever there was a time for a peace movement to oppose permanent war – another name for empire – this is it. Linkage between peace and economic justice would expand the ranks. At the very least, today’s movement can do what peace movements have always done -- claim the moral high ground by affirming life over death. Finally, for those who think the war does not concern them, there is something to think about on March 19 th: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


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Joe Edward Caraveo - 7/20/2007

The Orwellian Empire that has been forecast by some, has been in existence for many years now. The Evil all-watching government is the police of thought that is displayed by the current US administration, which wars in the name of our freedom by removing the freedoms of others. Remember Big Brother and the election year 2000 Florida Debacle. President Goege W Bush won his election through his little brother's state. The Democratic party is referred to being Big Brother for calling for Big Government, but the Bush dreams of a Democratic World of Freedom has no place for the faithful's expecting of Jesus Christ, which calls for a worldwide theocratic state. In 1991 when the American enemy, Iraq, lit hundreds of oilwells in the name of their victory. George Orwell would have given the world a heck of a Burning Bush if Father Bush could have been placed on fire. The Book 1984 was written in 1948, the same year Israel became a nation. Everyone knows that the Jewish race believes in the Burning Bush. This all goes without saying, that Jesus said he was the beginning and the end, and if the US was to lose its current wars in the name of God's love, the beginning would be Washington and the end would be Bush, by George.


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/20/2006

Probably I wold prefer state department, though there are actually a few UN departments that function well.

However, one of the great sadnesses of my life is that I have tried to learn foreign languages but have never gotten beyond basic tourist level.


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/19/2006

First of all thanks for the kind words. You, likewise, have often posed difficult questions for me. And this is one.

On hindering the war effort. At one level the answer is simple. If one concludes after careful examination that the majority is wrong, then that person, as a citizen has the right to protest. And, for the most part, I doubt if you are concerned with indvidual actions, particularly less public ones like writing one's congressman.

At the other extreme there is group action clearly and literally intended subvert the effort, for example, attempting to block induction. That is illegal.

In between there is a broad middle of public group action intended to persuade the majroity to change course. There is no question of the right of people to do this. That is guaranteed in the US Constitution and in state constitutions.

So the question you raise is a moral question. Once a war has been declared, is it morally wrong to oppose it with such vigor that it gives hope to the enemy?

My answer is no, it is not necessarily morally wrong. But I think it should only be done with great care.
1.. The opposition should be carefully considered, and , in particular, not decided on personal animosity toward the president or the party in power.

2. The opposition must go beyond "this was a bad idea." Wars change things, and despite the occasional treaty to the contrary, one cannot go back to the status quo ante bellum. One must argue why the war is bad now, either in its execution or its current war aims.

3. The oposition cannot center on trivial issues. It must be based on profound concerns such the war threatening our secuity as opposed to enhancing it or the war violating seriously our precepts and morality.

In short, one must have strong reasons to oppose an ongoing war, precisely because of the problems you raise. But there is a level of problem that rises above that threshhold.

If I may, a comment or two about defenders of an ongoing war
1. Don't assume the concerns are wrong simply because of personal animosity toward the person, group, or party.

2. A good cause alone is not sufficient defense. Wars are destructive things and the destruction can subvert the cause if the war is not waged carefully.

And finally, for both sides: There can be a middle ground, sometimes, when the concerns and opposition focus more on the means being used and not the ends. We should always look for that, though we will not always find it.


Bill Heuisler - 3/18/2006

Oscar,
Tell me where to mail the letter. I've never engaged a more agreeable opponent, or a more knowledgable one.

Jason, phrased his words as history - Wilson and FDR were sadly accused of duplicity, as was Churchill - and I prefer to remain charitable as to the motives and altruism of those we elevate to the Highest Office. Consider their pasts. All wealthy, no apparent motive beyond steamy conspiracy that fades to conjecture when examined closely. Why assign the worst rationale imaginable to the men we vote at last into office? I don't agree it's duplicity.

Oscar, what's your opinion when an unelected minority demands influence and hurts the war effort. Does their free speech end at the theoretical nose of a Marine fighting in Iraq? Or must we suffer longer wars and higher casualties so these sunshine patriots can exercise their voices?

The UN, or State?
Bill


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/17/2006


I'm going to take this point by point.

