The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (10. Servanthood)

The Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements sought directly to transform American culture through social activism. They were ad hoc uprisings comprised of a variety of citizens whose energies ebbed and flowed over the time of the movements’ activities. Their significance lies in their quest, at times remarkably successful, for genuine democracy from the bottom up, based not on coercive force but on the exercise of self-determination.

Alongside these transformation-seeking movements, we should also be attentive to several long-term efforts, largely motivated by pacifist sensibilities, to work for self-determination and disarmament through acts of service. The first of these “service committees” was the American Friends Service Committee. I will also discuss two other quite different but parallel service-oriented groups, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Catholic Worker.

American Friends Service Committee

The origins of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) go back to the first World War. Some members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) sought to find ways actively to serve human well-being that could also provide alternatives to participation in the war. The organizers of AFSC included representatives from several heretofore somewhat alienated branches of Quakerism who recognized the need to cooperate in this kind of venture. AFSC was formed in 1917 under the directorship of Haverford College professor and well-known author Rufus Jones.[1]

“We wanted,” Jones wrote, “to show our faith in action and to show it in a way that would both bring healing to the awful wounds of war and carry us into the furnace where others were suffering.”[2]

To this end, AFSC created the “Haverford Emergency Unit” to provide war-relief to people in France. They negotiated to get Selective Service to authorize this war relief work as alternative service for conscientious objectors who had been drafted into the military. After some months, approval was gained and during the final days of the war, conscientious objectors were active in relief work.

In the aftermath of World War I, AFSC expanded its efforts and distributed food and other essentials to desperately suffering war victims. Over the next few years, the work of AFSC saved millions of lives. From the start, AFSC’s identity was centered both on its close link with the Quaker tradition (though it was not formally affiliated with any specific Quaker denomination) and its openness to participation by any person who shared its basic convictions.

AFSC established a presence in numerous international locations during the inter-war years, but also invested significant time and money in working inside the U.S. in relief and development work during the Great Depression. AFSC leaders worked skillfully with government officials—even to the point that long-time AFSC director Clarence Pickett developed a strong working relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and through her had significant contact with President Roosevelt himself.

Three different kinds of activities in the late 1930s indicate the breadth of AFSC’s concerns. In face of widespread poverty among mineworkers in southwestern Pennsylvania, AFSC helped create a self-supporting community of former mineworkers that provided possibilities for economic self-determination. This community faced numerous barriers, but did manage to succeed in many ways and provide a model for others.

AFSC had links with numerous Quaker centers throughout Western Europe that had begun with the post-World War I relief work. With the rise of Nazism, these Quakers, with support from AFSC, sought to facilitate the emigration of beleaguered Jews. They met with resistance from the American and British governments, so were unable to help nearly as many people as they wanted to. But they helped some, they sounded the alarm (too seldom heeded) about the increasing danger faced by Jews, and they challenged (not successfully enough) the political structures in the U.S. to respond to this crisis.

The third example of AFSC efforts was its work to provide alternatives for military service for draftees. With their years of work with government, Quaker leaders were uniquely situated to lead peace church efforts to shape government policy toward conscientious objectors. They worked with government officials to create and operate what became the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program in collaboration with Mennonite Central Committee and the newly created Brethren Service Committee.

As it turned out, the Friends CPS camps attracted a wide range of COs from various traditions (the Mennonite camps were populated mostly by Mennonites; and the Brethren camps had a strong Brethren identity), partly due to a disappointingly small number of Quakers who chose to be COs. Throughout the war years, AFSC leaders debated whether the agency should cooperate so closely with the war-making government. In the end, when the government insisted that the CPS camps continue for nearly two years even after the War ended, AFSC opted out of its involvement with CPS.[3]

As with World War I, so also in the devastating aftermath of World War II, AFSC effectively devoted extraordinary resources to relief work. This work was recognized when AFSC and its British counterpart the Friends Service Council were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their relief work.

During the Cold War years, AFSC continued with its relief and development work, giving special focus to offering aid to victims of warfare. As had been the case since its founding in 1917, AFSC gained wide respect from various sides in these conflicts as genuinely oriented toward humanitarian aid and not political partisanship.

At the same time, within the United States, AFSC did take strong stands critical of the American National Security System. One influential AFSC publication, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, was issued in 1956 and gained wide attention for its critique of American (and Soviet) nuclearism and its articulation of an alternative vision for the international order based on “the effectiveness of love in human relations.”[4]

AFSC provided important support and leadership in the early development of the Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements. When the American participation in the Vietnam War grew during the mid-1960s, AFSC joined with various other long-term peace organizations (such as Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and War Resisters League) to provide organizational resources for the anti-war movement.

Throughout the Vietnam War years, AFSC worked hard at antiwar activities, provided widespread draft counseling to aid prospective inductees who sought CO classification, worked with members of the military who sought help in dealing with their traumatic experiences, and engaged in extensive aid and development work in Southeast Asia.

During a time of intense debate, agitation, turmoil, aggressive protest, and polarizing conflicts, AFSC provided a distinctive presence. On the one hand, operating from a consistently pacifist perspective, AFSC offered a rigorous critique of American involvement in this war. This critique also included skepticism toward the various public relations efforts by American governmental officials. Yet, also drawing on its pacifist convictions, AFSC rejected the more militant and at times even violent reactions by some in the antiwar movement against American policies and policy-makers.[5]

Its rootedness in a centuries long tradition of pacifist commitments and respect for other perspectives (the belief in the presence of God in each person) sustained AFSC in its consistent witness against the war in the midst of the great turmoil in the U.S. during the decade from 1965-75. Their consistency allowed AFSC to continue their antiwar witness even after President Nixon pursued his “Vietnamization” policy of reducing American presence on the ground while heightening the American aerial devastation of Vietnam.

