Pacifists judged: great but misguided

War by Other Means- The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance, by Daniel Akst (Melville House, 2022)

Many Americans have internalized notions of a World War II “Greatest Generation,” a mythology infused with masculine sacrifice and heroism. Historians and memoirists have produced more nuanced accounts — exploring topics like racial segregation, anti-Asian sentiment, changing gender roles and religious dissent — that challenge the prevailing narrative.  

Given the enduring fascination with World War II, it is perhaps inevitable that yet another “Greatest Generation” tome would appear, albeit with an argumentative twist: World War II-era pacifists who resisted racial and economic injustices were great, too. This is the theme of War by Other Means, which traces the lives of -midcentury pacifists David Dellinger, Bayard Rustin, A.J. Muste, Dorothy Day and others. The author, Daniel Akst, asserts that their war resistance, while ineffective in reducing the global carnage, produced good fruit in the long term: “They were wrong about one very big thing, it is true, but they were right about many others, as time would tell.” 

These pacifists led extraordinary lives, and their legacies are part of a rich historical tradition. Memoirs and biographical works help us to understand how the taproot of Christian nonviolence animated them. But in this book, the author’s appeal to readers conditioned to “Greatest Generation” tropes is duplicitous. Akst claims, but provides no evidence supporting his opinion, that while his subjects’ humanitarianism was laudable, their wartime pacifism was misguided; they were wrong to oppose the war.

Akst, a journalist, understands that most Americans have scant knowledge of pacifist traditions. In broad strokes, he traces the expansion of religious and civil liberties from the American revolutionary period through the Civil War and into the 20th century. By 1940, the historic peace churches and other pacifist groups were advocating for conscientious objectors’ rights. Enacted one year before Pearl Harbor, the Burke-Wadsworth Act conscripted millions of draft-age men and launched the Civilian Public Service program of work camps for religious war objectors. 

War by Other Means takes a dim view of CPS, em-bedded as it was with the wartime federal government. Not-ing that the 12,000 men assigned to CPS put in nearly 6 million hours of work ranging from firefighting to dairy testing, Akst argues they were “exploited by a system that treated their labor . . .  [and] their well-being all too cavalierly.” Apart from a nod to CPSers’ role in reforming psychiatric hospitals, Akst emphasizes the malaise of CPS assignees who became frustrated with menial tasks. Mennonite Central Committee’s role in administering camps is unmentioned, but the conflict-ridden Selective Service System camps — such as in Germfask, Mich., where men rebelled against work conditions until the camp shut down — illustrate what Akst terms “eroding support for the CPS program on all sides.” In his telling, CPS — which involved thousands of Mennonite, Amish, Hutterite and Brethren men and women — was a failed experiment, conducted by well-meaning but naïve idealists. 

Given his preoccupation with impact and legacy, Akst asks: Who were the most influential pacifists, and why? He argues they were the nonconformists who resisted conscription and went to prison, where they organized hunger strikes and other acts of nonviolent protest to defy racist, unjust treatment. Their uncompromising insistence on human rights received scant public notice at the time but gained momentum in subsequent decades, encompassing redress for Japanese-Americans’ wartime internment as well as broader desegregation and civil rights.  

War by Other Means weaves together accounts of Dellinger and Rustin, whose critiques of capitalism and structural racism in the 1940s, interlayered with antiwar activism, placed them among the most notable leftist thinkers in American life. Dellinger’s dissent while in prison for draft resistance led to integration of racially segregated dining halls. Rustin’s incarceration as a CO and courageous protests of segregated housing dovetailed with his early leadership of the Congress of Racial Equality. Later, Rustin became well-known for organizing the 1963 March on Washington, while Dellinger was a tireless critic of the Vietnam War. 

The author rightly notes that these and other religiously motivated activists were exemplars in fostering non-violent social change. Indeed, they had an impressive, if largely unrecognized, impact on American political and social thought in subsequent decades. But in dismissing their foundational antiwar beliefs, Akst belittles them and undercuts his own line of reasoning. 

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