Can Old Peace Movements Stand up to the New War?


French version :
Le vieux pacifisme et la nouvelle guerre

When we walked out of our New Yorkers Say No to War meeting several weeks ago, a friend said, “Pacifist is a dead word. We need a new word.” My first reaction was to agree wholeheartedly. The Vietnam era has passed and the promise held by its repertoire for social action seems to have faded with it. The cynics of my generation are too young to remember Vietnam and want to feel like something is being done to address the new global problems that confront us. After September 11th, pacifism, with its corresponding images of marches, petitions and other forms of nonviolent protest, seems to miss the point. It is not that I disagree with these tactics - not at all, but we need something stronger, some sort of action that resonates with and unites the efforts to oppose the war. In responding to the events of September 11th, it is not enough simply to oppose war, there should be a clear, effective and, above all, active alternative to the decision to go to war. But what shape can that action take, and how does the desire for action among Americans - hawks and doves alike - affect the US peace movement ?

Social movements, according to the political scientist Sidney Tarrow, can increase their chances for success in reaching their goals when they seize political opportunities presented to them. In the past several months, peace movements have been confronted with challenges as well as opportunities that were scarce in recent decades. In the United States, this is the first time in modern memory that they have faced large-scale violence at home that was sponsored and carried out by foreigners. During subsequent weeks there was a break in business as usual. Politicians, activists, lobbyists and ordinary citizens paused to contemplate the appropriate course of action. Although many US citizens expressed vehemently their desire for violent retaliation in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the same event produced the opposite effect in other quarters. The attacks mobilized many other people to enter the peace movement for the first time.

Across the US, peace organizations have responded energetically to the new circumstances and new political climate. But something is missing. Their goals articulate critical points but they often use the same sets of familiar tools to reach them. Old peace movements continue with the language of peace that they have always used, and new movements start up using the same language. They describe their objectives such as “ending militarism” and strengthening “disarmament, international cooperation, and social justice” via “peaceful alternatives to violence” not by “escalation and retaliation.” They use the now familiar repertoire for social action - promoting peace vigils, writing letters to the editor, calling talk show hosts and writing to politicians. There is nothing weak about these words and activities. They are all admirable efforts. Yet in the current climate, with media controlled by fewer and more powerful corporations, are these reactions strong enough to influence government policies and increase membership in peace organizations ?

The peace movement in the 1960s focused on promoting an anti-war statement. The Vietnam War took an obvious toll providing a steady stream of dead conscripts to remind US peaceniks of their mission and goals. By the end of the 1960s, opposition to Vietnam was so strong that an anti-war statement was effective and powerful in its directness and simplicity. After Vietnam, peace movements in the US metamorphosed into organized institutions and many concentrated largely on the anti-nuclear effort. In this new context, a simple anti-war statement was not considered strong enough. Targeted protests and active campaigns to change legal institutions were used instead. Members of the movement formed socially responsible organizations such as Physicians for Social Responsibility and Educators for Social Responsibility, among others. After powerful initial success, the anti-nuclear movement ebbed in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the change in the public perception of the threat. They lost access to public voices as many of the more moderate elements of the Democratic Party were replaced by new conservatives and tolerance for dissent decreased. Coincident with the conservative turn in the Democratic Party, peace organizations and the peace movement fell from fashion, retained hippy images from the sixties and lost step with the money-making groups of the 1990s.

Simultaneously, internal changes may have weakened the movement. In the 1990s, the threats of war and even of nuclear proliferation seemed so distant to the population within the United States, that many activists stopped making the peace movement a priority. In addition, institutionalizing the movement has meant that more groups have sprung up within it. These organizations rely on tactics, such as lobbying, that have lost an element of surprise and innovation that belonged to their less organized predecessors. Because the movement is not financially powerful, using mainstream tactics to promote a non-mainstream vision may, in fact, make it easier for opponents to marginalize these organizations. To address these trends and changes at home, many peace groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the War Resisters League (WRL) shifted their priorities to focus on violence abroad.

In the current climate, peace words are linked so strongly to the anti-war movement of the 1960s and to an image of inaction, that they cloud these more recent shifts in direction. The associations with these words make it easy for pro-war journalists and legislators to dismiss the peace movement’s logic rather than confront the moral and ethical dilemmas it raises.

After September 11th

Three months after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, where is the peace movement and, in particular, what is happening among these voices in New York City ? It is important to examine the peace movement for a moment in light of the larger context of the American Left. Before this autumn 2001, from the outside, it may have looked like the US did not have much of a political left. What little there was seemed to be continually marginalized, in chronic disarray, broken up by infighting and political fragmentation. Although there are brilliant independent thinkers in the US within academia and outside, and in the past several months there has been an upsurge in teach-ins on university campuses across the country, many of these thinkers are treated either as fringe elements of society, or marginalized in academia, rarely integrated into mainstream media as the public intellectuals that they should be.