The Vietnam War finally drew to a close in 1975 following Nixon’s fall from power and Congress’s belated willingness to end funding for the conflict. The same mainly pacifist groups that had initiated opposition to the war remained the main voices of continued opposition after the antiwar movement shrank. As with FOR, WILPF, and WRL, for AFSC this was witness to core convictions that centered on an opposition to all war as inherently immoral.

After 1975, AFSC worked hard at reconciliation efforts with the Vietnamese, actively but futilely seeking the normalization of relationships between the United States and Vietnam. AFSC also actively participated in efforts to resist American intervention in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America during the Sandinista years. Probably most controversially, AFSC has supported the Palestinian resistance to Israel.

Prominent Quaker sociologist and peace educator Elise Boulding offered this evaluation of the efforts of the AFSC:

The AFSC had gone far in acknowledging kinship with and staying in relationship with groups whose lifeways differ sharply from those of middle class pacifists, groups that sometimes seek more far-reaching changes than the average pacifist feels called upon to support. This has led the AFSC into uncomfortable situations that many of us have never had to confront. Keeping a steady and loving spirit in those situations, and upholding the commitment to nonviolence requires great inner strength. Certainly the AFSC has made mistakes. But they have been the mistakes of love and concern. We can choose to stay in risk-free spaces where the purity of our pacifism is never questioned, or we can choose to move into those spaces where humanity’s growing pains are more acutely on display.[6]

In spite of, or perhaps in some sense because of, the messiness of its direct engagement in peacework in the midst of intense conflicts, an engagement that has certainly included remarkable and exemplary relief work but also has gone beyond relief work to attempt to address causes of conflicts and take sides on behalf of the victims of warfare (hot and cold), the AFSC has embodied a powerfully transformative ethic of servanthood.

Part of the power of the AFSC surely has followed from its rootedness in a particular Christian tradition. It has certainly practiced an impressive inclusiveness both in welcoming as its workers people from a variety of religious and non-religious traditions, and in offering its services to all in need regardless of ethnicity or creed. Yet it has also remained firmly anchored within the Quaker tradition and drawn most of its support from Quaker sources.

Mennonite Central Committee

In 1920, Ukranian Mennonite representatives approached North American Mennonites with an urgent request for assistance. They faced extreme suffering due to the civil war in the Soviet Union and a resultant famine. Various Mennonite groups responded positively. Due to concerns with possible chaos should each group’s efforts remain separate, a single agency to coordinate the assistance was needed. Thus, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was born.[7]

MCC has served as the main expression of common Mennonite values and convictions. The work of MCC started out with a focus on famine relief. By the time of World War II, the work expanded to include MCC’s role as the coordinating agency representing Mennonites to the U.S. government in the formation and operation of the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program for conscientious objectors.

American Mennonites’ experience during World War II shaped their pacifist convictions in several important ways. The generosity Mennonites expressed through MCC’s relief work was also expressed in the churches’ financial support for the CPS program. Mennonites supported their own CPSers, but their contributions also underwrote the expenses for other COs who lived in the Mennonite-operated CPS camps.

For many, CPS participation led to greatly expanded horizons. If prior to World War II, Mennonites had tended to think of their pacifist convictions primarily in terms of living faithfully as “the quiet in the land” who practiced their nonresistant faith in neighborly ways in their isolated communities, as a consequence of their exposure to the wider world, many accepted the challenge to apply their convictions much more broadly after the War ended.[8]

This urge to apply Mennonite peace convictions more broadly led to an expanded ministry for Mennonite Central Committee. It also led to the establishment of several new agencies that sought to address human needs. Three were formed by the early 1950s: Mennonite Mental Health Services (MMHS), Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), and Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

The work of MMHS emerged from CPSers’ work in various mental health hospitals throughout the U.S. These COs witnessed horrendous conditions, and emerged from that experience with a strong desire to see some alternatives. MCC developed a program that would lead to the establishment of several new mental health facilities staffed by professionally trained Mennonite caregivers (a big challenge, since as of 1945 there was not a single trained Mennonite psychiatrist[9]).

Mennonites formed MEDA in 1953 to complement MCC’s relief work with an explicit focus on development assistance. As with MCC itself, MEDA began by focusing on needy Mennonites, in this case Russian and Prussian refugees who had settled in South America following the War. Supported mostly by North American Mennonite business people, MEDA focused on “offering grants and loans for long-term economic development instead of charity for immediate needs,”[10] and in time expanded its reach far beyond Mennonite communities.

MDS emerged from former CPSers who saw a need for organized assistance to victims of natural disasters. By its 25th anniversary in 1976, MDS had grown to involved nearly 2,000 congregations. Except for a single paid executive director, MDS’s work has veen done by volunteers. “Yet the record of this vast, decentralized organization, as its historian Katie Funk Wiebe has written, ‘reads like a roll call of national disasters. Name the disaster and you’ll find MDS was there.’”[11]

The biggest consequence of World War II for Mennonite peace concerns was the greatly expanded international ministry of MCC. In 1940, MCC’s work was mainly to aid impoverished Mennonites in the Soviet Union and to those who had migrated from the Soviet Union to South America. Over the next several years, MCC began to work in England, France, Poland, India, China, Egypt, and Puerto Rico. Immediately following the War, MCC entered seventeen more countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.[12] MCC sought to be non-involved in partisan politics. However, in a broader sense, MCC’s work was deeply political. MCC did seek to further self-determination everywhere on earth—echoing the ideals of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter—without the use of coercive methods.

