Blogs > HNN > Leilah Danielson: Review of Glen Harold Stassen and Lawrence S. Wittner's Peace Action: Past, Present and Future (Boulder & N.Y.: Paradigm Publishers, 2007)

Apr 18, 2008 6:43 pm

Leilah Danielson: Review of Glen Harold Stassen and Lawrence S. Wittner's Peace Action: Past, Present and Future (Boulder & N.Y.: Paradigm Publishers, 2007)

[Leilah Danielson is assistant professor of history at Northern Arizona University. She is currently writing a biography of A.J. Muste tentatively titled “A.J. Muste and American Radicalism” (forthcoming University of Pennsylvania Press).]

This collection of essays lives up to its title – exploring the “past, present, and future” of Peace Action, the largest grassroots peace organization in U.S. history. The occasion of the collection is the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in 1957; SANE merged with the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (the Freeze) in the late 1980s and in 1993 SANE/Freeze became Peace Action. With contributions from some of the most important figures in Peace Action’s history, the collection takes a chronological and thematic approach, exploring both the history of the organization as well as key topics, such as the role of women, internationalism, and the influence of faith-based communities. Glen Harold Stassen and Lawrence S. Wittner did an excellent job editing the book. Each contribution is relatively short and clearly written, offers insight on Peace Action’s achievements as well as its defeats, and provides a treasure trove of inspiration and wisdom for anti-war activists today.

Probably the most important point made by the contributors is that peace activism matters; it played a central role in the partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, ending the Vietnam War, modifying the nuclear policies of the bellicose Reagan administration, ending the Cold War, cutting off funding for the Bush administration’s Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, among other achievements. The foreword by U.S. Representative Barbara Lee reiterates this point, noting that Peace Action’s grassroots efforts have educated and mobilized citizens, which in turn has given peace-minded legislators the crucial “people power” they have needed to affect public policy. Peace Action has also played an important role in Washington D.C. by collaborating with members of Congress on legislative strategy. Its legislative accomplishments have often been “partial, incomplete, or otherwise somewhat compromised,” as current executive director Kevin Martin comments, but that is no reason to downplay them.

As the comments by Martin suggest, the tone of the collection is at once self-reflective and hopeful. Contributors pointedly evaluate the past, while also affirming the possibilities and achievements engendered by citizen activism. Sanford Gottlieb, a founding member of SANE and the group’s executive director from 1967 to 1977, recalls that SANE’s leadership had to learn the importance of the grassroots. His successor, David Cortright, discovered that door-to-door canvassing was far more effective in building SANE’s membership base than direct mail campaigns, an important lesson for anti-war activists today who look to the internet as an organizing tool. The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, who helped facilitate the merger of SANE and the Freeze, writes that one of the most important lessons learned was that “process matters…. The hours and hours we spent making sure our grassroots groups were welcoming and inclusive was time well spent.” (107) Ben Senturia makes a similar observation, noting that in building alliances with other social justice groups, peace activists must recognize the reciprocal nature of such relationships. The Freeze tended to ask “What can you do to help pass the Freeze?” rather than “How can we help each other? What is our mutual interest?”

Senturia’s comments point to a persistent pattern in the history of Peace Action: On the one hand, the group has been most successful in mobilizing large numbers of people and building a diverse coalition when it has focused on a clear, seemingly obtainable issue, particularly nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s and the Freeze in the 1980s. On the other hand, once a short-range victory has been achieved, the movement has declined. This dilemma points to a central tension in the group’s history – whether nuclear proliferation and/or testing of nuclear weapons can be separated from the issue of U.S. foreign policy and, even more broadly, a world system that is exploitative and unsustainable. That begs the question: What would a broader vision look like, and how can it be inclusive in the context of a fractured liberal and left tradition?

For Peace Action activists, the question of vision is imperative in the context of the Bush administration’s policy of unilateralism, militarism, and disrespect for human rights; indeed, if history is any guide, without a long-range plan, short-range objectives like ending the war in Iraq may attract broad support only to evaporate if and when the war ever ends. Thus, toward the end of the collection the contributors articulate Peace Action’s Long-range Strategic Plan – Real Security through International Cooperation and Human Rights, a more comprehensive, integrated approach in which internationalism and anti-militarism are linked to “safe and sustainable jobs, good schools, affordable health care, and renewable energy.” Whether one agrees on the precise language of Peace Action’s vision, the conversation it has started is an important one.

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