The Antiwar Movement

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2: The Antiwar Movement

For as long as nations have engaged in war, there have been those who opposed it, seeking peaceful resolutions to conflicts and an end to violence. Some antiwar activists have protested a specific war as unjust, illegal, or too costly in terms of both economics and the loss of life. Others are dedicated to pacifism in all circumstances, believing that war is always immoral because it requires people to commit violent acts against others. Pacifism often has its basis in religious belief, though many seek peace not because of biblical demands but because they believe the stakes of war are too high and the damage done to humanity too great.

Nearly every war in modern American history has been accompanied by an antiwar movement. Such movements have varied in size and effectiveness, but the goals are the same: to prevent or end a war. Wars generally arouse emotional responses on either side of the issue and usually result in deep divisions between those opposed to and those in favor of the conflict. The issue of free speech is central to any debate over a war. Antiwar activists firmly believe in their right to express their views, while many citizens and government officials contend that the expression of such ideas during wartime is harmful and unpatriotic.

Historians have debated the effectiveness of antiwar movements. Some have suggested that the regular occurrence of wars demonstrates that such movements have little impact on the decisions of governments. Wars continue to arise, and the prospect of eliminating war altogether seems unlikely. Others argue that antiwar movements have had considerable influence, shortening wars or preventing them altogether. Regardless of the prospects for success, antiwar activists have repeatedly sought an end to war and will continue to do so in the hopes of establishing a lasting global peace.

The roots of peace activism

The peace movements that arose early in U.S. history based their philosophies primarily on religious teachings. For the Quakers, a Protestant sect also known as the Religious Society of Friends, the promotion of peace has long been a cornerstone of their faith. They also embrace the principles of tolerance and equality. Quakers, along with other Christian denominations such as the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Church of the Brethren, have historically been known as peace churches because they promote pacifism.

Other religious faiths, including Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, have also been considered peace churches for their pacifist beliefs. During wartime, members of the peace churches, as well as other pacifists, have declared themselves to be conscientious objectors. Such individuals seek to avoid participation in any military activities because of their firm belief that war is wrong.


Opposition to a specific war, to one side of a war, or to all war.
A temporary agreement among warring nations to stop fighting and draft a formal peace agreement.
civil disobedience:
The peaceful violation of a law considered unjust.
conscientious objector:
A person who refuses to serve in the military because it violates his or her moral standards. The term is often used to describe those whose religious beliefs prevent any support of war.
The practice of one nation taking control of another's government or economy through invasion or other means.
Concerned only with the defense of one's own borders and avoiding involvement in foreign conflicts.
just war doctrine:
The principle, with a basis in the Bible's New Testament teachings, that outlines the conditions under which a just, or fair, war might be fought, as when a nation has been attacked and all nonviolent attempts to resolve the conflict have failed.
An opposition to war or violence; the pursuit of peaceful resolution to all conflicts.
The payment—either in money, goods, or services—to cover the cost of damages and expenses as a result of war. Reparations are usually made by the losing side.
Punitive actions imposed on nations violating international laws.
Actions that encourage resistance of or rebellion against a governing body.
A formal agreement between nations.

A number of religious denominations support the idea of peace but also believe that there are times when war is necessary. Many Christian faiths, particularly the Catholic Church, follow a principle known as the doctrine of just war. This belief acknowledges the benefits of peace, but also maintains that there are certain circumstances when a war might be justified. The doctrine also indicates the manner in which war may be waged.

According to the just war doctrine, war is an appropriate response if all attempts at nonviolent resolution of the conflict have failed. It is also permitted as self-defense against a serious attack, and if there is a reasonable chance of success. Those engaging in warfare must not create a situation that is worse than the one they are trying to eliminate. In addition, they must treat civilians and prisoners of war in a humane manner. The doctrine of just war not only formed the foundation of many antiwar movements throughout history, it also became part of international laws governing warfare.

Along with religious teachings, the concept of civil disobedience also helped establish the basis of antiwar movements. American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) gained lasting influence in part due to his well-publicized refusal to pay taxes during the mid-1840s. He strongly opposed slavery and the participation of the United States in the Mexican-American War (1846–48). Thus, he refused to pay taxes to the government for those reasons. Thoreau was joined in these beliefs by many others, some of whom formed organizations like the American Peace Society and the New England Non-Resistance Society. At this point in American history, peace activism had grown from its beginnings as a religious movement to include political motivations as well.