When the United States reinstated the military draft in the late 1940s, the policies concerning alternative service changed. Instead of requiring COs to take assignments in government-operated Civilian Public Service camps, nongovernmental agencies could provide assignments for COs. As well, the service was no longer restricted to North America. Consequently, during the 1950s and 1960s, MCC accepted thousands of COs performing alternative service and placed them throughout the world.[13]

The emergence of MCC and growing Mennonite acculturation led to a “gradual metamorphosis” in the application of their pacifist convictions.[14] According to historians Peter Brock and Nigel Young, “Three issues, successively, dominated church discussions of peace and war and led in turn to a radical restructuring of the North American Mennonite peace witness: the question of political responsibility, the draft, especially during the Vietnam War, and the liberation of the socially oppressed, particularly in Latin America where missionary activity had led to the emergence of indigenous Mennonite churches in virtually every country there.”[15]

One major impact of World War II on Mennonite young adults was an exposure to the wider society through their CPS work. For many, this exposure led to an interest in applying their pacifist convictions to problems of the day. They also tended as a consequence to have a more positive attitude both toward other peacemakers outside their Mennonite communities than had been the case in earlier generations and toward society and the state in general. The long-term, deep-seated Mennonite suspicion toward “political involvement” began to lessen.

Numerous Mennonites responded positively to Martin Luther King’s active nonviolence. For example, Guy Hershberger, the prominent author of the standard book on Mennonite peace convictions, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (1944), made an effort in the 1950s to understand King’s work and ended up as a supporter, even arranging a King visit to Goshen College, the Mennonite school where Hershberger taught.[16]

The civil rights movement of the 1960s, led by King and inspired by Gandhi’s practice of nonviolent resistance, made a strong impact on many Mennonites. An African-American Mennonite pastor, Vincent Harding, worked closely with King and thus also helped to acquaint Mennonites with nonviolent resistance. Harding also played a major role as King’s own peace witness became more radical. He wrote the initial draft of King’s widely noticed speech, April 4, 1967, that sharply critiqued the Vietnam War.[17]

Mennonites responded much differently to the Vietnam War than they had to World War II. A Kansas Mennonite, James Juhnke, won the Democratic nomination and ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress as a peace candidate. A number of Mennonites practiced tax resistance, joined in public antiwar demonstrations (including civil disobedience), and for the first time in the U.S., some Mennonite young men refused to cooperate with the draft, choosing prison or exile in Canada over alternative service.[18]

During the entirety of World War II, not one American Mennonite went to prison as a draft resister. With Vietnam, several dozen Mennonites did go to prison and numerous others exiled themselves to Canada.[19] Their resistance reflected a growing acceptance of non-Mennonite sources for war resistance such as Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. Many Mennonite resisters had contact with the wider anti-war movement. They also felt unease with what they saw as Mennonite privilege in relation to Selective Service that tended to result in favored treatment. They “thought Mennonite draftees should take their stand on an equality with others who opposed war and refused to fight; and they tended to see their own stance, though it brought them into conflict with the law, as a ‘prophetic witness’ to the excessive demands of the state.”[20]

Though the actual number of Mennonite draft resisters was quite small, their stance did gain the official approval of the two largest Mennonite denominations. Later, when President Carter reinstated draft registration in the late 1970s as a means to “show resolve” toward the Soviets, a number of Mennonite young men refused to register. The denominations offered support for these resisters (while not recommending that course of action for all registrants). The main governmental sanction for non-registrants has been the refusal to allow non-registrants to receive government financial assistance for college. So the Mennonite Church USA offers grants for non-registrants partially to offset that loss.

With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the focus of Mennonite peacemakers changed to several new initiatives with links to MCC, as well as continued relief and development work. MCC had earlier established a “Peace Section” to further reflection on peace issues in light of Mennonite theology and a “Washington Office” to aid in listening to federal political issues and to provide a base for witnessing to legislators. Early in the history of the Washington Office, MCC facilitated the testimony to Congress of various MCC workers who had served in Vietnam during the war years.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, MCC established new staff positions for people working in the emerging areas of restorative justice and conflict resolution. Mennonites provided important pioneering work in both of these areas and established a widely respected graduate program at Eastern Mennonite University that focused on both arenas. Also in the 1980s, Mennonites initiated a more direct action oriented ministry called Christian Peacemaker Teams that sent workers to various conflict areas around the world to seek to establish a peaceable presence.[21]

The Catholic Worker

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States would scarcely have been considered a peace church. Educated Catholics likely knew of the Just War doctrine’s call for limitations to warfare, but the general Catholic view of warfare would have reflected Augustine’s fourth-century expectation: Christian citizens leave the determination of the justification for war to their governments; their task is to obey the call to go to war when it comes.

However, by the time of the Vietnam War, Catholics made up the largest group of COs of any religious group in America. Catholic activists, including numerous priests and nuns, gained wide visibility in their active opposition to that war. During the massive movement against nuclear weapons during the late 1970s and 1980s, the American Catholic bishops issued a widely noticed pastoral letter that spoke sharply against the arms race and explicitly presented Christian pacifism as one legitimate response to war.

Many factors contributed to this evolution among Catholics—and it should be noted that the vast majority of American Catholics still support American militarism. If we had to pick just one American Catholic who exercised the most influence in their increased opposition to warfare, it would be a remarkable Catholic convert and lay person, Dorothy Day, the co-founder with French immigrant Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement.[22]

Day, who was born in 1897, became a Catholic in her late 20s. In 1933, the height of the Great Depression, Day and Maurin established the first of their “houses of hospitality” to provide food and shelter for needy people. Day, who had a background in radical journalism, decided also to start a newspaper that would speak to the crises of the American system, but from an explicitly Christian personalist perspective. She chose the name “Catholic Worker” to convey both a sense of connection with the concerns of those engaging these crises from a Marxist perspective (whose paper was called the “Daily Worker”) and a sense of distinctiveness. This was a Catholic, not a Communist, movement.

