How World War II Pacifists Laid the Foundation for Future Struggles
Daniel Akst on the Unconventional Origins of the Modern Antiwar Movement
The first time young David Dellinger made The New York Times was on November 3, 1932, under the headline “Yale Cub Harriers Pick Dellinger.” The story, all of two sentences, reports that the former high school track star was elected captain of the university’s freshman cross-country team. The doings of leading Yale men were news in those days, and although Dellinger was an enemy of hierarchy all his life, he was paradoxically a natural leader. Later, at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, he was made president of his class.
Eventually he would become famous as a towering and uncompromising figure in radical causes; Paul Berman, an insightful historian of the postwar Left, writes that, during Vietnam, Dellinger “became the single most important leader of the national antiwar movement.” He became a great deal more famous as a member of the Chicago Seven, whose trial on charges of criminal conspiracy and inciting to riot arose from their antiwar protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Dellinger sat through the proceedings with awkward dignity along with codefendants including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden—all radical celebrities in those fraught times. But surely Dellinger, the oldest of the lot, was the only one entitled to a sense of déjà vu, because he had been through something similar so long before.
In 1940, as he was about to begin his second year at Union, Dellinger was the de facto leader of an idealistic band of students who had decided not to register for the nation’s first peacetime draft. Long before anyone might have dreamed of the Chicago Seven, newspapers across the country were reporting on the antiwar seminarians who would become known as the Union Eight.
Despite considerable pressure from Henry Sloane Coffin—Union’s president, who was known as “Uncle Henry” behind his back—these young pacifists refused to avail themselves of a provision in the new draft law that was included with precisely their sort in mind: “Regular or duly ordained ministers of religion, and students who are preparing for the ministry in theological or divinity schools… shall be exempt from training and service (but not from registration) under this Act.”Yet against all odds, and perhaps all reason, some Americans adhered so doggedly to the principle of nonviolence that they persisted in opposing the fight.
So determined were these resisters to remain untainted by the apparatus of war that they went to federal prison—a segregated prison, reflecting a segregated society—rather than violate their beliefs by filling out a piece of paper. “The war system is an evil part of our social order,” the students wrote, “and we declare that we cannot cooperate with it in any way.” Because their objections genuinely were religious, they probably would have been granted conscientious objector status even had they not been divinity students. “War is an evil,” they wrote, “because it is in violation of the Way of Love as seen in God through Christ.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, probably the nation’s leading theologian and a Union professor they had looked up to, may have been their harshest critic. A reformed pacifist himself, and perhaps therefore imbued with the zeal of the convert, he met with the students individually to try and change their minds. Dellinger’s hysterical father, in a hair-raising phone call, threatened suicide. But the young men were immovable, explaining: “We do not expect to stem the war forces today; but we are helping to build the movement that will conquer in the future.”
These words will seem impossibly idealistic today, much like the belief that freedom could be preserved from fascist military aggression by the sheer moral force of nonviolence. Yet to a great extent Dellinger and his fellow pacifists did conquer the future, even if he and many others left Christ behind.
By 2004, when Dellinger died at the age of eighty-eight, Berman was able to put the late radical’s activism into remarkable perspective. Dellinger, he said, “came of age in one of the tiniest currents of the American left—the Rev. A.J. Muste’s movement for World War II pacifism, a movement based on radical Christian values and vaguely anarchist instincts. No rational person observing that movement during the 1940’s would have predicted any success at all, and yet during the next two or three decades, Mr. Dellinger and his pacifist allies transformed whole areas of American life.”
That tiny current—which somehow became a tsunami of social change—has also given birth to this book, whose aim is not to make the case for absolute pacifism but to tell the story of its remarkable adherents during its greatest trial: the Second World War. No one can dispute the horrors of war, or that opponents of our nation’s many military engagements were all too often right to challenge them as pointless, unjust, or both. But it will come as a surprise to most Americans that, even after Pearl Harbor, thousands in this country opposed World War II. That’s the war we all seem to approve of—the quintessential “good” war during which Americans pulled together and sacrificed.
For the most part, they did, but it was a war thrust upon them despite their most strenuous efforts to avoid it. Before the outbreak of formal hostilities in Europe, polls showed that most Americans were firmly against U.S. involvement in yet another massive and bloody foreign conflict. Conditioned by the bitter disappointment of the Great War, which by the 1930s was widely seen as a waste and a scam, many Americans were determined not to be conned again, this time by a war erupting from an unjust peace. “You were supposed to be wised up about the War,” said Mary McCarthy, explaining: “We were afraid of making a mistake, of being ‘taken in.’”
The evils of Nazism, visible early on only as the tip of a Satanic iceberg, competed in the public mind with those of Stalinism. The lies of the Great War had bred skepticism toward alleged German atrocities. People also worried that another foreign war would beget tyranny at home, for war always increases the power of the state, and tyranny in those days seemed to be in the air, spreading like a virus from nation to nation. American civil liberties had been trampled in connection with the last European war. This time, many feared, would be worse.It will come as a surprise to most Americans that, even after Pearl Harbor, thousands in this country opposed World War II.
During the interwar period, moreover, the United States had developed perhaps the largest and best-organized pacifist movement in the world. Pacifism was part of the curriculum at some schools and firmly on the agenda of the mainline Protestant denominations that were such important institutions in the life of this churchgoing nation at the time. Liberal clergymen, including such celebrity ministers as the indefatigable Harry Emerson Fosdick, spoke out against war from their Sunday pulpits and via the popular new medium of radio, whence the gospel of pacifism reached a student by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. Pacifism was well established on campuses thanks to a massive and diverse national student antiwar movement, with thousands pledging not to fight under any circumstances.
