Remembering Ron Dellums

One of our greatest political leaders for peace has passed away. The highlights of Ron Dellums’ extraordinary career in Congress and his lifelong commitment to the pursuit of justice and peace are nicely captured in the New York Times obituary.

I can add a few points not mentioned by the Times.

Dellums was a member of the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of SANE during the years I was Executive Director of the organization. He spoke at a number of our events over the years, and he assigned his very able assistant Carlottia Scott to be his representative at organizational meetings. Scott was a constant, supportive, brilliant source of political guidance and support throughout the 1980s when SANE and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign were at the peak of their influence.

Dellums and I spoke together at a number of rallies and conferences during those years. He was an eloquent speaker with a gift for words. He spoke of the need to connect disarmament and the struggle for racial and social justice by reminding audiences that the bomb is “an equal opportunity destroyer.” No one is safe from the indiscriminate mass annihilation of nuclear weapons, he would emphasize.

He linked the quest for greater domestic social spending to antimilitarism by quoting Dr. King’s famous indictment of the Vietnam War: the bombs being dropped over Hanoi were exploding in the streets of Harlem. The unconscionable sums of money wasted on war and weapons are diverting funds from programs to create economic opportunity and social uplift here at home.

I had occasion to reach out to Dellums again a few years ago when we invited him to deliver an opening keynote at the “Vietnam: Power of Protest” conference in Washington DC commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first antiwar protests. It was inspiring to see him, and to hear again that clear clarion voice calling us once more to the cause of peace.

Dellums speaking at “Vietnam: The Power of Protest” Conference. Credit: Brewster Rhoades.

Here is a link to the video of that May 2015 speech from Amy Goodman and Democracy Now.

Dellums recalled that evening how his life was changed when he heard Dr. King’s 1967 speech at Berkeley against the Vietnam War. Dellums realized then, he said, that “the peace movement is the ultimate movement, peace is the superior idea … Peace is not just the absence of war, it is the absence of conditions that give rise to war.”

Amen, brother Dellums. You will be missed, but we stand on your shoulders and will carry on the movement for justice and peace.


Memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and Father Theodore Hesburgh

I had a powerful emotional experience the other night as I visited the new memorial in downtown South Bend commemorating the moment in June 1964 when Notre Dame’s President, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, joined hands with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the historic rally for civil rights in Chicago’s Soldier Field. That moment was captured in a famous photo that now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington and is displayed ubiquitously at Notre Dame and beyond.

Courtesy of Notre Dame Archives

The memorial is a striking sculpture by local artist Tuck Langland that presents the two great civil rights icons crossing hands as they sing “We Shall Overcome.” The City of South Bend and our progressive Mayor Pete Buttigieg unveiled the statue at a public event last week.

South Bend Tribune Photo / BECKY MALEWITZ

Unable to attend the ceremony during the week, I walked over to the memorial Saturday evening on my way to a local restaurant. The fading light of dusk gave a special luster to the bronze. I stepped slowly toward the statue, feeling the spiritual power of the image and its historical meaning. As I stood there alone on the sidewalk, holding back tears of joy and admiration, a car slowly pulled up and stopped in front of the statue.

A distinguished looking older African American gentleman in a suit stepped out of his elegant new car and walked up to the statue. We stood there for a few moments in silence. Then he turned to me and said “if they hadn’t assassinated Dr. King and the Kennedy’s think of how much more progress there would be than what we have now.” I nodded and shared the story of Fr. Hesburgh receiving a call that June day so long ago, Dr. King asking him to come to Soldier Field. Hesburgh did not equivocate. He asked, ‘what time do you need me?’ and got into his car and drove to Chicago. “That’s the kind of commitment to justice we need today,” I uttered. He nodded, and we shook hands.

As I strolled away, the tears poured down. The visit to the memorial had felt like a religious experience, a moment of redemption and inspiration. I especially sensed the spiritual presence of Fr. Hesburgh, whom I had the privilege of knowing and who founded the Kroc Institute where I proudly serve.

The sculpture has the hands of Hesburgh and King reaching out, inviting all of us to grasp our hands with theirs in the continuing struggle for justice and human rights.


Why Dr. King was right to oppose the Vietnam War

Fifty years ago this week, speaking at New York’s famed Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of his most historic and powerful addresses, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In his remarks Dr. King declared his support for the growing movement against the war in Vietnam and explained why it is necessary to link the struggles against racism, poverty and militarism.