From the start, Day affirmed a gospel-centered ethic. The message of Jesus provided the Catholic Worker’s direction, most obviously in the call to offer acceptance and general sustenance to those in need. Also, though, Day saw as part of this gospel message an uncompromising commitment to nonviolence. The newspaper expressed strong affinity with the other pacifist currents prominent in the U.S. during the 1930s.

From the start the Worker relied upon donations from Church sources—though the Worker houses and publications always retained their formal independence. During the 1930s, the houses of hospitality clearly met a significant need. They generally were popular with church officials because they provided a Catholic presence amidst the struggles of the needy.

However, the onset of World War II changed everything for the movement. Day and her closest colleagues remained resolute in their opposition to all warfare, even in the face of strong support for the War among their main constituency. As a whole, Catholics supported the War at least as strongly as the wider American population. During the war years, support for the Catholic Worker shrank drastically. Numerous houses had to close due to lack of support and circulation for the paper dropped to a fraction of its prewar numbers.[23]

About one hundred Catholics chose to enter Civilian Public Service, most (though not all) linked with the Catholic Worker. These numbers were high enough to warrant the creation of a CPS camp specifically for Catholics that would be supported financially by the Catholic Worker. This camp was established in Massachusetts, but did not receive enough support to remain viable, lasting only about a year.[24] The Catholic Worker’s costly pacifist stance became a foundation for the expansion of Catholic peace activism in the following generation.

Two Catholic converts helped shape the Catholic Worker peace witness in the Cold War years. Robert Ludlow, a World War II CO, wrote about Gandhian nonviolence in the Catholic Worker, presenting it “as a potential substitute for war and as ‘a new Christian way of social change.’” Ammon Hennacy, a World-War-I-socialist CO and a lifelong political radical, joined with the Worker and pushed the group to more direct engagement in peace activism.[25]

Dorothy Day herself made the news beginning in 1954 for being arrested for her refusal to participate in legally mandated civil defense drills—participation that she believed implied an acceptance of American nuclear weapon policies. This was the first step in what has since become a long tradition of Catholic pacifist civil disobedience.

With impetus from the Catholic Worker, Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace group founded by French and German Catholics in 1945, established an American branch in 1962—notable for bringing together pacifists and non-pacifists. Two years later, a new group with an overt pacifist commitment also got underway—with the intent of complementing the work of Pax Christi. The Catholic Peace Fellowship, with strong Catholic Worker connections, affiliated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The FOR connection signaled a new—and permanent—bridge between Catholic pacifists and organized Protestant pacifism.[26]

Another inspiration for American Catholic peace activism was the brief, transformative papacy of John XXIII. John convened Vatican II, to move Catholics into the twentieth century. Shortly before he died, John issued the encyclical Pacem in Terris, a call for peace that made it possible for “good Catholics” to begin to consider pacifism as a valid option. “Among those lobbying at the Council in favor of pacifism and conscientious objection were two Americans, the Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton and the lay theologian James Douglass. Both men helped to shape the further development of American Catholic pacifism.”[27]

Merton, a prolific writer read far beyond Catholic circles, advocated for Gandhian nonviolence and sharply critiqued America’s war in Vietnam. While Merton’s understanding of peacemaking continued to develop, his conviction about “the essentially nonviolent character of the Christian message” remained firm. He believed that nonviolent tactics were always best in responding to evil and oppression. “Merton made his mark on American Catholic thinking on war…by the skillful manner in which he blended Gandhian satyagraha with the Sermon on the Mount and made the former an acceptable component of Catholic peacemaking.”[28]

James Douglass, also a prolific writer, had a major impact as a creative antiwar activist—most notably with the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action near Seattle in the 1970s and 1980s. Douglass’s writings, beginning with The Non-Violent Cross in 1968, broke important ground in Catholic theology by presenting Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary.[29]

The names most commonly associated with Catholic resisters to the Vietnam War are Daniel Berrigan and his younger brother Phil. Both were priests, and they collaborated with close colleagues to perform a series of acts of civil disobedience beginning in 1968 that stretched Catholic peace concern to new extremes.[30]

The Berrigans had close connections with the Catholic Worker, FOR, and Catholic Peace Fellowship. They valued Merton’s writings highly and drew deeply on Jesus’ teachings (more than on the Catholic natural law tradition). Their additional step was to perceive a calling to go so far in their protests as to destroy government property. They believed, though, that such protests remained consistent with nonviolence—even as they burned draft board files or despoiled them with demonstrators’ blood. In face the of the horrendous war they were ready to become “criminals for peace.”[31]

The Catholic resistance sustained its activities—moving after the end of the Vietnam War to anti-nuclear activism and involvement in the sanctuary movement that resisted American intervention in Central America. Philip Berrigan especially received prison sentences on many occasions. He worked closely with Catholic Worker communities, which had retained a thoroughly pacifist witness even after Dorothy Day’s death in 1980.[32]

The influence of Catholic pacifists became so extensive by the early 1980s that they played a major role in the writing and discussion of the American Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear war, The Challenge of Peace. This letter was issued in 1983 in the midst of the Freeze movement that challenged the Reagan administration’s acceleration of the arms race. It gained much attention in Catholic circles and far beyond.[33] The bishops were seen as making an extraordinary statement in opposition to the American role in the arms races, even if that opposition was expressed in nuanced terms.

The letter did not fully embrace pacifism. However, to an unprecedented degree it affirmed pacifism as a fully legitimate option for Catholic Christians. Notably, at this time several American bishops did publicly express thoroughgoing pacifist convictions—including the influential bishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, who worked closely with James Douglass and the Ground Zero Community. Hunthausen and the other pacifist bishops also cited Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker as an important influence along with the writings and witness of Thomas Merton.

