Voluntown '68, Kenosha '20
[A Peace of History]
Fifty-two years ago, members of a far-right militia attacked the Voluntown Peace Trust. Two days ago, a ring-wing militia confronted demonstrators in Kenosha, WI, and two people were shot dead. In both cases, the police might have been able to prevent the violence altogether -- if they had not already positioned themselves opposite to the victims in the first place.
A couple hours after midnight on August 24, 1968, five members of the right-wing vigilante group the Minuteman Project attacked the main house of what was then known as the Peace Farm in Voluntown. The Farm had been the headquarters to the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) for the last six years -- residents had been protesting nuclear weapons production as well as US involvement in VIetnam, drawing the anger of some from surrounding communities. The so-called Minutemen (which included KKK members and George Wallace supporters), armed with rifles with bayonets, pistols, knives, rope, tape, and cans of gasoline, had come to Voluntown to put an end to the peace movement in southeastern Connecticut.
There had been warning signs. Earlier that evening, a CNVA member expressed concern about a car he saw drive off into the woods close to the Farm. The Farm’s dog Mach had been uncharacteristically anxious, barking on and off all evening. And at a meeting on CNVA members’ experiences in Guatemala a couple days earlier, three unfamiliar men sat in for a while, and then afterward belligerently argued with the residents, following them back to the main house.
At 2:30 a.m., after completing their shift of the night watch, Mary Suzuki Lyttle and Roberta (Bobbi) Trask were on the first floor of the main house when the Minutemen entered, immediately searching the first floor and restraining the two women at gunpoint. Soon after, Connecticut State Troopers (tipped off by the FBI) arrived. The police deployed several parachute flares outside to light the scene, at least one of which started a small fire. A firefight broke out as the police attempted to enter the house -- an accidental shot from a Trooper's gun even hit one of the bound women, Bobbi Trask, directly in her thigh. At the time, twenty-seven people (including four children) lived at the Farm. One in another building, hearing the shots and seeing the flares, attempted to call for help but found the phone lines were cut. Some residents fled into the woods to get away from the firing, and then to hide from the armed men patrolling the area -- who turned out to be police in plainclothes. In the chaos, several Farm residents were confronted and frisked by police in plainclothes, who in turn also did not know Minuteman from Farm resident. The rest of the residents, hearing the gunshots, sheltered in place.
Reports conflict, but it seems that the FBI knew about plans of an attack on the Peace Farm since at least May, but refused to inform the residents of the Farm -- ostensibly because the FBI feared residents would not cooperate, and instead perhaps go to the press or contact the Minutemen directly. There are also conflicting stories about how the Minutemen got passed the State Troopers at all -- over 50 officers are estimated to have participated that night, starting to form a perimeter in the early evening.
The Troopers captured the Minutemen soon after the shooting began, and then rushed Trask to the hospital. Although seven people (including Trask) were injured, thankfully, no one died at the Peace Farm in the attack. The core of the New England CNVA had a resolute response and a renewed sense of urgency to their cause. Work began on repairing and building new facilities. But with the many close calls of the incident, some of which were caused by the police themselves, at least two members were so traumatized that they left the movement altogether.
Two days ago, a different story emerged from Kenosha, Wisconsin -- but with some disturbing similarities to the Minutemen attack. Following the unjustified police shooting of Jacob Blake over the weekend, a militia group formed in Kenosha ostensibly to defend businesses and police from protesters. A call out on Facebook brought several armed “patriots” to Kenosha, including 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse. Multiple recordings show these militia members, including Rittenhouse, exchanging friendly words with each other: “We appreciate you guys; we really do” says one officer in a video, speaking to the plainclothes vigilantes.
Like with the residents of the Peace Farm, the police were already in an oppositional relationship with the protesters for justice -- many of the Peace Farm’s residents’ had been arrested previously by State Troopers for committing nonviolent actions. In the case of Kenosha, residents were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who had been trying to “de-escalate a domestic incident” before police wrestled, punched, tasered, and finally shot him 7 times in the back (Blake is currently recovering, but is now permanently paralyzed from the waist down). So when self-identified militia members showed up claiming to be on the side of the police, it was easy for the Kenosha PD to embrace the gang of heavily armed men without hesitation or suspicion.
Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two of them on Tuesday night. He, himself, seemed to idolize the police and aspired to be one. He appeared to be an avid Trump supporter. He was also 17 years old.
