Bearing Witness

Protest: Pacifism and Politics.
by James Finn.
Random House. 528 pp. $8.95.

The peace movement at present defies definition; it has a score of centers and no fixed boundaries. Nevertheless, as the most dynamic political expression of the time it calls for exploration, and that is the work that James Finn has undertaken with creditable results in Protest: Pacifism and Politics. A former editor of Commonweal and now editor of worldview, Finn is familiar with the literature of the movement and he knows its leading personalities, particularly the Catholic battalion. In this volume, he records some three dozen conversations with such celebrities of peace as the late A. J. Muste, John J. Bennett, David McReynolds, Staughton Lynd, Julian Bond, Bayard Rustin, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and Joan Baez. The interviews are accompanied by useful introductions (though they are so uniformly kind that they become a bit wearying), and the book succeeds in conveying the movement's most powerful impulses, its theoretical underpinnings such as they are, and its inherent strains.

The peace movement derives much of its dynamism from young people who were inspired, then disheartened, by the civil-rights struggle, and much of its news-worthiness from Catholics awakened by Pope John. (In such a cause, one living priest in a march is worth three Presbyterian ministers, eight Unitarians, and a dozen rabbis.) It harbors veterans of the Old Left, but the Progressive-party mentalities can do little with freewheeling militants who would bridle at a 1948-style discipline, or with liberals who have built up a resistance to the virus of fellow-traveldom. It contains pacifists of all description and some who beggar description; there are people drugged on non-violence and people intoxicated by violence. It is a movement both of intellectuals and of activists who require a kind of stimulation that the intellect does not ordinarily provide. It is, willy nilly, a highly political phenomenon, but its most dramatic episodes have been staged by youths who distrust and scorn the political process.

Finn is a conscientious guide to all the diverse elements of the movement, but his tour is especially enlightening when he comes to the ideologues of peace. Here are absolute pacifists confronted with the ever-awkward question of what they would have done against Hitler, and giving replies that are likely to satisfy mainly their fellow absolute pacifists. Here is Rabbi Steven S. Schwarzschild saying that as a “utopian revolutionary” it is his job to be relevant to God and his fellow man, not to the existing situation—a very nice distinction indeed. Here are nuclear pacifists bowed over the altar of unilateral disarmament. Here, too, are proponents of the “just war” theory, notably William V. O'Brien—one of two interviewees who seem to support the administration's Vietnam policies—with some chilling remarks on the pros and cons of torture.


The arguments put forward here about pacifism and the “just war” presuppose a religious or ideological commitment not widely shared today. The man who takes the purity of his own soul as the measure of all things can in good conscience be a pacifist—probably he can be nothing but a pacifist—but the condition of his soul is not open to fruitful discussion with outsiders. Similarly, ruminations on the authenticity and specifics of the “just war” theory may be indispensable for persons who need to reconcile their attitudes toward Vietnam with the tenets of their religion; but for those who do not accept these tenets, the issue comes down to whether we ought to be in Vietnam in the first place, and whether we ought to be doing the things that we are doing there. These questions can be discussed without exotic reference points; what is required is some knowledge of the history of our involvement in Vietnam, along with a garden-variety of simple humanity. One may grant that Father Philip Berrigan's anti-war stand is inseparable from his theology, but the reason that he is more persuasive than most of those in this volume who argue from a religious position is that he allows himself to deal intelligibly with the everyday world. By contrast, it is small comfort to learn that in the opinion of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a nuclear war would not defeat God's purpose.

Beyond bearing witness to their ideals, then, the pacifists have little to say to those of us who, like John Bennett, “have difficulty with absolutes.” As Paul Deats, himself an absolute pacifist, concedes, the members of his school have a weakness for “group soliloquy.” Non-pacifists may be forgiven for feeling that they are attempting to find their way through a long, dark, and curving tunnel, at the far end of which stands the pacifist holding aloft his torch. The knowledge of his presence there is heartening, but his remote light, though it may envelop him in glory and even give off some warmth for the rest of mankind, does not really illuminate the century's tunnel; it does not help one to navigate its treacherous turns.

The pacifists are not representative of the peace movement. No single group is. Nevertheless, in the past few years the movement has come to be typified by the young demonstrators who have enlivened city streets and college campuses. They share no single ideology, but the opinions which many of them hold about America are troubling in their implications for the movement as a whole. It is no injustice to these “mystical-romantic-adventurous-sectarian-putschist types” to whom Staughton Lynd says he is drawn, to say that they tend to “explain” American society by two words: racism and imperialism. Unhappily for this nation, the words refer to real ailments, but in the form in which they are tossed about by the young militants they are hardly worth discussing. (Some of the new radicals attribute their insights into “monopoly capitalism” to C. Wright Mills; one can only wish that they may some day read Adolf Berle and John Kenneth Galbraith.) What does need to be discussed, however, are the actions that proceed from such a view of America.

If one believes that this country is fundamentally or exclusively racist and imperialist, then the present war becomes merely another incident, albeit a frightful one, in an endless list of crimes, beginning with the slaughter of the American Indian. Vietnam is only special if it is seen as the result of an ascending series of miscalculations, or the fruition of a foreign policy that can be changed, or even as a criminal act by a state that is not criminal in the sense that Hitler's Germany was. For those who despair of this society, however, the Vietnam dissent is important primarily as a means of “radicalizing” the dissenters for the revolution to come. Indeed, the wilder demonstrations are often justified on this ground rather than on the ground that they will help to end the war.


Several of the interviews in this volume, as well as Finn's own observations, indicate that there is an abundance of good sense as well as good will within the peace movement. The problem is to harness that good sense and good will to stir a nation the largest segment of which is still, in Heschel's words, a “Society Unconcerned About Vietnam.” No one quarrels with the desirability of winning over the large numbers of seemingly unconcerned people who in matters of war and diplomacy are inclined to trust the administration—any administration. The difficulty is that even though their trust may now be wavering, they shy away from demonstrations of dissent, and most emphatically from mystical-romantic-adventurous-sectarian-putschist type demonstrations. (Even Joan Baez, the chief adornment of anti-war rallies, has been put off by protestors who want to weight their picket signs with lead.) Bayard Rustin's comment that there is no way in which violence can help in our present situation ought to be turned into a slogan and carried on (unweighted) placards. But many of the New Leftists are temperamentally incapable of the public good manners required to persuade the uncommitted; they prefer to stoke the fires for the great showdown. If by some exceedingly peculiar chance they should ever realize their dreams of “confrontation,” it will be a suicidal accomplishment.

Meanwhile, the war continues; the administration, self-righteous and dishonest, seems set on military victory; the Republicans offer no alternative; and there is desperation in the peace movement. The frustration of shouting and shouting without being heard, along with certain private needs, continues to drive numbers of protestors off the deep end: any inanity at home is justified by the atrocities abroad. Even as bright a War Re-sister as David McReynolds succumbs to fantasies of an “Impeach Johnson” campaign.

Youth movements age fast, and whether the New Left portion of the peace forces will remain active after the war depends, I think, on the extent to which it will have found effective means to work for its goals. That is to say, it depends both on American society and on the militants themselves. Some of the people in the vanguard of protest have a great deal to offer this country in personal courage, in compassion, and in a vision of a less restrictive social order. But they have yet to take to heart James Finn's warning that “a moral solution to a political problem that is not also a political solution is no solution.” Unless they are able to come to grips with the system—which is much harder than “confronting” it symbolically—they can only dissipate their remarkable energies and potentialities. That would be a serious loss both to themselves and to the rest of us.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link