American Peace Activists in Iraq? Part of a Long and Overlooked Tradition

News Abroad

Ms. Hershberger is a historian and writer whose most recent book is Jane Fonda's War: A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon (The New Press, 2005). She has also published Traveling to Vietnam: American Peace Activists and the War and "Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle Against Indian Removal in the 1830s," in the Journal of American History, June 1999 (which won the 2000 Stephenson-Binkley prize for best article in the JAH). She is currently writing a book on the movement to stop Cherokee removal. She can be reached at

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When four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) were taken hostage in Iraq, American mainstream media revealed a near-total ignorance of the group. In accounts that I read, reporters seldom even cited its name correctly. Given that official information about the conduct of the war in Iraq is both misleading and woefully limited, ignorance of CPT’s long-term and carefully documented eyewitness reports out of Iraq raises questions about the media, of course, but more profoundly about the failure of historians to acquaint American citizens of our long history of activism similar to the work of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq.

For example, during the war in Vietnam, hundreds of Americans went to Hanoi to be eyewitnesses to the war. Mary Clarke and Lorraine Gordon first went to Hanoi in May, 1965, before the antiwar movement had even coalesced. They were followed, over the coming years, by a steady stream of Americans who undertook the dangerous journey to Hanoi to live under their own country’s bombs and report on the war when Americans journalists either couldn’t, or wouldn’t. (Martin Luther King Jr., nearly went to Hanoi in 1967 with German theologian Martin Niemoeller, but was deterred by the real prospect of having his passport confiscated by the State Department). One of these groups went to Cambodia and first revealed the secret bombing there. Others reported how the Pentagon endangered the American POWs in Hanoi by covertly planting surveillance contraband in letter and packages that families of POWs sent to them from the United States. The White House refused to negotiate the issue and all mail delivery to the POWs was cut off. Thereafter, they relied on the travelers to Hanoi, including Jane Fonda, to hand-carry letters and packages from home.

Despite a wealth of archival material on these hundreds of travelers, virtually the only American known today for going to Hanoi is Jane Fonda, and she was rewarded with a campaign of disinformation and lies so extreme that Americans today scarcely know how to separate fact from fiction in her case. Indeed, the fact that Fonda went to Hanoi in July 1972 to gather information about United States bombing of the dikes that held back the Red River is about the only thing her detractors have not charged her with. How many people today, including our students who study the history of the war in Vietnam, know that Fonda did return with evidence that the United States was bombing the dikes and that the consequent furor eventually drew the condemnation of the United Nations and our allies in Europe with the result that Nixon, outraged by it all, but especially by Jane Fonda, was forced to stop bombing the dikes before the rains fell over North Vietnam that year?

Beyond these travelers to Hanoi, there is ample historical precedent for Americans putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the rights and lives of those at risk by our own government. For example, the first Americans to be imprisoned for social justice activism were two white clergymen in 1831 who refused to leave Cherokee territory in Georgia after that state passed a law aimed at forcing sympathetic white people out of the Cherokee nation because they were sending back eyewitness reports about the abuses perpetrated there by Americans. These imprisoned white men were only a small part of a vast movement against Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal bill that nearly defeated the president’s aggressive effort to rid the south of all Indian groups. The activists were deeply disheartened by their ultimate defeat on the removal issue, but they regrouped and rose up again, determined to use the political skills that they had learned in the struggle against Indian removal to defeat slavery, once and for all. “If the impending destruction be brought upon the Indians,”one of them wrote at the time, let it be known “that a solemn and enlightened testimony was borne against it, and that those who perpetrated or permitted the deed of oppression, did it with their eyes open.” 1

How could we historians forgot people like these? They are joined by countless other people forgotten to our history because we tend to privilege the writings and archives of the well-connected and politically powerful. But it was these “forgotten activists” who, time and time again, creatively developed new political forms to promote equity and halt injustice. They were the ones who won the right for Americans to travel to countries that the United States waged war against – a riveting historical and legal story in and of itself. It was people like them who risked their own freedom to help secure rights of speech and association in matters both domestic and foreign, who worked to abandon war in favor of other instruments of foreign policy, who won the right to petition our own government on all issues, even ones as contentious as slavery was in the 1840s and 50s. They worked hard to build a better country and they developed many of the tactics and methods of citizen activism that we take for granted today (and even imagine that our generation created). It’s time to rescue their achievements from the memory hole of history.

We could encourage our graduate students to seek dissertation topics that would involve archival research into some of these forgotten groups and their achievements. The Swarthmore College Peace Collection and the Wisconsin Historical Society are just two of many collections with unused archival material on unknown but historically significant social activism to keep researchers busy for years.

