Peace of History
Yesterday, August 12, was the 67th anniversary of the first Soviet thermonuclear detonation. The feat, occurring less than a year after the first U.S. thermonuclear detonation, was largely accomplished due to the work of nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov -- 8 years after that, Sakharov would lead the design of the largest thermonuclear detonation ever tested in human history. The man later became world-renowned as a prominent dissident of Soviet nuclear policy, and even displayed inklings of pacifist beliefs earlier in his career -- but before his full turn to activism for disarmament and human rights, he fully believed in the necessity to rapidly arm the USSR with nuclear weapons in order to “preserve the parity necessary for mutual deterrence.” The impetus for Sakharov’s turn away from his government’s nuclear policy was due largely to his deepening distrust of Premier Khrushchev and disenchantment with the Soviet system -- but it also came from a gradual reevaluation of the policy’s wisdom in the first place. It took most of the 1960s for Sakharov to develop into a full dissident. Meanwhile, movements for national liberation were sweeping the colonized world, the U.S. civil rights movement was gaining serious momentum, and the peace movement was building an international antinuclear weapons coalition. In the early 1960s, it seems that perhaps something was in the air, and Sakharov may have caught it.
Earlier in his career, Sakharov was self-contradictory and confused -- clearly in possession of a conscience, but also concerned more about the technical science and results of thermonuclear explosions than any ethical or political considerations. On the one hand, a few weeks after that first Soviet thermonuclear test in 1953, Sakharov gave a toast at a banquet with prominent military officials. From his Memoirs, he said, “May all our devices explode as successfully as today’s, but always over test sites and never over cities” -- a sentiment that provoked a lewd, blasphemous follow-up toast from a general meant to ‘squelch my pacifist sentiment, and to put me and anyone who might share these ideas in our place.’” On the other hand, 8 years later in 1961, Sakharov was instrumental in completing the largest thermonuclear test ever conducted: the 50-megaton weapon known to Americans as “Tsar Bomba.” No nuclear tests had been conducted between 1959 and the first half of 1961 by the US, UK, or USSR -- until Khrushchev suddenly ordered the resumption of testing. Sakharov himself thought that the tests were technically unnecessary, but rather politically motivated in response to a deteriorating international situation -- the US Bay of Pigs fiasco had occurred just months before, and Khrushchev was already secretly planning to build the Berlin Wall. Sakharov even gave these objections to Khrushchev, but was humiliated for it and went to work on the bomb anyway. Soon after the successful test, he even started to design a new delivery system for the bomb: a massive, nuclear-powered jet-propelled torpedo designed to obliterate ports. When he proposed the concept to Rear Admiral Fomin, however, Fomin “was shocked and disgusted by the idea of merciless mass slaughter… I was utterly abashed, and never discussed the subject with anyone else.” Clearly, Sakharov was a self-conflicted, complex person -- especially in his first couple decades as a nuclear physicist.
Coincidentally, three weeks before the Tsar Bomba test, an international American-European group of peace activists held a 2-hour silent peace vigil at the Red Square. In December of the year before, the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) had commenced the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace -- a 310-day, six thousand mile walk that crossed the span of North America, the width of Europe, and finally arriving in Moscow. In every city they passed through, American or European, “free” or communist, the marchers distributed leaflets advocating unilateral disarmament, including 100,000 leaflets in Russia alone. They also gave countless public addresses engaging the public directly on the moral and existential issues of nuclear arms. The marchers even had a meeting with Nina Khrushchev, wife of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to impress upon her the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The effect of the march, the vigils, the public addresses, the leaflets, and the meetings is difficult to judge -- Sakharov himself does not make mention of the foreign pacifists in Moscow in his memoirs despite him being in the city at the same time, working on the final tweaks to the design of Tsar Bomba. And yet, like with many political publicity stunts in the peace movement, the San Francisco to Moscow Walk was not meant to actually convince any leaders to completely and immediately disarm. Rather, the CNVA Walk challenged commonly-accepted wisdom about nuclear policy including “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), confronted censorship and misinformation on both sides of the “Iron Curtain,” and exposed the transformative possibilities of goodwill, radical peace, and respect for human rights.
It would be too much to say that the CNVA turned Andrei Sakharov to a pacifist conviction, but it would also be imprudent to dismiss the possibility that word from a stray CNVA leaflet or overheard gossip about the pacifist Americans in the Red Square would have rippled and reached the physicist. Regardless of the direct causes, by the following year, Sakharov was writing letters to Khrushchev and other officials urging to end atmospheric tests of thermonuclear devices. His warnings were mostly ignored until October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and USSR to the brink of nuclear war. In 1963, the Kennedy and Khrushchev administrations signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, banning all but underground tests of nuclear weapons. As the decade continued, however, a new arms race in anti-ballistic missile technology began to accelerate. In July 1967, the Soviet government refused Sakharov’s request to initiate a public dialog about the dangers of the anti-ballistic missile arms race.
In May of the next year, Sakharov wrote the essay “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom” in which he argued that the new arms race would ultimately lead to global nuclear war. The essay was distributed by underground dissidents in the USSR and eventually made its way to the West, where it was first published in the United States in The New York Times. For his essay, Sakharov was banned from all military-related research. He continued research into theoretical physics, but began to be better known for his political activism than his scientific achievements. In 1970, Sakharov was one of three founding members of the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR. Over the next few years, Sakharov developed contacts with Western correspondents and activists as well. The early 70s also brought professional, institutional, and governmental harassment into Sakharov’s life, further disenchanting him from his government. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, but was prevented from traveling to accept it; his wife Yelena Bonner went to accept it in his place. In 1980, Sakharov was arrested for protesting the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and was thus sent to Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) where he remained until Gorbachev initiated perestroika and glasnost reforms in 1986. Returning to Moscow, Sakharov became a prominent voice of government opposition, human rights, and democracy. In 1989, he was elected to the new parliament, the All-Union Congress of People’s Deputies. Although he suddenly passed away before the year was finished, Sakharov’s legacy continued to inspire within and outside of the Soviet Union -- indeed, the European Parliament still awards individuals and groups with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
The person Andrei Sakharov was when he first began working on the Soviet nuclear weapons program was quite different from the person he became in the later 1960s and 1970s. At the same time as his political and moral awakening, an international peace and antinuclear movement was gaining momentum, directly challenging a global order maintained by the threat of nuclear annihilation anywhere -- and as Sakharov was inspired by his Western counterparts, so, too, were Westerners inspired by Sakharov. When the CNVA campaigned in New London and Groton, Connecticut in 1960 to protest the production of the world’s first nuclear-armed submarines, some of the workers at General Dynamics: Electric Boat told them to “tell it to the Russians” -- so they walked over 6000 miles and did just that. Perhaps some listened -- perhaps the message even reached the Soviet senior nuclear weapons designer, a certain Andrei Sakharov. Which begs the question: if the head of the Soviet nuclear weapons program could turn completely around on the issue at the height of the Cold War, why not our neighbors and friends involved in our own country’s military-industrial complex today?