Thoreau was briefly jailed for refusing to pay taxes. He later wrote an essay, published in 1849, that came to be known as "Civil Disobedience." In his essay, Thoreau noted that people should follow their conscience in all matters, even if one's moral standards conflicted with the policies of the government. He also stated that, in a nation where governments are elected by the people, citizens can justifiably withhold financial support of the government as a means of expressing disagreement with its actions. Through his essay, the title of which describes the peaceful violation of an unjust law, Thoreau contributed substantially to later social reform movements, particularly the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), the best-known leader of the civil rights movement, gained inspiration and protest strategy from Thoreau's writings.

During the late 1800s, many American social reformers objected to the idea of a powerful nation such as the United States taking over another nation. This practice, called imperialism, involved physically invading a nation or exerting control over its government or economy. As American businesses rapidly expanded throughout the 1800s, business leaders and politicians continually sought raw materials for producing goods and new consumers to buy those goods. Many such leaders looked to other countries for these opportunities, opting to seize by force any weaker nations that resisted American business expansion within their borders.

Pacifism in Early American History

Throughout American history, people known as conscientious objectors have refused to fight in wars due to deeply held beliefs in pacifism. During the colonial era, conscientious objectors' antiwar views stemmed primarily from their religious faith. Quakers, Mennonites, and other members of peace churches refused to participate in violent actions against Native Americans. This decision often caused them to be harassed by their Puritan neighbors. When military conflicts arose, pacifists in some colonies were allowed to withdraw from military duty. However, other colonies were less tolerant and punished pacifists by seizing their property, imposing fines, or imprisoning them.

During the American Revolution (1775–83), those colonists who refused to fight against the British were expected to contribute in other ways. For example, they were expected to provide shelter for colonial troops. However, some even refused non-military service because they objected to any contribution to war and violence. Such objectors faced harassment, seizure of their property, or forced participation in military efforts.

The American Civil War (1861–65) marked the first time the federal government instituted the draft. This made military participation mandatory for all able men in the Union between the ages of twenty and forty-five. The law did not excuse conscientious objectors from service. However, it did allow people to pay a sum of $300 to avoid military duty. This clause essentially gave wealthier citizens the option not to fight, while poor people had no alternative.

In several cities, outrage among the poor led to draft riots. A particularly violent incident occurred in New York City in March 1863. Rioters set fire to government buildings, including a recruiting station, and attacked factories and modes of public transportation. They engaged in combat with Union troops as well. Hundreds were injured and more than one hundred people, mostly rioters, were killed. Many of the rioters blamed the war, and their forced military participation, on African Americans. They believed that the war came about solely because of the issue of slavery. During the uprising, some rioters destroyed the homes of African Americans as well as attacking and killing several black citizens.

Toward the end of the Civil War, in 1864, the Quakers and other pacifists successfully pressured the U.S. Congress to exempt members of the peace churches from military service. They were allowed to seek alternative ways of serving the nation. In the Confederacy, the southern states that had withdrawn from the United States, initiating the Civil War, members of peace churches could avoid the draft. However, they had to paid a fine or offer another person as a substitute soldier. By the end of the war, the need for Confederate soldiers was so great that every able-bodied man was required to join the army, regardless of his beliefs.

Anti-imperialists argued against such practices. They suggested that working with other nations as equals rather than trying to dominate them with military might would be more successful and lead to a healthier economy for the United States. The anti-imperialists of the late 1800s, who objected to the Spanish-American War (1898) among other actions, formed one of the earliest antiwar movements in the United States. Opposition to imperialist practices has continued to fuel various antiwar movements in modern American history.

World War I and the birth of the modern peace movement

World War I (1914–18), known at the time as the Great War, began during the summer of 1914 in Europe. When Austria's archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by students from the newly independent nation of Serbia, the empire of Austria-Hungary sought to punish Serbia and gain more control over that nation. With the backing of Russia, an ally from a previous defensive agreement, Serbia refused to give in to Austria-Hungary's demands. Allied with Germany through another longstanding defensive agreement, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28. When the Russian army mobilized to defend Serbia, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia as well.

Under treaty obligations, Great Britain and France soon entered the war on the side of Russia, and a global conflict began. Germany and Austria-Hungary, later joined by other nations, became known as the Central Powers. France, Great Britain, Russia, and other nations on their side became known as the Allied Forces. Initially the United States, led by President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), declared itself neutral, joining neither side in the conflict.

