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Why Peace Movements Fail

by James Clotfelter

Dr. Clotfelter is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This article appeared in the Christian Century July 21-28, 1982, p. 790. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Peace movements thrive, an English writer has observed, when there is both optimism and pessimism: optimism, because there must be hope that shooting can be averted, that steps can be taken toward a more peaceful world; pessimism, because there must be clouds of war to spur interest in peace issues, to move us out of our normal preoccupation with more pleasant topics.

If this analysis is correct, then Europe’s peace demonstrations might mark the renewal of a strong peace movement on that continent. And we might see a reinvigorated peace movement in the United States. Americans are chronic optimists; that requirement is easily met. Pessimism comes harder for us, but the Reagan arms buildup, events in Poland and Central America, and press attention to nuclear war have made the dangers more obvious.

So assume for the moment that current conditions allow the peace movement here to become prominent, to be heard. Assume that 1982 brings everything peace activists could hope for. Assume that the Catholic bishops say what they are expected to say at this fall’s meeting. Assume that we have a few large street demonstrations. Assume that there is a new concern for peace among the leadership of women’s organizations and Protestant denominations. Assume that frightening federal deficits force reductions in the rate of increase in Pentagon spending for the next fiscal year. What then? What will become of this prospering American peace movement?

If the present peace movement follows the pattern of past peace movements, this one will affect some policies and will move some people, but it will ultimately fail to avert war or to build a broad peace.

Peace movements, of the 20th century generally have been unable to achieve their immediate objectives, and have had even less impact on long-term public policy. Wars ultimately end, but rarely because of the work of peace movements. These movements in the United States and Europe have failed because they lack numbers, influence and access to power, or because they lack the programs to hold both popular and elite support. Why is this so?

Some problems facing national, peace movements, I would argue, are unavoidable and thus not worth much attention. One is their inability to reconcile the fact that they are asking a nation for action with the fact that the action has international dimensions. There is no way around this problem, but it confronts proponents of military solutions as well. A second inevitable weakness of peace movements is their factionalism. I see no cure for this ill; it must be endured where it is troublesome, and exploited where it is helpful. Third, it is claimed that the peace movement is all heart and no head, that it is weak on realistic analysis. Peace activists should avoid the purely sentimental and the wildly hyperbolic. Regardless of their efforts at rigor, however, peace activists will ultimately call on people to make decisions with their hearts as well as their heads.

A look at seven possibly avoidable causes for the failure of peace movements might suggest new approaches for the future. The first two are the extremes of the continuum of consonance with national values. The third is the time perspective. The last four relate to appeals and symbols used by or forced on the movement.

1. Peace movements fail because they are not seen as reflecting the basic values of a society. This was the case with the pre-1914 movement in Germany, widely identified as foreign in its spirit and impetus. This hazard can never be entirely eliminated, because peacemaking is foreign to some values of all nations. There are indigenous peace themes in the history of the English-speaking countries that did not exist in Germany, but the American and English themes are those of a tolerated minority rather than of the dominant culture.

2. Peace movements fail because they identify with such widely approved national symbols and themes as to deny themselves a clear identity. This situation describes the pre-1914 peace movement in the United States. Presidents Taft and Wilson and five secretaries of state between 1905 and 1914 were members of peace societies. Yet in 1917, when the United States entered the European war, only a small number of socialists, social reformers and religious pacifists maintained that a peace movement must of necessity oppose war.

3. Peace movements fail because they focus on the past, the present or the distant future, rather than the intermediate future. Each time perspective has its own hazards. But I am asserting, without benefit here of evidence, that the focus should be on the intermediate future: later than next year, sooner than the withering away of the state.

Leaders of peace organizations, like military generals, often prepare to fight the previous war. The American peace movement of the 1930s benefited from a retrospective distaste for the Great War of 1914-1918. William Allen White spoke for many Americans in the ‘30s when he warned: “The next war will see the same hurrah and the same bowwow of the big dogs to get the little dogs to go out and follow the blood scent and get their entrails tangled in the barbed wire.” Yet, even as the movement restated the evils of the Great War, some peace elements came to feel that they were irrelevant to the European situation of the late 1930s, while others found themselves uncomfortably allied with isolationists at home. The peace testimony of the churches was muted. Soon the war effort was attracting many a William Allen White.

Movements with immediate goals sometimes achieve those goals. American opposition to atmospheric nuclear testing helped make possible the 1963 partial test-ban treaty. So much of the energy of the movement had focused on that immediate goal, however, that when the treaty was ratified, public support could not be mobilized for a next step. Immediate goals often are modest ones, and the linkage with larger goals may not be clear.

Furthermore, linkages with immediate and intermediate goals may not be clear when a peace movement’s focus is on the distant future, as in the pre-1914 European socialists’ opposition to “capitalists’ wars.” The European socialists had not sufficiently considered the power of nationalism, nor had they built mechanisms able to withstand that power. The opposition to war evaporated in 1914, and soon French proletarians were killing German proletarians and vice versa.