Any further connective claims are outside the scope of this piece, but let us content ourselves with the message that Andrei Sakharov conveyed with his life: when persons of conviction speak up and take a stand, they will inevitably inspire others to do the same.
“Andrei D. Sakharov” https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/andrei-d-sakharov
“Anti-war activists march to Moscow for peace, 1960-1961” https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/anti-war-activists-march-moscow-peace-1960-1961
“Papers of the European Organiser of the American-European Peace March from San Francisco to Moscow” https://web.archive.org/web/20110929001617/http://archiveshub.ac.uk/features/peacemarch.html
Sakharov, Andrei. Memoirs. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. https://archive.org/details/memoirs00sakh
Sakharov, Andrei. “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom” New York Times https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/94-read-sakharov-s-original-essay/b639f1e6e0f204e3ad9a/optimized/full.pdf#page=1
“Soviet Hydrogen Bomb Program” https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/soviet-hydrogen-bomb-program
“THE THEORY OF ‘CONVERGENCE’ AND/OR ‘FUTUROLOGY’” https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP79-01194A000400140001-7.pdf
Content Warning: violence, racist language, mention of racist atrocities, mass death
A version of this story was also published at Waging Nonviolence.
For this week’s Peace of History:
We solemnly recognize today as the 75th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan -- the first time atomic weapons were used in war. Attempting to estimate the number of casualties is difficult, and it is possible that our estimates are over-conservative, but early attempts place the figure at 70,000 dead by the end of the year, while more recent reevaluations estimate at least 140,000 lives lost. Three days after the initial attack, the United States dropped a plutonium bomb on the port city Nagasaki, killing at least 40,000 and as many as 70,000 people or more. Within months, almost a quarter million would be dead from just the two attacks -- overwhelmingly civilians. Much has been written about the morality and military expediency of using the bomb -- but missing from many of these discussions is a critical examination of the extreme racist hatred that rapidly developed in the United States against people of Japanese descent, and how that led to the annihilation of two cities. But also missing is the recognition that African-Americans were some of the first in the country to voice concern about or even condemn the bomb, and that Black leftists were some of the first to draw the connections between colonialism, racism, capitalism, and war.
The general American hatred for the Japanese during WWII cannot be overstated. Thanks to the tireless activism of younger Japanese-Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, many Americans now know about the inhumane internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII -- less know that Nazi POWs held in American camps were often treated with musical, theatrical, and even movie showings on most nights, set up volleyball leagues with their guards, were invited to dances and other social events, and would even be able to visit shops and restaurants in town that Black American G.I.s could not. Some historians have pointed out that most Americans at the time could differentiate between Nazis and Germans, fascists and Italians -- but with Japan, all Japanese people were not only suspect, but by their very nature the enemy. Everything was done to dehumanize Japanese people, from seemingly all major forces of society:
Indeed, by the end of the war and even well past it, the general mood in the United States was one of vicious and unrestrained vengeance for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which claimed 2403 American lives, 50 of whom were civilians. Polls were conducted periodically after the end of the war regarding citizens’ attitudes towards this new weapon of mass destruction: the results are somewhat disturbing. Less than a week after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 85% of Americans approved of the attacks according to a Gallup poll. Indeed, historian Lawrence Wittner notes that through late 1945, in all the polls conducted on the issue, none saw more than 4.5% of respondents opposing the use of the atomic weapons. In fact, when one Roper poll proposed that we should have: (1) not used the bombs at all, (2) dropped the first in an unpopulated area and the second on a city if they don’t surrender, (3) used the bombs as we did, (4) used many more bombs before they could surrender, (5) don’t know -- 22.7% of respondents answered with option #4. Two months after defeating the enemy, almost a quarter of respondents prioritized killing as many Japanese people as possible.
Meanwhile, a new generation of African-Americans had won positions in the sciences, in certain parts of the military, and in other previously inaccessible fields. After the Japanese surrender, Black newspapers and magazines of the time frequently made note of Black chemists, physicists, and other scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb. Many Black moderates had believed that such contributions to the war effort -- from normal Black soldiers fighting valorously, to Black scientists harnessing the power of the atom -- would win greater freedoms and opportunities for Black people in America after the war.
But even still, some of the earliest criticisms of the atomic bomb came from African-American communities. Of course Black America is not a monolith but contains a multiplicity of diverse opinions -- even so, concern about the bomb was noticeably higher in Black communities than in White ones. Indeed, the warnings and recommendations of the racially integrated National Committee on Atomic Information more closely followed Black concerns about atomic weapons than they did general White-dominant American concerns. Conservative journalist George Schuyler wrote about the horrors of “murder of men wholesale” and “being able to slaughter whole cities at a time” -- atrocities that only maintain white supremacy in the world. Clergy members began to speak up too. Reverend J.E. Elliot of St. Luke Chapel: “I have seen the course of discrimination throughout the war and the fact that Japan is of a darker race is no excuse for resorting to such an atrocity.” Reverend Louis F. Lomax of Taber Presbyterian Church: “[The atomic bomb is a] diabolical weapon [and] man has more scientific knowledge than religion to control it.” In 1946, the NAACP called for nuclear disarmament at its annual conference. Poet Langston Hughes, author Zora Neale Hurston, NAACP leader Walter White, and many others were early critics of atomic weapons -- some becoming political for the first time.
But it was really the Black leftists who saw the connections between racism, colonialism, and war early on. For many of them, it started with the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia -- the last holdout of African resistance to European colonialism. The invasion made it clear to Black leftists that colonialism was at its core a perpetual war of racial domination. The event radicalized many African-Americans. Singer and actor Paul Robeson noted that since the invasion, “the parallel between [African Americans’] own interests and those of oppressed peoples abroad had been impressed upon him daily.” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about his fear that “If power can be held through atomic bombs, colonial peoples may never be free.” In 1942, James Farmer along with A.J. Muste, George Houser, and others founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which grew out of the pacifist movement including the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Harlem Ashram. Marjorie Swann, co-founder of the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) which started the Voluntown Peace Trust, was also a charter member. Bayard Rustin gave support as an “uncle” to CORE, a role he played for so many organizations. Six years later, CORE joined two hundred other activists in Chicago to form a new “revolutionary pacifism” which included campaigning against building nuclear weapons. From this conference emerged the Peacemakers -- one of the very first groups outside of the scientific community to organize opposition to nuclear-arms proliferation. Among the founders were Wally Nelson, one of CORE’s first nonviolence trainers, as well as his partner Juanita -- both would become dear friends of CNVA/Voluntown Peace Trust. The Peacemakers and CNVA became influential groups that would train countless activists and organizers in the peace, justice, and civil rights movements.