When World War I began, the United States was in the midst of a period of tremendous social change known as the Progressive Era. During the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution had led to a dramatic growth in manufacturing and the rise of massive corporations. It had also drawn millions of American citizens and new immigrants to the nation's growing cities. The result was an increase of such social ills as poverty, overcrowding, and corruption. During the first decades of the 1900s, social reformers, known as progressives, organized to address these problems. They also sought to expand the rights of citizens, particularly by gaining the right to vote for women. These activists worked to improve access to education for all Americans.

This period was marked by increasing tensions between the nation's workers and those of the upper class. Conflicts between workers and management (those who owned and ran businesses) increased. Many labor disputes turned violent and deadly. At this time, the United States witnessed the rise of socialism, an economic and political system wherein the community as a whole, rather than private individuals or corporations, share equally in the ownership of businesses that produce goods and provide services. Socialists were among the most vocal critics of the war, strongly opposing U.S. participation. The socialists saw American entry into the Great War as the upper classes sending those of the working class to fight so that the former could gain access to international markets and increase their vast fortunes.

In addition to socialists, a number of prominent Americans urged President Wilson not only to keep the United States out of the war but to actively negotiate for peace in Europe. Social reformer Jane Addams (1860–1935) was the leader of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She met with Wilson many times to enlist his aid in peacefully resolving the war. Lawyer and politician William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), who was secretary of state at the time, also urged Wilson to work toward peace. Bryan eventually resigned his position in the government due to differences between himself and the president over the war. Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette (1855–1925) also called for peace. He felt the government should focus on domestic issues and avoid the overseas war. Former President William Howard Taft (1857–1930; served 1909–13) sought to end the war through his leadership of the League to Enforce Peace. The organization could not prevent American entry into World War I but did have influence in the postwar peace efforts.

At the beginning of the Great War, millions of Americans supported Wilson's stated neutral position. But as the fighting in Europe continued, some started to believe that the United States should join the Allies on the battlefield. The change in American sentiment was partly the result of government-initiated press reports and official documents that depicted the German government and people in an extremely negative light. Also responsible for swaying public opinion, according to historians, was the way in which actual events were presented to the people.

On May 7, 1915, a British vessel called the Lusitania, with nearly two thousand civilian passengers aboard, was sunk by a German U-boat, or submarine. About 1,200 passengers drowned, including more than 120 Americans. Unknown to the public at the time, the Lusitania was also in violation of international law. The vessel was carrying thousands of cases of ammunition intended for the Allies. The U.S. government presented the incident as a horrible attack by Germany on innocent people. Some Americans became convinced at that time that the United States should abandon its neutral stance. For the time being, the United States remained officially neutral. However, it continued to aid the Allied Forces, particularly Great Britain, materially, financially, and diplomatically.

In early 1917 Germany, having earlier promised that its U-boats would warn non-military ships before attacking, reversed its position and announced that it would begin attacking all vessels upon sight. German submarines sank three American ships in March, angering the American public. In addition, the U.S. government and citizens learned that Germany had made a secret promise to Mexico. If the United States declared war on Germany, and if Mexico allied itself with the Central Powers, then Germany would help Mexico recover land it had lost to the United States during the Mexican-American War, including Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

Although most Americans continued to object to U.S. involvement in the war, a growing number called for the government to declare war on Germany. One month after beginning his second term as president, Wilson, who was elected as the antiwar candidate, appeared before the U.S. Congress and asked for a declaration of war. The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.

The campaign at home

Once the United States declared war, thousands of young men enlisted in the armed services. However, the number of American soldiers who volunteered to join the military fell far short of what was needed. To build an adequate military force, the U.S. government instituted the draft. This required all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty to register for service. Once they were registered, these young men were randomly selected to become soldiers and sent overseas to fight in battle. Instituting the draft was a controversial step. The government understood that the people would only support the draft if they felt certain that the war was necessary and right.

The Wilson administration began an intensive campaign to rally the American people. The government attempted to unite citizens behind a war that Wilson famously declared would "make the world safe for democracy." Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information, headed by newspaper editor George Creel (1876–1953), to put a positive spin on news from the battlefields. The committee's job was also to shower citizens with pro-war propaganda, information intended to persuade people that American participation in the war was vital. The propaganda campaign included posters, pamphlets, speeches, films, and news articles that portrayed the Germans as evil and the Allies as heroic.

Many schools stopped teaching the German language, and German books were burned. Musicians wrote patriotic songs depicting American soldiers as the saviors of the Allies in Europe. Several celebrities urged the public to buy war bonds, known as Liberty Bonds or Victory Bonds. The government raised billions of dollars through the sale of war bonds, which essentially involved citizens loaning money to the government that would be repaid with interest several years later. Americans were also flooded with pleas to support the war effort by donating to scrap-metal drives and by conserving fuel and food. According to Ruth Tenzer Feldman's World War I: Chronicle of America's Wars, one slogan read: "If U fast U beat U boats—if U feast U boats beat U."

