The challenge of pacificism

The challenge of pacificism A still from Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story, a film on the life of Catholic activist Dorothy Day. Photo: CNS.

Frank Litton


War By Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionised Resistance, by Daniel Akst (Brooklyn / London: Melville House, $28.99 / £22.94 / €28.00)


Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher, observed that the state can be – has been – a source of great evil. Writing in the aftermath of WWII, the evidence was fresh: five and half million Jews slaughtered, 27 million civilians killed (allied and axis powers combined).

He went on to remind us that the state provided the indispensable framework for commodious living; without it, no prosperity, no high achievements of culture. How do we live with this paradox? Mostly, I suppose by turning our eyes away from the evil the state permits or commissions, to focus on the good it enables.

Believing that we cannot do much about the ‘sins of the world’ we attend to our own personal sinning over which we have some measure of control. And, of course, we readily believe accounts that distract us from the true causes of the evils we cannot ignore, for example racial theories that justify segregation or scapegoating Jews to explain economic distress and to unite in the face of the divisions that it causes.

War is the starkest manifestation of the state paradox. War is a great evil, the killing of non-combatants, an inescapable element of modern warfare, and a great crime. Yet, we are readily mobilised to go to war, celebrating the bravery, the sacrifice, the nobility of our cause. We defend the good of our state and attack the evil of our ‘opponents’.

When the war is over and the wounded, the damaged and the lame return and the civilians emerge from their shattered homes, we survey the damage, count the cost. The evil of war is apparent.

Pacifism and non-violent ways of combating injustice attract support. This is what happened in the United States after WWI. Daniel Akst traces the history of the pacifists and activists for social justice that emerged after the end of the war. He concludes his story with the end of WWII.

They were, he argues, important players in the history of the US. Though always a minority, and during WWII, a much diminished and despised one, they taught important lessons that had a significant impact on the post war world and, especially, the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans.


It is an interesting story, well told. The context, with its many dimensions, is brought alive in the stories of the major figures: David Dellinger, Bayard Rustin, Dwight MacDonald and Dorothy Day. The last, Dorothy Day, is I suppose the best-known to readers.

Most of us, while we pray ‘thy kingdom come’, settle back to accommodate ourselves to its absence. We mute the Gospels’ radical call to counter the prevailing culture and are pleased to see the Church a respected part of the social fabric.

Dorothy did hear the call. It’s simple: “when you do it for the least of these, you do it for me”. She gathered colleagues and opened ‘Houses of Hospitality’ to shelter the homeless and feed the hungry, victims of the depression. She published a paper, The Catholic Worker, that told of the manifold injustices inflicted on workers and African-Americans, identified within the framework of Catholic social teaching. Her efforts to bring the Kingdom ‘down to earth’ were welcomed by many Catholics.

Tied down by the business of earning a living, raising a family, just getting by, they were buoyed up and inspired by her witness even as they overlooked her profound anti-capitalist message. She inspired the clergy and won the respect of Catholic intellectuals. All this ended when the United States entered the war. Her determined pacifism divided her movement, sales of The Catholic Worker dived from a high of 160,000.

The Christian tradition provides substantial ethical resources for questioning the justification of war. Some Christian traditions, notably the Quakers and Mennonites believe war can never be justified, while the concept of the ‘just war’ first elaborated by St Augustine has played an important role in Catholic thinking.

While Marxism promotes class war, it does condemn other wars as a distraction from the only struggle, it believes, can deliver lasting peace. These resources, especially the Christian, played an important role in shaping the pacifism of Akst’s subjects.

Pacifism was a respectable, albeit minority position. Joined with the ‘isolationist’ strand in United States foreign policy, it influenced a sizeable proportion of public opinion. That is, until Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and Germany declared war.

What drew Dellinger, Rustin, Muste and Day and their dwindling band of supporters to persist in their opposition to a war that, it could be claimed with reason, defended western civilisation and its freedoms? It was not that they did not recognise Hitler’s evil intent. They were clear-sighted, perhaps, more than most, about the imperial ambitions of the third Reich. The Catholic workers, for example, were among the first to protest against Nazi antisemitism. They paid a heavy price for their commitment.

The law did allow for ‘conscientious objection’. This was far from an easy option; harsh conditions in remote locations combined with hard physical labour were typical. Akst paints a grim picture of the conditions confronting those who opted to work in mental hospitals where hundreds of the mentally ill were ‘warehoused’.

The leaders, however, refused to participate in the draft. They went to prison. And there they led non-violent opposition to the segregation dividing black prisoners from white, enduring cruel punishments and the consequences of their hunger strikes.

Akst gives a vivid picture of the trials and tribulations of the pacifists, the complexities of their characters, their bravery, and their heroism. He is less successful at exploring their motivation. What we get is a fine picture of the tip of the iceberg, the depths from which it arises are unexplored.


So, for example, the long Catholic tradition of theological and moral reflection with its examples of Christian witness is not discussed, though its importance to Day is reflected in practically every word she wrote in The Catholic Worker.

This book provides much food for thought as the question of neutrality climbs up the agenda and Catholics are obliged to reflect on what the ‘kingdom’ demands of them.

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Happily two good biographies of Dorothy Day that do explore it have been published in recent years. Perhaps, the best, certainly the most intimate is by her granddaughter Kate Hennsessy The World Will Be Saved By Beauty (Scribner, £12.59).

As we read of Day’s stance, another prominent Catholic woman comes to mind. As WWII approached, Elizabeth Anscombe, a young philosopher and convert to Catholicism, joined with Dominicans from Blackfriars, Oxford to write a pamphlet calling into question the justification of a war that would inevitably kill innocent civilians.

She came to notoriety after the war when she, now a member of Oxford University, organised an attempt to deny Harry Truman an honorary doctorate. He had ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was a war criminal. The attempt failed.

She went on to become one the 20th Century’s prominent philosophers, famous for her contribution to moral philosophy that undermined the ethical thinking that blinded us to Truman’s crime.

Anscombe’s contribution is discussed in the context of her friendships with three other major philosophers, Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, Phillipa Foot in two recently published books: Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb, The Women Are Up To Something (OUP), and Clare MacCumhail and Rachael Wiseman, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back To Life (Vintage).