In the discussion of who should be held responsible, much ink has been spilled scrutinizing the shooter -- much less has been devoted to the officers or the police department itself that if not endorsed, then at least allowed openly aggressive armed men let loose on unarmed protesters seeking justice. Several parts of the Connecticut State Troopers’ story of the Minutemen attack never quite added up for the Peace Farm residents: If the FBI knew about plans for the attack in May, why didn’t they do anything to stop it sooner? If the State Troopers had been setting up a perimeter guard in the early evening, how did the Minutemen slip past them? What was the deal with the hidden weapons cache? Some suspected that, although the police did not want any of these pacifists murdered on their watch, some Troopers may have been sympathetic to the Minutemen's "patriotic" cause. Two nights ago in Kenosha, that police sympathy for vigilante violence against social justice demonstrators was in plain view.
Attached is the official New England CNVA report on the Minutemen attack published just one month after the attack, written by Mary Suzuki Lyttle, one of the women present in the attack. You can view or download the pages as a PDF here. The link will also be available on our website.
For background information and more details about the Minutemen attack, you can also visit CT Explored for their article on the incident here.
If you are able, please consider donating to the Voluntown Peace Trust. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought our rental requests, our main source of income, to a halt. Not since the Minutemen attack have we been in greater need for our community's support to continue our work. You can make a secure one-time donation online by going to the Givelify link here.
Barton, Gina, Cary Spivak and Bruce Vielmetti. “Kyle Rittenhouse, charged in Kenosha protest homicides, considered himself militia” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/2020/08/26/kyle-rittenhouse-charged-kenosha-protest-shootings-militia/5634532002/
Centore, Michael. “A Legacy of Nonviolence in Voluntown” Connecticut Explored https://www.ctexplored.org/sampler-the-day-peace-was-shattered-in-voluntown/
“Jacob Blake: What we know about Wisconsin police shooting” BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53909766
Lyttle, Mary Suzuki. “Minutemen Attack on New England CNVA: A Report” https://drive.google.com/file/d/1z6L8tlxYvGsCH-s7GfSV7T6HB24AiWrK/view?usp=sharing
Mihalopoulos, Dan. “Kenosha Shooting Suspect Fervently Supported 'Blue Lives,' Joined Local Militia” NPR https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/08/27/906566596/alleged-kenosha-shooter-fervently-supported-blue-lives-joined-local-militia
Peace of History
On August 17, 1993, using a giant 13,000-pound guillotine, the US Air Force began dismantling the first of 365 B-52 strategic bombers in compliance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). These massive planes, each capable of carrying a payload of over 62,000 pounds, had been the backbone of the US nuclear arsenal for decades. While the treaty was largely flawed and incomplete, requiring more treaties like START II and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty later to address gaps in the first treaty, START I was the first official agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to voluntarily reduce the number of nuclear weapons and weapons delivery systems in their respective arsenals. Despite President Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric early on, the drafting and negotiations for the treaty began in the 1980s and was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 -- months after the treaty was signed, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev would announce the end to the Cold War. While much has already been said about Reagan, Gorbachev, and how the relationship between the two men eased global tensions significantly, less attention has been given to the people on the ground who tirelessly worked for decades to move public opinion enough to make disarmament a reality.
At first glance, the 1970s, could rightly claim the title the “Disarmament Decade” given to it by the United Nations: after the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, there was the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in 1972 and several other negotiations promoting “detente” between the US and USSR. In actuality, nuclear weapons development actually increased in the decade, with several countries including France, China, Israel, India, and South Africa refusing to sign various test and proliferation controls. Ten nations became closer to claiming nuclear power status. In addition, the United States built 4500 new strategic nuclear warheads and bombs, more than doubling its nuclear arsenal, while the Soviet Union added over 1000 additional nuclear arms to its arsenal, bringing the total to 3650. But the 1970s was also when the connection between nuclear weapons spending, the evils of racism and colonialism, and lack of funding for the poor started to become clearer.
In 1976, the War Resisters League (WRL) organized a massive Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized the southern segment of the Walk: through Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi -- bringing the issues of war and injustice together. SCLC leaders drafted a “Bill of Particulars” regarding unemployment, revenue sharing, food stamp inequity, and capital punishment -- and put them up against nuclear spending as more worthwhile endeavors. When President Carter announced in 1977 the development of a new type of nuclear weapon, the neutron bomb, many Black citizens quickly realized that the vast funding for such a weapon could be better spent on the poor and social programs: “Instead of creating some bomb that will only wipe out people, the government should create jobs for people who want to work and provide us with an opportunity to do so. I believe that the neutron bomb is a waste of taxpayers’ money and not the best way to help the people.” These connections brought more Black people into the peace movement for the next several years. President Carter ultimately relented, ending the project the next year due to the galvanized movement against nuclear weapons, pressure from European leaders, and the objections of the US’ own ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young. The ambassador was particularly concerned with the unthinkable: nuclear weapons being used not by one of the world superpowers, but by a viciously racist state like apartheid South Africa against people unable to respond in kind -- thus making the deterrence principle of “mutually assured destruction” moot and opening the door to nuclear mass slaughter.