Dr. King was vilified for speaking out against the war. The New York Times, Washington Post and many other newspapers editorialized against him, urging him to stay in his lane and focus on civil rights. An angry President, Lyndon Johnson cut off King’s access to the White House. Leaders of established civil rights organizations groups rebuked him.

Dr. King understood that he would pay a price, but he felt compelled to speak out. He could see that militarism and war abroad were undermining the struggle against poverty and racism at home. He watched the Johnson administration’s antipoverty program “broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.” He knew that America would never invest the necessary funds to help the poor as long as the war in Vietnam continued to draw resources “like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”

Dr. King described the war in Vietnam as “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” an arrogance and indifference to strivings for freedom around the world, a pattern of military interventionism and support for reactionary regimes that suppress justice. He warned that a nation continuously spending more money on the military than on social uplift “is approaching spiritual death.”

Today we face similar challenges. The White House proposes to increase military spending by $54 billion, while slashing spending for social programs at home and reducing U.S. support for development assistance and diplomacy abroad.

The United States remains bogged down in a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. U.S. forces are being sent back to Iraq. American troops are operating in support of foreign forces in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. Our warplanes and drone aircraft are conducting bombing raids across the region.

The President calls for “massively” increasing nuclear weapons capability. Plans are proceeding to spend $100 billion to rebuild hundreds of land-based nuclear missiles—despite the advice of former Defense Secretary William Perry that these weapons can be safely scrapped as an unnecessary and dangerous relic of the cold war.

Like King before us we are called today to break our silence on the madness and folly of a national policy that prioritizes weapons and war, while neglecting those in need here at home and abroad. As we speak out against war and militarism, it is important to remember another lesson from Dr. King, that our dissent is motivated by patriotism—as Dr. King said to an antiwar rally soon after his address at Riverside Church:

I oppose the war in Viet Nam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. … Those of us who love peace must organize as affectively as the war hawks. … We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.

A Tribute to the Antiwar Movement

It was exactly one year ago that more than 800 of us met in Washington DC for the conference “Vietnam the Power of Protest.” Here is a link to the conference program.

It was an exhilarating and inspiring event that brought together some of the most important voices of the Vietnam antiwar movement (Tom Hayden, Cora Weiss, Julian Bond, Dan Ellsberg and many others). The program called attention to the important role of antiwar opposition in bringing the war to an end.

The conference last year marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. escalation of the war and also of the beginning of mass antiwar protest. Preceding the public conference was an academic program sponsored by Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute and New York University entitled “The Vietnam War Then and Now: Learning the Critical Lessons,” featuring a keynote address by former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman.

Many public commemorations of the Vietnam War have occurred and will continue in the years ahead. Most focus on honoring the soldiers who served in the military (I was one of them), but very few acknowledge or pay tribute to the massive social movement that arose against the war. Even fewer events mention that widespread antiwar protest also emerged among many of us who were in the military. That’s how I became interested in and committed to working for peace, as I wrote previously.

Now comes a Congressional Resolution to pay tribute to the antiwar movement, introduced last week in the House of Representatives by that always reliable defender of justice and peace (and speaker at the “Power of Protest” event) Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. It’s a marvelously succinct and powerful declaration that acknowledges our debt as a nation to the millions of people who took a stand for peace and worked to end an unjust war.

Take a look at the Resolution and urge your member of Congress to become a co-sponsor.

The Closing Window of Opportunity in Egypt

The Egyptian revolution is being crushed and I grieve for what is being lost. That glorious unarmed uprising that so inspired the world is now being gunned down by the armed forces. I grieve especially for the people of Egypt and the dangers that lie ahead unless something is to done to save the day.

The army’s massacre of dozens of people on July 28 was an unspeakable crime, equivalent to the horrors of the Mubarak era. It will go down in Egypt’s history as a day of infamy. I fear it could be one of those cruel turning points in history, when a gathering tide of lawlessness and instability burst into violence. The sense of foreboding is palpable.

The military’s brutality and lies are a grave menace to Egypt’s future. They make the incompetence and authoritarianism of the Morsi government seem mild by comparison. The Muslim Brothers are the main target of attack now, but all of free Egypt is in jeopardy.

Mohammed El Baradei and other liberals have finally criticized the military, but they must go further. I can imagine what Gandhi would say to them. Resign your posts. No one should continue to serve the military regime or follow any of their directives. Mass civil disobedience is the only solution in this emergency, not only in the streets but in pervasive refusal to accept military authority.

