Archive for the ‘Peace History’ Category

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the buildup to the Iraq War exactly ten years ago, and the efforts by so many of us to halt the march to madness. I posted some reflections on Ten Years After Iraq yesterday on the God’s Politics blog at Sojourners.  Click here to read them.

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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.

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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.

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This week marked the 30th anniversary of the historic June 12, 1982 rally to freeze and reverse the arms race. One million people gathered that day in New York’s Central Park for the largest demonstration for peace in U.S. history. I was part of the June 12 rally committee with my friend and colleague Cora Weiss.  Cora and I reminisced about the rally this past week in preparation for a speech she gave at a New York event commemorating the occasion.

The rally had an electrifying effect on public opinion, catalyzing the growing public opposition to the Reagan nuclear buildup and powerfully expressing the political demand for an end to nuclear insanity. Members of Congress I interviewed afterwards said that the specter of a million people in Central Park sent a strong message to Washington that the public wanted action to reduce the nuclear threat.

The rally coincided with the Second Special Session on Disarmament at the UN General Assembly. It was a rare but important example of synergy between civil society and the UN. The rally was an expression of public support for the Special Session and gave legitimacy to UN disarmament efforts.

The rally was a success because of the political climate of the time. Public fear of nuclear war was rising, and the nuclear freeze movement was spreading like a proverbial prairie fire. We knew the rally was going to be a success in the weeks before June 12 when local FM rock deejays began talking about it and vendors appeared on the streets selling buttons and t-shirts.

We received a huge boost from the support of James Taylor and other rock stars. They volunteered their talents for two big fundraising concerts in Nassau Coliseum a few days before the rally and then at the rally itself. Among the musicians participating with Taylor were Bruce Springsteen (at the rally), Billy Joel (at the Coliseum concerts), Linda Ronstadt and Rita Marley. Lots of stars gathered backstage, including Yoko Ono and Orson Wells.

The anniversary of the June 12 rally reminds us of the massive scale of the nuclear freeze movement during the 1980s. The Reagan and first Bush administrations tried to discredit the movement and denied its impact, but historian Larry Wittner has documented the movement’s significant influence. Public mobilization pressured the Reagan administration to negotiate with Moscow, helped to constrain the nuclear weapons buildup, and led Congress to cut off funding for nuclear testing. As I wrote in Peace Works, public opinion in the United States and Europe played a significant role in ending the Cold War. All good reasons to commemorate the Central Park rally.

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The remarkable political evolution of Burma in recent weeks has interesting parallels with events in Poland in 1989.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now free, and has been elected to parliament along with members of her party, the National League for Democracy. The NLD scored a stunning victory in the April 1 by-elections, winning 43 of the 45 contested seats in the national parliament and regional assemblies. Party candidates polled well even at military bases and in districts near the capital with large populations of civil servants. Some members of the democracy movement had cautioned against joining elections in which so few seats would be openly contested. Suu Kyi took a leap of faith in deciding to participate, and so far her decision has paid off. The NLD has gained significant national prestige and influence.

This calls to mind Solidarity’s unexpected ascent to power in Poland in 1989. When the beleaguered communist regime finally yielded to Solidarity’s demand for free elections in June of that year, they restricted the number of contested seats to just one third of the parliament. Some activists wanted to reject the deal, but Solidarity wisely decided to take advantage of the narrow opening, hoping to widen the movement’s clout and political legitimacy. Solidarity won 160 of the 161 parliamentary seats that were openly contested, defeating even top communist officials in their home districts. The regime unexpectedly capitulated and Solidarity took responsibility for governing.

What both of these stories have in common is their genesis in nonviolence. Nonviolent movements inspire public participation and dialogue and are far more likely than armed struggle to generate successful democratic transitions.

The drama in Burma is still in its early days, but already we have seen surprising progress. Let’s hope more will come in the months ahead as the democracy movement navigates the torturous path of persuading the military to go back to the barracks.

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Calls for military strikes against Iran are based on the assumption that Israel’s bombing of a nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981 ‘worked’ to end Iraq’s nuclear program. Here is the actual story.

Soon after Israel bombed the Osirak reactor the Baghdad government accelerated its nuclear production program. Saddam Hussein intensified Iraq’s efforts to manufacture weapons-grade uranium and to build the means for assembling and delivering nuclear weapons. His government invested billions of dollars to develop a secret, self-sufficient nuclear program out of the sight of International Atomic Energy Agency  (IAEA) inspectors.

After Iraq’s forces were driven out of Kuwait in early 1991 IAEA inspectors arrived in the country and were shocked to discover a highly developed program that by some estimates was only a year or so from successfully achieving nuclear weapons capability. Over the following years UN inspectors systematically identified and dismantled all elements of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. No nuclear weapons capability was found when the US invaded in 2003.

In 2006 the eminent security scholar Richard K. Betts wrote “The Osirak Fallacy” in The National Interest. It’s an important article that should be required reading in Washington. Among its conclusions:

  •  The attack on Osirak increased Saddam Hussein’s determination to build nuclear weapons. There is no evidence that the destruction of the reactor even delayed Iraq’s nuclear program.
  • The destruction of the Osirak facility was unnecessary because there were no reprocessing facilities at the site.
  • The Israeli attack on Osirak did not preempt a near-term nuclear threat. According to most estimates, at the time Iraq was a decade away from producing a nuclear weapon.

The lesson: Attacking Iran’s nuclear program could worsen the danger we seek to avoid.

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I was delighted in early February to see that Representative Ed Markey has introduced a new bill in Congress, the SANE (Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures) Act. Markey’s bill calls for significant reductions in nuclear weapons, for a savings of about $100 billion over the next 10 years. Markey remains, as he has been for more than 30 years, the most significant leader and articulate voice in Congress for nuclear arms reduction. I’m glad to see he is still at it.

As the former executive director of SANE, I was thrilled to see renewed reference to the venerable SANE brand. When I was with SANE in the 1980s we worked closely with Markey. I continued to cooperate with him on disarmament initiatives after that—including the Urgent Call, a nuclear abolition appeal launched in 2002 with Jonathan Schell and Randy Forsberg.

When I contacted Markey’s office recently to congratulate him for introducing the SANE Act and making reference to our organization, his staff said the SANE acronym was intentional, to recall the halcyon days of the 1980s when the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign was sweeping across the country like a populist prairie fire and SANE was growing rapidly into a formidable mass membership organization.

In 1982 Markey was the original sponsor of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Resolution in Congress. Later that year he spoke before a million people in New York’s Central Park for the June 12 rally to freeze and reverse the arms race, the largest peace and disarmament rally ever held in the United States. SANE was actively involved in helping to organize that rally.

In the late 1980s SANE merged with the Freeze Campaign to form a united organization that still exists today as Peace Action. At that time some board members of SANE were reluctant to see the name go. They didn’t want to lose the legacy and history of SANE dating from the late 1950s, reflected in the involvement of such luminaries as Norman Cousins, Steve Allen, Ben Spock, and Coretta Scott King.

Many assumed over the years that SANE was an acronym but that was not the case. We were officially the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. The name came from Cousins and other early founders and was inspired by Erich Fromm’s influential book of the time, The Sane Society. In 1980s some of us toyed with possible acronyms, like Stop All Nuclear Explosions, or Society Against Nuclear Extermination, but officially the name remained the same, SANE, a single word that powerfully conveyed the broad public outcry against the insanity of the nuclear arms race.

Now there is an official SANE acronym, thanks to Ed Markey. Let’s hope the brand and the ideas behind it gain new traction and support, and that the United States can make real progress toward reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons.

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