You're good at this. Have you ever been employed at Froggy Bottom? They need your talents badly. The UN?

No, but as an adjunct I am always looking for better employment. May I count on you for a letter of recommendation?

We are talking about peace/anti-war protests against the 2003 resumption of the 1991 Gulf War, so your not mentioning Iraq is as significant as Ishmael not bothering to mention Moby was a whale. Of course we're talking about Iraq.

Alan's original post covered the entire 20th century though it was certainly centered on the current war. My first comment focused on that longer history, and that was my primary (though not sole) focus in my last comment.

And you are accusative. Duplicity twice, tricking, dishonest and let's find any reason that works are all words that accuse other Presidents - and by extension, Bush - of getting the US into wars through deceit.

Jason's posting emphasized trickery and deception and you applauded it. Given that you consider all of this about the Bush and Iraq, why did you applaud it?

But we were attacked on 9/11 by Muslim terrorists - some of whom were aided and trained by Saddam, Zarqawi and the Iraqi Mukhabarat, just as much as OBL was shielded by the Taliban in Afganistan. Whether you think this is true or not, most intel we had, have and will have backs it up.
Doesn't matter, Bush believes it.

For what its worth I think the greatest duplicity was in stating that we were going in to establish a secular democracy and then never sending in enough troops to even begin to accomplish that.

We were attacked in '41 and '50. Viet Nam grew like Topsy under three Presidents who each had laudable goals and reasons for their actions. We were attacked again on 9/11.

Laudable goals alone do not a good policy make. See my last point in my previous post

Dispute all the reasons you like and argue whether the responses were correct, but they were the actions of elected Commanders in Chief. Recall even Nixon had the support of a huge majority in the '72 election.
He was a victim of Watergate, not the war in Vietnam. President Bush is low in the polls because his base questions his judgement over Miers, Dubai and the border. They love him on the war and will turn on any candidate who says our military casualties were for nothing.

The Miers mistake was trumped by Alito (a truly shrewd nomination). And yes a vast majority of the country supports Bush in fighting terrorism. But a majority--including a growing percentage of his base support--are questioning whether continuing efforts in Iraq are a logical strategy.

Peace Parties? There's no Peace Party in any election I've heard of.
No Peace Party gets American votes. Our peace party is the Democrat Party, not some rag-tag bunch of unelected malcontents who oppose any war fought by the US. To try and sell the idea they have any place in our democratic process is ridiculous.

I was using party in an older sense of the term, synonymous with faction. My apologies for my research vocabulary slopping into the present, where it might cause confusion.

However, whether one considers our nation a republic or a democracy--you clearly lean toward reupblic--strenuous debate over the great issues of the day is never out of season.


And our "sense of cause" is that most Americans know down deep that we must win this war everywhere - Iraq, Afganistan, Libya, Syria and Iran - because our survival depends on our victory over Islamofascism.

If we try to win everywhere there is hatred for our system from Muslims, we will win nowhere. You define the war too broadly, and war based upon that broad a definition of our enemy will harm our country.

Here I realize, we disagree profoundly.




Bill Heuisler - 3/17/2006

Oscar,
You're good at this. Have you ever been employed at Froggy Bottom? They need your talents badly. The UN?

We are talking about peace/anti-war protests against the 2003 resumption of the 1991 Gulf War, so your not mentioning Iraq is as significant as Ishmael not bothering to mention Moby was a whale. Of course we're talking about Iraq.

And you are accusative. Duplicity twice, tricking, dishonest and let's find any reason that works are all words that accuse other Presidents - and by extension, Bush - of getting the US into wars through deceit. But we were attacked on 9/11 by Muslim terrorists - some of whom were aided and trained by Saddam, Zarqawi and the Iraqi Mukhabarat, just as much as OBL was shielded by the Taliban in Afganistan. Whether you think this is true or not, most intel we had, have and will have backs it up.
Doesn't matter, Bush believes it.

We were attacked in '41 and '50. Viet Nam grew like Topsy under three Presidents who each had laudable goals and reasons for their actions. We were attacked again on 9/11.

Dispute all the reasons you like and argue whether the responses were correct, but they were the actions of elected Commanders in Chief. Recall even Nixon had the support of a huge majority in the '72 election.
He was a victim of Watergate, not the war in Vietnam. President Bush is low in the polls because his base questions his judgement over Miers, Dubai and the border. They love him on the war and will turn on any candidate who says our military casualties were for nothing.

