“While at one time pacifists were single-mindedly devoted to the principles of nonviolence and reconciliation, today most pacifist groups defend the moral legitimacy of armed struggle and guerrilla warfare, and they praise and support the communist regimes emerging from such conflicts.” This is the thesis of Guenter Lewy’s study of the most enduring and successful segment of the radical left, the so-called “peace movement.” Lewy concentrates on four organizations: the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC, founded 1917), the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR, founded 1914), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF, founded 1915), and the War Resisters League (WRL, founded 1923). By examining Old Left groups, Lewy chronicles how the New Left gained power during the 1960’s and how it has held it ever since.

Lewy presents a large cast of characters, but if one stands out it is Stewart Meacham, a one-time Presbyterian minister who joined the AFSC in the 1950’s and headed its peace education division during the Vietnam War. The AFSC had decided in the early 1930’s not to join Communist front groups or allow their officers to lend their names to movements “whose ultimate objectives are short of the universal and religious ones” pursued by the AFSC. In 1962 Meacham signed a declaration to the World Peace Council that disassociated the American peace movement from the government-sponsored “peace groups” of the Soviet bloc.

However, by 1967 Meacham was calling on pacifists to “relate constructively” to revolutionary struggles and to find ways to respond when the US attempted “by violence to suppress a revolutionary struggle,” as in Vietnam. A year later, Meacham was in North Vietnam and returned convinced that Hanoi “is in fact a decent government” that would respect South Vietnam’s autonomy after reunification, would maintain “a mixed economy focused on the needs of the people,” and would pose no threat to its neighbors. He believed the claim of Hanoi’s prime minister, Pham Van Dong, that “we fight well because we believe in decency and humanity of all people.” Meacham was also on the steering committee of the National Antiwar Conference (July 1969), along with leaders of the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Worker’s Party, and was a cochairman of the New Mobilization to End the War. The “New Mobe” was a group based on the “non-exclusion principle,” which was the new term for a united front between pacifists and the hard left, including those affiliated with Soviet front groups and those who openly worked not for peace but for the military victory of the Communists.

When in 1975 questions were raised about the establishment of concentration camps and the suppression of religion by the victorious Communists, Meacham denounced such concerns as “support of the imperialists in our land against whom we once joined hands in common struggle.” He went on to claim:

Our Vietnamese friends have displayed both grace and courage in a prolonged, bitter and successful struggle, and now they are seeking to heal the wounds of war, restore their ravaged land and move ahead to a just and confident society. We ought to remember our debt to them and do what we can to help.

A trip to Vietnam in 1977 only confirmed Meacham’s convictions about the Communist regime. One of Meacham’s colleagues on the trip, Wallace Collett, a businessman who was chairman of the AFSC board of directors, even compared the lives of those who were forcibly exiled to the jungle gulags (euphemistically called “new economic zones”) to America’s pioneer families building new communities on the frontier. The word “humane” could not be used often enough in the reports issued by the AFSC about Vietnamese “socialism.”

The same process was repeated by the other groups studied. As late as 1966, the WILPF executive committee could vote not to endorse the “International War Crimes Tribunal” set up by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, because only allegations made against Washington and Saigon would be tried. But by 1968 the WILPF policy committee was stating that “[w]e can never condone wrongdoing by any nation, but neither can we equate our military action in Vietnam with the actions of the North Vietnamese or the NLF.” The Communist cause was just, whereas the American cause was not. At the 1970 WILPF annual meeting, President Katherine Camp condemned the US as the chief evil in the world:

It is exploitation by uncontrolled economic enterprise and the planned-for deprivation of the unequal. It is the anti-human attitude which has forged a world-wide anti-communist military alliance and which supplies most of the nations of the world with the machinery of death, in defiance of mankind’s best hope for peace, the U.N. It encourages the growing number of military dictatorships throughout the world. Its logical conclusions are apartheid, genocide and war.

At WRL, David Dellinger was asking whether it was not possible “to look approvingly on the struggle of the National Liberation Front without endorsing or applauding its violence.” Instead of adopting a “plague on both your houses” view, he argued, pacifists should

. . . step up the tempo of our nonviolent action here in the United States, to try to stop American aggression at its source rather than leave the whole burden on those who suffer its impact.

At FOR the executive secretary, Alfred Hassler, was pushed out after the national council voted to make the People’s Peace Treaty the basis for ending the war. That treaty was a document drawn up in Hanoi, and called for an unconditional American withdrawal and the installation of the Provisional Revolutionary Government in Saigon.

The insistance on an immediate American withdrawal, followed by the demand that all aid to the South Vietnamese be ended, was the device for reconciling pacifists with procommunists. Everyone knew that “peace” based on the premise that only the anticommunist side would be prevented from fighting was the same as a policy favoring a Communist victory. Its advantage was that such a policy could be stated in traditional pacifist terms, as opposition to war-making. This is a time-tested formula being used today in the debate over Central American policy and the nuclear arms race.

The large-scale exodus of boat people from Indochina, the deployment of Soviet bombers and warships to Vietnamese bases, and the genocide and continuing war in Cambodia have done nothing to disillusion the AFSC or the other groups on the righteousness of the “revolutionary struggle” in Southeast Asia or elsewhere in the Third World. Revolution, however, must always be defined in leftist terms. Anticommunist guerrilla movements, as in Angola and Nicaragua, are obviously only bands of reactionaries and mercenaries in the employ of imperialists. Even the Afghan resistance against foreign invasion is outside acceptable limits because it is part of the East-West struggle.

