Why is it that the peace movement in America has never been able to attract the kind of mass support which has gathered around the peace movement in England? The danger of nuclear war is the greatest political issue of our time. And it is an issue whose main outlines are by no means difficult to grasp. The weapons, we are told again and again, can easily wipe out the populations of even the biggest countries many times over. This is so far from being an alarmist or unduly pessimistic estimate that nowadays we call someone an optimist who believes that enough people may survive a nuclear war to rebuild civilization within ten or twenty years. We get more and more evidence all the time that the weapons can travel to any place on earth from any other place in a matter of minutes, making ridiculous all ideas of evacuation. The major defense measure so far proposed—and it is only a proposal, before whose scale and implications most people fall silent—is to abandon the surface of the earth itself and move everything (Dr. Teller most recently includes supermarkets) into enormous caverns dug deep below the ground. One wonders whether even these caverns would survive the holocausts which the larger nuclear weapons are capable of producing. And in these circumstances national defense policy consists of constructing ever more powerful, better protected, more certain, and undeflectable missiles. Does anyone recall that only twenty-five years ago it was considered criminal to assault civilian populations from the air (Guernica)?
“We know, with the certainty of—what shall I call it?—statistical truth that if enough of these weapons are made—by enough different states—some of them are going to blow up. Through accident or folly or madness. . . .” Thus C.P. Snow, who is not known as an extremist, a fanatic, or a pacifist.
The American response to these quite definite facts has been extraordinarily sluggish. One group argues that despite the existence and perfection of weapons capable of killing almost everyone on earth, it is not “certain” they will be set off through “accident or folly or madness”—though we have surely seen enough of all three operating in human history. Another group—apparently neither foolish nor mad—contends that it may actually be necessary to use the weapons; and that the only or best way to combat Communism is by means of a policy which envisages as a possibility the resort to mass extermination. While this group concludes by rational analysis that at some point the interests of freedom and justice will in some way be advanced by a decision that condemns most Americans, as well as most Russians, to death, yet a third group—represented, for example, by the New York Daily News, America’s largest newspaper—continues to present a streak of ignorant belligerence, which reminds one of the bar drunk who says, “Let’s drop a few on them and get it over with.”
This is not the whole story of the American response to the threat of nuclear war, for a peace movement has also come into being in recent years. It has, however, failed to grow beyond a certain limited point. It has not stimulated enough people into trying their hands at activating the passive, disputing with the reasoners, and arguing with the bar drunks; and it has made no impact on policy. The need being so great, what has prevented the American peace movement from attracting mass support?
I include in the notion of a “peace movement” individuals and organizations representing a wide spectrum of positions. There are the absolute pacifists, who of course oppose war in any form; there are the nuclear pacifists, who advocate the unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons; and there are those who stop short of urging unilateral nuclear disarmament, but who feel that first steps must immediately be taken, either through negotiated agreement or, if necessary, unilateral action, to reduce the chance that these weapons will ever be used. Some organizations—like the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and the small Committee of Correspondence recently organized by David Riesman, Erich Fromm, A. J. Muste, and others—embrace people along this entire spectrum of positions. Others have a narrower membership. On the “left,” there are the Peacemakers and the newer Committee for Non-Violent Action,1 which include those militant civil disobedience pacifists who will not pay their taxes, who board Polaris submarines, climb over barbed wire into the restricted areas where weapons are kept, and try to sail boats into the dangerous seas where atom bomb tests are scheduled. Apart from these, there are the long established pacifist groups (more or less supporting the Committee for Non-Violent Action): the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which has a strong religious tendency; the War Resisters League, somewhat more politically radical and less religious; and the American Friends Service Committee, which is the largest—in terms of staff and resources—and in some ways the most conservative. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded almost fifty years ago by Jane Addams, may also be listed here; it is not primarily a pacifist group, but it works closely with pacifists. There are, finally, groups which have become active in the colleges—most significantly the new Student Peace Union which is again not a pacifist group, though pacifists are prominent in its ranks. All these groups are linked by individuals who are active in two or more of them, and sit on a number of boards and executive committees.
