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Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Peace Is Passé: Why the Pacifist Movement Died | The National Interest

Posted by M. C. on October 25, 2019

https://nationalinterest.org/feature/peace-pass%C3%A9-why-pacifist-movement-died-90321

by Pratik Chougule

In the context of the current primary cycle, the Democratic candidates’ reactions to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria have revealed their different views on foreign policy.

In a larger historical context, the candidates, collectively, shifted the Overton window on foreign policy. Among the more notable if underappreciated consequences are the further relegation of the American pacifist movement to the fringes of the country’s discourse.

Marc Lacey and Anderson Cooper, who moderated the fourth Democratic debate, posed leading questions to candidates about “power vacuums” and U.S. “betrayals.” These questions were entirely predictable in a national discourse in which a bipartisan, interventionist elite smells blood amid President Donald Trump’s bungled Syria withdrawal.

To an earlier generation of Americans, however, the moderators’ prompts would have come as a surprise. For the question of whether the United States was morally justified in using military force in the first place was open for discussion.

Extreme as pacifism may seem, the absence of a pacifist movement today stands in contrast to the status quo throughout much of the twentieth century. The pacifist movement never came close to representing plurality opinion. Driven, however, by many of the country’s most influential leaders and activists, pacifism did exert enough influence to shape national policy.

Pacifists were well-represented in the broad-based antiwar movement that tried to keep the United States out of World War I. The movement eventually failed, but as public opinion in the 1920s came to regret the intervention, thousands joined pacifist groups like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Its leader, Jane Addams, was rewarded in 1931 with the Nobel Peace Prize for holding “fast to the ideal of peace even during the difficult hours when other considerations and interests obscured it from her compatriots and drove them into the conflict.”

Even the decisive allied victory in World War II wasn’t enough to eliminate the pacifist movement as a national force. During the 1940s, the conscientious objectors of the war organized as “radical pacifists” and popularized Gandhian strategies of nonviolent resistance in the American pacifist scene. The American Friends Service Committee, founded during World War I on behalf of conscientious objectors seeking alternative service, used its relief work to gain enough prominence to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

By the mid-1950s, a new peace movement—driven by issues such as nuclear testing and the Korean War—began to coalesce. While the peace movement of the era was comprised predominantly of liberal internationalists who questioned the United States’ Cold War posture, its most cohesive wing consisted of pacifists who rejected war as a matter of principle.

The pacifist movement peaked during the Vietnam War. Pacifist sentiments among the country’s intellectual elite gave the movement outsized influence. A 1969–1970 Carnegie Commission National Survey found that American academics were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Both religious and radical pacifists were represented in the ideological spectrum of academic antiwar opinion.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have weakened public confidence not only through conflicts but also with a strategy of military primacy more generally. These sentiments were reflected in a dig Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) made at the expense of former Vice President Joe Biden regarding his support for the Iraq War, as well as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s ambivalent view on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan even while calling for “American leadership” in the world.

Yet on the larger philosophical question of using military force, not one candidate at the debate came close to endorsing pacifism.

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