Reading a smattering of post-September 11th articles from the few national left-leaning magazines reflects the quandary that the prospect of war or peace presents to the left. Confronted simultaneously with genuine fear, the urge to take immediate action and the urge to bring criminals to justice, it was difficult for the left to propose a clear strategy. It was also difficult to choose a nonviolent approach and make it appear active at the same time. For sympathetic observers, despite understanding the tension this complexity produced, it was disheartening to see bright and critical columnists picking each other apart in high profile debates while George W. Bush was shooting off careless phrases and proposals that threatened innocents at home and abroad. Since September 11th, the deafening shouts for war and revenge combined with media censorship virtually drowned out the few voices that existed on the left, leaving those who disagree with the solutions proffered by conservatives wondering what alternatives were possible, and uncertain where to turn. The independent media, in fact, with few exceptions, seemed nearly unable to rally, confined to its tiny political boat and nearly capsized by accusations and counter-accusations.

At a certain point in early October, if the US mass media is any reflection of public trends, peace movements seemed as though they might be similarly drowned, or relegated finally to irrelevance. Fortunately, the peace movement and corresponding organizations seemed to have fared better than many writers on the left (now in mid-November, the writers are regaining their balance). Although attempts at mass mobilization achieved less than what was hoped for, there were two early successes for the movement. The first was in providing counter information. Dozens of impromptu email lists and resource-rich websites sprang up around the country to satisfy Americans’ desire for information about Osama bin Laden, the Middle East, Afghanistan and even about the history of the CIA involvement in these regions. International news websites such as the Manchester Guardian, or the London Independent, saw their number of subscribers shoot up dramatically. The second early success was the march and rally for peace around the country on October 7th, the day the US began bombing Afghanistan. In New York City alone ten thousand people gathered in Union Square and walked to Times Square to protest the bombing and to demand alternative action. Despite its reliance on old methods and familiar forms of protest, the peace movement maintained a following, and perhaps even expanded its membership in the days immediately following the attacks.


The Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League are two of the oldest peace organizations in the United States founded in 1915 and 1923, respectively. They take inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and believe in eliminating war and its roots via nonviolent means. In the 1990s, both organizations repositioned themselves to work on eliminating violence abroad. Reflecting its religious roots, FOR sent delegations of religious leaders and peace activists to Iraq at first to try to prevent war, and later to serve as witnesses to the destruction caused by the war. WRL took up the causes of Haiti, Rwanda and Somalia, and both worked on the Yugoslav wars.

Which forms of social action do these organizations promote and what tactics do they use now ? After September 11th, the two organizations maintain their references to nonviolence and pacifism. Both organizations focus on education and action. The War Resisters League, “believing war to be a crime against humanity...advocates Gandhian nonviolence as the method for creating a democratic society free of war, racism, sexism, and human exploitation.” The WRL publishes pacifist literature, including its own magazine, organizes demonstrations, forms coalitions with other peace and justice groups and supports people who resist the military at all levels. The staff provides training in civil disobedience and war tax resistance.

Because of its interfaith origins, the Fellowship of Reconciliation is more spiritual than WRL in its approach yet its principles are similar. It aims to “develop resources of active to abolish war and promote good will among races, nations and classes.” Its goals include building a new social order in which oppression and exploitation have been eliminated. Echoing the idealism of the 60s, all their statements and calls for action are predicated on love.

Among the new organizations, the first meeting of the group that was to become New Yorkers Say No to War took place on Sunday, September 16th at the home of Eve Ensler (writer, performer and activist/feminist). It was a relatively spontaneous gathering of New Yorkers who were in shock after the destruction in southern Manhattan and who wanted to express their concerns and views, most of which seemed immediately to differ from the mainstream US approach, and to diverge widely from the views voiced by George W. Bush. This group wanted to understand the attacks and explore alternatives to violent US responses. There was a sense of urgency in the founding of this new group - a sense that traditional approaches were not entirely satisfying, that a new group was necessary to address the new needs of the current crisis. It focused on two points: self-education and action, the same points that are underscored by WRL and FOR.

NYSNTW meetings rely on speakers, invited from their respective organizations, to deliver information sessions on a range of relevant issues from the activities of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), to information on detainees from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to how to address the mainstream media. The organizers and members are bright, dedicated, well-connected and many are new to the peace movement. They are artists, academics and activists. The group has particular relevance because it is based in New York, because it began during a time of fear and motivation and because it is comprised of New Yorkers who were affected directly by the attack on the World Trade Center. In other words, it has two critical ingredients that make viable organizations emerge from a movement-the ability to mobilize resources and a strong identity.

In response to September 11th, these three organizations - NYSNTW, WRL and FOR - published press releases that, although they varied in tone, promoted similar alternatives to the bombing campaign suggested by Bush. All three argued that the attacks on New York and Washington be considered a crime and as such, that the perpetrators be pursued and charges brought against them in accordance with international law. To promote these alternatives, they used vigils, leafleting, demonstrations and phone calls to legislators.