Associated more loosely with this circle of organizations, though also perhaps to be included within the idea of a “peace movement,” are such organizations as the United World Federalists and the American Association for a United Nations. These organizations bring us close to the world of foundations and conservative dignitaries, which is of a very different kind from what I think of as the peace movement proper.
The most prominent organization within the peace movement is the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which—in the manner of other voluntary nonpartisan citizens’ groups that have played an important role in American history—has tried to get as large a number of people as possible to do something about the threat of atomic warfare. Last spring, two and a half years after it began, SANE held a rally in New York that filled Madison Square Garden and the surrounding streets with thousands of people, all of whom were willing to pay admission, and most of whom made additional contributions at the meeting. The speakers included Walter Reuther, G. Mennen Williams, Alf Landon, and Norman Thomas, and for a moment it looked as though SANE might grow into a really powerful force in American politics. Alas, it did not. The reasons for this failure are worth trying to determine, for they tell us a great deal about the difficulties that the peace movement in general has had to contend with in this country.
The formation of SANE in 1957 was originally spurred less by the threat of general atomic war itself than by a concern over the danger to life and health posed by the fall-out from atomic testing. Those who organized SANE—and they included some of the scientists who had never given up the active and responsible search for the means of control and elimination of the frightful new weapons—were interested in the whole range of problems raised by the threat of war between the great powers. But it was the issue of nuclear testing—dramatized by the contamination of a good part of Japan’s food supply by fallout—that made it possible to bring together a large circle of people representing many tendencies. This seemed the most fruitful issue at the time, for informed public opinion was unaware of how close we were to the development of operational long-range ballistic missiles, and it was therefore still possible to minimize the danger of a nuclear war’s being set off by accident. In those pre-missile days, the weapons could only be carried by relatively slow planes, rather elaborate measures were required to launch an attack, and in general many unlikely events would have had to occur for a major accident to take place. Against planes, moreover, one could think of real defense, not simply the instinctive reaction of the scorpion who kills himself in the act of killing: huge radar warning systems and anti-aircraft rockets might have been partially effective. And then, too, while planes were on their leisurely eight- or ten-hour trip to New York or to Moscow, there would presumably have been time for negotiations to be held and common sense to prevail.
Under such circumstances, the threat of genetic damage and contamination of the food supply from testing seemed rather more urgent to many people than the threat of wholesale slaughter. Indeed, most of SANE’s propaganda in 1957 and 1958 dealt principally with the matter of contamination and genetic damage. But after Russia and America both suspended atomic testing in 1958, this issue gradually lost its immediacy, and when Russia sent up the first Sputnik and the ICBM became a reality, a much greater issue emerged: the possibility of damage to the human race on a scale that neither man nor nature had produced since the beginning of civilization.
While the danger of nuclear annihilation was indeed a new issue, there were people and organizations already in existence ready to take it up on the basis of old programs—non-violence, or socialism, or world government, or some such other ideal. Thus SANE, while it was a new organization formed for the purpose of dealing with a new issue, was actually based on a coalition of two major groupings, both of which had their origins in older issues: the proponents of world government on the one hand and the pacifists on the other. Norman Cousins, one of SANE’s two co-chairmen, had long been associated with the United World Federalists, while the other, Clarence Pickett, was head of the American Friends Service Committee.
Obviously SANE would have had problems in extending its influence no matter who had organized it, and even if the co-chairmen had been, say, George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr (leaving aside the question of whether either would then—or even now—have agreed to head such a movement). Nevertheless, the base on which SANE was built did create certain special problems that partially account for its failure to become a major force. Neither world federalists nor pacifists have had much of a reputation for political wisdom among people who concern themselves professionally with world affairs, whether as commentators, journalists, scholars, or government officials. They have, in fact, been considered—though with less than perfect justification—woolly-minded. And, indeed, perhaps the best sign that SANE could have exercised greater political sagacity was its selection of two names like Cousins and Pickett to act as chairmen.