In 1946, Paul Robeson gave a scathing, brilliant speech about the connections between nuclear weapons and racism against the Japanese and Black liberation: “it is all part of one problem, this matter of discrimination and it may be the foremost question facing us today in the atomic age.” Robeson puts the crux of the problem not on the weapon itself, but on the ideologies and prejudices that compel the use of the weapons at all. As a rising Black performer with much to lose, Robeson continued, drawing these dangerous connections between racism, capitalism, colonialism, war, and ultimately, extinction: “Our government is getting uranium from the Belgian Congo for atomic bombs. American companies are prospecting for oil in Ethiopia and for minerals in Liberia...these manifestations of a new and heightened interest in Africa on the part of American Big Business represent a challenge to the rest of us...We on the anti-imperialist side are handicapped by lack of money, lack of powerful organization, lack of influence in state and international affairs. But, although the enemy has all the advantage and has a head start in the race, it is yet possible for us to catch up and win. It is possible to win if the majority of the American people can be brought to see and understand in the fullest sense the fact that the struggle in which we are engaged is not a matter of mere humanitarian sentiment, but of life and death. The only alternative to world freedom is world annihilation.”
Intondi, Vincent J. African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement. Stanford University Press, 2015
Miles, Hannah. “WWII Propaganda: The Influence of Racism” https://artifactsjournal.missouri.edu/2012/03/wwii-propaganda-the-influence-of-racism/
“Pearl Harbor Casualties” http://www.pearlharbor.us/casualties/
Wellerstein, Alex. “Counting the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki” https://thebulletin.org/2020/08/counting-the-dead-at-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/
For this week’s Peace of History:
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the successful end of the 5-year Delano Grape Strike, which saw the formation of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and the rise of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as legendary figures in the labor movement. And yet much has been forgotten, written out, or otherwise misunderstood about why the strike started in the first place, who was involved, how it succeeded, and what followed. Too often, key pieces of contextual history are excluded from the telling of a story. A more complete history of the founding of the UFW must include the story of Larry Itliong’s leadership, the initial unity of the Filipino-American manong generation and Mexican-American farm workers, and the dangers of placing too much power in the hands of a single person. To understand the Delano Grape Strike, we must trace back two separate lines, how they came together, and why they frayed apart.
Following the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), the United States aggressively colonized the Philippines on multiple fronts. As a result of colonization, from 1917 to 1934, the tens of thousands of Filipino immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century did not face the heavy immigration restrictions that other Asians received, and many Filipino immigrants did not initially feel like such outsiders. Upon immigrating, however, Filipinos often suffered racist violence, prejudice, and segregation. It was not unknown for bosses to physically whip and beat Filipino workers, call grown men “boys,” and perform other acts of dehumanization. Moreover, in 1934, Congress changed immigration laws to change the status of all Filipino-American citizens to “alien,” and to restrict new Filipino immigration similarly to other Asians. Furthermore, anti-miscegenation laws prevented “Whites” (including most Hispanics) from marrying “Blacks,” “Asians,” and after 1930, “Filipinos.” With a gender disparity of 14 men to 1 woman in Filipino immigration in the early 20th century, this lost generation of mostly unmarried men became known as the manong (“older brother”) generation to later Filipino immigrants.
The manong formed alternative communities and economies based both on their Ilocano Filipino heritage and on the new itinerant lifestyles many had adopted in the United States. While some Filipinos came to participate in American universities, the vast majority were young men seeking migrant manual labor. These mostly male communities dotted along the west coast and relied as much on the migrant Filipino agricultural workers as the workers did on these communities. Through years of traveling, working, eating, and sleeping side-by-side together, the manong developed a strong group identity and mutual trust with each other. Thus, they also started organizing as workers in the face of racist exploitation early on. When Larry Itliong immigrated to the United States in 1929 at the age of 15, Itliong found manong already starting to organize, and he quickly got involved. Over the years, Itliong helped to organize cannery and agricultural workers unions from Alaska’s dangerous fisheries in the north to California’s massive plantations in the south. Larry Itliong became known among the other manong for his charisma, militance, and skill in organizing. The 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s saw frequent, sometimes violent resistance from Filipino laborers in the United States, which was often successful at winning higher wages and other short-term concessions, but never resulted in written contracts with codified improvements.
At first, the Delano Grape Strike in 1965 seemed to follow the pattern. The predominantly Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led by Larry Itliong had won a strike months earlier in May against Coachella Valley grape growers ended with the typical results: no contract. Moving north to Delano in September, Filipino workers asked the AWOC to help organize a strike to win the same wages as in Coachella Valley. The strike began on September 8. Mexican-American workers, however, had also migrated into the area, and could easily provide the scab labor for the grape growers -- another pattern which had previously often led to Filipino workers physically confronting and fighting Mexican-American workers. But this was 1965: Dr. King’s message of interracial harmony, equal justice, and nonviolent methods were world-famous. Things were different now. And besides, by this time, most of the manongs were in their 50s and 60s, their bodies weathered by decades of manual labor -- Larry Itliong himself had years ago lost three fingers in a fishing accident. Itliong evaluated the situation carefully.
Around the same time, Mexican-American workers on the west coast were starting to organize. The bracero federal workers program had ended in 1964, opening up more opportunities for Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to organize primarily Mexican-Americans working in agriculture. Chavez dreamed of leading a Chicano movement, with labor a key component. Huerta had already demonstrated her skill in community organizing with her work improving conditions in barrios, and looked to the farm workers as the next step. The two formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962, grew the membership rapidly, and in April 1965, helped to organize a short, successful strike for rose grafters. The NFWA’s reputation was growing steadily, but Chavez himself felt that they would not be ready for a large-scale strike for at least another three years. And yet, when Larry Itliong approached Chavez personally to join the strike, Chavez felt backed into a corner. The issue was put to a vote with the NFWA, and on September 16, Mexican Independence Day, an overwhelming majority of the more than twelve hundred of his union members voted in support of the Filipino workers. For years after, Mexican and manong workers alike picketed together, ate or went hungry together, and slept on the same dusty cold floors together.
