War By Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance

Image of War By Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance
Release Date: 
December 6, 2022
Melville House
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World War II was a deeply challenging time for pacifists and conscientious objectors, most of whom came to their beliefs in the wake of the horrendous casualties of World War I, which was in retrospect a pointless conflict.

But as World War II approached, America’s leading pacifists—like its generals—were still preparing to fight the previous war, just as the new, unfolding one presented a clear-cut moral point.

This time around, the United States was almost uniformly united against undeniably evil and aggressive foes, one of which attacked the nation without warning.

Therefore, as Daniel Akst writes in his important new book, War by Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance, “Opposing the Good War required courage, a toleration of social disapproval and physical misery, and a willingness to endure poverty.” 

Thus, in WWII, pacifism was in almost the exact opposite position as it would be decades later during the Vietnam War, when there was growing opposition among a wide swath of American public opinion. As Daniel Ellsberg, a leading Vietnam war critic, tersely put it then: “We weren’t on the wrong side. We were the wrong side.”

A columnist for both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Akst describes the difficulties faced by four prominent war resisters in opposing American entry into WWII. After Pearl Harbor, he writes, “domestic opposition to enter the struggle (almost totally) collapsed.” 

Akst’s goal, however, “is not to make the case for absolute pacifism but to tell the story of [pacifism’s] remarkable adherents during its greatest trial: the Second World War.”

For idealists of the future, who may approach with ambivalence the crossroads of principle versus pragmatism, this book is at the same time inspiring and challenging.

The quartet at the center of this book included David Dellinger, Dorothy Day, Dwight Macdonald, and Bayard Rustin. Respectively, they were a Protestant seminarian, a Catholic anarchist and activist, a towering WASP intellectual, and an African American Quaker.

Religion was central to most of the WWII resisters. In all, 6,000 war resisters, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, went to jail during that conflict, rather than serving in noncombatant roles or some other accommodation. More than 40,000 others, like Mennonites and members of the Church of the Brethren, were granted conscientious objector status.

Not surprisingly, there are no Jews in Akst’s central group. In the face of the Nazis’ unalloyed evil and extermination, even renowned pacifist Albert Einstein made an exception for violent resistance. For Jewish pacifists, the war, Hitler, and news of the unfolding Holocaust were particularly troubling.

“Although the full scale of the horrors to come wasn’t known, the plight of European Jewry was clearly dire, and many people feared the worse,” Akst recounts.

Religion, however, was only a starting point. “Many of the pacifists at the heart of this book began their antiwar journey from religious premises,” Akst writes, “and evolved into a more secular direction.”

Interestingly, “Rather than the end of pacifism, the onset of the American war triggered something like a new beginning. Pacifism quickly became counter-cultural, a marker of dissent, and viewpoint that, pushed to the margins, led adherents into a closer association with other pacifists.”

Another surprising observation is that in part this resistance among hardline pacifists took place in federal prisons, which as Akst says, became “schools for radicalism.”

Dellinger, who had driven an ambulance on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, was incarcerated with seven other resisters from Union Theological Seminary, in a low security prison in Danbury, CT.

These eight, and others, were determined to make what John Lewis would later call “good trouble.” While behind bars, this hard core group furthered their resistance by agitating for the rights of their fellow inmates, whether political or not, especially against racial segregation.

In the chapter titled “Peace Against Prejudice,” Akst described the simultaneous battle fought by the pacifists during WWII against rampant antisemitism of the time, as well as the later internment of Japanese Americans.

Even before the U.S. entered the war, the quartet had not been tardy in coming to American Jews’ defense, including from domestic antisemites like Father Coughlin, the popular Detroit radio priest. In the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day wrote a headline across the front page in the summer of 1939 that read: “Let’s Keep the Jews for Christ’s Sake.”

In retrospect, Akst’s quartet and their compatriots held “impossibly idealistic” positions during WWII, namely: “The belief that freedom could be preserved from fascist military aggression by the sheer moral force of nonviolence.”

Pacifism and nonviolence only work, however, when the adversary is, to a certain degree, civilized. It is conditioned on “a belief by all parties in some essential national decency,” as Akst puts it.

“The Nazis were not abashed or deterred by the nonviolence of European Jews. Some of Gandhi’s rhetoric from the era rings particularly hollow and serves only to underscore the limitations of pacifism in the face of a ruthless foe.”

For Gandhi—and his later disciple, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.—nonviolence was, however, a guiding and central philosophical principle, never to be breached.

Yet for more pragmatic leaders, like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, nonviolence had to be abandoned as a strategy when faced with an unalterably brutal regime willing to mow down its opponents.

A similar dilemma was faced by 1960s civil rights workers in the Deep South, where white terrorists were not constrained from using violence against them, often with official impunity. And, most recently, by Ukrainians facing Russia’s invasion.                                  

Akst’s central theme, embodied by the book’s subtitle, is connecting his quartet with the social revolutions that were to follow: civil rights, human rights, gender and orientation equality, disability rights, climate change.  (It should be noted that, since all the author’s primary subjects are dead, Akst relies a good bit on their biographies and autobiographies, some of the latter are partly unreliable.)

What is historically verifiable, however, is that even in the heat of the Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, the former war resisters swiftly segued to help guide opposition to the nuclear arms race.

The quartet then made another smooth transition to the civil rights movement, and yet again to opposition to the wars in Southeast Asia, bringing their activist journeys full circle.

Described as a “one-man army” for peace, Bayard Rustin battled tirelessly against all forms of discrimination. Like many other American pacifists, he came to this political philosophy through religious faith. In his case, through the Quaker traditions. As a closeted gay African American, Rustin was doubly discriminated against; his autobiography is titled Time on Two Crosses.

Thus, while the quartet’s position on WWII was troubling to many, their opposition to racism and colonialism was exemplary and prescient.

“It was Rustin, as a close advisor, who schooled King in nonviolent action and mass organization, thereby playing a crucial role in setting the incipient civil rights movement on a Gandhian path,” Akst writes. “Pacifism and struggle for racial equality were natural partners.”

Rustin was not alone in this.

In the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day wrote, “This newspaper is for Negro and white alike,” noting that the paper’s masthead featured a drawing of a Black worker on one side and a white worker on the other.

Day was not abstract in her criticisms. She denounced discrimination as a sin, calling on Catholic colleges to open their doors to Blacks.                            

One element of Akst’s thesis is not completely convincing in that Day and Macdonald had virtually no effect on the grassroots, civil rights, and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s. And Dellinger’s influence was largely behind the scenes until the trial of the Chicago Seven, following the riotous 1968 Democratic National Convention, when he played a key role at the defense table.

Of the quartet, only Bayard Rustin was a key—some might say, indispensable— player in both social and political movements. In particular, his role in planning the 1963 March on Washington, where his speech was overshadowed by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” oration.

But it takes until the book’s Epilogue for Akst to conclude what most readers are probably thinking from the time they turn the first page.

“About the war, of course, they were mistaken. There was no good alternative to fighting and no hope that nonviolent resistance would work. In the event of invasion, in fact, any foreign occupier would probably have included our pacifists among the first to be shot.”

Still, despite their mistake, the lasting benefit of the quartet’s principled politics was to democracy itself.