Let me emphasize that I mean no derogation of these men, who deserve the greatest credit for responding so early with urgency and passion to the danger of nuclear annihilation. Under their leadership, SANE was able to attract many people who had never been either world federalists or pacifists, and it soon had more than a hundred local groups, in many important cities in the country. But at the same time it was relatively weak in attracting persons expert in the analysis of international affairs, and its public statements—which reflected both the moral passion of its chief figures and their tendency to political vagueness—shied away on the whole from analysis of the political factors that many people felt would have to be essential elements in any discussion of atomic warfare or disarmament.
Another problem SANE faced was the complexity of the issues with which it was trying to cope. Those committees which have in the past had a great impact on American policy (for example, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, or the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing) have been aided by the clarity and simplicity of the goals they were working for, and of the measures necessary to reach them. But how does one avoid atomic war? And thinking of this question as a form of the older and larger questions of how to avoid war in general or how to get international government, made it even more difficult for SANE to arrive at the kind of simple, programmatic demands which a citizens’ committee is best equipped to push. Consequently, aside from its specific and effective attack against the threat of contamination and genetic damage from atomic testing, SANE found it hard to formulate policies, and its advertisements and announcements suffered not only from the political vagueness that might be part of the heritage of the world government and pacifist movements, but also from the vagueness inherent in an attack on a problem of enormous scope.
If SANE was inevitably affected by the special experience and outlook of those who organized it, it was also affected by the special experience and outlook of many who joined it. Before the formation of SANE—that is, before 1957, when the Soviet Union drew close in atomic capacity to the United States—the peace movement was, in the eyes of many people (and in some measure in reality), a creature of Russian foreign policy. So long as the Soviet Union suffered from atomic inferiority, it was to its interest to support movements denouncing the possession of nuclear weapons and arousing world opinion on a massive scale against the possibility of their use. (The fact that all morality and sense agreed in this case with the Soviet Union was accidental.) In 1956, it was the Russian-dominated World Peace Council which grew out of the Stockholm peace petition that gained publicity, while the public remained generally ignorant of the existence of the small pacifist groups which had never been influenced by Communists. By 1957, many new voices were being raised, independently of the Communists and their followers on the one side, and the pacifists on the other, pointing out that the threat to life raised a question greater than the conflict between dictatorship and democracy2—a fact which saved the peace issue from becoming a captive of the Communists and which has also permitted SANE to recruit a certain measure of support outside pacifist and world federalist circles. However, this fact did not prevent a large number of people from joining who had the habit of thinking on certain essential issues in ways that were often indistinguishable from the views of Communists.
Who were these people? Some were former Communists who had left the party as a result of Khrushchev’s speech exposing Stalin’s crimes and the suppression of the Hungarian revolution; others were ex-Communists of an older vintage who were no longer under party discipline but whose political orientation was largely unchanged; most perhaps were people who had never been Communists but whose view of the world was molded by such publications as the National Guardian and the Monthly Review. What these groups had in common was a stubborn belief that the Russian or Chinese or Yugoslav or Cuban dictatorships were in some sense superior “socialist” societies, worthy of a special loyalty from the progressive-minded, and infinitely superior to American “capitalism.”
One of the most serious problems that any movement like SANE must face in the United States today is the existence of these large numbers of people who think to some extent like Communists. I put the matter this way because I do not believe—and no informed observer believes—that the actual participation in SANE of Communist party members under party discipline and orders has been at all extensive or important. In the case of a small group (and a new group will have to be small at first) fighting for measures which have the incidental effect of criticizing American foreign and defense policy, it is inevitable that the “Communist-minded,” as we may call them, will enter and become active. In SANE, they were particularly active in New York.
The SANE leaders were perfectly well aware of the threat posed to any independent organization by members of the Communist party (the national board included a number of knowledgeable and well-known anti-Communists, for example Norman Thomas and Victor Reuther). But a more serious problem was raised by those people who were no longer or who had never been actual Communists, but who were temperamentally and intellectually committed to a fellow-traveling interpretation of world affairs. The presence of large numbers of people of the type I have described in some local SANE groups meant that a tone was established which could only repel sophisticated anti-Communists who might have wished to work for disarmament. It also repelled the broad mass of Americans and made the peace movement suspect in influential political quarters. The fact that SANE’s statements eschewed simple political realities and analyses in favor of vague references to the virtues of a stronger UN, or world law and world government, made it easier for the “Communist-minded” to enter.
