The Violent Pacifists
Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism.
by Guenter Lewy.
Eerdmans. 282 pp. $19.95.
A better subtitle for this valuable book would be “The Moral Collapse of American Pacifism.” The moral crisis is long past. In painstaking detail, Guenter Lewy describes how that crisis came to a head during the Vietnam war, ending in a total breakdown of pacifist principle within the four major pacifist organizations: the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the War Resisters League (WRL), and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). All four now work cozily with Communist fronts and form part and parcel of the various radical “peace-and-justice” coalitions that advocate disarmament at home and the triumph of Third World Marxist-Leninist insurgencies abroad.
The four major organizations were born during or immediately after World War I, and from the beginning there were ideological stresses within them. Lewy shows, indeed, that the arguments that would undermine pacifism in the 1960’s were raised as early as the 1920’s, when the new organizations faced their first crisis, the temptation of Marxism.
Thus, in a landmark 1928 essay entitled “Pacifism and Class War,” A.J. Muste, for many years the most prominent American pacifist, expanded the definition of the sorts of violence which pacifists should oppose; they now included “the economic, social, political order in which we live.” At the same time, Muste excused the violence perpetrated by those fighting against the American “order,” by initiating what was later to become a favorite device of pacifist authors: a “calculus” of violence. Ninety percent of the violence in the world, he wrote, was perpetrated by the forces of the status quo; it was therefore “ludicrous” for people to focus on the 10 percent actively committed by those rebelling against a repressive system. Similarly, in 1933 Devere Allen argued that “all the violence that Communism in this country advocates and desires is as a drop in the creek as compared with the violence which we live under in the present economic system.”
As Lewy shows, the pacifist organizations weathered this first crisis, aided by the strong consensus of the membership that violence of any kind must never be condoned. A 1933 poll of the membership of the Fellowship of Reconciliation produced a lopsided majority of 877 to 93 opposing class violence as well as international violence. Those insistent upon Marxist doctrine—in the case of the FOR they at one point included the organization’s executive secretary, J.B. Matthews—were forced to resign.
In fact, up to the early 1960’s the pacifist organizations remained clear-headed in recognizing that Communists were not proper allies. Each of the organizations issued statements like the FOR’s 1940 declaration that
the Communist party rejects pacifism in principle. . . . For the FOR to be associated with the CP in “antiwar activities” could therefore only confuse multitudes of people as to our aim and function and thus stultify our efforts.
But all this was to crumble in the face of the second moral crisis of the pacifists, the Vietnam war.
In the course of that war, or rather in the course of American involvement in it, the organizations, open partisans of a North Vietnamese victory, abandoned their opposition to participating in united fronts with Communists. The arguments rejected in the 1930’s now became cornerstones of pacifist thought. In 1970, the national council of the FOR, invoking the increasingly familiar “calculus” of violence, adopted a statement exonerating the behavior of the radical New Left fringe: “Santa Barbara students who burned a branch of the Bank of America . . . committed a very mild act of violence in comparison with, for example, the dropping of 12,000 tons of bombs on South Vietnam by the American high command.” Similarly, WILPF president Kay Camp insisted that the impetuous acts of America’s youth could not be equated “with the institutionalized violence of our government.”
Like the distinction pointed to earlier by A.J. Muste, a distinction came to be drawn at this time between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed, which had to be “understood” and judged in different terms. According to a 1968 statement by the War Resisters International (the parent body of the American WRL), the violence of Americans was “criminal” while that of the oppressed, at home and abroad, was “tragic.” WRL’s Dave Dellinger declared that he did not repudiate or oppose “the violence of the victims.”
Within each of the organizations, as Lewy documents, there were warnings that pacifism was being undermined by these stands, but the warnings were ignored. Albert Hassler, the long-time executive secretary of the FOR, wrote in 1968 that terms like “the violence of the status quo” were having a subversive effect, and that pacifists were becoming believers, if not in “just war,” then in “just revolutions.” Jim Forest, also of the FOR, wondered about “the collapse of our faith in the pacifist insight: that the means control the quality of the end.” But the opponents of the new trend were fatally hobbled because they agreed with the majority about the war in Vietnam, where (in Hassler’s words) the United States was doing “obscenely indecent things.” This made them hesitant about pressing their case, either inside or outside the organizations. Once they saw that their views were repudiated by the majority, they remained quiet or, at best, bowed out.
Since the end of the war, the pacifist organizations have gone on to become mere apologists for a series of “progressive” regimes and terrorist bands. Lewy details the depths to which they sank in the immediate post-Vietnam era. As reports of oppression in “liberated” Vietnam reached the West and the seas became filled with boat people, the pacifist organizations simply denied that any human-rights violations were taking place at all. When a number of former antiwar activists, led by Joan Baez, published an open letter to the government of Vietnam protesting its treatment of dissidents, leaders of the WILPF (including its president and vice president) signed a counter-statement in the New York Times declaring that Vietnam “now enjoys human rights as it has never known in history.”
