Daniel Akst on ‘War by Other Means,’ a book on U.S. pacifists

On the shelf

War by Other Means: The Greatest Generation Pacifists Who Revolutionized the Resistance

By Daniel Akst
Melville House: 384 pages, $29

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On October 7, 1939, Milton Mayer wrote an essay for the Saturday Evening Post entitled “I Think I’ll Sit This One Out” in which he explained why he had no interest in participating in World War II or for that matter , any war. Mayer, who grew up Jewish and became a Quaker, would deny being a pacifist. But he was one in most intentions and purposes. He was also a maverick and a bit of a troublemaker, usually from his position as a longtime writer for the progressive.

I know these things mainly because Mayer, who died in 1986, was my grandfather. I didn’t know him very well; I was 15 when he died. But I know his reputation and legacy, and I thought of him as I read Daniel Akst’s new book, War by Other Means: The Greatest Generation of Pacifists Who Revolutionized the Resistance.

The book isn’t about my grandfather, but it is the story of his peers – particularly his most prominent and influential members. By focusing on four pacifists who fought the war instead of fighting in it — David Dellinger, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, and Dwight Macdonald — Akst wants us to reflect on what it means to be an unpopular (and often illegal) position against what will probably be the last war Americans are widely supported.

The roots of pacifism reach well beyond the 20th century. Traces can be found in ancient China and early Christianity, among other places (Jesus is often claimed by modern pacifists, but others reject this notion). Leo Tolstoy helped revitalize interest with his later Christian writings, and Mahatma Gandhi used nonviolent resistance to secure India’s independence from Britain.

None of this really mattered to most Americans in the run-up to World War II. As Akst writes, this was “the epitome of the ‘good’ war in which Americans stood together and made sacrifices.” All four Akst subjects paid a price for detaching themselves from the effort. Dellinger, for example, went to prison twice for refusing to register for military service. But they also lived to fight (or not) another day, and they had an outsized impact on the course of 20th-century American history.

"war by other means," by Daniel Akst

“Most people have no idea what role these individuals later played in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, anti-nuclear proliferation, and a host of other things,” Akst said in a video interview from his home north of New York City. “They really laid a lot of the groundwork for the left to come.”

And yet, as complicated nonconformists, they did not belong uniformly to the left. Akst describes Macdonald, the founder of the small but influential Politics magazine, and Day, who helped build the Catholic labor movement, as “conservative anarchists” fundamentally opposed to the government.

Both were unusually principled, which cost them and sometimes others. Macdonald partially broke with his co-editors of the influential Partisan Review over their neutrality towards the war. Day, dedicated to feeding the poor, refused to apply for 501(c)(3) status to become a nonprofit organization and allow for tax-deductible donations; Instead, she and her staff lived in bug-ridden squalor along with those for whom they provided shelter. “You almost have to ask her, isn’t it immoral not to do that?” says Akst. “But she didn’t want the government to play a role.”

They all had one thing in common: a fierce rejection of war, generally rooted in religious beliefs. Dellinger was one of the Union Eight, a group of students at the left-leaning Christian Union Theological Seminary who refused in principle to register for the draft. To become a conscientious objector during this period, applicants had to prove affiliation with a church that preached peace — but they still had to register for the draft.

“Like so many reform movements in American history, pacifist dissent was essentially religious,” says Akst. He writes that about 43,000 men were granted conscientious objector status after the 1940 bill brought conscription back to the United States

Daniel Akst's book "war by other means," follows four influential pacifists who refused to fight in World War II.

Daniel Akst’s book, War by Other Means, follows four influential pacifists who refused to fight in World War II.

(Nicholas Akst)

My principles do not flow equally from religion, and more than once I have asked myself: Am I a pacifist? The most accurate answer is that I’ve been fortunate in never having to prove my beliefs one way or the other. I remember on the eve of the first Gulf War I began compiling a conscientious objector file, complete with letters from elders testifying to my anti-war convictions. Everyone told me: The board will ask about the Second World War. Would you have fought against Hitler? I honestly didn’t know. I knew I would make a lousy soldier. I have no interest in killing another person in the name of my country or anything else. I am against war. The thing is, most people are against war. And not everyone is a pacifist.

As Akst writes, “It will come as a surprise to most Americans that even after Pearl Harbor, thousands in this country opposed World War II.” But as one can imagine, the infamous attack on American soil made the pacifist position increasingly unpopular . “Domestic resistance to entering the struggle collapsed,” writes Akst.

As a result, staunch pacifists “kind of crushed themselves,” Akst tells me. “You have withdrawn from public discourse. They realized they weren’t going to stop this thing and on some level they just weren’t trying. And that was part of the focus on other issues like race.”

This pivot point was particularly important in Rustin’s case. In the postwar period, he became a key ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (although he was sidelined because of his homosexuality). He brought his pacifism to the civil rights movement, where he helped cement the Gandhi-like strategy of passive resistance. “It’s impossible not to be incredibly intrigued by Bayard Rustin,” says Akst. “He was just a brilliant and fascinating and creative man full of vitality and courage and music.”

Courage. This quality, along with conscience, is what now draws me to pacifism. I like to think that some of this cocktail trickled down to me over generations. I could never claim to have the backbone of Day, Dellinger, Macdonald, Rustin or my grandfather. But I can peacefully admire it from afar.

Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-12-08/are-you-brave-enough-to-be-a-pacifist-one-historians-portraits-in-true-courage Daniel Akst on ‘War by Other Means,’ a book on U.S. pacifists

Sarah Ridley

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