The changing face of American pacifism

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Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism, by Guenter Lewy. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 283 pp. $19.95. ``We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fighting for any end, or under any pretense whatever; this is our testimony to the whole world.'' That Quaker pronouncement, made in 1660, articulates the basic premise of American pacifism: disapproval of armed struggle as a means of resolving social and political conflict, no matter how ``just'' the cause.

According to political scientist Guenter Lewy, such a view, adhered to by Quakers and many others who called themselves pacifists over a period of some 300 years, has been significantly altered during the past two decades. Indeed, for those who believe the ``peace movement'' is still wedded to pacifism, this book is a bombshell. As Lewy clearly shows, organizations once totally committed to rejecting the use of force, even to combat state-sponsored genocide (as in the Third Reich), have become supporters of a variety of armed struggles in many parts of the world.

The American Friends Service Committee (known as AFSC), the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and the War Resisters League (WRL), the principal organizations to which those in the peace movement long belonged, always had political agendas. Their leaders and rank-and-file members, steadfastly committed to racial equality, personal freedom, and social justice at home and abroad, continually bickered among themselves about the efficacy of various tactics in achieving the goals they sought; but there was general agreement that whatever they did, no quarter could be given to those who advocated violence, even as a response to oppression.

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America's involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and in many other parts of the world generated new debates, ultimately splitting their ranks into different camps. Alfred Hassler, a former executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, described the main factions as those of ``Evolutionists'' (liberals and social democrats who sought to continue to work within the system to change it) and the ``Apocalyptics'' (those so opposed to US policies that they were willing to join forces with any who shared their views - members of the New Left and the old left, including the Communists). Some tried to articulate middle positions. Elise Boulding of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom argued that her organization ``should express support of [the New Left coalition] aims, even when we cannot in conscience agree with their methods.'' This new credo was repeated again and again as representatives of her group and the others became more and more sympathetic to those, like the Viet Cong, who used force as a means to achieving ``liberation.''

Some, especially old-timers, warned of the danger of ``fronting'' for the Communists and others. By and large, their voices were drowned out by younger, more militant ones. Even those leaders who themselves were inclined to be more cautious, or who worried about co-optation, found themselves on a slippery slope, sliding ever more rapidly into the company of those who had little use for the premises for which they were allegedly willing to qualify their opposition to the use of force.

By the end of the Vietnam war the AFCR, FOR, WILPF, and WRL had all undergone profound changes. Heady from their alliance with the victors, they were, according to Lewy, now ready to help ``make the world safe for revolution.'' Often operating under the aegis of organizations like AFCR, many erstwhile pacifists have been involved in a variety of ``third world'' power struggles ever since.

``Peace and Revolution'' is a text with a subtext. It is clear from the beginning that Lewy set out to build a case indicting those who once agreed with Alfred Hassler that ``war is our first enemy; when we justify it for any ends ... we have lost'' - they did precisely that. In his detailed accounting, relying in large part on the archives of the mainline peace groups themselves, Lewy shows how many pacifists, caught up in the turbulence of the 1960s and increasingly allied with nonpacifist opponents of US policies, replaced their uncompromising faith with a double standard manifest in the belief that ``the violence of [certain] victims'' was, somehow, just, even ennobling. His subtext goes beyond his subtitle, ``The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism.'' It is a polemic not only against those who qualified their commitment to pacifism for clearly ideological reasons, but a broad denunciation of the political left itself.

Using language sometimes as strident as that of those whose positions he opposes, Lewy expresses fear that attacks on America and those it supports, if unchecked, will lead not to a more humane world but to a ``triumph of tyranny.''

Peter I. Rose teaches sociology at Smith College.

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