Peace movement needs agitators to be effective

Thursday, November 8, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:30 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In his recent article, “Peaceniks are anything but practical,” John Merrill says that he is amazed at the unrealistic approach of anti-war demonstrators and asks: “Don’t they know history? Don’t they know that talking and demonstrating won’t bring about peace? Where have they been all of their lives?”

As one of the peaceniks of whom Professor Merrill speaks, I would like to respond to his questions, starting with a little history.

In early 1964, on a trip to St. Louis, I happened to encounter an Army officer, Lt. Col. Augustine Fragala, who had been my commanding officer at Fort Lee, Va., in 1956 and 1957. After pleasantries, Lt. Col. Fragala invited me to his room for a drink. As we talked, it was apparent he was somewhat troubled. He said he was quite disturbed with his current assignment, which was to be one of his last projects before retirement.

He said he was a member of a logistics team that was “filling the pipeline” for actions in Vietnam. By that, he meant that his team was planning the distribution of large quantities of materials for fighting the war in Vietnam. His overall message to me was that expanded U.S. involvement in Vietnam would be one of the worst things that could happen to both Vietnam and the United States. As we concluded our conversation, he said: “We’re looking for an excuse to expand the war, and we will find one.”

Upon my return to Columbia, I contacted several members of our local peace group, which had been warning fellow citizens about a possible U.S. invasion of Vietnam since early 1962, when John Kennedy deployed U.S. Green Beret “advisors” to the country. Included in that group were MU political science professors Paul Wallace and David Wurfel, who both knew the history and politics of Vietnam. Also in the group were professors Jim Hamilton (anthropology) and John Schuder (surgery), who currently stands with several of us at the Columbia Post Office in protest of the war in Iraq.

As we discussed Lt. Col. Fragala’s view of an impending disaster in Vietnam, we decided to call for an appointment with our Democratic congressman Richard Ichord in his district office in Columbia. We were able to tell Rep. Ichord about Lt. Col. Fragala’s logistics team and express our concern that preparations were being made to substantially increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam without adequate debate of the issue. His response was that further congressional discussion was unnecessary and, in fact, if it were to take place, the mood of Congress was such that they would probably endorse even greater increases in U.S. military activities in Vietnam. We told the congressman that we thought our country was headed toward a military disaster and strongly encouraged him to push for further debate before sending young Americans to their deaths. He was not convinced and indicated no real interest in the concerns we had expressed.

On August 7, 1964, the Senate and House of Representatives passed a joint resolution, known as the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson a blank check to widen the Vietnam War. With a November election on the horizon, few Congress members had questioned the president’s call for broad authority to counter an alleged attack on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The congressional debate lasted only two days. No member of the House objected, and only two Senators, the late Ernest Gruening of Ala. and the late Wayne Morse of Ore., voted against the resolution, which later proved to be based on false charges. Clearly, Lt. Col. Fragala’s concern had been accurate, and “practical” members of Congress allowed Johnson to rush headfirst into an all-out conflict in Southeast Asia that would kill more than 50,000 U.S. troops, as well as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. In response, various peace organizations and student groups greatly increased their anti-war protests and political lobbying for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

As previously noted, Professor Merrill says talking and demonstrating won’t bring about peace. It is true that talking and demonstrating, by themselves, cannot bring about the cessation of illegal bombing, invasion and illegal occupation of other countries. However, those activities do play a critical role in arousing public opinion when most citizens of the invading country — including those in the U.S. who blamed Saddam Hussein for the Sept. 11 attacks. In terms of the functions of discussion and demonstration for anti-war activists, history indicates the following propositions are true:

1. Cessation of an illegal war ultimately requires political decision-making by a country’s top leaders, or their successors.

2. Such political decision-making requires an attitude change by politicians and their local constituents.

3. Attitude change requires effective information transfer and various forms of communication, i.e., interpersonal, intergroup, national, international, etc., via various strategies and media. In some cases it requires in-depth education and training efforts.

4. Information transfer, education and community action require time, energy and money for advertising, publishing, travel and other expenses.

5. In most cases, all of the above have to be preceded by some form of nonviolent direct action and political agitation, including principled and well-organized public demonstrations. This has long been the case, as with women’s suffrage, civil rights, veterans’ revolts, gay rights and a host of other such campaigns.

The above sequence was definitely in play during the Vietnam years, and substantial evidence exists that the Iraq conflict has followed that same order of events. Prior to the U.S. bombing, widespread demonstrations and public programs were held in Columbia against the Bush attack on Iraq. Demonstrators were definitely in the minority, and their ideas were looked upon as the position of the “lunatic fringe.” Today, many politicians and a majority of the U.S. public view the Iraq war as a colossal mistake. To say, as Professor Merrill does, that anti-war demonstrations play no part in this attitude change is simplyincorrect.

Professor Merrill is correct in saying that some social and political agitators cause more social angst and friction than good. This is precisely the objective of such activity. As William Lederer pointed out years ago, we are a nation of sheep. The only way the sheep wake up is if they, too, become agitated.

In talking about the agitator’s role, it is important to point out that many, if not most, “peace-minded” individuals do not play the role of agitator. Many who provide ongoing peace education and peace dialogue in different settings, including schools, colleges, churches, nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, never personally appear at public demonstrations or any form of “acting out.” Those folks tend to get a bad name when totally lumped together as peaceniks.

The peace community is not a monolithic group. There are as many philosophies of peace as there are philosophies of education. It’s too bad that some in the peace community have to serve as healers to those who are outraged by us agitators. Unfortunately, history provides little evidence that the agitation stage of social change can be eliminated if anything is to get done.

Professor Merrill is also correct in saying that some peaceniks are giving vent to their idealism and magnifying their self-importance. In my own case, I plead guilty to both charges. I believe idealism to be a key ingredient for social progress. And given the many forces which marginalize the “peace movement,” it is, for me, necessary to affirm my autonomy and importance to the civic dialogue. I am definitely important, but no more so than anyone else in the community. If such thinking, feeling and acting constitute self-importance, so be it.

Professor Merrill has raised numerous issues related to peace and world order. Space will not permit a response to those comments. However, it’s possible that they could be addressed in future writing, or preferably in dialogue with Professor Merrill and others of his persuasion. Members of our Heartland Chapter of Global Action to Prevent War are always available to discuss ways to achieve genuine homeland defense and security, as well as creative ways to achieve common human security.

Let the healing begin!

Bill Wickersham of Columbia is an adjunct professor of peace studies at MU and a member of Global Action to Prevent War.

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