Civil Disobedience

Daniel Akst: The World War II Pacifists Who Changed America Forever

"Christian libertarians" Bayard Rustin and David Dellinger challenged state power and ended up leading the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests.


My guest today is Daniel Akst, a journalist and novelist who has written one of the most remarkable books I've read in a while. War By Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance is an irresistibly readable history of peace-mongering practitioners of "Christian libertarianism" who refused to sign on to America's entry into World War II even after Pearl Harbor.

Two of the main figures in the book, Bayard Rustin and David Dellinger, served prison sentences in the 1940s for refusing to even register as conscientious objectors—they said the state had no right to make such demands on them. Along with others such as Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, they pioneered the use of nonviolent resistance that energized the Civil Rights Movement and anti–Vietnam War protests in which they would figure so prominently.

Akst discusses Dwight Macdonald, the leftist writer and editor who worked at Fortune magazine, staunchly opposed the Soviet Union, ruthlessly critiqued mass media, and mentored a generation of public intellectuals including Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, and Bruno Bettelheim. He also explores the origins of the short-lived America First Committee, which opposed U.S. entry into World War II and whose members and sympathizers included a wide range of people, including future President Gerald Ford, Kennedy in-law and Peace Corps leader Sargent Shriver, author Gore Vidal, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and National Review founder William F. Buckley.  

In War By Other Means, Akst recovers a lost current in American politics that will make you think differently about the past and the present, especially given how identity politics and the worst sort of unprincipled tribalism reign supreme in our world today.

Read Max Longley's review of War By Other Means in the March 2023 issue of Reason.

Read Akst's Reason archive.