Today is the 54th anniversary of the passing of the illustrious A.J. Muste, perhaps the single most instrumental person in the 20th century US antiwar movement. At the end of his life,Muste. served as the National Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), had a seat in the national committee for the War Resisters League (WRL), and worked as Chairman of the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA, predecessor to the Voluntown Peace Trust). CNVA published a Special Supplement on A.J. Muste. 1885 - 1967 from magazine WIN: Peace & Freedom Through Nonviolent Action, co-published by WRL. The following are excerpts from that special supplement, written by supporters and admirers: from a civil rights leader to a famous US presidential candidate, from one of the most well-known communist leaders in history to the president of a liberal arts college in Connecticut. The sheer range of people Muste personally affected should speak to his incredible ability to bridge differences and build alliances between such different kinds of people, and provides to us a model for changing society.
On A.J.’s importance to the antiwar movement:
Neil Haworth, WIN editor, WRL member, CNVA activist
“Those of us involved in the large peace demonstrations of the past few years, in which tens of thousands have marched and hundreds have volunteered for arrest, have a hard time remembering that such events have a very recent genesis. Just ten years ago, civil disobedience protests against militarism were the province of a mere handful of people.
A.J. Muste has been the central figure of this growth. While a large number of conscientious objectors chose prison in World Wars I and II, the idea of pacifists actively confronting militarism on its own ground had its real start in the U.S. in 1957.
As chairman of the group that became the Committee for Nonviolent Action, A.J. was frequently in the front line of the action and always present as major strategist, fund-raiser, and reconciler of differences. His work in this role has been absolutely vital in the development of a movement that has included conservative Quakers and other religious pacifists, angry young artists and Marxists, traditional liberals, and New Left students…”
Bradford Lyttle, founder of the US Pacifist Party and organizer for WRL and CNVA
“Polaris Action, launched the following summer , stirred even greater controversy among pacifists than did Omaha Action. But in A.J.’s mind there seemed little doubt that Polaris Action could be an effort of high spiritual order and he backed it…
A.J. stood by the San Francisco to Moscow Walk, too. He negotiated tirelessly with Peace Committee officials in the Communist countries…
It came to me [last fall] that none combined a greater number of virtues than did A.J. It was an odd but inescapable fact that the tall, stooping, quivering, compassionate gentleman who worked in the office across the way had become the greatest man in the world…”
On A.J.’s physical and moral courage:
Barbara Deming, journalist, WRL member, CNVA activist:
“It was during the trip (to Vietnam) that five of us made with him last April to protest the war in Saigon. On the last day of that trip, when we tried actually to make our protest, I was very scared for A.J., as well as for myself. For one thing, we had decided not to cooperate with Ky’s police when they arrested us; they would have to carry or drag us. None of us had any idea how rough they might be; and A.J. looked so very frail. As it turned out they were gentle with us, but up to the last moment of course one was never sure that the next official to handle us would be gentle.”
Ho Chi Minh, President of North Vietnam at the time (by telegram):
“OUTSTANDING FIGHTER FOR PEACE AND DEMOCRATIC MOVEMENT IN USA AND WORLD”
Robert F. Kennedy, US Senator at the time and future US Presidential candidate (by telegram):
“A.J. MUSTE SPOKE TO ALL GENERATIONS BUT WAS LIMITED BY NONE. HIS COURAGE WAS BOTH MORAL AND PHYSICAL NOT ONLY IN HIS WILLINGNESS TO FACE IMMEDIATE DANGERS BUT MORAL AND PHYSICAL NOT ONLY IN HIS WILLINGNESS TO FACE IMMEDIATE DANGERS BUT ALSO THAT FAR MORE RARE WILLINGNESS TO OPPOSE HIS SINGLE CONSCIENCE TO THE OPINIONS OF HIS FELLOWS IN THE PURSUIT OF HIS IDEALS AND IN THE SERVICE OF US ALL. HE WAS ALWAYS READY TO TAKE THE FIRST STEP, THE NEXT STEP, OR THE LAST STEP.”
On knowing A.J. and his legacy
Gordon Chistiansen, WIN editor, WRL member, CNVA activist:
“Liberalism responds in strange ways when it bumps into radical pacifism. I encounter these extraordinary responses all the time here in New London, Connecticut. But what I’m thinking about right now are some reactions to A.J. Muste along about 1960 when Polaris Action was just beginning to bite into this community…
[Connecticut College President Rosemary Park] was saying that to truly know A.J. Muste is, in a way, tragic; to actually grasp and accept what is being said by that skinny Dutchman-preacher turned pacifist-revolutionary, whose face and words and actions could bore so gently but so irresistably [sic] into your conscience, is to lose control of your own destiny. When all that happens to you, the events, or the fates, or principles take over and your life moves inexorably toward… well, toward something. So far the judgment is a wise one; I believe that is what happens to anyone who is really touched by A.J. But the liberal goes on to structure it as a true tragedy by concluding that that “something” toward which the Muste-touched radical moves so inevitably is somber, unhappy, disastrous. He believes that dedication to the proposition that human beings should love one another and deal nonviolently with each other is fatal utopianism.
Here finally, is the tragedy of knowing A.J. It leads inevitably to the death of a liberal and to the destruction of cherished liberal standards. It is simply not possible, after once having been truly a part of A.J.’s life, to have an isolated, uninvolved life of one’s own. The radical tragedy comes if a person touched by A.J. tries to deny that knowledge and go back to being a conventional, establishment liberal; he is doomed to a life of denial, and he must live with the knowledge of his own denial.
The tragic liberal judgement [sic] sees this denial of radical pacifist vision as the only alternative. He cannot understand the joy and freedom and fullness of a life of resistance to a violent, unloving system. Hence the liberal’s tragic judgment of A.J.’s vision.”
Barbara Deming, journalist and WRL member, CNVA activist:
“I have sat with him at so very many committee meetings, where after hours it was easy to become dazed by our own endless words about this or that program of action which we might or might not adopt, and easy somehow to forget in the process the realities of the particular situation with which we were supposed to be concerned. And time after time I have seen A.J. at a certain point speak out of his own suddenly renewed sense of that situation, his sharp sense of the real people involved to whom real things were happening. And because it was real to him as he spoke, it would suddenly be real again to everyone in the room.”
James Bevel, Civil Rights activist since Nashville Lunch Counter Sit-in, Director of Spring Mobilization Committee to end the War in Vietnam (a role which A.J. Muste asked Bevel to take shortly before his death)
“We say A.J. is dead and the tragedy is that most of us don’t understand the process of life. We say A.J. is dead but anybody who was caught up in the process of bringing people together can never die.”
Reyes, Gwen, editor. WIN: Peace & Freedom Through Nonviolent Action, Special Supplement: A.J. Muste 1885-1967, 1967.
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