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Daniel Akst on the Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance

War By Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized (book cover)

Daniel Akst is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Slate and other leading publications. He was a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, and has taught at Bard College and in the Bard Prison Initiative. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Shermer and Akst discuss:

  • Good vs. Bad Wars
  • the Old Left and the New Left
  • Religious liberals is not an oxymoron (social gospel) “Like so many reform movements in American history, pacifist dissent was essentially religious.”
  • David Dellinger (codefendant with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden for their antiwar protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention)
  • Dorothy Day
  • Dwight MacDonald
  • Bayard Rustin
  • American Firsters & Isolationists
  • cluster of heterodoxy: anti-war/militarism, but also anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, anti-apartheid, anti-power of the state, pro-labor, pro the rights of minorities, individual liberty on matters such as abortion and gender, anti-segregation
  • internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans into concentration camps
  • civil disobedience (Thoreau, Garrison, Gandhi)
  • non-violent protests (sit-ins at segregated restaurants)
  • moral equivalency: Hiroshima/Dresden vs. Majdanek/Auschwitz, London, Tokyo
  • Just War Theory
  • unconditional surrender vs. negotiated peace
  • increase immigration of European Jews into the U.S.
  • Military Industrial Complex
  • nuclear arms race, Cold War, Korea, Vietnam
  • moral progress with and without religion
  • the escalator of reason and moral progress
  • nationalism
  • the rise of Christian nationalism
  • the rise of authoritarianism.
About the Book

Pacifists who fought against the Second World War faced insurmountable odds — but their resistance, philosophy, and strategies fostered a tradition of activism that shaped America right up to the present day.

In this provocative and deeply researched work of history, Akst takes readers into the wild, heady, and uncertain times of America on the brink of a world war, following four fascinating resisters — four figures who would subsequently become famous political thinkers and activists — and their daring exploits: David Dellinger, Dorothy Day, Dwight MacDonald, and Bayard Rustin. The lives of these diverse anti-war advocates — a principled and passionate seminary student, a Catholic anarchist, a high-brow intellectual leftist, and an African-American pacifist and agitator — create the perfect prism through which to see World War II from a new angle, that of the opposition, as well as to show how great and lasting their achievements were.

The resisters did not stop the war, of course, but their impact would be felt for decades. Many of them went on to lead the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, the two most important social stands of the second half of the twentieth century. The various World War II resisters pioneered non-violent protest in America, popularized Gandhian principles, and desegregated the first prison mess halls. Theirs is a story that has never been told.

Show Notes

The just war doctrine of the Catholic Church found in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2309, lists four strict conditions for “legitimate defense by military force:”30, 31

  • The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain.
  • All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
  • there must be serious prospects of success.
  • The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

“The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions similar to those which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon The Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is also accordingly here—within ourselves and our institutions.” —John Dewey

From Gustave Gilbert’s Nuremberg Diary, interview with Herman Goering

Later in the conversation, Gilbert recorded Goering’s observations that the common people can always be manipulated into supporting and fighting wars by their political leaders: We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

“Why, of course, the people don’t want war,” Goering shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”

“There is one difference,” I pointed out. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”

“Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on January 17, 2023.

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