Sane was attacked immediately after the Madison Square Garden meeting by Senator Thomas E. Dodd of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee for permitting itself to be infiltrated by Communists. Part of its reply to Senator Dodd is worth quoting, for it was a model both in tone and substance of what such a reply should be:
As a matter of democratic principle and practice we resent the intrusion of a Congressional Committee into the affairs of an organization which during its entire life has acted only in accordance with its declared principles. . . . The Committee [SANE] itself is entirely capable of carrying out its principles and guaranteeing that it will not permit their betrayal or subversion under any pressure from, on the one hand, investigations directed to its hurt or, on the other hand, by the actions of its local chapters or their leaders.
The SANE National Committee then proceeded to adopt measures aimed at driving Communists and fellow-travelers out of the organization. In New York, the problem was aggravated by the fact that local SANE groups (there were more than fifty) were not directly chartered by the central office, as were all other groups, but rather by an intermediate Greater New York Committee.
These groups, in order to work with SANE, were now required to take out a charter with the national organization—a charter which includes the provision that “persons who are not free because of party discipline or political allegiance to criticize the actions of totalitarian nations with the same standards by which they challenge other nations will not be welcome as members.” The new chartering requirement for the New York groups was denounced as a witch-hunt and a loyalty-test—and there is no question that its main purpose was to get rid of local affiliates which seemed to be dominated either by Communists or the Communist-minded.
It is hard to estimate the effect of the crisis on SANE. To begin with the negative impact: some twenty-five groups (out of perhaps fifty) in New York have refused or will refuse to request charters, and some have now organized their own Greater New York Conference of Peace Groups. There have been three resignations from the national boards and sponsoring committees, among them Professor Linus Pauling and Robert Gilmore of the American Friends Service Committee. Most important, the organization has lost support among the radical pacifists and the young people on its “left.” A. J. Muste—a leading figure in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Committee for Non-Violent Action, and the pacifist world in general—has criticized the actions of the SANE national board in the magazine Liberation, and he has been particularly bitter over the fact that certain SANE leaders were willing to meet with a member of Senator Dodd’s staff. (Senator Dodd had also quoted Mr. Cousins as saying that he would be happy to cooperate with the Internal Security Subcommittee in getting rid of the Communists within the organization—though this was denied by SANE.) Muste feels that a united front with Communists in the peace movement is impossible, and he opposes it. But he believes that forthrightly stating one’s position and working for it would be enough to keep Communists out; and if they did come in under such circumstances, one should hope that the environment of a non-Communist organization would change them.
Mr. Muste’s position is also the position of most of the young people and students who have been so important in the various demonstrations that have brought the issue of nuclear war to the public. They feel that the action of SANE reflects caution and conservatism. Having perhaps less experience with Communists than the organization’s national leadership, they fail to see that what SANE has done reflects not only political wisdom but the refusal of serious people to bother with those whose role in every organization which they cannot control must inevitably be destructive and demoralizing.
The problem posed by Communism for the peace movement, however, is more important than that represented by the small number of Communists, or even the larger number of what I have called the Communist-minded. For various reasons, many of those who arc neither Communist nor Communist-minded remain silent on Communism, and even tolerate the presence of Communist literature in their displays. Some of the pacifists in the American Friends Service Committee (one of the major sources of personnel, office space, and money for all sorts of peace groups) seem to feel that Christian charity forbids any action against Communists, even any comment on them.
The heritage of the fight over McCarthyism has also affected the peace movement. Since the issue McCarthyism raised—i.e., the actual role of Communists in American culture and government—was never really clarified among liberals, but rather buried by Eisenhower’s benevolent obtuseness, any attack on Communism, any attempt to dissociate oneself from and indicate one’s loathing for dictatorship and lies, now appears to many old-time peace workers—and to many young people in the movement—as conformist, fearful, self-serving, a “concession to McCarthyism.” By extension, even patriotism or the defense of American institutions may be seen in the same way. Communists, the Communist-minded, and anti-McCarthyites thus all unite against efforts to be matter-of-fact and truthful about Communism—which, I agree with Muste, is a far better way to keep Communists and fellow-travelers out of the peace movement than any elaborate organizational measures (though these may be necessary, too).