On Wednesday, December 7, a group of twenty-five Americans, defying the travel ban to Cuba, set out from Santiago de Cuba to march to Guantanamo. They call their group “Witness Against Torture,” and plan to ask to meet the prisoners held there. “We believe in taking the risk of speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves,” group spokeswoman Anna Brown said. In a way, that news reminds me of another group of Americans who set out on a “Quebec to Guantanamo Walk for Peace” after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Their plan was cut short when the U. S. Coast Guard seized their boat, “Spirit of Freedom” just off the coast of Florida as they set sail for Havana. That seizure led to a court case aptly named The United States of America v. the Spirit of Freedom. The Americans who are marching to Guantanamo today are also holding up the ideals of freedom against their own government’s disregard of human rights and preference for naked force.

If our repository of national memory were not robbed of these and many other historical accounts of Americans working for social justice at home and abroad, our journalists and citizens alike would have a better context for understanding others today who likewise oppose our government’s foreign policies. American reporters wouldn’t be blind-sided when they discover CPT’ers in Iraq today trying to help families who are working desperately against tremendous odds to find family members swept up in American raids, imprisoned or disappeared, with no prospect of legal redress. Indeed, they might even log on to and there find the careful, reliable information about realities in Iraq that they themselves, confined as they are to the Green Zone, are seldom able to match.

1. “Essays on the Present Crisis in the Condition of the American Indians,” Spirit of the Pilgrims, January 1830, 52.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

First of all, in contrast to what HNN's most frequent commenter, Bill Heuisler says above, I believe

(a) although that the human rights record of Cuba is notably worse than that of the United States over the past half century,

(b) the undeniable comparison in (a) above does not mean that

(i) the United States government is above reproach

(ii) that any reproachers of the United States who are also U.S. citizens are in any way obligated to also reproach the Cuban or any other governments. If, for example, my son is playing his stereo system at 120 decibels, I should not feel inhibited from asking him to lower the volume just because the neighbor kid across the street is blasting at 160 decibels.

(iii) reproachers of U.S. government policies are not themselves above reproach

Secondly, a few skeptical queries re the article under scrutiny here:

The essential claim of Ms. Hershenberger's piece is that the peace activists taken hostage in Iraq are part of a long tradition that has somehow been deliberately excluded from the history which most Americans are offered or exposed to. Of course, detailed evidence cannot be expected in what amounts to a historical editorial, but more tangible proof supporting that bottom line argument (if such exists) might be forthcoming along the following lines:

a) When did peace activists win "the right for Americans to travel to countries that the United States waged war against" ?

b) How significant historically was or is this right ? (I would point out, for example that what happened at Dien Bien Phu, My Lai, and in the Pentagon Papers was well known long before Jane Fonda went to Hanoi.)

c) Who exactly "robbed" "our repository of national memory" of the "long history of activism similar to the work of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq", and how was this
"robbing" carried out ?

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Amy Knickrehm - 12/17/2005

Thank you for the beautiful article, and for your support for CPT.

John H. Lederer - 12/12/2005

"Indeed, the fact that Fonda went to Hanoi in July 1972 to gather information about United States bombing of the dikes that held back the Red River is about the only thing her detractors have not charged her with."

Well she does appear to have drifted a bit off topic in her broadcasts from Hanoi, e.g.:

“I heard horrifying stories about the treatment of women in the U.S. military. So many women said to me that one of the first things that happens to them when they enter the service is that they are taken to see the company psychiatrist and they are given a little lecture which is made very clear to them that they are there to service the men.”

Bill Heuisler - 12/12/2005

Ms. Hershberger,
Giving comfort to one party in a conflict causes harm to the other. Talking about doing God's work while ignoring evil is hypocritical and, in fact, the obvious insincerity could be called worse than evil because it condones evil for political reasons and in the name of God's love.

In VN, the work of the "peacemakers" ignored the tortures, executions and aggressions of the NVA and Viet Cong.
They (mainly US citizens) aided and gave propaganda to enemies of the US.
No mention is made of the fact that those whom the CPT types supported slaughtered and imprisoned 200,000 South Vietnamese after the US did what CPT wanted. An accident? Did no one learn a lesson? Doesn't it matter?

In Cuba they march on Guantanamo to castigate the US for imprisoning terrorists - they march within 100 miles of at least one concentration camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains where AIDS sufferers starve to death.
No mention is made of the Cubans who were killed and imprisoned recently for nothing more than wanting to form a political party...or those drowned fleeing the dictator CPT ignores.

Fox wrote a week before his kidnapping
of "...U.S. forces in their quest to hunt down and kill "terrorists" are
as a result of this dehumanizing word, not only killing "terrorist", but also killing innocent Iraqis: men, women and children in the various towns and villages."

No mention of Muslim terror bombers
who target women and even children in their school yards as they accept candy from US soldiers. No mention of Saddam's killing fields, rape rooms and public executions of Shias and Kurds. No mention of the good or evil intentions of either party. Always CPT assumes evil intent of the US and gives no thought to the intentions of terrorists, VC or UMAP units with purple berets who guard the camps in Castro's Socialist Hell.

Why is it the CPT cannot see any evil except in the intentions of the US?
Bill Heuisler