Peace Parties? There's no Peace Party in any election I've heard of.
No Peace Party gets American votes. Our peace party is the Democrat Party, not some rag-tag bunch of unelected malcontents who oppose any war fought by the US. To try and sell the idea they have any place in our democratic process is ridiculous.

And our "sense of cause" is that most Americans know down deep that we must win this war everywhere - Iraq, Afganistan, Libya, Syria and Iran - because our survival depends on our victory over Islamofascism.
Bill


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/17/2006

Bill

You are blurring together my thoughts in Alan Dawley's in ways that I did not intend. In particular, I avoided any direct reference to Iraq in my last post because I wanted to make a more general point--that the acceptance of duplicity as an unfortunate necessity has--at least potentially--unfortunate consequences.

One is that the successful use of duplicity by presidents tends to inspire future presidents. Although I consider FDR correct in wanting us to enter WWII, some of his actions, in particular the undeclared naval war with Germany, were dishonest and perhaps unnecessary. Worse, they became a model of presidential strength and action that future presidents have embraced in circumstances less dire.

Another problem of tricking Americans into war is the potential of ending up in a war that Americans might not be willing to support if victory is not quick and if the cause does not seem clear. Particularly in such times, peace parties are an outlet for legitimate concerns. As such they do have a role in our democracy; just as independently organized supporters of the conflict have a role.


Concerning our current war, you are correct that Bush had clear authority from Congress to attack, and in 2004 a small but clear majority of American voters preferred that he continue leading. That support seems to be fading, and quite honestly I think that the more militant antiwar groups have almost nothing to do with that fade. I think instead it is a combination of concern with casualties, a sense of stalemate, and questions concerning the competence of our military strategy.

Still, the administration's let's-find-any-reason-that-works arguments in favor of invasion in early 2003 is at least part of their problem precisely because it diluted the development of a sense of cause.


Bill Heuisler - 3/16/2006

Oscar,
You assume too much, and give too little credit to President Bush or to our represemtative Democracy.

We live under a system of Government that elects representatives for the people. We elected President Bush and reelected him during the war in Iraq. Our representatives have voted overwhelmingly to give the President war powers and to use force against Iraq. That is democracy in action.

But now you want us to believe that an unelected band of pacifists and their hangers-on serve an equal and credible role in our government by aiding the enemy in order to force their minority opinions on the US.

Wrong. In our form of government you do not take to the streets to extort policy, you exert your will through a representative and you vote your will every two and four years. These peace mongers are trying to achieve through mob action what they cannot achieve at the ballot box.

Undemocratic, I'd say. Think how you'd feel if street mobs were demanding more attacks on other countries for imagined reasons.

Lastly, Oscar, I'm getting a little tired of otherwise intelligent and affable people stating as fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and that the President misled us into war. Both are easily rebutted and, at worst are arguable. Please don't insult friends who disagree by using each claim as a premise to further postulates - like your, "preserve republican government" nonsense.

If anything, the anti-war movement is as destructive to republican democracy as it is to our soldiers' morale and our war effort.
Bill


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/16/2006

Bill and Json

To some extent you make the same mistake that Alan makes. He assumes that all peace movements are created equal. You seem to assume that all potential wars are created equal or, more precisely, you both assume that if a president is willing to deceive the populace into war, he must have a good reason for it.

If the reasons are good, then maybe you have an argument against opposition to that war. But if the reasons are bad, and Americans were tricked into fighting a war that should have been avoided, then a peace movement really is necessary to help preserve republican government.

PS I have not addressed the most complex situation: which is what happens if the cause is good but the execution is so bad that it risks discrediting the cause.


Jason KEuter - 3/16/2006

Mr. Heuisler,

Thanks for your comments too.

Jason Keuter


Bill Heuisler - 3/16/2006

Mr. Jason KEuter,
Your logic is indisputable.

Carry it farther and realize, as Orwell did, in Democracies anti-war movements - or pacifists in general - have the very real (intended or unintended) consequence of aiding the enemies of that Democracy.