Even after the Nazi invasion of Poland, some people could find little basis for choosing between the growing array of combatants; alliances were shifting, and there were uncomfortable parallels between the imperialist Western powers and their enemies. Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was widely condemned, even if the “final solution” was not yet apparent to outsiders.
But why was it fine for Britain to occupy India and wrong for Germany to occupy Poland, or even France? Why not go to war with the Soviet Union, which invaded not just Poland but Finland and the Baltic States too? “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia,” Harry Truman would suggest on the Senate floor, “and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany.” But when Hitler’s Panzers turned on Western Europe, more Americans began to side with the Allies and the mass pacifism of the interwar years began to dissolve. After Pearl Harbor, which surprised nearly everyone by bringing war to America from Asia, domestic opposition to entering the struggle collapsed.
Yet against all odds, and perhaps all reason, some Americans adhered so doggedly to the principle of nonviolence that they persisted in opposing the fight. About forty-three thousand men were granted conscientious objector status once the draft law of 1940 took effect, out of at least seventy-two thousand who applied. Most were purely religious objectors, and some contributed to the war effort as combat medics or in other non-lethal roles. About twelve thousand, unwilling to cooperate in military activities, accepted assignment to a far-flung network of rural work camps run by the traditional peace churches in uneasy partnership with government. A small number of resisters were radical pacifists whose opposition to war was—or would soon be—part of a vastly more ambitious reformist impulse.
Not all these radicals were religious, and some who were grew less so. Some were granted CO status and some weren’t, the haphazard local adjudication system inevitably producing widely disparate results. And some, like Dellinger, refused to seek that status. “Extreme pacifist is the best description I can think of,” Christopher Isherwood wrote of them a few years after the war, “but it is unsatisfactory and vague; for the group combined several sorts of anarchists, individualists, religious and non-religious objectors. Some of them had refused even to register for the draft, holding that registration itself implies acceptance of the military machine.”
Isherwood’s description serves well enough. Of the roughly six thousand Americans who went to prison for refusing to cooperate with the war in any way, most were apolitical Jehovah’s Witnesses whose confinement reflected the government’s refusal to accept that everyone in the church was a minister. That left nearly two thousand absolute resisters, a small number that belies a large impact.
For the most radical resisters, who emerged from the experience hardened against prison, poverty, and social disrepute, the war became a laboratory for developing the ideas and approaches they and others would employ, in the turbulent decades ahead, to bring about some of the most important social changes in this country since the end of slavery.
During the war, white and black pacifists attacked segregation with teamwork, negotiation, and sit-down strikes. They fought to reform mental health care at home, and to halt the bombing of civilians overseas. They protested the herding of Japanese-Americans into remote concentration camps. They railed, avant la lettre, against the military-industrial complex that was plainly on the horizon. Most of all, influenced by Gandhi, they transformed their pacifism from a philosophy of wartime refusal into an active nonviolent system for confronting and defeating injustice: for the World War II pacifists, nonviolence was not merely a way of living or a matter of resistance. It was frankly aggressive, a way of actually fighting, and something religious pacifists in particular had historically avoided.
In today’s terms we might say these new pacifists sought to “weaponize” nonviolence by translating moral authority into power. In doing so they helped synthesize something new and distinctly modern from a blend of Gandhian nonviolence and Protestant resistance—something suitable to the political, cultural, and technological environment of their own country and culture. The elements were already there; Gandhi, after all, had been influenced by Jesus as well as by Thoreau, and Gandhi in turn had already influenced leaders of the nascent civil rights movement in this country. American pacifists, influenced as well by organized labor, worked during the war to develop a distinctive approach that amounted to nothing less than war by other means.
Practically speaking, there was little they could do to halt the terrible conflict of World War II. But, at the very least, they could call the world’s democracies to conscience. When, in 1942, the Roosevelt administration interned 110,000 Japanese Americans, opponents of the war were among the few who cried foul. When the Allies, at the 1943 Casablanca conference, adopted a policy of “unconditional surrender,” pacifists including Dellinger, Dorothy Day, and Dwight Macdonald called instead for a negotiated peace that might yet (they hoped) save some of Europe’s Jews. Muste repeatedly urged FDR to raise immigration quotas for European Jewry before it was wiped out. And when the Allies intentionally bombed civilians, the nation’s lonely remaining pacifists lost no time in decrying the immorality and hypocrisy of the action. One such unpopular protest, in 1944, made the front page of The New York Times.
All the while, war resisters were developing the techniques they would later use to far greater effect. It was during the war that they refined “direct action” as a means of protest—a media-conscious style of nonviolent confrontation suitable for revealing injustice to its perpetrators and their constituents. Locked up (during the war one in six federal inmates was a prisoner of conscience) or relegated to a remote archipelago of Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps, pacifists from different walks of life got to know each other in facilities that threw together city boys and farmers, Christians and communists, whites and blacks, naïfs and sophisticates in bubbling cauldrons of radicalism.
Behind bars and in the dusty outposts where they worked on irrigation projects and the like, these young men argued, plotted, and educated one another, holding classes and publishing newsletters. Thus did federal efforts to manage the pacifists only radicalize them further, hardening them against social pressure and empowering them to school one another in the tactics of dissent. It was an extraordinary opportunity to hone the nonviolent techniques that would later propel the nation through a period of wrenching progress with far less bloodshed than might have been.
“The biggest single mistake the government made,” said Roy Kepler, one of the more radical conscientious objectors, “was introducing us to each other.”
Excerpted from War by Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance by Daniel Akst. Copyright © 2022. Available from Melville House.