The State of the American Peace Movement

Recently, when commentators have bothered to notice the American peace movement, they have pronounced it dead. But this is far from the case.

Admittedly, it is remarkably fragmented. Certainly, it contains no organization that plays a role comparable to NOW in the women’s movement, the NAACP in the racial justice movement, or the AFL-CIO in the labor movement. Instead, the Fellowship of Reconciliation draws together religious pacifists, the War Resisters League enrolls secular pacifists, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom mobilizes women, Veterans for Peace appeals to veterans, and U.S. Labor Against the War rallies unionists. In addition, there is a multiplicity of small groups without specific social constituencies that are scattered about the nation.

By far the largest peace organization in the United States is Peace Action, which was born out of the merger of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in 1987. With about 100,000 dues-paying members, active affiliates throughout the country, and excellent relations with the Progressive Caucus in Congress, Peace Action has some clout. Even so, it represents only a fraction of the peace movement.

Given the movement’s organizational fragmentation, coalitions tend to be weak and evanescent. Over the past decade, two rival coalitions—United for Peace and Justice (which drew together some of the more mainstream groups) and ANSWERS (which appealed to left sectarians)—sought for a time to work together, but ultimately found this impossible. Both coalitions are now collapsing, and a new venture, the United National Antiwar Committee (UNAC), is trying to develop a united movement. But it remains uncertain that UNAC, which focuses on reviving mass antiwar demonstrations, has a broad enough appeal to do so.

Although the peace movement surged during the era of the George W. Bush administration, the claim that it has collapsed since that time is quite overdrawn. Yes, in recent years, peace coalitions have declined and antiwar demonstrations have dwindled in size. But these developments reflect, in part, the fact that many people, including peace activists, don’t see much point at this time in constantly turning out for peace marches. After all, there are many other ways to oppose war and militarism. Also, the polls show clearly that most Americans now oppose current U.S. wars and military occupations. In fact, some peace groups, like Peace Action, actually experienced significant membership growth last year.

As part of its ongoing efforts, the peace movement takes on a multiplicity of projects—from opposing military recruitment in the schools to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But three issues, particularly, seem to be on its front burner today.

The first is ending the Afghanistan war. The latest round of U.S. military intervention in that land began in the first year of the Bush administration, and since then has shown no signs of abating. Indeed, the Obama administration recently increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This lengthy war has resulted in substantial death and destruction among Afghans and significant casualty levels among foreign troops (including nearly 12,000 casualties among American soldiers). According to the highly-respected National Priorities Project, the cost to U.S. taxpayers has been roughly $382 billion thus far. Not surprisingly, polls show that 72 percent of Americans want an escalated timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. Given these factors, plus the dubious benefits of the war, the peace movement and its congressional allies have an opportunity to force the president to negotiate a settlement of the conflict and withdraw all American forces before his announced target date of 2014.

Another area attracting peace movement attention is cutting military spending. Given the heavy emphasis upon reducing the federal deficit, a fierce scramble has begun over which programs should be slashed. In this context, it is hard to imagine that military spending—which currently accounts for 58 percent of federal discretionary spending and is slated for another increase under President Obama’s proposed budget for FY 2012—will escape the budget cutters’ axe. It certainly seems excessive. U.S. military spending accounts for nearly half of global military expenditures, and the number two spender is China, whose military budget is only one-sixth that of the United States. With well over $700 billion going annually to the Pentagon, ongoing U.S. wars, and U.S. nuclear weapons programs, Peace Action and elements of the peace movement are joining with supporters of public education, housing, healthcare, and other human services in a Move the Money campaign, designed to shift federal resources from military to social spending. Numerous mainstream groups are already on board with this campaign, including the United Auto Workers, the United Electrical Workers, and SEIU 1199 New England.

Finally, the peace movement continues to champion nuclear disarmament. Although the New START Treaty represented a step forward along these lines, it was only a modest one. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons remain in national arsenals, with thousands of them on alert, ready to wipe out the human race. Moreover, to secure enough Republican support to have the treaty ratified in the Senate, the Obama administration agreed to back a ten-year, $185 billion program of “modernization” for the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex and for U.S. nuclear weapons. Thus, despite the President’s rhetorical support for nuclear abolition, it looks like the United States and other nations are on a very slow track to ridding the world of the nuclear menace. In this context, the peace movement has begun to push back, calling for rejection of nuclear “modernization” and the opening of negotiations for a treaty to provide for a nuclear weapons-free world. The demand to reduce the federal budget deficit should also strengthen the hand of the peace movement on this issue, for, if the U.S. government is really interested in abolishing nuclear weapons, why should it spend another $185 billion producing them?

In short, the American peace movement is alive and well. But it certainly faces some serious challenges.

Dr. LAWRENCE S. WITTNER is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).




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Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press.)

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