Book Review: Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future
Peace Action is the largest grassroots membership peace group in the U.S.A. It is a merger of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), founded in 1957 with the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (“the Freeze”), founded in 1979. In the late ’80s, SANE/Freeze merged to concentrate their efforts on halting and reversing the nuclear arms race. SANE/Freeze changed its name to Peace Action in the ’90s to reflect a broadening mission in a post Cold War world.
Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future, edited by Glen H. Stassen and Lawrence S. Wittner (Paradigm Books, 2007) $16.95 is a history of the 50 years of Peace Action and its predecessor organizations. It also gathers lessons learned from the successes and failures of the various campaigns and thus charts the near future of the organization. The editors bring a balanced insider/outside observer perspective. Glen H. Stassen, Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary has been deeply involved in Peace action from the beginnings of both groups. He served on the International Committee, co-chaired the Strategy Committee and chaired the Euromissile Committee of the Freeze Campaign. He is currently a national board member of Peace Action. Lawrence S. Wittner, Professor of History at the State University of New York (SUNY), Albany is a former president of the Peace History Society. Like Stassen, he is a longtime scholar-activist in peace, racial equality, and labor organizations, and has written or edited numerous books on peace and foreign policy issues, including the award-winning trilogy, The Struggle Against the Bomb. Wittner is also a current board member of Peace Action.
The authors of the various chapters, who read like a “Who’s Who” of American peace and justice activists, are those who were most involved in the various campaigns or phases of history under review. As a grassroots organization specifically focused on changing public policy, Peace Action and its predecessors have had a very diverse membership: political centrists as well as radicals; Republicans as well as Democrats (though admittedly more of the latter than the former); people of faith and people of no particular faith; pacifists and non-pacifists; activists and scholars; “establishment” types comfortable with working in the political system and those who deeply distrust the system.
With such a diverse membership, Peace Action’s greatest successes have come when they have had clear goals with sharply defined strategic campaigns. They have also come when the public could see a campaign as not simply negative, but as articulating a clear, positive, alternative to current policies. Recent attention to the proper “framing” of debates has helped this considerably. Thus, the recent Campaign for a New Foreign Policy was seen as too vague and has evolved into a more focused stress on Real Security Through International Cooperation, Human Rights, and Freedom from Weapons of Mass Destruction. Real Security speaks to the public’s genuine need for security, but challenges the way that security fears have been manipulated since 9/11. Current policies of unilateral, “preemptive” military action, weakening international law and international organizations, neglecting or undermining human rights standards, and the imperial hubris of deciding that it is perfectly okay for the U.S. and selected allies (especially the U.K., Israel, Australia, and India) to have WMDs, while making other attempts at gaining WMDs a reason for unilateral war–have all made the U.S. and the world much less secure. So, Peace Action is pushing for policies of real security that emphasize the necessity (and desirability) of international cooperation (genuine cooperation and not just the U.S. dictating policy). International cooperation is needed for intelligence sharing about genuine terrorist threats, in combatting poverty and catastrophic climate change, weapons inspections, ending regional conflicts, and so much else. It also emphasizes the need for vigorous and even handed defense of human rights, focusing on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and the various supplementary treaties, with no American “exceptionalism” or exemptions. Finally, this campaign stresses the need to make the world safer by ending all Weapons of Mass Destruction. SANE and the Freeze began in trying to eliminate nuclear weapons and one of their most successful campaigns was getting the short range and medium range nukes removed from Europe. Now, as the Bush admin. aggressively pursues a new generation of “usable nukes” for conventional wars, depleted uranium shells and tank armor, and violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in nuclear deals with India, while skating around treaties against chemical and biological weapons, the need for eliminating WMDs has never been greater, especially as they are sought by non-state terror groups.
Histories of peace and justice organizations, studying successes and failures, are helpful in working for a better tomorrow. We need “usable histories” that remind us of successes in times of set-backs. When so much in our world seeks to tell us that ordinary citizens are powerless and should just stick to shopping and watching mindless “reality TV,” we need to be reminded of how citizens can and have organized for change in the face of great opposition.
I must confess that most of my activism has been through faith based groups, both Christian (e.g., Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Churches for a Middle East Peace) and interfaith (Fellowship of Reconciliation, Witness for Peace, Center on Conscience and War). With the exception of minor involvement in Veterans for Peace, I have only just shown up at major rallies organized by “secular” organizations such as Win Without War, and United for Peace with Justice. But after reading this history, I sent in my membership dues to Peace Action and signed up for their email alerts. I am also recommending to high school and college students I know that they join the Student Peace Action Network (SPAN). While such broad membership may lack the deep spiritual roots of faith based groups and the clarity of specifically pacifist witness, they have the advantage of mass organizing, matching the power of insider elites with citizen people power. While no one can do everything, there is a need for persons of faith in both kinds of groups.
I highly recommend this little book.
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