Antiwar activism

After the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed their treaty in 1963 that banned atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, the widespread citizen’s movement that had helped make the treaty possible rapidly dissipated. It would be well over a decade before this movement rekindled and pushed the nuclear powers again toward disarmament.

However, another crisis arose in the U.S. that drew many of the same activists into creating another movement. The expansion of the American war effort in Southeast Asia gradually met with resistance. As with the anti-nuclear movement, the antiwar effort never coalesced into a large, unified force—and, as with the anti-nuclear movement, the antiwar effort did not succeed in gaining its core goals. Yet, also as with the anti-nuclear movement, the antiwar effort did accomplish a gargantuan task in the face of an intransigent state committed to expanded militarism: it helped prevent the worst case scenario from occurring.

Organized opposition to the Vietnam War began in the early 1960s with the witness of many of the pacifist organizations we have met already—the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Catholic Worker, the War Resisters League, and the American Friends Service Committee (with its allied organization, the Friends Committee on National Legislation). In time, war opposition expanded greatly and in many ways departed from its pacifist roots.

The American war effort ultimately became untenable when President Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford could not overcome Congress’s willingness to defund the war. At this point, in 1975, the main antiwar activists who remained were representatives of the original antiwar movement. Peace historian Charles DeBenedetti says this about the final phase of antiwar activism:

[In January, 1975], the Assembly to Save the Peace Agreement was the last gathering of the movement. Here…were the organizations that antedated the nation’s involvement in Vietnam: the FOR, the AFSC, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the WRL, and FCNL. They had provided much of the initiative for the reconstruction of the modern peace movement in the late 1950s and had been the core of antiwar activism.[34]

The basic stance of most of these pacifist organizations in the early 1960s was one of principled opposition to Cold War militarism and to an American foreign policy that tended to respond with military interventions to the efforts of formerly colonized peoples to gain self-determination.[35] The anti-nuclear weapons movement provided the foundation for the emergence of the anti-Vietnam War movement that succeeded it in the mid-1960s. The core pacifist groups provided one stream and the other came from the more politically centrist elements that had opposed nuclear weapons, such as SANE.

When American military involvement in Vietnam first gained the attention of peace activists in the early 1960s, the critique that emerged focused on four concerns. First, critics argued that the American military intervention was immoral. By this time, Americans were beginning to implement “scorched earth” policies such as the use of napalm, highly toxic chemical defoliants, and the forced relocation of peasants. Second, critics strongly doubted whether it would ever be possible, especially through the method of massive military violence, for the US to cultivate a genuinely independent, anti-communist South Vietnam (the stated goal of the intervention). Third, this intervention quite likely would endanger rather than enhance, regional and global political stability. Finally, expanding this war in the face of domestic dissent would lead to repression of this dissent with disastrous consequences for American democracy.[36]

These four points remained at the heart of the antiwar argument for the next decade. The pacifist elements of the movement especially focused on the moral critique. They articulated persuasive arguments—but the broader antiwar movement tended to focus on the pragmatic parts of the critique. As the war’s lack of success became more apparent, even in the face of the Johnson administration’s dramatic expansion, opposition widened. But with the widening of the movement, many pacifist concerns were marginalized.

A particularly important fruit of the activists’ antiwar work was the development of an alternative narrative to the government’s pro-war propaganda. For example, the journal Liberation, largely founded and sustained by the War Resisters League, provided an outlet for thorough and sophisticated examinations of American policies and their consequences. The Friends and Mennonites, among others, provided an important resource by sending young people, often conscientious objectors performing alternative service, to Vietnam to engage in relief and development service. These on-the-ground participants supplied first person witness to the devastating consequences of the American intervention.[37]

The Catholic Worker peace witness among Catholics provided a powerful catalyst for what came to be some of the most widespread and influential expressions of Christian antiwar activity. Several young Catholic pacifists, including James Douglass, who as a graduate student in Rome had consulted with several bishops on peace issues during Vatican II, and Tom Cornell, who first burned his draft card in 1960, joined with the prominent Catholic writer-monk Thomas Merton to form the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CFP) in 1964. CFP members Daniel Berrigan and his fellow priest brother Phil, became prominent antiwar activists during the Vietnam years. Both brothers sustained their radical pacifist witness in the decades following.[38]

A major innovation that strengthened activists’ ability to get their message out emerged in March 1965 with the teach-in movement. The first teach-in was organized at the University of Michigan. It triggered a rapidly expanding movement. In the next week over 35 other colleges hosted teach-ins on Vietnam, and the number expanded to well over 100 by the end of the school year. The expertise of peace groups such as FCNL and MCC as well as academics in various disciplines provided a solid core of content for these gatherings and the ongoing bases for persuasive alternative analyses of the war.[39]

Martin Luther King strongly opposed the war. He believed it posed a terrible danger to the effort to deepen racial and economic justice in the US as he presciently perceived that the government would be much more likely to cut back on its “war on poverty” should it feel the need to pour more resources into the war. Probably even more fundamentally, King rejected the war because of its inherent immorality. In the summer of 1965, King’s tentative public war opposition drew strong fire from his pro-Johnson allies. By April 1967, though, King felt that he had no choice but to speak out unequivocally against the war. His speech, delivered at New York City’s Riverside Church (and drafted in its first version by King’s Mennonite associate Vincent Harding) provided a sophisticated critique both on pragmatic and principled grounds—and irrevocably deepened the gulf between King and Johnson.[40]

Though Richard Nixon defeated Johnson’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey in the closely contested 1968 presidential election by claiming to have a “secret plan” for peace, he came into office planning to squash the anti-war movement. “For Nixon, antiwar activists were not communists. They were worse. They were Americans whose attack on the creed of global toughness represented an irresolution which Nixon saw as the Achilles’ heal of democracy.”[41] Nixon followed Johnson and tried to discredit war opponents at anti-American with the help of often illegal activities by the CIA and FBI.