4. Peace movements fail because they are unable, or unwilling, to convince people that wars hurt economies. “Business pacifism” was part of pre-1914 peace sentiment in the United States and western Europe. Norman Angell, in The Great Illusion, argued that wars destroy prosperity, even for the victor. As the president of the National Association of Manufacturers (U.S.) commented, “Dead men buy no clothes.” After World War II, which stimulated the American economy and created jobs, “business pacifism” was almost obliterated in America, and President Eisenhower’s identification of a “military-industrial complex” seemed to confirm that war is good for business. Yet the Vietnam war severely damaged the American economy, and by 1968 radical proposals on Vietnam were appearing in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. Peace activists of the 1960s were slow to argue that war, although it benefits some, has a negative net effect on the economy. Perhaps they were reluctant to appeal to people’s self-interest, or perhaps they were slow to believe that economic self-interest could work against war.

5. Peace movements fail because they fail to bridge class and ideological divisions. The class and ideological characteristics of peace activists are well known. Activists usually are from the middle class; in the United States they tend to be white, from the northeast or from large cities in the west and midwest; women, college students and “modernist” Protestant clergy have been conspicuously represented. In political ideology (except for pre-1914 America), peace movements have drawn disproportionately from the radical left. None of these characteristics is inevitably associated with peacemaking. All are cause and effect of the minority status of peace movements.

6. Peace movements fail because they become identified with threatening symbols unrelated to peace. By 1967 the antiwar movement in America had become stereotyped as a band of long-haired, profane, pot-smoking kids in revolt against the older generation and its institutions. Whereas participants in the civil rights movement a few years earlier had combed their hair and, curbed their tongues to present a positive public image, the antiwar activists sought to shock and in some cases to offend. The result was that while the Vietnam war was unpopular, the antiwar movement was even less popular -- and the style of some activists may have deterred working-class and rural Americans from moving to an antiwar stance.

7. Peace movements fail because they become identified with appeasement of national adversaries. This charge often is made unjustly, but it remains a difficult one for peace activists to deal with. The pre-1914 German peace movement, when it was noticed at all, was attacked as a stooge for the English. The appeasement charge was particularly unjust at the time of World War II, for American peace activists had been outspoken critics of Hitler and of the Munich agreement. But if it was unjust to link peace work and appeasement in the ‘40s, the suspicion was more understandable in the ‘60s, when some American antiwar activists made no effort to conceal their sympathies for an authoritarian regime in North Vietnam.

So much for what may be empirically verifiable. Other flaws in peace movements can be evaluated only subjectively. I am identifying two that frequently concern peace advocates. To the extent that these flaws exist, they are, I suggest, the most serious ones; however, they are now widely recognized. My first assertion below is conventional wisdom in 1982 in some circles, and the second reflects one of the oldest articles of Christian faith.

1. Peace movements fail because they work for a “peace” too narrowly defined. Too often in the past, peace has been defined as order -- as the absence of conflict, even as the absence of change. Given the inevitability and in some instances the desirability of conflict and change, this concept of peace fails on both empirical and normative grounds. The pre-1914 French, German and American peace movements all possessed an unduly legalistic notion of what peace involved. The same could be said of the more respectable elements of the post-1945 movement in the U.S. A better concept would be some variation of “peace with justice” (amply discussed in available literature).

2. Peace movements fail because they dwell on fear rather than hope. Just as peace movements need both optimism and pessimism to thrive, it is inevitable that in their appeals fear will be mixed with hope. But introducing fear in popular appeals is like introducing poison gas to a battlefield on a gusty day. Fear produces unstable and unpredictable results. In America in 1938-1941, for example, fear of war generated support for such disparate goals as peace, isolation and military involvement.

The recent discovery of nuclear war by television and mass-circulation magazines, and efforts to publicize the consequences of nuclear war through Ground Zero and university teach-ins, have brought war concerns to a wider audience. The risk is that this attention will encourage fear without giving grounds for hope, that it will stimulate anxiety without providing a constructive, release for that anxiety.

The fact that peace movements persist despite their failures is a tribute to the capacity of peace activists to sustain hope. Nonetheless, a study of the history of peace movements challenges one’s ability to be optimistic. This review, loosely in the tradition of Lasswell’s Garrison State and Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Future, uses historical trends to suggest the future that awaits us if we do not mend our ways.

I do not believe that we are in a unique era in which the past is irrelevant. The argument has been made that, just as the nuclear age has transformed the ways in which weapons can be used in pursuit of national interests, so it has altered the prospects for peace movements. However, nuclear weapons have not yet transformed our way of thinking about weapons, and so I doubt that peace movements can use this reason to ignore their past.

The tasks remain the same as always. People still need to be reached, still need to be convinced, to be moved. Worldwide vulnerability due to nuclear weapons does not in itself reach, convince or move people. Such efforts are the tasks of peace movements.

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