With the NFWA’s superior numbers, Chavez quickly took over organization of the strike, sending representatives to the Longshoremen to convince them not to pack grapes. Soon, the United Automobile Workers pledged financial support to the strikers. Inspired by the boycott tactic popular in the Civil Rights Movement, Chavez met with SNCC to learn their methods and foster an alliance. They started a national boycott of California grapes, with Dolores Huerta coordinating a campaign that sent hundreds of strikers across the country to share their stories. Chavez eventually led a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to draw attention to the farm workers’ plight. The message was simple and clear: tens of thousands of strikers are making enormous sacrifices to secure labor justice and dignity as workers -- but average Americans can help by making the small sacrifice of abstaining from grapes. Unlike many of the boycotts of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, which were usually focused on local or regional businesses, the farm workers’ boycott campaign brought distant struggles for justice into countless grocery stores and suburban homes. This strategy proved to be particularly effective, and laid the groundwork for the success of future national boycotts like the Lettuce Boycott of 1970-1971 and the Gallo Wine Boycott of 1973-1978.
About a year into the strike, the AWOC and the much larger NFWA merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, later known as the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), with Chavez as General Director and Itliong as Assistant Director. It was well-known, however, that Chavez organized around himself as a “one man union” with a few close, ambitious, like-minded confidantes like Huerta to carry the rest of the responsibilities. Itliong and other Filipino labor leaders found themselves a “minority within a minority,” filling largely symbolic roles in a union that increasingly seemed to forget about the very workers who started the strike in the first place.
After five long years, in July 1970, the UFW won the strike over the Delano grape growers, and a contract for the agricultural workers specifying codified rules to improve conditions in the fields -- a first for the manong. But provisions negotiated by Chavez and Huerta also implemented hiring systems that drastically disrupted manong communities, many of whom still had no families or savings for support. The concerns of these aging Filipino men were increasingly ignored as they became a smaller and smaller minority in an organization they helped found. Chavez appointed Itliong the National Boycott Coordinator of the UFW in 1970, but Itliong increasingly felt uncomfortable with his own unelected position and how Chavez ran the union. In 1971, Itliong resigned from the UFW, citing the lack of concern for the manong workers and Chavez’ particular leadership style as his reasons. A key figure in the Asian American Movement, Larry Itliong continued to organize and advocate for his fellow manong workers until his death in 1977. Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez went on to become powerful figures in the labor and Chicano movements, and undoubtedly effected positive changes for countless workers. Utilitarianism posits that whatever effects the greatest good for the greatest number of people is the most ethical choice -- under such an analysis, the UFW’s victory in the Delano Grape Strike was an overwhelming success. But at the same time, many manong concerns were neglected, and some ended up worse off than before. As we build up our own groups and form coalitions, let us not repeat the mistake of the UFW. Let us remember the minority within the minority.
“The 1965-1970 Delano Grape Strike and Boycott” https://ufw.org/1965-1970-delano-grape-strike-boycott/
“‘A Minority Within a Minority’: Filipinos in the United Farmworkers Movement” https://prizedwriting.ucdavis.edu/sites/prizedwriting.ucdavis.edu/files/sitewide/Barbadillo_vol28.pdf
“COACHELLA VALLEY: Filipinos’ 1965 strike set stage for farm labor cause” https://www.pe.com/2005/09/03/coachella-valley-filipinos-1965-strike-set-stage-for-farm-labor-cause/
The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the UFW https://www.pbs.org/video/kvie-viewfinder-delano-manongs/
Dunne, John Gregory. Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike. 1971 https://books.google.com/books?id=GQ1JkSnNmLQC&pg=PA77#v=onepage&q&f=false
Jiobu, Robert M. Ethnicity and Assimilation: Blacks, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Mexicans, Vietnamese, and Whites. 1988
“The Forgotten Filipino-Americans Who Led the ’65 Delano Grape Strike” https://www.kqed.org/news/10666155/50-years-later-the-forgotten-origins-of-the-historic-delano-grape-strike
“Forgotten Hero of Labor Fight; His Son’s Lonely Quest” https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/us/larry-itliong-forgotten-filipino-labor-leader.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
For this week’s Peace of History:
We mourn the deaths of the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Representative John Lewis, who both passed away last week on Friday, July 17, 2020. Their experiences in the Civil Rights Movement, in different but intersecting ways, feel especially pertinent for us to examine in our present historic moment. As the Black Lives Matter movement grows and enters a new phase, and many are wondering what comes next -- let us honor the memories of these lifelong titans in the struggle for justice by examining their early experiences with nonviolent action and their roles in the campaign that shaped a generation of protests: the Nashville Lunch Counter Sit-Ins.
C.T. Vivian’s first experience with nonviolent action happened earlier than many of his peers. In Peoria, IL, 1947, Vivian became involved in his first sit-in campaign to desegregate local lunch counters and restaurants when he met Ben Alexander, a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and a local minister. They led a successful campaign using the methods developed by CORE: asserting a nonthreatening but absolutely unavoidable presence to confront consciences directly.
Over a decade later, upon being called to ministry, Vivian went to Nashville to study at the American Baptist Theological Seminary. There, in 1959, he met James Lawson, who was teaching Gandhi’s principles and strategies that he had learned in India. Lawson was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the southern director of CORE, and was himself enrolled at the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University -- so he started his nonviolent trainings with other ministers and Black students who attended several colleges in Nashville. Students drawn to the workshops included Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and none other than John Lewis. Many were skeptical going in, but later became some of the most disciplined practitioners and outspoken proponents. Vivian, although having experienced a nonviolent action campaign in practice before, still did the workshops to learn the strategic principles and greater social philosophy of nonviolence, and became a skilled trainer himself.
Lawson started leading these training sessions sporadically out of the basement of his church in 1958, as he got to know C.T. Vivian and other Black ministers and students in Nashville. By the Fall of 1959, more students and young people were becoming interested, momentum had picked up, and Lawson held trainings every Tuesday night for at least the 5 months before the Nashville Sit-In campaign would commence. John Lewis, like so many others of his peers, was enraptured. Also in school for the ministry at American Baptist Theological Seminary, Lewis heard Lawson discussing nonviolence and felt that “it was something I’d been searching for my whole life.” Lewis, like Vivian, quickly became immersed in the nascent movement, becoming a founding member of the Nashville Student Movement in October 1959. Four months later, on February 13, 1960, in-part inspired by the start of the Greensboro Sit-Ins less than two weeks prior, the students initiated their first sit-ins in downtown Nashville.
No one could have known that the success of the Nashville Sit-In campaign would have such immense and lasting consequences. One effect was that the student-leaders emerging from the campaign quickly formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and some members trained by James Lawson went to train more people in other cities across the South -- seeding the principles, strategies, and practices of nonviolent direct action across the region. Others, like John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, built upon the practice of nonviolent action. On May 4, 1961, Lewis joined 6 other African-Americans and six white allies from the North when CORE revived an old FOR project: the integrated Freedom Rides through the South. C.T. Vivian participated in some of the last Freedom Rides that summer, despite the continuing violence against Riders. Lewis and Vivian both suffered nearly deadly attacks on multiple occasions, but when the rest of CORE decided to shift priorities elsewhere, in part to avoid further violence, Lewis, Vivian, and Diane Nash had SNCC take over the project, successfully completing the last rides in August of that year.