Though the AFSC has condemned Moscow for invading Afghanistan, it has also attacked the Afghan resistance as a collection of landlords and tribal chiefs opposed to land reform and social change, and further tainted by the aid received from the CIA. The AFSC has also sought to justify the Soviet invasion. One AFSC pamphlet cited by Lewy states: “From a Soviet perspective, it may have occurred to them that the U.S. might have been tempted to seize a destabilized Afghanistan and turn it into a new listening post on Russia’s southern border.” The WILPF only finds the Soviet invasion “regrettable,” and notes “the Soviet interest in having close relations with a neighboring country.” Aid to the Afghan guerrillas is to be opposed because it merely fuels the global US-Soviet confrontation, for which the US is primarily to blame.

In 1981, the AFSC disarmament program published a pamphlet falsely claiming that the USSR had “virtually no power projection forces,” whereas the US was “the only nation capable of projecting and sustaining its power by military force globally.” This made the US the real threat to peace in the world. The pamphlet Questions and Answers on the Soviet Threat and National Security also dismissed the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe as being the natural result of “two German invasions,” while Moscow’s support to help “Third World nations throw off their yoke of colonialism and neocolonialism” was praised.

Lewy’s history, based on an extensive investigation of the official records and publications of the AFSC at their national headquarters in Philadelphia and of the FOR, WILPF, and WRL at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, is full of revealing quotations and the sordid details of the alliance between pacifism and America’s enemies—what in a more frank and healthy period would be branded treason. However, his attempt to draw a clear line at the Vietnam War between an authentic pacifism and a new radical creed that merely uses pacifism as a device to seize the high moral ground in political struggles is too neat. He also accords the old pacifism too much credit as a noble exercise in idealism. At one point Lewy even claims that:

Pacifists, committed to the supreme value of nonviolence, remind the rest of us who are not pacifists of the link between means and ends. Their personal “No” to killing carries an important ethical message. 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.

This is an exercise in wishful thinking. None of Lewy’s four groups deserve any praise for their “idealism,” even when one goes back to their very beginnings. These groups were on the wrong side from the start. This is why the New Left found it so easy to gain control of them. All four groups were founded during or immediately after World War I. The war shattered both the liberal faith in natural progress and America’s isolation from global power politics. The resulting intellectual turmoil provided an opening for radicals. The dominant world view of the founding generation was fashioned by the philosophy of socialism. As Lewy himself states in his first chapter:

The pacifist organizations that were founded during and after World War I included a strong core of socialists, and all pacifists stressed the importance of opposing the imperialism of the capitalistic order, of ending the arms race and achieving economic and social justice in order to remove what they considered to be the ultimate causes of war.

A.J. Muste, a Protestant minister who was a leader of FOR from 1926-1929 and again from 1940-1953 (during the period between he worked with the Trotskyist American Workers Party), argued in a 1928 pamphlet that the capitalist status quo was by its nature violent and thus pacifists had to be revolutionaries. Only by ending capitalism could violence be ended. This same line has become commonplace. For example, in an AFSC pamphlet written 44 years later, James Bristol, a former Lutheran pastor, claimed: “While two wrongs never make a right, before we deplore terrorism it is essential for us to recognize fully and clearly whose terrorism came first, so that we can assess what is cause and what is effect.”

At the core of the entire peace movement is the Leninist theorem that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, and thus capitalism is the principal cause of war. It is true, of course, that capitalist states have used military force to expand as well as to protect their territories and interests; and even true in a larger sense that capitalism is one of the factors that have provided Western civilization with its dynamism over the last 500 years. But neither capitalism as an economic system nor the West as a civilization has been unique in this respect. World history is largely military history, from the dawn of time until the present day. All societies of any scope or duration have made recourse to the sword. This is why pure pacifism has traditionally been dismissed as hopelessly naive.

But the modern union of socialism and pacifism has had profound policy consequences. The evenhandedness of the old pacifism was based on the view that all wars were conflicts between rival camps of capitalist-imperialists, and thus both sides were to be condemned. In 1939 all four of Lewy’s groups could join with other antiwar organizations to issue a book, How to Keep America Out of the War, which argued that the war against Hitler was “not a war between democracy and totalitarianism, but a death grapple between rival imperialists, with aggressors arrayed against oppressors.” Britain and France were merely status quo empires attempting to defend their ill-gotten gains. Both sides were depicted as tools of financial barons.

However, now that America’s enemies are no longer other “capitalist” members of Western civilization, but avowed opponents of capitalism (the Soviet bloc) or anti-Western regimes (the Third World), evenhandedness no longer applies. The opposing camps are no longer moral equivalents. Capitalist America is seen as the moral inferior. Thus when Lewy concludes that “[s]ince pacifists do not want to use force in the defense of the society in which they live, they argue that American democracy is not worth defending,” he has it backwards. The left decided that America was not worth defending first. It is now using nonviolence as a moral argument to undermine America’s survival.

In the US this line of attack against capitalism has proven much more effective than any straight presentation of socialist doctrine. The “children of affluence” have been most susceptible to this doctrine. The peace movement tells them that any system must be I oppressive that links rights with duties and that requires discipline and sacrifice to support the continued provision of material goods and personal advancement. And when they violate traditional norms of conduct and shirk their patriotic responsibilities, the peace movement is there to soothe their consciences with false moralizing.

Lewy’s book is a valuable study of the most notorious actions of the modern peace movement and a grim warning of where that movement wants to lead America. But if the movement is to be stopped, it must be combated on an even deeper level. The old pacifism as well as the new radicalism must be exposed as a creed unworthy of any respect or consideration.


[Peace & Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism, by Guenter Lewy; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing]