Robert Shaffer: Review of Lawrence S. Wittner's "Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual" (Tennessee, 2012)


Robert Shaffer is professor of history at Shippensburg University. His latest publication, in the Winter 2012 “Journal of American Ethnic History,” examines the India League of America during the Cold War

Lawrence Wittner, through his scholarly engagement from the 1960s to the present, has done as much as anyone to revive and extend the field of peace history. His first book, Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960, was published in 1969, while the final volume of his magnum opus, The Struggle Against the Bomb, appeared in 2003, followed by a condensed version of the trilogy, entitled Confronting the Bomb, in 2009. Wittner has been a leading member of the Peace History Society (which had been founded as the Conference on Peace Research in History in 1964), serving as editor of its journal from 1984 to 1987 and on its executive board for three decades. Recently retired from the History Department at the State University of New York at Albany, Wittner -- whose short pieces on historical and current political themes appear regularly on the History News Network and the Huffington Post -- has written an autobiography which combines his intellectual awakening and academic accomplishments with his steadfast political activism and what he portrays as a rather messy personal life. (This reviewer chaired a Peace History Society committee which in 2011 named Wittner the recipient of the group’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Wittner’s memoir serves as a case study of the shift in the historical profession from its stuffy and predominantly conservative tilt in the early 1960s to its welcoming of left-of-center voices today. Born in 1941 and beginning his first job as a historian in 1967, Wittner was in the first wave of the new breed of historians that helped transform our field intellectually at the time when college enrollments were swelling and public universities -- unlike today -- were expanding their liberal arts faculty.

Wittner’s narrative moves briskly from a nice ethnographic portrait of his family background in Brooklyn’s Eastern European Jewish community to his own lonely boyhood, a flowering as both an undergraduate and doctoral student at Columbia (with a year in the middle at the University of Wisconsin), short stints at historically-black Hampton Institute and elite Vassar, and then two years abroad before landing what would become his career appointment at Albany. The author then describes in greater detail the academic politics at Albany which almost cost him tenure, his divorce and second marriage, his involvement in union and democratic socialist politics in New York State’s capital city, and, as his academic reputation became more secure, his national and international work with the peace and disarmament movements in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Throughout, Wittner mentions dozens of people with whom he worked at one point or another in his very full, multi-faceted life. The vignettes include afternoons and evenings at anti-war GI coffeehouses in Japan in the early 1970s, arrests protesting Reagan’s policies in South Africa and Central America, and unexpectedly being chosen in 2004 to lead the annual march in Hiroshima commemorating the atomic attack.

Wittner generally writes with a light touch, playing up his hijinks as a Columbia student, for example, and his run-ins with police in still-segregated Virginia that appear humorous in retrospect but probably did not feel laughable at the time. Emphasizing that his secular Jewish background was neither left-wing nor intellectual, Wittner portrays his political activism as tentative and intermittent as a student, only becoming more sustained as a professor. At Hampton he became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, was active in anti-draft work, and stood up against the every-day segregation still prevalent in Virginia, while at Vassar he and a few like-minded colleagues vehemently lambasted local corporate heavyweight IBM, an important donor to the college, for its Defense Department contracts.

Wittner also makes clear his disdain for the far left, devoting his time and energy in Albany to Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America rather than to the Marxist-Leninist groupings of some of his university colleagues. (His dismissal of Students for a Democratic Society in just a few sentences is more problematic.) Wittner’s youthful attraction to pranks and spoofs continued throughout his life, with many of his political activities characterized by their theatricality.

Among the best sections of Working for Peace and Justice are Wittner’s descriptions of the day-to-day work of a leftist activist in the 1980s and 1990s, which in his case tied together DSA, local city council elections, the faculty unionism of the United University Professions, other labor support work (including a sustained campaign for fair treatment for campus dining hall workers), and the anti-apartheid movement. Wittner here analyzes both the successes and the personal challenges that such political involvement entailed, sensitively conveying the exhilaration of positive work with the burn-out and even desperation brought on by working with too few activists in the face of a hostile political environment. A spate of recent books examines the liberal and left-wing grass-roots activism of the 1970s and 1980s, and Wittner’s memoir joins them as a first-person account of an era which up until now has suffered relative neglect by scholars because of the long historical shadow cast by the more tumultuous 1960s.

Nevertheless, there are sections of these memoirs that are not as successful, in some cases because of too much introspection and in others because of inadequate self-analysis. I suspect most readers will not have much interest in Wittner’s intimate cataloguing of his relations as a child with girls and women, from biting his mother while breast-feeding to a series of infatuations with “cute” and “attractive” classmates. Memoir-as-therapy is an important aspect of the genre, but in this case Wittner’s introspection fails to yield any semblance of balance in attributing blame for his failed first marriage. The honest description of his courtship -- while still married and with a young child -- with the woman who would become his second wife conveys the anxiety of the affair, but surprisingly makes no comment about the ethics of such a relationship with his teaching assistant. Wittner offhandedly mentions his participation in a “men’s group” (analogous to a feminist consciousness-raising group) for some years after his second marriage, but he gives no indication of how these sessions affected his self-perception or his relationships. Wittner’s examination of his lifelong efforts to overcome his stuttering will elicit greater empathy from readers. The rules of the modern memoir practically demand that an author label himself or herself as an “outsider,” but this theme from Wittner’s boyhood can only partially explain his eventual attraction to radical politics and historical study.

More seriously, perhaps, for the “memoirs of an activist intellectual,” there is inconsistent attention to placing in broad context the events of the author’s life and the significance of his writings. Wittner alludes to material in his FBI files, but does not examine them. He mentions in two brief paragraphs his 1982 book, American Intervention in Greece, 1943-1949 (“my best work thus far,” he says), but does not give its argument or how it added to the growing revisionist historiography of U.S. Cold War policy. Wittner refers at one point to the “dated research and language” of his first book, but does not say how this book on anti-war Americans should have been updated, if the chance had come along to do so. While he shows how his trilogy on the global movement against the nuclear bomb placed him at the nexus of scholarly and activist organizations working for disarmament, and he relates a number of interesting incidents which occurred in the course of researching and writing the books, Wittner’s discussion of the books themselves, and of related articles, does not delve very deeply. A memoir should not repeat wholesale what an author has written in previous works, but an intellectual autobiography might include more sustained reflection on the meaning of one’s academic achievements. Wittner does somewhat better with his activism, but even here, for example, the wider dimensions of the American movement against South African apartheid could be more fully integrated with his description of the role that he and his union played in that struggle.

Wittner demonstrates that he was denied tenure at Vassar for his campus activism, but labeling the next two years spent abroad as “exile” is a bit melodramatic. After all, he received a year’s severance pay from Vassar which allowed him to live on the Italian coast as he wrote Cold War America (1974), and he spent the following year as a Fulbright lecturer in Japan, where he -- an ardent critic of U.S. foreign policy -- was even invited to speak under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency. While Wittner writes that SUNY/Albany kept him on, despite carping (and delays in promotion) by the conservative old guard, because his publication record would help that department strengthen its doctoral program, he has little to say about teaching, about working with graduate students (aside from his future wife), or about how the intellectual life of what he calls a once sleepy teachers’ college had changed thirty-five years after his arrival.

Lawrence Wittner’s event-filled career, which has taken him far and wide even as the banks of the Hudson River have provided a kind of grounding, has earned him the right to reflect on his activism, scholarship, and personal life. Friends, political acquaintances, and those who have admired his other books will find much of interest in Working for Peace and Justice. But the narrow scope of this memoir reduces its appeal to a wider audience.

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