As we look at the chain of events that would lead to John Lewis addressing over 200,000 people alongside Dr. King at the 1963 March on Washington, to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to C.T. Vivian’s founding of Upward Bound in 1965, Black Action Strategies and Information Center (BASICS) in 1977, and Center for Democratic Renewal with Anne Braden in 1979, and beyond -- we have the privilege of knowing how the stories of C.T. Vivian and John Lewis end. Those foundational experiences, especially those early training workshops and action campaigns, almost read like convenient origin stories for legendary persons like Vivian and Lewis. But it is essential for us to remember that the early successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not come from nowhere, but instead emerged from months of educating, training, and coordinating. James Lawson tilled the soil and planted the seeds -- but he could not have known that his students like C.T. Vivian and John Lewis would carry the fruits of his labors so far. Now, it is our turn.
CALL TO ACTION: Voluntown Peace Trust is planning to run a ~2 hour Intro to Direct Action Workshop next week, between Monday and Thursday. This 2-hour Zoom workshop explores one of the most foundational campaigns in the Civil Rights Movement, which took place in 1960 and still has much to teach us today. Both John Lewis and C.T. Vivien, who died this past week, were involved. The 25-minute documentary “Nashville: We Were Warriors” from “A Force More Powerful” shows the power of nonviolent action training and how strategic planning can create a successful campaign, while introducing us to the students and ministers who were at the core of this campaign and who went on to be key strategists, organizers, and trainers in the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. James Lawson’s workshops in Nashville were the training grounds. This workshop’s agenda includes exercises to help us better understand the lessons they learned about strategic nonviolent actions.
“C.T. Vivian” http://www.ctovma.org/ctvivian.php
“C.T. Vivian, civil rights hero and intellectual, dead at 95” https://www.ajc.com/news/ct-vivian-civil-rights-hero-and-intellectual-dead-at-95/2GOB7SU7MZDHJADH63LIKYHK6M/
“C.T. Vivian, Martin Luther King’s Field General, Dies at 95” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/ct-vivian-dead.html
“Jim Lawson Conducts Nonviolence Workshops in Nashville” https://snccdigital.org/events/jim-lawson-conducts-nonviolent-workshops-in-nashville/
“John Lewis” https://snccdigital.org/people/john-lewis/
“John Lewis recounts Freedom Rides, 50 years later” https://www.ajc.com/news/local/john-lewis-recounts-freedom-rides-years-later/mz9l7sgB4TYxhWqbAeS51O/
“John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html
“Oral History Interview: Reverend C.T. Vivian” https://www.crmvet.org/nars/vivian2.htm
For this week’s Peace of History:
We celebrate the birth of prolific protest troubadour Woody Guthrie. Born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie’s restless nature carried him across the United States, eventually becoming one of the country’s most beloved folk singers -- both in his time and today. Like many larger-than-life historical figures, however, Woody Guthrie’s legacy has been so severely sanitized that the man and meaning behind his songs are all but forgotten -- in the case of his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” even much of his own lyrics are often omitted. So let us take a look at the man himself, how he embodied his radical beliefs, and how he’s inspired generations of protest music.
As a young man, he traveled west to California as one of thousands of “Okies” fleeing the Dust Bowl and seeking agricultural work. Guthrie, always having been a musician, found work as a broadcast radio performer playing commercialized “hillbilly” and folk music. Some of his success came from the growing popularity of traditional folk songs and the romanticisation of the working class -- Guthrie’s background as an Okie and a troubadour lent a great deal of rural working class authenticity, despite his family’s middle-class background. Guthrie took advantage of this national fascination with “hillbillies” and other “traditional” rural folks to sing about the plight of fellow migrant workers and other working class issues -- giving voice to the voiceless. Many of these songs would later be collected and recorded for his first album Dust Bowl Ballads.
During this time, newscaster Ed Robbin introduced Guthrie to communist circles and became something of a political mentor to Guthrie. Unlike certain anarchist groups like the IWW, which had published their “Little Red Songbook” in 1909, many communist and socialist groups had been slow to adopt music as a tool for protest and forming unity. That attitude shifted shortly before Woody Guthrie entered the scene. Although never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, the ideology fit perfectly with Guthrie’s own personal politics and experiences as a migrant worker. After learning more, Guthrie openly supported communism, played benefit shows at leftist events, and even wrote a regular column in the communist newspaper People’s World, in which he gave social commentary with an exaggerated hillbilly dialect. Guthrie and his communist friends realized that, like with commercial folk music, Guthrie’s Okie reputation could lend a kind of homegrown American authenticity to the communist movement, as well.
At some point, he made enough money to send for his wife and children to join him in California, but after the signing of the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939, Guthrie and Robbin were both fired for fear that they would spread Soviet propaganda. Guthrie moved his family back to Texas, but then himself moved up to New York City where he got in with the folk music scene there, achieving even more success on the radio and busking on the side. In 1940, Guthrie used his growing clout in the radio world to secure a regular CBS spot for his friend Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. “Lead Belly,” which helped bring Lead Belly back into popularity. Around this time, Woody Guthrie also met Pete Seeger at a benefit concert for farm workers organized by John Steinbeck, and the two became lifelong friends. Guthrie joined Seeger’s newly formed folk-protest group the Almanac Singers, first writing “peace” songs, and then moving on to anti-fascist songs after the surprise Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1939. After his divorce from his first wife, anti-fascism took on new meaning to Guthrie when he began working extensively with his second mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. He would come to be strongly influenced by Jewish traditional folk music, and he wrote many songs about Hanukkah and Jewish history in the 1940s.
Despite some of his personal flaws, Guthrie’s unwavering commitment to justice and the oppressed classes suffuses his immense repertoire. He never really stopped writing protest songs, even as his mental and physical health deteriorated -- in 1950, two years before he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, Guthrie wrote “Old Man Trump” a brief, unpublished ditty about his racist landlord, Fred Trump. Privately, he wrote about racist housing discrimination following WWII, and how landlords like Fred Trump gleefully enforced and profited from such policy. In one notebook, he imagined himself transforming the whites-only complex where he lived, all around him “a face of every bright color laffing and joshing in these old darkly weeperish empty shadowed windows,” and then calling out to a young African-American woman: “I welcome you here to live. I welcome you and your man both here to Beach Haven to love in any ways you please and to have some kind of a decent place to get pregnant in and to have your kids raised up in. I’m yelling out my own welcome to you.”
