Peace Action: In for the Long Haul

Peace Action: In for the Long Haul


If you’ve been around a long time, as The Nation has (142 years of troublemaking and peacemaking), you know who your friends are. That’s why, this week, we celebrate our longtime ally, Peace Action.

For fifty years, since Peace Action’s founding, the two of us have shared a commitment to peace and democratic values and provided a home for the expression of dissent in perilous times. Nation editors and staffers marched along (proudly carrying the magazine’s banner) with Peace Action and other antinuclear activists in the huge nuclear Freeze campaign demonstration in Central Park 25 years ago. Peace and disarmament correspondent Jonathan Schell’s special 1998 issue – like Peace Action’s work – gave voice to the continuing need and struggle for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

And this coming week, I am proud to be one of five “Women Peace Makers” – along with Yoko Ono, Cindy Sheehan, Colonel Ann Wright and Vinie Burrows – who will be honored by Peace Action at its 50th anniversary celebration in Harlem. Longtime Nation friend Cora Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal for Peace, will also receive the William Sloane Coffin Jr. Peacemaker Award – named for a man who was not only a central figure in the history of Peace Action, but a tireless advocate for peace, love and justice.

Peace Action was originally founded as SANE, fifty years ago, with a full-page ad in the New York Times signed by 48 prominent Americans including Norman Cousins, Cleveland Amory, John Hersey, Lewis Mumford, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Paul Tillich. The copy was mostly written by Cousins, editor of the Saturday Morning Review, under a headline reading, “We Are Facing a Danger Unlike Any Danger That Has Ever Existed.” It called for the immediate suspension of nuclear testing by all nations and noted that there were already enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the entire human race. The signatories urged a commitment to “the human community” that went well beyond the limits of traditional nation-state interests.

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Glen Harold Stassen and Lawrence S. Wittner have edited Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future – a collection of essays written by many of the courageous men and women who led the group and whom Schell described in a recent exchange in The Nation as “remain[ing] faithful and active in a cause in the lean years as well as the fat.” Homer Jack, one of the founders of SANE, recalls in Peace Action, “Almost overnight, the ad created SANE groups in 15 major cities and informal ones in 41 others.” Within about six months there were 130 chapters and 25,000 members holding church meetings, house meetings, rallies, letter-writing and lobbying Congress. But perhaps no one made SANE more visible in the early years than Dr. Benjamin Spock, the world-renowned baby doctor.

After resisting a public stand on the nuclear issue, Spock was persuaded by a letter from Jack, who was a practicing minister. Jack suggested that Spock was in a position similar to that of Albert Einstein, who eventually decided to speak out on issues of human suffering because he knew “he could command public attention” and “he was not afraid, if necessary, to stake his reputation….” Spock joined as a national sponsor of SANE and on April 16, 1962, the most famous ad in Peace Action history ran in the New York Times. The headline read “Dr. Spock is Worried,” with a photo of Spock in a business suit looking down concerned over a child at play. Spock drafted the copy of the ad as a response to President Kennedy’s resumption of nuclear testing, and his words still ring true today: “Some citizens would leave all the thinking to the government. They forget the catastrophic blunders that governments have made throughout history…. They scorn those who believe in a just cause…. In a moral issue, I believe that every citizen has not only the right but the responsibility to make his own feelings known and felt.”

Jack writes, “By June, the public was so wrought up over nuclear testing… that columnist Drew Pearson wrote that President Kennedy’s resumption of testing was the most unpopular thing he had ever done…. Dr. Spock’s public appeal… must be regarded as a turning point in awakening the conscience of the world to the effects of nuclear testing and the imperative of ending the arms race.”

Kennedy then solicited the help of SANE’s own Cousins to assure Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the president was sincere in his desire for a test ban treaty. In June 1963, Kennedy delivered his famous speech at American University – partially written by Cousins – that announced new test ban negotiations. That same summer the US, British, and Soviet governments signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, banning tests in the atmosphere, space, and underwater. Wittner writes that Kennedy administration officials would later recognize the “key roles” played by SANE and Cousins in reaching this first nuclear arms control treaty.

It was a great and early victory for a grassroots movement that called out the insanity of the arms race. Over the years the organization would broaden, not only through its merger with the Freeze campaign to create SANE/Freeze – which strengthened the antinuclear movement and as Schell wrote “powerfully undercut public support for Reagan’s nuclear buildup” – but as Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair, Representative Barbara Lee, notes in a spirited introduction to Peace Action, “…the organization… was able to harness people’s spirit and idealism and the incredible disgust with certain US policies – whether with the war in Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, arms sales, Pentagon pork, or the war in Iraq – and channel it, not simply into acts of protest, but into effective action geared toward changing the way our government works by involving people in the process.”

The interest in the peace movement over these 50 years has had a distinct ebb and flow. With President Reagan’s militarist agenda and talk of nuclear war, SANE membership exceeded 100,000 and its weekly radio show, Consider the Alternatives, ran on 140 stations. The one million-person demonstration in Central Park – “Freeze the Arms Race–Fund Human Needs” – was the biggest political demonstration in American history. And with William Sloane Coffin Jr. at the helm, the SANE/Freeze merger in 1987 resulted in a membership of more than 200,000 members with chapters across the nation. In contrast, membership declined after the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Vietnam War, and at the end of the Cold War. As Schell pointed out, “The end of the cold war, seemingly the greatest opportunity to lift nuclear danger since 1946, was wasted. Instead, the whole issue fell into a shocking state of neglect, as if people believed that a mortal illness could be dealt with by forgetting about it.”

But if George W. Bush has achieved little else, he has unwittingly demonstrated to the public why we need a vibrant and vigilant peace movement to chart sane alternatives. With his administration’s shredding of long negotiated bipartisan arms control agreements, including withdrawal from the ABM treaty; the deploying of a national missile defense system (Bush’s Star Wars); blocking treaties on biological and chemical weapons; refusing to support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the treaty to ban land mines; unilaterally invading and occupying Iraq under false or manufactured pretenses; halting nuclear disarmament talks and supporting the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. All in all, the Bush administration’s unilateral militarism and new arms race has been a disaster for world peace. As Schell summarized, “The nuclear danger is ripe and overripe for public rediscovery, which has in fact already begun.”

Signs of that rediscovery are clear as Peace Action celebrates its 50th anniversary with a membership that has once again reached 100,000; a Student Peace Action Network that brings antiwar activism to campuses across the nation; a Campaign for a New Foreign Policy based on supporting human rights and democracy, reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and cooperating with the world community. Perhaps The Reverend Dr. Andrea Ayvazian – who helped forge the merger of SANE and Freeze – put it best in writing in Peace Action, “Although movements are full of eager activists who want to see significant, permanent change happen quickly, we must remember that real social change takes decades. If we… remember the years that movements from the 19th and 20th centuries struggled until they achieved their goals, we can settle in for the long haul….”

There is no doubt Peace Action is in this fight for the long haul, and we are a better Nation and nation for it.

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