Interestingly enough, the one person who has been organizationally most creative and effective in the peace movement, Robert Pickus of Berkeley,3 himself a pacifist for many years, has also been strongest in insisting that the peace groups must distinguish themselves from those who uphold or are tolerant of dictatorship and falsehood. Pickus has been passionate and brilliant in analyzing the problems created for pacifism and the work for peace by the moral and political failure to take a stand on Communism. Unfortunately, I do not think his point of view is particularly attractive to most of the young people who have been drawn into the more activist organizations, and who are the greatest potential resource of the movement. SANE, focusing in the past on specific issues, and finding it difficult to arouse the enthusiasm and response that are given by the young to a more total position and commitment, had tapped only part of this resource; its moves to eliminate Communists and fellow-travelers mean additional losses among these young people, because to them any action against Communists and fellow-travelers today appears to be only a cowardly response to ignorant and evil pressures.
On the other hand, SANE is now capable of appealing effectively to the politically sophisticated who before simply refused to waste their time explaining why they could not work with Communists. Indeed, SANE in general now seems to be overcoming the tradition of woolly-mindedness it inherited from the world federalist and pacifist background of its founders, and is making a real attempt to think politically on all the problems of arms control and disarmament. When one says “ban atom-bomb testing” or “disarmament is necessary,” one must be prepared to go on to deal with many other questions: Are the Russians serious? What are their intentions as to expansion, warfare, and atomic weapons? What risks do we run? Can tests be monitored? etc., etc. SANE is now tackling these questions—and from the first policy papers I have seen, its reasoning is not inferior—either in point of realism or hard-headedness—to that of Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Kahn.
Today, however, a new situation confronts SANE: and that is, the far greater weight given by the new administration to a point of view similar to SANE’s own—the point of view which takes the possibility of disarmament seriously. Eisenhower, as most people agree, was also serious about disarmament, but virtually nothing was done in his administration toward developing a coherent approach to the difficulties involved. None of the great interests or powers—the armed forces, the industrial complex dependent upon the military establishment, the Atomic Energy Commission, the nationalist press and Congressmen, or public opinion—which maintain the largely mindless arms race we are in, were ever confronted, reined, instructed, disciplined, in an effort to mitigate the dangers of atomic warfare. Too little mind and too little force were exerted at the center of things to affect the massive inertia in which our society is caught.
Anti-American propaganda often pictures our society as helpless before the alliance of capitalists and militarists who conspire to maintain a demand for unnecessary but increasingly dangerous goods in order to keep the system going. This is largely myth, but shortly before leaving office, President Eisenhower—in the most noteworthy statement he ever made—pointed to where the danger really lies. In calling attention to the rise of a great military establishment linked with industrial interests, Eisenhower indicated that the painful readjustments necessary to save American society may never be taken, simply because they are too painful. Because California needs missile contracts, American civilization may be destroyed. But if we find it impossible to act in terms of the general interests of society, if we are so irrevocably committed to the idea that a man’s primary responsibility is to himself and the institution he serves as to render us incapable of the imagination and the will by which 10 per cent of the national income might be redirected from the production of weapons to the production of useful goods—then we may well be destroyed.
In appointing Jerome Wiesner as his chief scientific adviser, President Kennedy has shown that the point of view of that part of the scientific community which is not frightened by the enormous tasks of disarmament, or by the enormous efforts society must make to save itself, will now be taken very seriously indeed. The point of view on nuclear war that SANE tried to press by building a national movement has developed independently, from the logic of the situation, among small circles of scientists, who are far more influential than SANE ever was, perhaps than SANE ever could be. It would be reassuring for those of us who are committed to democracy to believe that it was the pressure of public opinion, of an instructed and informed citizenry, that led the Kennedy administration to move toward a serious approach to disarmament. Unfortunately no such interpretation will hold up. In Congress, only a tiny handful of Representatives dared to speak about disarmament and the dangers of American defense policy. In the Senate, only one voice was raised, that of Senator Humphrey, and only intermittently. In the end, the same factors that have made the Russians serious about disarmament (as several participants in the last Pugwash conference—including Jerome Wiesner and W. W. Rostow—and a number of Americans who have negotiated with the Russians, like James Wadsworth and Hans Bethe, now seem to think they are) have also made the new American administration serious about disarmament—and in neither case do they have anything to do with public opinion. The fact that Russian public opinion is powerless, while ours is free; that their peace movement is a government artifact, while ours is a spontaneous if small public movement—all this seems to mean nothing; for the great governments act today, on issues which affect the lives of us all, mainly on the basis of advice from their scientific experts. And these experts, whether Russian or American, are beginning to speak the same language.