Perhaps due to his experiences as a migrant worker, Guthrie consistently saw kinship in other peoples’ struggles for justice and liberation. His unapologetically radical politics inspired countless other musicians to use their songs in protest -- most notably Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Billy Bragg, Tom Paxton, and so many more. People's Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle, which began here at VPT, continues that tradition of protest music. Indeed, Guthrie literally wrote the words “this machine kills fascists” prominently on his guitar -- to Woody Guthrie, music was more than mere self-expression. Music could do things to people: open hearts, change minds, deepen understanding. And due to his Okie-folksy reputation and the cultural trends of the time, Guthrie leveraged his influence to support certain causes in ways even many other popular musicians could not. Woody Guthrie showed us in his brief time on Earth the enduring power of music to inspire and change people, even whole societies -- and how it can start with just one person.
Let us leave you this week with this, the commonly-omitted verses of Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land is Your Land”:
As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
Cray, Ed. Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
Galyean, Crystal. “This Machine kills Fascists.” https://ushistoryscene.com/article/woody-guthrie/
Guthrie, Woody. “Ear Players.” Common Ground, Spring 1942, pp. 32-43.
“Happy Joyous Hanukkah & Wonder Wheel.” https://www.woodyguthrie.org/merchandise/klezmatics.htm
Kaufman, Will. “Woody Guthrie, ‘Old Man Trump’ and a real estate empire’s racist foundations.” https://theconversation.com/woody-guthrie-old-man-trump-and-a-real-estate-empires-racist-foundations-53026
“This Land Is Your Land.” https://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/This_Land.htm
For this week’s Peace of History:
We celebrate the birth of activist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Born July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau’s influence on American culture has persisted well beyond his time. His observations contributed significantly to the field of natural history, and many of his observations anticipated future discoveries in ecology. The transcendentalist philosophy which he followed believed in the inherent goodness of individuals, a deep suspicion of the corrupting influence of society and institutions, and the value of self-reliance and personal freedoms -- it is not hard to find reflections of those beliefs in various forms across contemporary American culture today. His account of his Walden years still continues to inspire experiments in off-grid homesteading and alternative lifestyles. But for the pacifist movement, it is his tax resistance and the development of his concept “civil disobedience” that holds a special relevance.
On July 4, 1845, Thoreau began his famous experiment at Walden Pond on property owned by the unofficial leader of the transcendental movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the transcendentalist tradition, Thoreau’s goal was to live simply and self-sufficiently in nature in order to develop a more objective perspective of society. He used this time to observe, think, and write about the relationships between individuals, between individuals and society, and between people and nature. A staunch lifelong abolitionist, in 1840, Thoreau had started refusing to pay taxes in protest of slavery. About one year into his stay at Walden Pond, Thoreau ran into the local tax collector, who demanded the unpaid poll taxes of the last six years. Citing slavery and the recently begun Mexican-American War, which many abolitionists considered a Southern invasion into sovereign lands to expand slavery, Thoreau refused to pay and spent a night in jail. Against his wishes, a family member paid his back taxes and he was released the next day.
That encounter with the State affected him greatly; two years after the incident, Thoreau delivered lectures in Concord, MA that would become the basis of his famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” also known as “Civil Disobedience.” In it, he wrote: “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight… If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” He frames the individual’s moral relationship with the State in binary terms: either you support the State through paying taxes, thus literally financially supporting the violence and brutality of the State; or you withhold your taxes from the State and sleep well knowing that no one has been hurt or killed with your tax dollars. It is also worth noting that despite the transcendentalist tendency to prioritize the importance of the individual, Thoreau nevertheless clearly states that collective action, even amongst a minority, is the only method for nonviolent revolution. Even more, he seems to say that a collective refusal of the State is the definition of a peaceful revolution. Much of the rest of the essay concerns the individual’s spiritual and physical struggle with the State, but here, Thoreau is explicit about the necessity for individuals to take action collectively in order to establish a truly just government.
Henry David Thoreau was not strictly speaking a pacifist. Indeed, after John Brown’s violent and ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution, Thoreau is credited for being the first person to publicly support John Brown’s actions, even as other abolitionists tried to distance themselves from Brown. But his concepts of collective nonviolent action as a viable means of revolution have reverberated and inspired pacifists across the world: to Russia, where Leo Tolstoy developed the ideas even further using anarchist philosophy and Christian theology; to India, where Gandhi successfully led the independence movement from the British Empire by means in-part inspired by “Civil Disobedience”; back to the United States, where “Civil Disobedience” inspired the modern war tax resistance movement promoted by the Peacemakers and CNVA; to the South, where the Civil Rights Movement famously and spectacularly employed the strategy to end segregation and voting disenfranchisement. Now, individuals are coming together to pull down statues, to form police-free neighborhoods, and to form mutual aid societies. Civil disobedience has developed beyond what Thoreau probably could have imagined. Sprung from a simple act of tax refusal and a single night in jail, for all that this little idea of civil disobedience has accomplished -- for all the people that this idea has liberated, spiritually and physically -- we hope that Thoreau would be proud.
“Henry David Thoreau: A War Tax Resistance Inspiration” https://nwtrcc.org/2014/07/10/henry-david-thoreau-a-war-tax-resistance-inspiration/
“Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience’” https://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/thoreau-and-civil-disobedience
Whitman, Karen. “Re-evaluating John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry” http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh34-1.html
Thoreau, Henry David. “Resistance to Civil Government.” Ed. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Aesthetic Papers. https://archive.org/details/aestheticpapers00peabrich/page/n209/mode/2up
Thoreau, H. D., letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, February 23, 1848. http://thoreau.library.ucsb.edu/project_resources_additions/c1.344-350.pdf
For this week’s Peace of History:
Fifty-six years ago today, the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. This landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; enforced the equal application of voter registration requirements; and prohibited racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations -- signaling an end to the Jim Crow era in the Southern United States. Most of us know the basic touchstones: Rosa Parks, Dr. King, lunch counters and buses, marches and hoses, “I have a dream…” But those are the singular, dramatic, snapshot moments we know from photos, transcripts, and mythology -- compressing a long and still-unfinished movement into a mythical long-ago.