Even the massacres taking place in Cambodia under Pol Pot failed to stir a response. According to John McAuliff, head of the AFSC’s Indochina program, accusations against the Cambodian regime were part of an American “misinformation” campaign aimed at discrediting “the example of an alternative model of development and social organization.” Not until Vietnam invaded and seized Cambodia, and publicized the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime, did the AFSC admit to the horrors that had occurred, and even then it put the primary blame for the fate of Cambodia on the United States.
The policy of working in coalition with groups professedly dedicated to “peace and justice” has led to the preposterous spectacle of WRL participation in a 1984 Libyan-influenced “peace” conference in Malta. Many delegates came with Libyan financing, and Qaddafi’s Green Book was distributed to participants. In his report on the conference, David McReynolds of the WRL argued: “Rather than being frightened by the Libyans, . . . should we not welcome the fact that revolutionary movements, including the Libyans, are interested in dialogue with nonviolence movements?” A similar disposition has informed the multifaceted activities of the various pacifist organizations in Central America, where again they have made common cause with radical forces openly espousing and engaging in violence.
In short, most leaders of pacifist organizations today seem to share the sentiments expressed by a leader of the WRL: “There is one crime worse than murder: to retire from the revolution.”
In Peace and Revolution Guenter Lewy has written a scholarly rather than a polemical book, and throughout he is determined to let the facts tell their own story. It is thus to be regretted that instead of telling that story, which is an inherently fascinating one, he proceeds instead by dealing with each of the organizations separately, chronicling its rhetoric and activities on a variety of issues, zigzagging back and forth in time. Since the differences in perspective and behavior among the organizations are quite minor, this makes for an unduly cumbersome and repetitive structure. Moreover, important topics tend to get lost or diffused. There are, for example, two chapters nominally devoted to dissent within the pacifist organizations, yet in neither one of them is the topic discussed with thoroughness; most of the coverage of dissent occurs disjointedly throughout the book in connection with stands taken by each of the organizations on specific issues.
The weakness of Lewy’s approach is evident as well when he comes in the last chapter to examine the moral dilemmas of pacifist witness in a democratic order. Here he argues that pacifists have a legitimate role to play as bearers of the humanitarian conscience, reminding the rest of us of the link between means and ends. As Lewy writes: “The pacifist vision of a world free of the threat of war can help build support for the development of an ordered political community at the international level able to resolve conflicts peacefully and justly.” But—he goes on—when pacifists enter the political arena to propose policies for their nation, they become subject to what Weber called the “ethic of responsibility,” which involves taking into account the realities of power and the likely consequence of political decisions: the policies they advocate must be judged by their results. Finally, while pacifists may, for themselves, “seek individual salvation through ethical absolutism and purity,” they have no right to sacrifice others to this vocation.
There can be no quarrel with any of this. But on the basis of his own evidence, Lewy could have gone much further in exploring the corrupting consequences that ensue when pacifists destroy the traditional meaning of violence in order to endorse the violence of those they favor. The reasoning goes like this: if, as David McReynolds maintains, the violence of unemployment is as real “as napalm falling on Vietnam,” then it is no more reprehensible to work to bring down a government adjudged guilty of causing unemployment than to permit it to continue in existence; indeed, it may be less so, because a “small” amount of “just” violence can lead to the overall lessening of violence in the world. In this way do self-styled pacifists move from abhorring to advocating violence.
Increasingly, indeed, violence has become the touchstone by which pacifists identify those worthy of their support. The more violent a group, the more just its cause must be—always provided, of course, that the cause is “progressive.” Thus, all four pacifist organizations identify with the PLO, a movement whose declared goal is the destruction of a national state and the removal of most of its present inhabitants.
The logic of their position forces the pacifist organizations to encourage and support ever higher levels of violence, for if peace depends on the elimination of the injustices they have identified, the more violence is directed toward this end, the closer we will come to peace. Meanwhile, of course, the pacifists themselves sit on the sidelines, applauding. “I advocate nonviolence. I practice nonviolence,” says Dave Dellinger; but, he goes on, the traditional nonviolent movement “has been much too passive and much too ineffective and I am not interested in the purity of the movement. I am interested in social effectiveness.” Given the new ground rules, pacifists can simultaneously pursue revolution and underground warfare while retaining their pacifist virtue—the ultimate moral luxury.
That despite their evolution the major pacifist organizations have continued to enjoy credibility with so many people—the AFSC raises millions of dollars annually on the strength of its humanitarian image—is one of the scandals of American political life. In helping to expose the true theory and practice of pacifist organizations today, Guenter Lewy has performed a vital public service.