Jesse Jackson’s Politics of Peace

Jesse Jackson’s Politics of Peace

His 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns called for ending military interventions, supported disarmament, and sought deep cuts in Pentagon spending.


Political historians recognize Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy as the great anti–Vietnam War candidates of the 1968 presidential campaign. George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, is recalled as the most ardent foe of a US military intervention to be nominated by a major American political party since the party ran William Jennings Bryan in 1900. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean and former Ohio representative Dennis Kucinich sought the Democratic presidential nod in 2004 as sharp critics of the Iraq War. And prescient opposition to the Bush-Cheney administration’s war of whim, which Barack Obama voiced as early 2002, did much to advance his successful bid for the presidency in 2008.

But of all the anti-war campaigns of the modern era, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential runs were uniquely dynamic bids. And they had a profound and lasting impact on progressive thinking about foreign policy.

While Jackson’s two campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination are often recalled for their groundbreaking advocacy on behalf of economic, social, and racial justice at home, they also outlined a fresh foreign policy vision rooted in what has come to be known as progressive internationalism. That vision advanced a comprehensive—and morally coherent—argument for shifting American foreign policy away from military interventionism, nuclear brinksmanship, and Cold War posturing and toward diplomacy, cooperation, and reduced Pentagon spending.

Jackson understood precisely what was at stake, telling the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, “The choice is war or peace.”

His was a powerful and transformative message that resonates to this day.

That’s one of the many reasons, when veterans of the Jackson campaigns gather at the annual Rainbow-PUSH Coalition convention in Chicago this weekend to celebrate his historic 1984 and 1988 presidential runs, I’ll join the other speakers in reflecting on the too frequently neglected aspects of the civil rights activist’s political legacy. Several of us will recall how—as Ronald Reagan was ramping up the Cold War around the world and pouring US resources into heated conflicts in El Salvador and on the border of Nicaragua—Jackson boldly broke not just with the Republican president but also with many Democrats to make opposition to war a focal point of his bid.

After it was revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency had mined three harbors in Central America, as part of an effort to destabilize the country’s left-wing government, Jackson declared in April 1984 that “the undeclared war against the people of Nicaragua” “must be stopped.” In addition to criticizing the Reagan administration and the CIA, Jackson took issue with the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for failing to clearly deliver a message that the US must ”stop our funding of terror in Nicaragua and El Salvador now and to withdraw all our troops from Central America.”

”It is not enough for Walter Mondale to call mining the harbors a clumsy and ill-conceived act,” argued Jackson.

It is not enough to imply that the main problem was not informing Congress adequately. Our foreign policy in Central America is wrong. We are standing on the wrong side of history. We are engaged in killing people, and starving people who are trying to work out their own destiny.

Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaign shocked pundits by winning primaries and caucuses in key states, and by collecting roughly 20 percent of the Democratic primary vote for a first-time candidate. Jackson also made a historic trip to Central America and the Caribbean, where he met with regional leaders—including Cuban President Fidel Castro—and warned, “The signs of war are rising. We see the military buildup throughout the region. We see the United States taking sides instead of helping to reconcile the conflict. We cannot allow another Vietnam.”

The bitter legacy of the Vietnam War, which Jackson had opposed as a young aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., weighed heavily on the candidate’s mind during the 1984 campaign. At the convention in San Francisco, Jackson delivered an electrifying speech, in which he recalled,

Twenty years ago, our young people were dying in a war for which they could not even vote. Twenty years later, young America has the power to stop a war in Central America and the responsibility to vote in great numbers. Young America must be politically active in 1984. The choice is war or peace.

Jackson’s focus in 1984 and in 1988 extended beyond concerns about the “dirty wars” in Central America. He campaigned as an outspoken advocate for nuclear disarmament, embracing the “nuclear freeze” movement to halt the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union. He called for a rethinking of US military and economic alliances in order to advance democracy and human rights, argued for an end to US aid to the apartheid regime in South Africa and proposed a new approach to Middle East relations that respected the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.

He also talked about cutting as much as 25 percent from the Pentagon budget.

In response to critics who claimed his ideas were too radical, Jackson told New Hampshire primary voters in February of 1984,

We are so strong militarily that we can afford to take measures such as these in the pursuit of peace.… We must fight for peace and give peace a chance. Peace is worth the risk.

After the 1988 campaign, in which he won 11 statewide primary and caucus contests and secured 6.9 million votes, Jackson pulled all the threads together in an epic address to that year’s Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. He spoke movingly of tackling poverty and inequality within the United States, and he was just as compelling in his discission of foreign policy, which included a stirring call for disarmament that is as relevant today as it was 35 years ago.

Jackson told the cheering delegates:

The nuclear war build-up is irrational. Strong leadership cannot desire to look tough and let that stand in the way of the pursuit of peace. Leadership must reverse the arms race. At least we should pledge no first use. Why? Because first use begets first retaliation. And that’s mutual annihilation. That’s not a rational way out.

No use at all. Let’s think it out and not fight it out because it’s an unwinnable fight. Why hold a card that you can never drop? Let’s give peace a chance.


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