Pacifism Without Principles


Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism, by Guenter Lewy, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 283 pages, $19.95

Guenter Lewy's Religion and Revolution and Revolution in Viet Nam, among other scholarly works, have identified him as a bold mind and at the same time meticulous scholar. In his new book, Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism, he deals with four major American pacificist organizations: the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

Lewy is very far from personal opposition to pacifism as such; that is, pacifism uncorrupted by alien allegiances to social revolution that wind up in manifest contradiction to the pacifist ethic. "When the pacifist's conscience does not allow him to support policies that utilize force or the threat of force, the proper course for him is to remain silent." And this, as Lewy demonstrates, is precisely what American pacifists did for many years following their organization early in the century. They had one overriding ethic: the unholiness and unacceptability of all organized violence, no matter what the parties to it. The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism is about the dismal falling away from that ethic during recent decades. While it does not pretend to be either a historical or a theoretical inquiry, it is a valuable piece of reportage.

All four pacifist groups arose out of World War I, unprecedented in the sheer mass of death and destruction and also in a savagery that only modern military technology had made possible. Lewy contends that these four organizations began with and for several decades maintained an ethic of nonviolence that was applied uniformly and without ideological qualification. Even during the 1930s when Communism and its bedrock of Marxism-Leninism exerted such strong influence on intellectuals and social activists in the United States, the four pacifist groups remained clear of Communist purposes. Lewy cites words of one prominent pacifist, Vincent D. Nicholson, of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), spoken at a major retreat in 1933: to work with Communists was "destructive of the whole principle of life for which the best people of the Society of Friends have stood." He added that Communists are mere "bootleggers to the cause of peace," interested in peace only to the extent that it serves their own nonpacific, militant quest for power.

Such a sentiment, Lewy declares, was broadly representative among the pacifist leaders down through World War II. Indeed, pacifism during this time had the respect and tolerance if not the agreement of a considerably larger number of Americans than had been the case in World War I. And this was unquestionably the consequence of the pacifists' own strictness of principles. Under no circumstances, not even against the soldiers of totalitarian powers, could a turn to violence be justified. Fascism, it was widely said, was itself the fruit of international violence, and any participation in further violence, even and especially against the soldiers of Fascism, would only spread and make worse Fascist despotism.

Approximately in the 1960s, Lewy shows, this principled pacifism, manifest in all four organizations, turned into something selective and ideologically discriminating. Under the impress of the New Left and the unpopularity in America of our entry into Vietnam, only one kind of violence was judged, on an ever-widening basis, to be unholy, unacceptable. That was the violence exerted by the capitalist democracies; not the violence imposed in often terrorist fashion by the North Vietnamese, the Castro-led Cubans, the North Koreans, and other revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist states or guerrilla movements. The emerging revolutionary "pacifist" called for a rigorous differentiation between acts of war by the United States and those by peoples purportedly fighting for liberation from capitalism. Even the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was given condign consideration by many of the new breed of pacifists.

As Lewy is careful to stress, there were and are some notable exceptions in this tale of the corruption of pacifism. One Ed Lazar of the AFSC was tireless in his reminders to fellow members that the Quaker declaration of 1660 on pacificism repudiated "all outward wars and strife, and fighting with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretense whatever; this is our testimony to the world." But such an ancient and honorable position was repugnant to the new breed of Marxist-and Communist-oriented pacifist. Russell Johnson, long a member of the AFSC, wrote an essay titled "The Meaning of the Cambodian Tragedy." We must hesitate, he said, "to rush to judgment and must strive to have some empathy with the Khmer revolutionaries."

No old Bolshevik of Leninist years could have outdone this new type of so-called pacifist in the '60s and '70s in America. For this new pacifist, capitalism was itself a form of violence irrespective of whether overt, actual violence was utilized. Not all members of the four pacifist groups flouted the classic principles of pacifism. But by the mid-1970s, Lewy makes plain, "all the major pacifist organizations had gradually come to support the armed struggle of the National Liberation Front of South Viet Nam. Necessarily this meant a compromise with the pacifist values of reconciliation and nonviolence and eventually the open acceptance of the legitimacy of the revolutionary 'struggle of the oppressed.'"

Pacifists, Lewy concludes, have every right to avoid the moral dilemmas posed by the world of statesmanship and statecraft and seek individual salvation. Today, however, "pacifist groups counsel policies that are couched in the language of peace and justice but that in fact support and promote some of the most brutal and ruthless forces in the world."

Lewy might have concluded his excellent study with Thoreau's words: "There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted."

Robert Nisbet's most recent works are The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (Harper & Row) and Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship (Regnery Gateway).