A Brief History of the War Resisters’ League
In this series on the histories of peace movement organizations, we have been so far been examining those whose roots were in opposition to the First World War: The Fellowship of Reconciliation (1914 in UK, 1915 in U.S., FOR International in 1917, French and German branches in 1919), The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1915 U.S., 1917 International), The American Friends’ Service Committee (1917). The War Resisters’ League, the oldest pacifist organization in the U.S. without a religious foundation, also grew out of the experience of World War I. (I have phrased this very carefully. It would be accurate to call the WRL a “secular” organization, but to many people this suggests a hostility to religion or religious persons that is not a part of the WRL. As we will see, the major founder of the WRL, Jesse Wallace Hughes, was a profoundly religious person and people of faith have always been involved and are still, including in the leadership. But neither any particular religion, nor religious faith in general, is a predicate for membership.)
Jessie Wallace Hughan (1875-1955) was one of the founders of the U. S. chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1915, but, from the beginning, she thought the name of the groups was too wimpy, and, though a devout Unitarian, she chafed against the leadership of the F.O.R. by ministers who focused on forgiveness. She wanted an organization that pushed forcefully for an end to war and militarism and which boldly confronted the causes of war (which she saw rooted in the injustices of capitalism). Hughan was an American educator, a socialist activist, radical pacifist and a perpetual Socialist Party candidate for various public offices in New York city and state. In 1915 she helped to found the Anti-Enlistment League to discourage enlistment in the armed services as part of efforts to keep the U.S. out of World War I.
Many U.S. pacifists were imprisoned for resistance to the war. After the U.S. entered WWI, the Bill of Rights was practically suspended. Any verbal or written opposition to the war was prosecuted as “subversion,” including of clergy who refused to promote the sale of war bonds to parishioners. Members of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers) were sometimes given better treatment, but other conscientious objectors, especially Jews, African-Americans, socialists (especially after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia), union leaders, and anarchists were given very harsh sentences and many were also treated harshly by other prisoners without intervention by authorities.
Out of these experiences, Hughan and others founded the War Resisters League in 1923 as a pacifist organization for those who, for one reason or another, did not feel at home in faith-based peace organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (although the F.O.R. supported the formation of the WRL and many were members of both organizations–which traded leaders, too). At that time, the F.O.R. was an ecumenical Christian organization, not interfaith, and the Jewish Peace Fellowship did not exist until 1941. The U.S. was not so pluralistic religiously in those days that any felt the need for such later organizations as the Muslim Peace Fellowship (Ansar as-Salaam), or the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, but the WRL was a haven for secular and non-Christian pacifists, along with those who felt that the Christian peace groups of the day were not radical enough in their opposition to war.
The WRL’s basis for membership has remained the same since its founding in 1923, “The War Resisters’ League affirms that war is a crime against humanity. We, therefore, are determined not to support any kind of war, international or civil, and to strive nonviolently for the removal of all causes of war.” When Gandhi began his “experiments in truth” in South Africa and India, the WRL was even faster than the F.O.R. to take notice. Along with socialist economic philosophy, most members of the WRL strongly adhere to Gandhian nonviolence. For some, the philosophy and tactics of Gandhian nonviolence form a de facto substitute for a religious faith.
The WRL has been deeply involved in most of the anti-war movements of the 20th and 21st C., but it has also been involved deeply in most of the nonviolent domestic struggles for justice, including the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, labor struggles, the environmental movement, and struggles for fair trade against globalized top-down free trade. The WRL publishes a journal, WIN, an annual peace and justice calendar, and has become famous for its yearly tax pie charts that show the actual amount of the U.S. budget that goes to support past and present wars (the official budget hides part of the military budget under Veterans Affairs and Social Security) which is over50%. The WRL pie chart has been used by numerous peace groups to promote war tax resistance and protests against the bloated nature of the U.S. military budget. (Even using the official figures, the U.S. spends more on its military than the next 25 nations COMBINED!)
The WRL’s current projects include an anti-recruitment effort called Not Your Soldier (which I think is not as effective as the AFSC’s counter-recruitment efforts), and a major effort to target war-profiteers called the Bite the Bullet Network. The latter targets the military industrial complex which Bob Dylan rightly called the “masters of war.”
The WRL is a major component organization of United for Peace with Justice, the umbrella peace organization working to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The WRL is also a national chapter of the London-based War Resisters’ International which grew out of a Dutch organization in 1921. In 1931, the WRI and its chapters adopted the broken rifle as its symbol. (This has major significance for me. I have only ever held nominal membership in the WRL, unlike my greater involvement in the F.O.R., the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Witness for Peace, Every Church a Peace Church, and Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace with Justice. Mostly, I just subscribe to the WRL newsletter and buy the occasional calendar and T-shirt. But because I became a pacifist as a military conscientious objector, the broken rifle has always been a deeply-loved peace symbol for me,–a modern equivalent to beating swords into plowshares and a symbol of my deliberate break with my military past.)
Famous members of the War Resisters League, other than Jessie Wallace Hughan, include Dave Dellinger (1915-2004), Ralph DiGia (1915-2008), Grace Paley (1922-2007), Igal Roodenko (1917-1991), Barbara Deming (1917-1984), A. J. Muste (1885-1967) (after Muste’s retirement as head of the Fellowship of Reconciliation), and the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987). The WRL continues to be a major force for peace and justice.
Update: Although I deeply appreciate the work of the WRL, I have not been involved with them except, as I said, on the edges. The major reason for this is that I believe ultimately nonviolence depends on a spiritual commitment. As a Christian (i.e., one who believes Christianity is actually TRUE ), I think Christian faith provides the best spirituality for pacifism and nonviolence, but it is not the only one. Most, if not all, major religions have a nonviolent strand and resources for equipping believers to respond to injustice, oppression, and violence with nonviolent direct action and peacemaking rather than with reactive violence. Secular commitment to nonviolence must rely either on a strictly moral commitment without any spiritual underpinnings or a pragmatic belief that nonviolence usually ‘works.’ But it doesn’t always work and such a pragmatic or rational view is not enough to keep one nonviolent in the face of oppressive violence: If you see your family murdered before your eyes, for instance, can a purely rational or secular commitment to nonviolence hold?
So, while I agree with the WRL that war is a crime against humanity and am grateful for their work, I distrust their lack of a spiritual foundation. It is significant to me that the current leadership of the WRL includes Frida Berrigan, daughter of the radical Catholic pacifists Elizabeth McAlister and the late Philip Berrigan, and Fr. G. Siman Harak (a friend of mine), who is a Jesuit priest.
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