In the fall of 1969, the antiwar movement organized its largest protests, the October Moratorium. At this point, a clear majority of American people polled identified themselves as “doves” (55%) rather than “hawks” (31%) and about 80% were “fed up and tired of the war.” Yet, fewer than half of those polled supported the Moratorium action and about 60% agreed with Nixon’s contention that “antiwar demonstrations aided the enemy.”[42]

Over the next several years Nixon transformed the U.S. war effort—the numbers of American soldiers on the ground in Southeast Asia decreased while the air war accelerated. Nixon’s popularity fluctuated wildly, as did the support for the opposition effort. At the time of the 1972 election, though Nixon managed to gain one of the largest landslide victories in American history, the antiwar forces in Congress also gained ground.

Nixon’s hostility toward war opponents led to an increase in his administration’s illegal actions, culminating in the Watergate scandal and his resignation. Even then, the new president, Gerald Ford, sought to continue American investment in the military victory of South Vietnam in the war. Finally, war opponents in Congress asserted themselves forcefully enough to make Ford end this support and pull American forces out altogether.[43] The South Vietnamese government very quickly collapsed and the successors to Ho Chi Minh (who had died in 1969) claimed victory and unified Vietnam under their communist government.

The antiwar movement gained strength by 1971 from an influx of veterans who, with great credibility, spoke against the war.[44] Another element that increased its influence was the draft resistance movement, and the willingness of potential draftees to seek conscientious objector status. By 1971, the Selective Service System had become overwhelmed with protests and appeals for reclassification and reached the point of collapse, leading the Nixon Administration to end the draft in 1972.[45]

For almost certainly the first time in world history, a massive protest movement opposing a nation’s war arose in the midst of the war being fought. The antiwar movement clearly restrained the war-making proclivities of the American government—during the Vietnam War and in the years since. In the end, even after Nixon’s resignation in disgrace as a result of his illegal efforts to undermine the antiwar movement, the American government’s support for the war could well have continued indefinitely had not Congress finally pulled the plug on funding—due largely to the impact of the antiwar movement. After thirty years of continuously conscripting young Americans into the military, widespread resistance to the draft brought it to an end.

And yet, the antiwar movement did not turn the tide against American militarism. Those responsible for the U.S. entering and prosecuting this terrible and self-destructive war suffered few repercussions. American militarism survived this period more or less intact, ready for reinvigoration in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s contra war in Central America and expansion of nuclear weapons programs. In the years after 9/11/2001 with the “war on terror,” militarism expanded yet more. This sustenance of militarist dynamics even in the face of such a major failure as Vietnam stands as witness to the transformation wrought by the creation and sustenance of the American National Security State directly as a consequence of the nation’s investment in total war during World War II.[46]

The Vietnam War experience was a major contest between American democracy and American militarism. The military project experienced extraordinary on-the-ground failures and a strong consensus against the war effort that finally solidified by the early 1970s. Yet still, the momentum we may trace from Franklin Roosevelt’s gearing up for military intervention in 1940 to Barack Obama’s expanding of the American war effort in Central Asia seventy years later barely slowed.

The key element of the story of the opposition to the Vietnam War indeed may not be the movement’s ineffectiveness nearly so much as the intransigence of the American federal government. Key policy makers realized after Lyndon Johnson’s decision to expand the American military intervention that the war was unwinnable already in the mid-1960s.[47] The realization eventually spread to the highest levels (e.g., Johnson’s defense secretary Robert McNamera and eventually Johnson himself). Yet the U.S. continued to visit tremendous destruction upon this small corner of the world for nearly a decade more—mainly for the purpose of international appearances. Sustaining this war profoundly damaged American democracy despite the extraordinary efforts of the antiwar movement.

Civil society and peacebuilding 

If the 20th century saw unprecedented levels of destructive war-making, it also saw the emergence of numerous strategies to overcome the curse of warfare. The mass movements inspired by Gandhi, Civil Rights activism, resistance to nuclear weaponry and the Vietnam War, and the emergence of widespread development and relief work by organizations such as AFSC and MCC all witnessed to unprecedented levels of creative peacemaking.

In the latter part of the century, promising alternatives to ever-spiraling militarism and violent responses to conflicts emerged, often linked under the rubric “civil society.” Mary Kaldor, one of the field’s more prominent thinkers, defines “civil society” as “the process through which individuals negotiate, argue, struggle, against or agree with each other and with the centers of political and economic authority.” These “individuals” address their concerns “through voluntary associations, movements, parties, [and] unions.”[48]

Widespread use of the term “civil society” arose in the 1970s and 1980s in resistance movements that brought change—mostly without violence—in central and eastern Europe and in Latin America. Both regions were dominated by militarized governments, and in both cases dictatorships ended and political cultures changed due to the success of largely nonviolent resistance.[49] People from these two regions, although they faced similar problems and approached them in similar ways at roughly the same time, had little if any direct interaction. Kaldor suggests that they failed to collaborate because the Latin American movement gained impetus from the political left and included numerous Marxists while the European movement was self-consciously anti-Marxist.[50]

Despite the lack of synergy between the two efforts, civil society became a global movement. Latin Americans during the 1970s and 1980s forged important ties with North American human rights activists, and the central and eastern Europeans linked closely with those in western Europe who worked for peace and human rights. The various movements all sought to utilize their respective countries’ formal acceptance of international human rights legislation.[51]

We may understand “civil society,” in a broad sense, as efforts to construct and cultivate alternatives to military-centered concepts of social order. Certainly these well-known efforts at social change in Europe and Latin America are important examples, as is the work in South Africa to end apartheid.[52] On a much smaller scale, illuminating a “servanthood approach,” we may consider Mennonite contributions to civil society.