Ask a pacifist how his success would manifest and he will say the end of war. Ask a pacifist to define "end" and he will decline specifics. Ask how ending particular wars through retreat or surrender would result. He will not mention the hundreds of thousands dead/enslaved through the lack of will in Democracies against aggressive and evil despots.

The questions all boil down to two:
Do moral men resist evil?
Is anything worth dying for?

Pacifists recognize no evil worse than war and will apparently die only for their own conceit.

Your comments are excellent.
Thanks for the thought and effort.
Bill Heuisler


Jason KEuter - 3/15/2006

Peace movements do shape consciousness but not in desirable ways and only in democratic socieities which are naturally adverse to going to war.

Notice in the post that there is a dearth of discussion of peace activists in North Korea, Communist Russia, Nazi German, China, etc. That can be explained by the fact that peace activists in those societies really would be putting themselves on the line..along with everyone else that would be shot that day.

What we are left with then is tyrannical nondemocratic societies that can go to war and democratic societies that can only go to war when there is an absolute certainty that not only is there a threat against that democractic society (i.e.. a shadow on everyone's front door) but that the threat is not some kind of justifiable payback for that democratic society's past sins (which can always be invented if contorting the facts becomes too difficult).

In addition, because democratic societies are open they are also open to foreign influcences, including the influence of those who wish to one day be the shadow on your door. When democratic societies attempt to provide their view to tyrannies, there are the inevitable Nation articles denouncing "covert action".

There have been many posts lately denouncing the perfidious and dishonest manner in which past progressive Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt and Johnson dragged America into war. True enough, but that is how democracies must go to war. Because democracies provide us with the choice to fight, we are predisposed not to see threats when they exist and we are (in order to save our skin) ready consumers of propaganda from those threats that says all Hitler wants to do is provide belegaured Germans in Czechoslovakia with a Teutonic Home.

Following the war, there is the inevitable Nye commission to point out that the people were duped by some minority of ignoble and self-serving elites to go to war, which sets the stage for not being able to wage the next war until the threat has actually been realized. This was the lesson of World War II.

So, we are left with a populace resistant to going to war, but no government can allow that populace nott to defend itself. The solution?

1. Technological superiority. Nuclear weapons are, contrary to leftists rants, cheaper than conventional armies. They thus entail less sacrifice (and of course infinitely greater threat...)

2. A volunteer army. This means that the society at large can be more dispassionate about questions of war and peace. It also means that the chances for success in war are minimal at best, which, in turn, raises the risks of the indiscriminate use of technology. The leftists ranters surely wouldn't be willing to put down their copies of the Nation and go fight in Iraq as part of a truly massive army. Thus, the volunteer army can depose disctators but it can't really vanquish enemies in the grips of delusional ideologies.

3. Covert Action. Had Hitler been assasinated in 1934, would we be reading of how the covert intelligence agency that commmitted this dastardly deed subverts democracy at home and abroad? If democracies could wage war (meaning if the people would vote to risk their own lives), then covert actions would be infinitely less necessary.

So, democracies must go to war under false pretenses, and when they do, they are acting like democracies!


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/14/2006

Gerald, that's an excellent point. I do agree with the main point; "failed movements" sometimes matter a lot and are hisotrically significant. However, I think implicit in Alan's article is the questionable assumption that peace movements are equally moral (and thus all wars are equally immoral.)

To be fair, this article focuses primarily on groups that seem pretty pacifist; Pacifists can be expected to oppose all wars equally. However, US antiwar movements tend to be coalitions in which pacifists are only a part.

The movement against the Vietnam War included in part prominent pacfists, a lot of Americans who became increasingly disillusioned with the way the war was waged, and new leftists who did nto want peace but a communist victory.

Likewise the anti-Philippine war movement was motivated by racism as well as by humanitarian concerns.

In these cases and others a "peace activitsts are good, warmakers are bad" analysis is just too simplistic.


Gerald Sorin - 3/13/2006

Alan Dawley has done a service with his fine, concise essay on why peace movements are important even though they have over time mostly "failed." And from the beginning three years ago, I have shared his anger and his anti-war activism in the face of the horror of US actions against Iraq. But I wish he would have some distinctions between "just" and "unjust" wars. There was lots of opposition in the US to the Civil War and, as Dawley shows, to WW II. But does Dawley really think that slavery and fascist totalitarian aggression would have ended without major violence?

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