Adding to these standard forms of protest, NYSNTW is working on developing new forms of social action among the existing repertoire. Musicians in the group wrote an active peace song to launch the new responses. A poster series showing portraits of individuals is intended to expand the public space for individuals to speak against the prevailing mood of “public unity” and pro-war propaganda, and to suggest new ways of thinking - the artist video taped interviews of NYSNTW members and used these clips to create the posters. Then there is PropWare. For those who took special interest in the modern US capitalist response to war - go shopping - PropWare is just the thing. “PropWare is slogans, artwork, ideas and grafix, words, pictures, graffitti and Fully-Activated Free Speech devoted to the idea that the War against Afghanistan (and beyond) is Wrong. PropWare is ideal for use on handbills, as posters and stickers, or as an accessory with the latest fall fashions.” It is a brilliant pink card with the words “No more shopping till the bombs stop dropping” printed on it. (These projects are all listed on the NYSNTW website:

Obstacles to the Anti-War Effort

Despite the shared priorities, both the condemnation of war and the support of the legal alternative, efforts to organize a mass movement have met with limited success. As is often the case among left movements in the US, it is difficult to unify because each group attaches its own agenda to the shared message. And many people believe that the alienation of the left in the US, particularly because it is generally denied access to mass media, increases its tendency to fragment.

In addition to the problem of fragmentation, according to Columbia University law professor and NYSNTW organizer Kimberly Crenshaw, one of the primary issues facing the peace movement in the United States is a “breathtaking ignorance about the world.” She highlights the double meaning of the importance of “global literacy” as not simply striving for literacy in regions where there is little, but also as requiring that American elites become literate about the world in which they live. Since the consolidation of media outlets among corporations, there is a corresponding homogenization of most information available in the US. After the immediate threat of danger is over it is difficult to sustain the movement. Global literacy is perhaps one of the most important ways to sustain the presence of a movement.

But what has become dramatically clear since the Northern Alliance and US war victories of mid and late November is that there is a profound shift in mood in the United States. Hendrik Hertzberg was among the voices advocating for bringing criminals to justice for the attacks in the first September issue of the New Yorker after the 11th. In the December 3rd issue he writes, “Apart from traditional pacifists, who oppose any use of force on principle, and a tiny handful of reflexive Rip Van Winkles, almost no one objects, in broad outline, to the aims and methods of the antiterrorism campaign.”

It is hard to refute this view because of the caveat “in broad outline,” and it is true that even among activists in New York, the sense of urgency and panic born from the immediate threat of danger is no longer present to the same degree that it was several weeks ago. However, more people object than are visible if tallied according to the description above. What people do object to-and this is the new magic of the old peace movement - is the violation of civil liberties in the name of this new war. The women of Afghanistan, used to justify the entry into battle and to demonize the Taliban, are now virtually absent from the talks in Bonn. Over 1,000 immigrants were detained in the US and denied rights, denied information and, in some cases, deported for minor visa infractions. Newspapers, lawmakers and citizens at home and abroad object to military tribunals. These violations are the rallying call for the renewed peace movement.

What now ?

« Advocacy networks » are a valuable vehicle for promoting justice and human rights issues transnationally, according to the political scientists Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink. They rely on techniques such as framing issues in new ways, seeking political opportunities to present their arguments, and widening their scope and access to information. In the past decade, activists for the campaign to prevent violence against women and the environmental movement have increased their impact dramatically by using transnational advocacy networks. That said, can old peace movements stand up to the new war ? Yes, they can-if they are strategic about it, increase their coordination and use advocacy networks.

There are two clear and critical steps that peace movements should take in order to consolidate their strength and increase their membership. First we should link the peace movement more clearly to other issues. With the recent shifts in mood, NYSNTW has sustained itself by centering on one of the issues that is fundamental to its identity-women’s rights and roles. Women’s rights, civil liberties and more focused calls for justice can provide the resources, media and basis for concrete action that will resonate with and motivate more people than the current language and tactics do. This is essential.

Second, we should make these movements international, linking them to transnational advocacy networks. With increased globalization, citizens worldwide are affected by US domestic politics more now than they have ever been in the past. In other countries with civil liberties and women’s movements, and movements for an international criminal court, it is important for the members of these movements abroad to lend support to their colleagues in the US. In addition, they should hold their governments accountable for collusion with the US. It is more difficult for the US government to act against justice when it does not enjoy the full support of its European counterparts.

It remains to be seen if the tragedy of September 11th can unify the peace movement and make its priorities resonate with the disaffected hundreds of thousands who have rejected the war, but have not yet chosen the alternatives offered by traditional peace organizations. Peace forms the basis for organizations that focus on issues of social justice-it is the common denominator, the idea that they all share. US peace efforts will be more effective today if they are rooted in social movements that are proactive and good at withstanding dramatic changes in the mood of the country.