As we look around today, with a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic, a looming financial collapse, and decades of racist police brutality and incarceration serving as the backdrop of the beginning of a new social justice uprising -- it is easy to lose a sense of how much time and work it takes to achieve justice. Social movements can last for years, even decades, and are composed of several interrelated campaigns, one often inspired by another. Campaigns have specific goals, and achieving those goals can take weeks or months of sustained effort -- and all that takes organizing and time. About three weeks ago, Instagram user gotgreenseattle posted an image reminding us of that fact. Let us meditate on how long these famous historical campaigns lasted, and what it might have been like to be in the participants’ shoes:
At this moment, we are writing a new chapter in the history of civil rights in this country. After Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955, people across the country were inspired to participate in direct action campaigns for racial justice for the next 9 years and beyond, forcing the conscience of the country to face its racist reality and getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. Similarly, activists across the country have been pulling down or forcing the removal of racist statues from public areas in the wake of the George Floyd protests -- after years of debate, there’s been a tidal shift, and now statues are coming down left and right. Things seem to be happening so quickly these days -- and in a sense, they are. But if we want this movement to go beyond mere symbols, we must organize and press on with more campaigns and more demands. The time for sign-waving protest is drawing to a close; it is time to learn, organize, and take action.
NOTE: On June 15, 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protection against workplace discrimination based on sex also applies to gay and transgender workers. This decision was announced days after President Trump announced the removal of nondiscrimination protections for trans and gender nonbinary people with regards to healthcare and health insurance -- in the middle of a pandemic. The only way to protect trans, nonbinary, and all vulnerable people is to organize, take action together, and strap in for the long haul.
“Birmingham Campaign” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/birmingham-campaign
“Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers, Supreme Court Rules” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/us/gay-transgender-workers-supreme-court.html
“CORE Volunteers put their lives on the Road” http://www.core-online.org/History/freedom%20rides.htm
“Freedom Rides” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/freedom-rides
“Montgomery Bus Boycott” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/montgomery-bus-boycott
“Transgender Health Protections Reversed By Trump Administration” https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/06/12/868073068/transgender-health-protections-reversed-by-trump-administration
For this week’s Peace of History:
On June 27, 1905, 200 delegates gathered together in Chicago and founded a new kind of union: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Unlike the other unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) -- which exclusively focused on protecting the interests of White male workers in “skilled” trades -- the IWW wanted to build “one big union” to represent all workers in all industries: women, Black workers, non-White immigrant workers, as well as white workers in “unskilled” trades. They called this idea “industrial unionism,” as opposed to the more common “craft unionism.” Indeed, although there is no direct mention of racial justice in the founding meeting minutes nor the founding manifesto, the IWW’s commitment to their slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” led Mary White Ovington, one of the founders of the NAACP, to write in 1913: “There are two organizations in this country that have shown they do care about full rights for the Negro. The first is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People… The second is the Industrial Workers of the World… The IWW has stood with the Negro.”
Many Americans have the view that trade unionism and left politics generally are almost exclusively white male spaces, historically as well as now. The IWW, or “Wobblies” as they came to be known, is one of many counterexamples to this narrative. Present at that founding meeting were several luminaries of the American Left at the time, reflecting a diverse mix of socialist and anarchist schools of thought: Mother Jones (legendary Irish-born labor organizer), Lucy Parsons (labor organizer, woman of color, and widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons), Daniel De Leon (leader of the Socialist Labor Party), Eugene V. Debs (leader of the American Socialist Party and for whom one of the Voluntown Peace Trust library is named), and more. Their foundational tactics became direct actions like strikes and sabotage, and their demonstrable passion for all working people continued to attract a diverse crowd -- the ranks of card-carrying Wobblies would later come to include the likes of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Hellen Keller, and Noam Chomsky.
In 1910, the IWW began to distribute leaflets and pamphlets specifically addressing issues of the Black worker and offering industrial unionism as the solution: “The Negro has no chance in the old-line trade unions… They do not want him. They admit him only under compulsion and treat him with contempt. There is only one labor organization in the United States that admits the colored worker on a footing of absolute equality with the white -- the Industrial Workers of the World.” As part of this shift, all IWW journals across the country began publishing educational pieces about racial equality -- including in the South. Some were directed at the Black worker directly, while others reminded White workers that the color line had always been used to divide the workers against themselves. As long as the color line existed, these journals argued, employers could continue to exploit the working class forever. This logic is compelling today and it was in the past as well. Indeed, one particularly passionate proponent of this theory was the editor of The Voice of the People (the Southern organ of the IWW) Covington Hall -- who, according to historian Philip S. Foner, was “an Adjutant General of the United Sons of Confederate Veterans, who became a radical, a Socialist, an active organizer for the I.W.W., especially among Negroes in the South.”
Although all trade unions are organized by the common understanding that workers are vulnerable to exploitation, all the other trade unions at the time had some arbitrary conditions to membership: gender, race, type of labor. One of the foundational concepts of industrial unionism is that all of these arbitrary conditions could be used to exploit workers in the exact way that the color line did. The IWW came to adopt racial equality as a goal not out of generosity or pity, but because the practical logic of ending worker exploitation demanded it. And with the IWW facilitating more opportunities for interaction and cooperation between workers of different backgrounds, a feedback loop of antiracist education emerged. As the IWW continued to grow, mature, and become a major force in the conflict between Capital and Labor, they became known for their legendary ability to unite workers of diverse backgrounds, national origins, even different languages (see our post from 5/14/2020 about the Bread and Roses Strike). The IWW proved that shared vulnerability is the first step toward solidarity.
Foner, P. S. (1970). The IWW and the Black Worker. The Journal of Negro History, 55(1), 45–64. doi:10.2307/2716544
“Industrial Union Manifesto.” https://archive.iww.org/history/library/iww/industrial_union_manifesto/
“Minutes of the IWW Founding Convention.” https://archive.iww.org/history/founding/
“The Industrial Workers of the World.” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldman-industrial-workers-world/
For this week’s Peace of History:
Since the Polaris Action in the summer of 1960, peace activists had been leafleting sailors stationed at the Sub Base in Groton as well as to the workers at General Dynamic/Electric Boat, where the workers build the nuclear-armed submarines. Often in the early years, the activists would suffer violence or threats of violence, but they also won some significant success as well. From Polaris Action Bulletin No. 2, in just the first few weeks of the program:
“Joseph Glynn tended his resignation from the Naval Reserve and returned his draft card to this board at a New London press conference the morning of June 6. He called upon all military men, ‘especially Navy men at the New London Submarine Base who are assigned to the Polaris Fish of Death, to resign from the Navy with him and join both Polaris Action and the movement for national defense thru nonviolent resistance.’ Joseph, a four year Navy enlisted man and three year Reservist, has written an open letter to his commanding officer, Rear Admiral Espe, 1st Naval District, Boston, and a statement Conscience Against Polaris Submarines. Copies of both documents are available from our office.”