Under such conditions—while committees and scientists meet to consider the atom-test ban and other possible steps toward disarmament—can the peace movement have any role to play? The answer is that it has a most important role to play, and here the difference between Russia and America is decisive. For while public opinion in both countries has contributed almost nothing to the new attitudes of government on the matter of disarmament, public opinion can inhibit and block effective action by the government in the United States, while it is entirely helpless, for good or ill, in Russia. Whatever the level of intelligence and knowledge on these problems among some of the President’s top advisers, eventually there will be treaties that will have to go through the Senate, appropriations for arms inspection and for disarmament activities that will have to go through the House. And though the spending of a few hundred million dollars more will bother no one, the fact that at some point the defense budget may have to be cut by a few billions, will jar the inertia under which we have lived for so long. The resistance of the military and the contractors, and the workers and the communities that are dependent on the military contracts, will be enormous. People understand the possible dangers of atomic war well enough, but it appears a distant and abstract idea as against the immediate prospect of unemployment, relocation, retraining. The other side of a disarmament effort must therefore be the creation of economic plans to reassure those people who have a stake in the arms race that they will not become surplus along with the missiles. I have devoted much space to the political attitudes of people in the peace movement, attitudes which have certainly affected its success. But unquestionably it is this larger setting of fear and the sense of helplessness, in an industrial and commercial society which seems incapable of reacting appropriately to new situations, that is most relevant to an explanation of the failure of the peace movement to attract large numbers.
Many members of the peace movement are aware that, in addition to analyzing foreign policy and defense measures, the movement must concern itself with a larger range of problems: the problem of economic reconversion and the problem of the institutional inertia which often makes the simplest things impossibly hard to do, and hard things. . . . Well, that is the question. If they are impossible to do under present circumstances, if there is no way for the informed intelligence to penetrate into public opinion, Congress, the bureaucracies, and the institutions, then we may really be doomed. If, moreover, that should turn out to be the case, then the outlook of the extremists in the peace movement—those for whom SANE is too sober, too much concerned with political realities, too responsible, too accepting of the world as it is and of things as they are—may be the only one left for reasonable men. Many young Negroes in the South have decided that they will simply refuse to cooperate any longer with a society that degrades them, and many pacifists have reached a similar conclusion about a society that prepares to slaughter them.
Meanwhile most of the peace movement continues to work through the system and with the system, to see if intelligence can overcome a destructive course. It is still a small movement, its appeal is restricted. There are the hopeful signs of the last few years, there is the growing response from students and young people. There are, as I have pointed out, many problems, both substantive and organizational. But if an informed public opinion can be created to supplement the efforts of an informed administration, we may still be able to save ourselves.
1 This committee was originally designed to coordinate the actions of different pacifist groups, but it has developed into a partially independent body, initiating demonstrations of its own.
2 Note an American Catholic opinion of 1958: “It would seem . . . that the nuclear weapons are too violent and far-reaching in their effects to be morally justifiable as legitimate weapons of defense. It is hard to believe that in any future large-scale war the use of nuclear weapons will be forgone . . . wars of the future will [therefore] be wars of annihilation. . . . Such wars could never be justifiable, not even to save the Western world from becoming engulfed in the rising tide of atheistic Communism” (the Boston Pilot, April 26, 1958).
3 His Acts for Peace center in Berkeley has brought together a wide spectrum of organizations and individuals on the principle that everyone concerned about peace can find some activity that is helpful. Thus the actions of all, from those with the mildest concern for peace to the most committed pacifists, can be focused on a common end.