For Mennonites, World War II and the Vietnam War both became times of creativity. In the run up to World War II, Mennonites played a major role in negotiations with the government, leading to the establishment of Civilian Public Service. Less than other groups of conscientious objectors, Mennonites did not find CPS to be an unacceptable case of government control over dissent. Mennonites, by and large, were happy with their experience in finding freedom to express their unwillingness to participate in the War and with their opportunity to find outlets for their service concerns.[53] Mennonites were ready when the War ended to devote creative efforts to war relief and international development, mostly under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee.

With Vietnam, Mennonite responses reflected increased acculturation. Unlike World War II, when no Mennonite COs refused to cooperate with the draft, during Vietnam numerous Mennonites were non-cooperators. Some went to prison and others moved to Canada.[54] A number of other Mennonites who did cooperate with Selective Service, actually performed their alternative service in Southeast Asia and ended up playing a role in educating legislators and the broader American public about the actual events on the ground in the war areas.[55]

In part to facilitate the witness in the U.S. of their personnel who served in Southeast Asia, MCC established a formal presence in Washington, DC. MCC’s Washington Office also sought to speak to governmental officials on other issues and to report to Mennonite congregations of events in the nation’s capital. This presence in Washington signaled important shifts in Mennonite understandings of the shape of their tradition’s convictions about peace.[56]

Increasing numbers of Mennonites sought to exert a more direct influence on their wider political culture. Mennonites were no longer as content with a separatist pacifism.[57] Although the new development did involve Mennonites in political advocacy centered on trying to influence governmental leaders, Mennonites also sought to find other avenues as well for their social concerns. Interest in these other avenues led Mennonites to seek alternatives to warfare and violence that linked with the civil society movement. The most common term by the beginning of the 21st century for these efforts was “peacebuilding.”

The roots of the Mennonite involvement in peacebuilding go back at least to the years shortly after World War II. As soon as possible after the War, American Mennonites spread around the world as personnel with MCC. They encountered first hand the devastation of the War, offering the help they could (help that indeed meant the difference between life and death for many people). While glad for the opportunity to serve in these ways, numerous MCCers came to the conviction that more than relief was needed. One of these relief workers told how she was challenged in a way typical to many others: “What you’re doing here is fine,” she was told. “But it’s Band-Aid work. You came after the war, after the damage was done. Why don’t you go home and work for peace and get at the root causes of evil and war?”[58]

Many Mennonites took this challenge to heart and came to believe they should try to address the dynamics that lead to international violence. “Mennonite relief workers were taught by their hosts that it was not enough for relief workers to distribute food and clothing to the starving and homeless. The starving and homeless articulated the need for more than material assistance. Mennonites were asked also to be peacemakers, to work at changing systems and institutions that caused suffering.”[59]

Even with this catalyst to stimulate Mennonite efforts to broaden their practice of peacemaking,[60] it took another couple of decades after the War and the trauma of the Vietnam War for clear and distinct efforts to coalesce. Specifically, I will mention conflict resolution, restorative justice, and direct intervention in places of conflict around the world.[61]

Peace studies professor Robert Kreider (himself a World War II CO) accurately sketched in a June 9, 1975 memo developments to come:

We sense there may be need and receptivity for the services of a panel of persons on tap to intervene, mediate, and provide consultative services in crisis situations—including a variety of conflict skills such as assessment, strategizing, organizing, coalition-formation, negotiation, empowerment, etc….[This] could open avenues for peacemaking that go beyond the traditional roles of making statements on issues of war and peace.[62]

A few years later, MCC hired a full-time staff person to begin Mennonite Conciliation Services (MCS). Mennonites found conciliation and mediation attractive options that provided a possibility for peacemaking activity that would stand in the “middle ground between protest and civil disobedience, on the one hand, and traditional quietism, on the other.” This kind of peacemaking activity “was considered more socially engaging and less radical.”[63]

As conciliation work evolved among Mennonites, it naturally spread to include taking peacebuilding expertise to various conflicts around the world where Mennonite conciliators make important contributions—for example, Northern Ireland, Somalia, and Nicaragua. MCC began a new effort, the International Conciliation Services. A graduate program in peacebuilding was established at Eastern Mennonite University in the mid-1990s, and the program’s founding professor, John Paul Lederach, became an international authority.[64] One of the most influential efforts of this peacebuilding program is its Summer Peacebuilding Institute that every year attracts hundreds of students from dozens of countries, many of whom return home to play leadership roles in their nation’s social life, especially in conflict resolution work on all levels.[65]

About the same time Mennonites established MCS, an independent effort also emerged that drew on many of the same cultural and convictional resources from Mennonite communities. This work in the pioneering arena of restorative justice—efforts in the criminal justice field to reduce violence and increase possibilities for reconciliation between victims and offenders—also gained MCC support.

Mennonites established some of the first Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs in the 1970s and MCC established a Criminal Justice Office in 1977. This office was staffed by Howard Zehr who became an international leader in the restorative justice movement. Zehr’s book Changing Lenses[66] provided philosophical and theological bases for approaching criminal justice with a focus more on bringing healing to victims, offenders, and their communities than on retributive and punitive policies that tend only to heighten the spiral of violence.

Restorative justice has gained quite a bit of traction in various segments of the criminal justice system. It has also, especially as presented by Zehr, other Mennonites,[67] and allies,[68] provided perspectives for a broader philosophy of dealing with conflict and wrong-doing.

