Wittner, Lawrence S., fl. 2007. "Review of Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest". In Collected Book and Web Reviews (Alexander Street Press, Alexandria, VA, 2005) pp. [N pag] [View document in context of full source text] [Bibliographic details]


Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest

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Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest

By Marian Mollin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 272 pp. Cloth, $49.95, ISBN 978-0-8122-3952-2).

Reviewed by Lawrence S. Wittner.

This study surveys the radical pacifist movement in the United States during the years from 1940 to 1970 with respect to its practice of gender and racial equality. Beginning with pacifist action against racial segregation in the federal prisons during World War II, the book moves on to examine the establishment and early work of the Congress of Racial Equality, the role of the radical group Peacemakers, post-World War II draft resistance, the voyage of the Golden Rule, challenges to the building of Polaris nuclear submarines, draft resistance during the Vietnam War, the Catholic Left, and other cutting-edge pacifist ventures.

In a number of ways, this is an exemplary scholarly monograph. Drawing upon a great many manuscript sources, organizational newsletters, interviews, and local newspapers--plus virtually every major published work on pacifism, gender norms, and related issues--Mollin has done an outstanding job of research. Although there are a few factual errors--for example, placing the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1958--overall the book displays an excellent mastery of detail. Furthermore, it is very gracefully written.

Mollin's argument is that, despite the egalitarian ideals of radical pacifists, they "replicated the pervasive and powerful . . . patterns of racial and gender subordination and exclusion that prevailed in the militarized culture of the mid- to late twentieth century" (186). In addition, she maintains that "radical pacifism's continued adherence to racist and sexist practices and dynamics undoubtedly hurt its cause" (183).

In the opinion of this reviewer, these contentions are overdrawn. Of course, to some degree, radical pacifists shared the biased assumptions of the broader society about gender and race. The important question is: To what degree did they share them? Mollin's evidence, bolstered by the historical record, leads to the answer: Not much!

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Her examples of sexist behavior are usually quite subtle and open to differing interpretations: male conscientious objectors engaged in World War II prison and Civilian Public Service camp strikes; male pacifists worried that women activists on the 1947 interracial Journey of Reconciliation might be violently attacked by Southern racists; the lionizing of male draft resistance during the Vietnam War; and the destruction of draft board records by Catholic activists.

Under Mollin's scrutiny, male displays of nonviolent courage are turned into evidence of a catch-all "masculinist" (107) behavior. Noting that Jim Peck, a leading pacifist, was savagely attacked by American Legionnaires at a 1950 Loyalty Day parade, Mollin dismisses this as "his usual masculine bravado"--just another example of the movement's "muscular manliness" (64-65). But what was conventionally manly about refusing to fight and, in this framework, getting beaten up? Mollin claims that, in 1958, when the pacifist crew of the Golden Rule sought to sail into the U.S. nuclear testing zone in the Pacific, they "used their commitment to Gandhian nonviolence to bolster their masculinity" (85). But, as she reports, crew members declared that they were acting to save their children and grandchildren--an untraditional motivation for men and, as a matter of fact, a traditional one for women.

Mollin's examples of racism are fewer and even less convincing--for example, tensions between A. Philip Randolph and pacifists after Randolph abandoned his critique of the U.S. armed forces; the decision of some African American activists, then moving into a black nationalist phase, to expel whites from their organizations; and differing emphases on peace and freedom during the Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo march. By contrast, Mollin does not seem to view the central role of radical pacifists in launching and sustaining the civil rights movement as counting for very much.

Indeed, by holding up an ideal--one even today unrealized in American life--as the measure of all things, Mollin obscures the fact that radical pacifists were far in advance of contemporary society when it came to issues of race and gender. After all, U.S. society of the time was characterized by pervasive violence against African Americans and women, by massive discrimination against them in the areas of employment, education, housing, and credit, by racial and gender segregation, and by a fierce denial of voting rights to African Americans. These were not characteristics of the radical pacifist movement of the era; nor does Mollin claim that they were. In fact, she indicates that the radical pacifist movement provided an unusual opportunity for political participation, camaraderie, and social protest ventures by African Americans and women, and that many took advantage of it. In the context of mid-twentieth century America, radical pacifists were socially and politically avant garde.

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Did the lingering and--compared to most Americans--subtle forms of sexism and racism among radical pacifists undermine their movement's effectiveness? This claim, too, appears exaggerated. Yes, a somewhat larger number of women and African Americans probably would have participated in the radical pacifist movement if it had been even more daring in its challenges to racism and sexism. But these gains on the movement's Left probably would have incurred even greater losses on its Right, which is where its fundamental problem lay. After all, the avant garde nature of radical pacifism was the key factor that inhibited its development into a mass movement, just as the radical nature of Garrisonian abolitionism, left-wing labor unionism, and Marxian socialism restrained their advance, at least compared to their more mainstream (and less egalitarian) competitors, over the course of American history.

In summary, then, Mollin's Radical Pacifism in Modern America is a very well-researched, well-written book, with conclusions that--because of their controversial nature--should spark considerable debate over the practices and efficacy of U.S. social movements.

Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. He is the author of The Struggle Against the Bomb (Stanford University Press) and other works about peace movements and foreign policy.


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