While some remained concerned with nuclear arms proliferating to other countries, with the inauguration of President Reagan, more citizens became concerned with the connection between nuclear military spending and other issues within the United States. Within the first year of his presidency, Reagan had cut several government programs that most benefited the poor, including the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, food stamps, child nutrition programs, maternal and child health programs, and family planning -- diverting much of the money to kickstart another nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. At the same time, newer groups like Blacks Against Nukes (BAN) were linking up with older groups, forming an enormous coalition around a new campaign: “Nuclear Freeze.” The proposal was to put a halt to all new research and production of nuclear weapons -- a simple, uncomplicated demand. On June 12, 1982, one million people demonstrated for nuclear disarmament in New York City -- the largest political demonstration in American history. The demonstration coincided with the UN’s Second Special Session on Disarmament. Despite internal issues of prejudice within some groups in the peace movement, half of the leadership at the rally was Black, and many called upon the connection between the racist defunding of social programs and the increased spending on weapons of mass murder. Two days later, WRL organized the action “Blockade the Bombmakers,” a nonviolent sit-in at the US, USSR, British, French, and Chinese missions to the UN (the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council) -- resulting in the arrest of 1665 people.
One year later, 250 thousand people gathered for the Twentieth Anniversary March marking Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington explicitly in order to “stem the tide of rising unemployment, nuclear annihilation, and racial violence.” Speakers called for disarmament to “become public policy, not just an elusive goal” and to “radically reduce and ultimately eliminate their nuclear arsenals as well as conventional weapons; to jointly act to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations; and to reduce the record levels of military expenditures.” If the issues of racism, nuclear war, and poverty seemed disparate to most people years before when Dr. King warned of the “triple evils,” by 1983, those theoretical connections were proven by Reagan’s disastrous policies. But likewise, if the peace movement had begun to wane before Carter’s neutron bomb development and Reagan’s arms-race, its return to face these new government policies was stronger than ever.
By Reagan’s second term, the world situation looked quite different from just a few years prior. The South African apartheid government collapsed, and the nuclear program with it. Reagan had formed a strong relationship with the Premier Gorbachev, who was himself committed to disarmament and liberal reforms in the USSR. Nancy Reagan, who was increasingly managing her husband’s affairs due to his declining mental ability, came to feel strongly that disarmament was “not only in the interest of world peace, but the correct move politically.” Secretary of State George Shultz agreed: “Given the political climate in the U.S., we could not keep pace in modernization, production, and deployment of these deadly weapons.” Reagan himself admitted that “from a propaganda point of view, we were on the defensive.” In 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev together announced that “Nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought” -- a complete turnaround from Reagan’s rhetoric just a few years prior. In 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev ratified the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges reaching 3420 miles (this is the nuclear treaty from which President Trump withdrew in February 2019).
The final treaty before the end of the Cold War went even further -- a general reduction of the total number of nuclear arms, as well as a reduction of long-range delivery methods for those weapons. START I effectively reduced the nuclear arsenals of both the US and USSR by a quarter. Despite decades of the two world superpowers seemingly racing toward an inexorable and apocalyptic collision with each other -- incredibly, antinuclear activists succeeded in helping to shift the winds of public opinion and reverse course. Twenty-seven years and three days ago, using a giant 13,000-pound guillotine, the US Air Force began dismantling the first of 365 B-52 strategic bombers.
Why stop there?
Boyer, Paul S. Promises to Keep: The United States Since World War II. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.
Intondi, Vincent J. African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement. Stanford University Press, 2015
Rotstein, Arthur H. “U.S. Air Force Turns B-52 Bombers Into Scrap Metal : Arizona: To carry out an international arms treaty, America is dismantling the planes that were once the backbone of its nuclear arsenal.” Los Angeles Times: September 11, 1994. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-09-11-me-37109-story.html
Schell, Jonathan. “Twenty-five years after the largest antinuclear demonstration ever, the movement has dwindled. But the threat of mass destruction grows greater.” The Nation: June 14, 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20190512085225if_/https://www.thenation.com/article/spirit-june-12/
“TREATY BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND THE UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS ON STRATEGIC OFFENSIVE REDUCTIONS (START I)” https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/treaties-between-united-states-america-and-union-soviet-socialist-republics-strategic-offensive-reductions-start-i-start-ii/
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/
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