The military has gone beyond acceptable moral and legal bounds and must be forced to yield power. The Obama administration should work with the Arab League through the United Nations to support the creation of a broadly representative independent civilian authority in Egypt that guarantees the participation of all social forces, including the Brotherhood. Secular and liberal forces must work with the Brothers and the Salafists to establish an interim government and decide a road map to the future.

The international community should provide help to get such a political process started and must insist that the military turn over authority as soon as it is established. If the army refuses to yield power all U.S. and international assistance for the generals should cease.

Those who say the Muslim Brothers are not prepared or inclined for war do not understand the rage boiling over from the army’s repression. The deadly descending spiral of violence-begetting-violence is beginning, and may soon get out of hand as it did in Syria. Until now the Brothers have been very reluctant to use force, but there is likely a limit to their endurance, as for all people. Arms and materials for making bombs are readily available in the region.

The time to act is now, before it is too late.

Pacem in Terris: the Vatican’s Call to Peace

I gave a presentation at Villanova University last week on the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII. I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit what is arguably one of the most important statements on peace with justice ever issued by the Vatican, with insights and exhortations that remain relevant today. Here are a few of the document’s highlights.

Rights. Pope John defines peace as an ordered society based on moral principles and rooted in rights, of which the most important is the right to life. John goes beyond the narrow focus on the fetus prevalent today to emphasize what he calls “a worthy standard of living.” Every person “has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life,” including the opportunity to work and earn a just wage (paragraphs 11, 18, 20).

The Common Good. All people and governing authorities have duties to ensure that the means of sustenance are available to all. Unless civil authorities “take suitable action,” inequalities “tend to become more and more widespread.” Governments must therefore develop “essential services,” including “public health,” and see to it “that insurance systems are made available” so that “no person will be without the necessary means to maintain a decent standard of living” (paragraphs 63, 64).

Truth. Pope John calls for the “elimination of racism.” He urges those with power and wealth to “lend mutual assistance” to others. Countries with the greatest levels of development have an “obligation to make a greater contribution to the general development of the people” (paragraphs 86-88).

The Imperative of Disarmament. John notes “with deep sorrow” the “vast outlay of intellectual and economic resources” on armaments, which imposes heavy burdens on the countries affected and deprives other of the “collaboration they need to make economic and social progress.” The encyclical demands that nuclear weapons be banned and that all nations agree on “a fitting program of disarmament” (paragraphs 109, 112).

A Call to Public Action. Pacem in Terris ends with a call for people of good will to “take part in public life” to help others. He identifies “the great tasks of magnanimous men” and women and urges every believer to become a “spark of light,” a “vivifying leaven” to help create a social order founded on truth and justice (paragraphs 163, 164, 167).

It’s a remarkable document that deserves to be read and studied as an enduring guide to public policy and inspiration for personal commitment.

Music for Peace

This past weekend I participated in a pre-concert discussion of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at a performance by the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. At the concert I also accepted a plaque on behalf of the University of Notre Dame for its support of the Symphony. Then I settled into a box seat to listen to a magnificent rendering of Britten’s demanding work under the skilled direction of Maestro Tsung Yeh.

The pre-concert discussion provided an opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of Britten’s masterpiece. The work is a powerful indictment of war. It was commissioned and first performed in 1962 on the occasion of the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, built alongside the ruins of the historic St. Michael’s Cathedral, which was destroyed by German bombers in November 1940 during a massive raid that also damaged thousands of homes and killed hundreds of residents.

Britten’s libretto is based on the traditional Latin requiem mass, but it also draws extensively from the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen was a young British army officer who served in World War I and was killed in action just a week before the armistice was signed in November 1918. Owen wrote vividly realistic and often shocking poems that depicted the true horrors of war. He rejected the propagandistic portrayals of heroic war that were typical of his time (and that are occasionally heard today). His war poetry had enormous influence in the years after World War I and is considered among the finest ever written.

In one of the poems selected by Britten, Owen bleakly recasts the ending of the story of Abraham and Isaac, as the angel of mercy descends to stop Abraham’s sacrifice:

Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not do so
But slew his son
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In choosing Owen’s poetry for his text, Britten memorialized the horrors of both world wars. The Requiem is a tribute to all who were killed and all the great monuments of human creativity like St. Michael’s cathedral that were destroyed in those conflagrations. Britten manages to be respectful of the sacrifices of those who suffered in war while condemning the institution of war itself. His work is an outcry against what Owen called ‘the pity of war,’ a reminder of the destructiveness of modern warfare and its vast toll in lives lost. The Requiem reflects Britten’s deep opposition to war in all its forms, including the threat of nuclear war, which loomed large at the time he was writing this work in the early 1960s.