Mennonites have continued to have deep concerns about overt resistance to warfare itself. Militancy in war resistance that grew in segments of the broader society during the Vietnam War had parallels in Mennonite communities. In the years following the end of that war, Mennonites and likeminded pacifists worked to establish a nonviolent peacekeeping force that began in 1986 called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT).[69] CPT activists visit various hot spots around the world (e.g., Israel/Palestine, Colombia, Iraq, the Chiapas region in Mexico) seeking both to “get in the way of war” and to observe and provide first-hand reports on these various conflicts.

These examples (conflict mediation, restorative justice, and peacemaker teams) reflect the fruitfulness of Mennonite “servanthood” that sought to find concrete ways both to address the roots of war and to aid in actual conflict situations. All are examples of “civil society” work as defined by those in the 1980s who reinvigorated that concept in face of intractable authoritarian and totalitarian governments. As such, their efforts stand in contradistinction with the spiral toward ever-dominant militarism traced in the first two sections of this book. Their weight is tiny, but they point to what is likely the only way out of the “iron cage” of the national security state.


[1] Brock and Young, Pacifism.

[2] Quoted in Weisbord, Some Forms, xvii-xviii.

[3] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription.

[4] DeBenedetti, American, 16.

[5] DeBenedetti, American.

[6] Quoted in Brock and Young, Pacifism, 343–4.

[7] Juhnke, Vision, 249.

[8] For accounts of the evolution of North American Mennonite pacifism see Bush, Two; and Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite.

[9] Toews, Mennonites, 210.

[10] Toews, Mennonites, 209.

[11] Toews, Mennonites, 212. I can personally attest to Wiebe’s statement. In December 1964, my hometown Elkton, Oregon, suffered a “hundred year flood” that devastated the surrounding area. At that time, I had never heard of Mennonites. About fifteen years later, after I had become acquainted with Mennonites, I met a Mennonite pastor who had been living in Oregon at the time. It turned out that he had been part of an MDS team that had spent time in my community offering much needed assistance.

[12] Toews, Mennonites, 201.

[13] Redekop, Pax.

[14] Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite.

[15] Brock and Young, Pacifism, 347.

[16] Schlabach, War, 447–70.

[17] Branch, Canaan’s, 603.

[18] Brock and Young, Pacifism, 348–50.

[19] Miller and Shenk, eds., Path.

[20] Brock and Young, Pacifism, 349.

[21] For an account focusing on both the conflict resolution work and peacemaker teams, see Sampson and Lederach, eds., From. On restorative justice, see Zehr, Changing. On Christian Peacemaker Teams, see Kern, In.

[22] Miller, Dorothy Day.

[23] Piehl, Breaking, 191–8.

[24] Zahn, Another. Zahn himself was a CO who served at Camp Simon. Unusually for a World War II Catholic CO, he came to his convictions totally separate from the Catholic Worker. After the War, though, Zahn became closely linked with the Worker during his career as a prominent sociologist, author, and peace activist.

[25] Brock and Young, Pacifism, 369.

[26] Brock and Young, Pacifism, 369.

[27] Brock and Young, Pacifism, 370.

[28] Brock and Young, Pacifism, 370–1.

[29] See, most notably, Douglass, Nonviolent.

[30] Polnar and O’Grady, Disarmed.

[31] Brock and Young, Pacifism, 372.

[32] Laffin and Montgomery, eds., Swords.

[33] Murnion, Catholics.

[34] DeBenedetti, American, 373,

[35] DeBenedetti, American, 22.

[36] DeBenedetti, American, 88–90.

[37] Miller, Wise, 124–60.

[38] Polnar and O’Grady, Disarmed.

[39] DeBenedetti, American, 107–9.

[40] Branch, Canaan’s, 581–97.

[41] DeBenedetti, American, 240.

[42] DeBenedetti, American, 264.

[43] Young, Vietnam, 281–99.

[44] DeBenedetti, American, 306.

[45] DeBenedetti, American, 308–9.

[46] Scahill, Dirty.

[47] Ellsberg, Secrets, 126–42.

[48] Kaldor, Human, 136.

[49] See Ackerman and Duvall, Force, especially chapters three (“Poland: Power from Solidarity”) and seven (“Argentina and Chile: Resisting Repression”).

[50] Kaldor, Human, 137–8.

[51] Kaldor, Human, 139–40.

[52] See Ackerman and Duvall, Force, chapter nine (“South Africa: Campaigning against Apartheid”).

[53] Grimsrud, “Ethical,” 163–204.

[54] Miller and Shenk, Path.

[55] See Martin, Reaching.

[56] Miller, Wise.

[57] Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite; and Stutzman, From.

[58] This quote concerns MCC relief worker Hedy Sawatsky. Quoted in Miller, “History,” 7.

[59] Miller, “History,” 7.

[60] For one account of responses to the military draft during the 1950s and 60s see Redekop, Pax.

[61] We may also note a different kind of peacemaking fruit that emerged from the experience of Mennonite Central Committee workers in post-World War II relief work. John Howard Yoder was a North American Mennonite relief worker who began serving in Europe in 1949. Over the next decade, responding to his immersion in helping bring life back after the War’s devastation, Yoder began to develop a distinctive theological program that is now recognized as the most profound effort to ground pacifism in Christian convictions. This effort gained its most notable expression in his book, Politics. The story of the direct link between Yoder’s European experience and his influential books is told in Earl Zimmerman, Practicing, 70–100.

[62] Quoted in Miller, “History,” 9–10.

[63] Miller, “History,” 11.

[64] One of Lederach’s particularly important books was published by the United States Institute of Peace: Lederach, Building.

[65] Probably the most famous alum of this program is Liberian Leymah Gbowee, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

[66] Zehr, Changing.

[67] See Redekop, Changing and Sawatsky, Justpeace.

[68] See Christopher Marshall’s two books: Beyond and Compassionate.

[69] The definitive history, from a participant, Kern, In.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s