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Online Chapter: Peace Symbols: Posters in Movements against the Wars in Vietnam and Iraq

Roots of Movements, Routes to Peace

While peace posters are largely a product of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, peace movements have a much longer history on this continent, preceding even the formation of the United States. The longest running peace effort is that of pacifist churches, including Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers. Among these, the Society of Friends, better known as “Quakers” (originally a derogatory term given them by the Puritans with whom they often tangled during colonial times), have played the most extensive role. The Society of Friends began opposing war in the seventeenth century, focusing initially on white aggression against Native tribes in the Northeast. To this day, the Society of Friends and organizations they have founded, like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League, remain the backbone of many peace movement efforts in the United States.

Historically, there have been five main, sometimes overlapping, strands of peace movement activism in the U.S. tradition:

1. Moral/religious pacifists opposed to all wars. These include not only the Protestant churches mentioned above but also the radical pacifist Catholic Workers, as well as “philosophical” pacifists who derive their ideas from a variety of secular sources, from Henry David Thoreau to Leo Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi to and Martin Luther King Jr.

2. Internationalists opposed to wars based on national chauvinism. These include the American “anti-imperialists” of the 1890s, including such as Mark Twain, and others who argue for extending diplomacy further, along with citizen-to-citizen groups who seek to circumvent governments in order to develop personal relationships that belie opposing state ideologies.

3. Feminist peace activists. There is a long tradition of women opposing war as a product of masculinist competition among men. One of the oldest and strongest of the organizations in this tradition is the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), founded in 1919 in the wake of World War I. Other groups following this line of thought include Women Strike for Peace (WSP), founded in 1961 to support nuclear disarmament and later a force in the Vietnam antiwar movement, numerous feminist antiwar groups that emerged amid the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and a strong wave of feminist antimilitarism in the 1980s exemplified by the Women’s Pentagon demonstrations of the early 1980s, all the way up to the Code Pink activists opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

4. Progressives, socialists, and anarchists who see U.S. wars as tied to corporate influence at home and imperial designs abroad. These folks argue that most wars are not accidents or mistakes or in defense of freedom, but an inevitable outgrowth of economic and political inequalities in the United States and around the globe that can only be addressed by systemic changes in the national and international distribution of wealth and power.

5. Moderates, liberals, and sometimes “isolationist” conservatives who find a particular war ill-conceived, unwinnable, or otherwise strategically unnecessary.

All five of these strands, in various forms and ideological combinations, are present in both the Vietnam and Iraq eras.

In terms of strategy and tactics, moderates, liberals, and their internationalist variants have relied primarily on public education, lobbying public officials, nonconfrontational demonstrations, and independent, often citizen-to-citizen, diplomacy. The more radical progressive forces and pacifists have used all these methods but have added nonviolent civil disobedience and conscientious objection (both sometimes leading to periods of incarceration) and direct action attempts to slow down or stop the actual mechanism of recruitment and deployment of soldiers.

U.S. peace movements in the post–World War II period can be divided into four main waves of peace movement activity: the anti–nuclear weapons movement of the 1950s, the anti-Vietnam era of the 1960s and 1970s, the antinuclear and anti-intervention movements of the 1980s, and the movements surrounding U.S. involvement in Iraq. In comparing and contrasting only two of these waves of activism, the Vietnam and Iraq antiwar movements, I will sometimes note the influence of the other two waves of peace action as well. All four waves involved, to one degree or another, interactions between U.S. activists and their peers around the world and drew on all major strands of peace activism. Liberal and radical forms of pacifism in particular have offered a powerful base and set of tactics to all four waves of peace activity since World War II, and no more so than in the movement against U.S. intervention into the civil war in Vietnam.2

2. See Roger C. Peace III, A Just and Lasting Peace: The U.S. Peace Movement from the Cold War to Desert Storm (Chicago: Noble Press, 1991), 28–29, for a similar analysis.

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