Stories like Joseph Glynn’s were not common, and indeed, most of the activists who attempted to appeal directly to the consciences of workers and sailors were usually met with ugliness. Later, on the drenching rainy afternoon of June 18, “Brad [Lyttle] sustained a blow on the jaw, and other minor physical assaults were absorbed nonviolently by several participants. A station wagon with a large sign mounted on top, driven by Jim Peck, was mobbed, nearly overturned and the sign torn down and mutilated[...] As the evening progressed, we became more and more involved with a number of shipyard workers and sailors who were rather antipathetic.” And yet, despite the rain, the violence, and the verbal abuse, the efforts of these activists were not for nothing -- the entry for that date ends with the line: “Among the multitude of opponents there were two sympathizers who have since rendered invaluable assistance to Polaris Action.”
Later in the 1960s, as the war in Vietnam grew, some sailors sought military counseling from Marj Swann at CNVA. During the Trident/Conversion Campaign in the late 1970s, two workers publicly stated their opposition to the Trident Submarine Program; Dick Proescher, who wrote and spoke about his opposition, was fired for taking a few extra minutes on a break. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War and the massive layouts resulting from decreases in submarine manufacturing, the New England War Resisters League (successor to the CNVA) helped create the Community Coalition for Economic Conversion which included individual EB workers. Promoting a grassroots approach to economic conversion, the coalition worked on a Manufacturing Needs Assessment Survey and An Action Plan for Jobs with the EB Unions. This work resulted in changes in the retraining of EB workers, but have not yet won any real economic conversion projects.
In 2010, for the fiftieth anniversary of Polaris Action, “Veterans of the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action and all its successor groups” wrote again to the workers of Electric Boat:
“We are NOT here to put you out of your jobs. We know you have valuable skills and experience. We want to suggest, however, that those skills and that experience can be used to do work which will benefit our country , and indeed, the people of all nations. You know that this country’s infrastructure is falling apart. Our dams, bridges, roads, school-houses, and many other important structures need rebuilding. Also we need rapidly to change the patterns which are destroying our environment. That means stopping the use of coal, gas, oil and nuclear fuels, and quickly developing new fuels using solar, wind, and water elements. You have -- or can easily learn -- the skills to do all this work.”
We have written about the potential dangers of nuclear weapons in the past, but have focused less on the ongoing consequences of our government’s nuclear arms program. According to Timmon Wallis of NucleaBan.US (and one of the speakers in our recent Nonviolent Social Change in the Time of Covid-19 series), the projected cost of the United States nuclear weapons infrastructure -- including upkeep, potential clean-ups, and new systems -- comes out to about $90.7 billion annually. As Wallis notes in his free book Warheads to Windmills, “Unlike the money spent on renewable energy, this is not a capital investment in things that will bring a return of income at a later date. This money is simply spent and then it is gone. It is turned into weapons that can never even be used except in an end-of-the-world scenario.” Moreover, every person using their valuable skills, labor, and creativity on nuclear weapons is not using them for something like green energy. Many skills required to work on various levels of the nuclear arms program are transferable to more productive and necessary fields: research, engineering, design, fabrication, and more.
“A Message to Those Who Work At Electric Boat.” CNVA (June 11, 2010)
Polaris Action Bulletin No. 2. CNVA (June 14, 1960)
Polaris Action Bulletin No. 3. CNVA (June 22, 1960)
“Warheads to Windmills.” http://www.nuclearban.us/w2w/
Coda: Today, “cancel/callout culture” is a popular form of online activism in which one publicly shames someone perceived to have said or done something problematic. Directed at a celebrity, this may include active harassment as well as passive boycotting of their products. Directed at a neighbor, however, this ultimately leads to blocking the offender on social media -- a silencing, a removal, and a deepening of divisions. For people of color, sometimes it is a matter of mental or physical safety to remove oneself from engaging with hateful people. But on the same token, and especially for White allies, directly engaging with and attempting to convert the opposition is oftentimes the most courageous and productive action to take.
For this week’s Peace of History:
On next Tuesday, June 16, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Polaris Action that brought the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) and a tradition of nonviolent direct action to southeastern Connecticut. As many groups around the country today are currently attempting to affect positive change in their local communities (some for the first time), let us review the CNVA’s remarkable flurry of activity that summer in New London and Groton, and how it permanently affected our region, if not the greater national and global peace movement.
First, what was Polaris Action? After months of preparation, organizing and promotion, the CNVA launched a nonstop summer-long campaign to “educate Americans to the realities and dangers of the nuclear deterrent policy typified by the Polaris submarines and their deadly cargoes of nuclear missiles,” which were being built at General Dynamics/Electric Boat in Groton. These were the very first nuclear-armed submarines ever built -- each one a genocidal weapon built for a cold war in which people of color were the most common victims. The United States had already used nuclear weapons twice on the Japanese -- a people widely considered in the United States as an “inferior race.” This fact was not lost on people of color in the United States, and Polaris Action was a multiracial effort -- indeed, legendary African-American civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin was a CNVA leader.
Headquartered on Bank Street in New London (where the city later put up a parking lot), Polaris Action members would often meet down the street at what is now the Hygienic Art Gallery. CNVA supported and organized hundreds of visitors as well as local residents as they held a wide variety of activities: daily vigils and marches, weekly documentary movie screenings and other educational events, handing out leaflets to Electric Boat workers day and night -- even when the leafletters were met with aggression and accusations of Russian influence. The CNVA helped visiting participants find housing and meals, and assisted individuals who may have found trouble with aggressive locals. A whole coalition of groups were invited: one of these groups, the Peacemakers, co-sponsored trainings on nonviolent civil disobedience and protesting to people who had never experienced them. A few especially daring activists chased submarines on little sailboats, attempting to and ultimately succeeding in boarding the massive death machines -- making international news. And yet despite the whirlwind of activity, Polaris Action members also knew the value of social recreation: one time, they participated in a local dance at Connecticut College for Women.
The CNVA won publicity by reaching out to high profile individuals, groups, and publications not just in Connecticut, but in the surrounding states as well (The New York Times and others ran multiple stories, as did our local Bulletin and The Day). The CNVA published and distributed its own weekly newsletter, Polaris Action Bulletin, that communicated the upcoming plans and summarized the main events of the last week. This newsletter would continue to publish long after the summer of 1960 ended, keeping all those participants connected even as many of them returned home to distant places across the country, and bringing on many additional readers as it eventually became the Direct Action Bulletin.
One summer of passionate protesting, leafleting, training, educating, and generally cross-pollinating ideas and people inspired movements across the country -- and continued to have lasting effects into the decade and beyond. Remember, Polaris Action happened in 1960 -- before U.S. involvement in Vietnam, before the Beatles or “hippies,” before even the Cuban Missile Crisis. As we watch in awe today at Minneapolis, Seattle, and other cities where feats unthinkable a month ago are now manifesting and spreading -- let us remember that only 60 years ago, that incredible place where the impossible became possible was right here in New London.
To learn more about Polaris Action, please visit our Peace of History from 10/31/2019.