For the three vocalists in the premier performance, Britten commissioned a tenor from England, a baritone from Germany and a soprano from the Soviet Union. This was a gesture of reconciliation, a statement that all sides suffered in war and could come together through art to voice a common rejection of violence. The enemy is not the people of the other side, he was saying, but the institution of war itself.

Performances of the Requiem are a reminder of the horrors of war but also a plea for peace and reconciliation, for the resolution of jarring disharmonies through the magical beauty of music.

Hagel and Kerry: No Arm-Chair Warriors

I am encouraged by the nominations of Vietnam veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry to the top cabinet posts of Defense Secretary and Secretary of State. It feels like a long overdue acknowledgment and recognition of the experiences of our generation. Perhaps it will reflect and reinforce the deep skepticism toward war many of us learned from serving in the military during that time.

Our country is usually safer and less prone to sanctify military action when our decision-makers have experienced the suffering and horrors of war. Spare us the arm-chair warriors (‘chicken hawks’ the veterans derisively call them) sacrificing soldier lives for geopolitical fantasies.

When I saw the photos published in last week’s New York Times of Hagel and Kerry in their class A uniforms, so young and uncertain, I could see myself many years ago. Like Hagel, I was an enlisted man, never rising above the rank of Spec 4, the same as Hagel’s rank in the photo.

Hagel and Kerry were on the front lines of battle and were wounded in combat. I was stationed safely back in the States playing in the army band. But we were part of the same turbulent, perplexing experience of serving in an unpopular and unjust war.

Vietnam shaped our lives profoundly. As he was medevaced out of the country, Hagel vowed “to do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.” Kerry returned to civilian life to become a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testifying in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

I spoke out against the war as an active duty soldier, part of the GI peace movement that spread through the military in those years. I spent my time when not on duty circulating petitions and organizing protests among fellow soldiers. When military commanders punished us for being ‘troublemakers,’ we filed a law suit in federal court to defend our First Amendment rights.

The Vietnam experience drove me to spend my life trying to prevent war and now to researching and teaching ways of building peace and resolving conflicts nonviolently.

I hope Hagel and Kerry will bring more realistic, less militaristic perspectives to U.S. military and foreign policy. Perhaps our nation can finally learn the lessons of Vietnam (and also of Iraq and Afghanistan), to avoid the temptation of war and focus on building peace through international cooperation.

Ending a War by Electing a President

In a recent article for the Mobilizing Ideas blog I tried to answer the question: what happened to the Iraq antiwar movement? In February 2003 an estimated 10 million people around the world demonstrated against the war, in the largest single day of peace protest in history.  The movement was described as a ‘second superpower.’ Yet the Bush administration pushed ahead with its pre-planned invasion. Antiwar protests and vigils continued for a couple years but then faded away. End of story, right?

My view is different. The movement did not end but changed form—shifting from street protest to conventional politics and electoral campaigns. Antiwar activists were heavily involved in the 2006 congressional elections, helping to elect dozens of new antiwar members to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Most important was the movement’s involvement in electing Barack Obama in 2008. The principal distinction of Obama’s candidacy over that of Hillary Clinton and then John McCain was his forthright stance against the Iraq War. Obama had spoken against the invasion at an October 2002 antiwar rally in Chicago, and he remained unequivocally opposed to the war throughout his campaign. His repeated, unwavering commitment to withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq attracted the support of many antiwar activists and generated a massive wave of volunteer help for his campaign.

In the primary campaign against Clinton, Obama won victories in every one of the caucus contests, where success is determined by the strength of local activism rather than big name endorsements and large television advertising budgets. Nationwide Clinton won the popular vote, but Obama held a two to one margin in the 13 caucus contests, enough to win the nomination. Obama’s victory was the result of his superior ability to mobilize tens of thousands of strongly committed loyalists from the antiwar movement.

In the general election the Obama campaign used pre-existing activist networks and social media to build a base of millions of supporters who volunteered for his campaign and sent contributions (average gift size $80) that helped to propel him to the White House. As president he overrode military leaders’ calls to keep a residual force in Iraq and fulfilled his pledge to end the war, setting a schedule for military withdrawal early in 2009 and removing the last of the troops in December 2011.

This was a victory for the antiwar movement. Yes, many of us were disappointed by Obama’s military escalation in Afghanistan and are deeply concerned about his extensive drone warfare program. But on the issue that mattered most to us, ending the occupation of Iraq, the commitment to Obama’s candidacy proved to be a sound antiwar strategy.