Work of National Importance

If those of us who are against war in the second decade of the twenty-first century feel outnumbered by a factor of a few million, imagine what those who were against World War Two felt. A popular antiwar sentiment in the United States and other nations that arose after the insane bloodshed of the so-called Great War was replaced with an even more popular desire to wage war against fascist Europe. Even though the antiwar movement was correct in its appraisal of the war being the result of the world’s capitalist governments’ desire for dominance over other nations, the brutal fact of nazism made their call for no war equivalent to a child’s whisper in the wilderness. Still, the most militant and committed antiwarriors of them all waged what Daniel Akst aptly calls a war by other means. These individuals would be jailed and otherwise prosecuted for their stance, all the while setting the stage for a future where they would play prominent roles in the struggle for civil rights and against the US war in Vietnam.

Akst’s new book, titled War by Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation who Revolutionized Resistance, is a fascinating and detailed history of this movement. By focusing on the best known organizers, Akst tells the story of pacifism in the United States from the 1930s up through the 1960s. Those names–Dorothy Day, David Dellinger, Dwight McDonald and Bayard Rustin among others–are as important to twentieth century US history as any politician or general that ever convinced others to go to war. His narrative highlights the role of peace churches like the Quakers and Mennonites in the expansion of conscientious objector status and the shortcomings of that expansion. More importantly, he details several acts of resistance in the camps, farms, hospitals and prisons by those who refused to fight. Likewise, he discusses the good works that the resisters performed in hospitals and mental health facilities and their development of an idealized community that transcended their confines. That community ultimately set the stage for the antiwar and anti-racist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It was their moral outrage, philosophical justifications and organizing approaches that would form the basis for one of the most popular movements against a nation’s war in human history.

The resisters portrayed here–and the thousands of others whose names are known mostly to their family and friends–were heroes in a manner beyond the comprehension of most human beings. I would argue, based on my experience, that incomprehension is especially true when considering citizens of the United States. After all, in the minds of most US residents, their military has never lost a war. Furthermore, it is a nation founded and sustained by continuous expansion fueled by war. Consequently, war seems to work to their benefit. The current time is certainly no exception. Indeed, the past fifty years has seen Washington engaged in some kind of military conflict with nary a pause.

The biographies in the text are biographies of radical pacifists who believed in using militant nonviolent resistance to oppose the war machine. Some of these women and men were religiously inspired while others inspiration came from more secular philosophies. All considered war an abomination; modern warfare being even more so. Indeed, Catholic pacifists argued that modern weaponry, especially nuclear ones, rendered the Catholic requirements for a so-called just war moot. Their reasoning was based on the fifth element of the “just war” doctrine, which states that the end desired by a nation waging a war must be proportional to the means used. If one recalls, the Vatican made this argument at the outset of the second US war on Iraq in 2003.

War By Other Means is an excellent and detailed history of the US pacifist movement since the 1930s. Yet, the author’s tale is somewhat colored by the politics that seep through in his narrative. These are politics that do not stray far from the accepted, official telling. Indeed, it is that they essentially reflect a liberal understanding of the State that limits a deeper discussion of the politics and economics. Akst often repeats the mainstream understanding of political events without question even though evidence exists that challenges that understanding and renders it at best questionable. One example that sticks in my mind is when he states the Korean conflict began when Pyongyang’s forces “invaded” what is called South Korea on June 25, 1950. This declaration ignores the mountain of evidence suggesting US-backed forces had engaged in similar actions going north for months if not years. In other words, the date of June 25, 1950 is mostly a fiction when discussing that conflict. (Interestingly, the beginning of the current conflict in Ukraine is portrayed similarly, despite evidence showing the conflict’s beginning is much less clear than Washington and its media voices would like us to think.) Besides accepting the mainstream narrative on various world events without challenging that description, Mr. Akst’s understanding of communism and Marxism seems superficial; he seems to equate the US Communist Party in its Stalinist phase with Marxism. To be fair, perhaps his understanding of Marxism is not the same as mine. In fact, it seems to be an understanding that is not based on personal experience, but on the impressions of others. While this anti-communism and mainstream liberal portrayal of US history do not detract from the overall excellence of the narrative, this reviewer found them a distraction.

Still, this text is an important, detailed and captivatingly told history of an under examined piece of US history. It raises questions about war and peace, allegiance and conscience, nation and humanity. It is certainly worth your time.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.