In this atmosphere, the expression of antiwar sentiments was considered un-American and unpatriotic. Although millions had opposed American entry into the war, once U.S. participation became official, it was expected that the entire nation would stand behind the troops. And most people did. The government started a campaign to discredit the peace movement and to jail activists as traitors. In June 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, a law that seemed intended to punish those spying on behalf of the enemy. But the law included broad, vague language that allowed for the prosecution of anyone who encouraged disloyalty to or rebellion against the government. The law also made it a crime to do anything that was perceived to interfere with the draft, including publicly supporting pacifism. A provision of the law banned the use of the postal service to spread any "disloyal" ideas. As such, it became a crime to use a newspaper, a book, or even a personal letter to express opposition to the draft or any other U.S. law.

In May of 1918 Congress passed the Sedition Act, which made it illegal to say or write anything considered disloyal to the U.S. government, the Constitution, or the military during wartime. In what many viewed as a clear violation of the right to free speech as described in the First Amendment, the government made it a crime to express objections to any aspect of the war, such as the draft. According to the Espionage and Sedition Acts, such antiwar sentiments were traitorous. Punishments included thousands of dollars in fines and up to twenty years in prison. The law also prescribed stiff penalties for anyone who refused to serve in the military.

In spite of such pressure, antiwar activists, particularly the socialists, continued to voice their opposition. They held meetings, made speeches, and published articles. These activists were determined to express their views even though it could result in imprisonment. Many people, including a number of prominent social reformers, were arrested and sentenced to several years in prison. Among those sent to prison for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts were Eugene Debs (1855–1926), an influential labor leader, presidential candidate, and the nation's best-known socialist. Ironically, Debs received nearly one million votes in the 1920 election despite being in jail. A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) was also sent to prison. An African American reformer, Randolph had formed the nation's first black union and would later take a leading role in the civil rights movement. Women were imprisoned as well, including Emma Goldman (1869–1940). A renowned radical, Goldman fought for the rights of women, workers, and other oppressed citizens.

Not all of those arrested were radical reformers, however. Many were simply individuals who expressed opinions that the government considered un-American. Hundreds of conscientious objectors, pacifists who refused to participate in any aspect of the war, were jailed for evading the draft. Robert Goldstein, a film producer, was also sentenced to prison. Goldstein produced the 1917 film The Spirit of '76 about the American Revolution (1775–83). He was sentenced to ten years for depicting the British, American enemies during the Revolution but allies during World War I, in an unfavorable way.

The end of the "War to End All Wars"

After four years of bitter warfare, and the loss of nearly ten million soldiers and several million civilians, the warring nations agreed to stop the fighting. At 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—an armistice (an agreement to halt warfare) went into effect. President Wilson, who had proposed a peace plan known as the Fourteen Points almost a year earlier, hoped to reintroduce his plan in meetings with the leaders of France, England, and Italy. The Fourteen Points included a ban on secret treaties among nations and a call for fair international trading rules. The key element of Wilson's plan was the creation of a League of Nations, an organization of major countries that would band together to try to ensure a lasting peace and prevent any future world wars.

Wilson met with strong opposition to his League of Nations proposal, both within the United States and among the other countries negotiating the terms of a peace agreement. Critics of the plan included several powerful U.S. senators. They feared that membership in such an organization might limit the influence and hinder the independence of the U.S. government. Leaders of the Allied nations in Europe wished to shift the emphasis of the treaty away from the development of a lasting peace. Their main priorities were to acquire disputed territory and to weaken and punish Germany.

During negotiations to draft the peace treaty, Wilson compromised on many points. The final treaty was far more punishing to Germany than Wilson had envisioned. Under the treaty, Germany lost control of a significant amount of territory and would be forced to pay billions of dollars in reparations to the Allies. To Wilson's satisfaction, however, the treaty did call for the establishment of a League of Nations. The peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Versailles, was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, France.

The government of each nation signing the treaty then had to ratify, or approve, the agreement. This process proved extremely challenging in the United States. A number of American lawmakers and many citizens continued to oppose the provision of the treaty that would establish the League of Nations. In the midst of negotiations with Congress, President Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to end the war and to establish harmony among the nations. In the summer of 1921, the U.S. Senate finally ratified a different version of a peace treaty with Germany and other Central Powers, a version that kept the United States out of the League of Nations.

Several European and Asian nations, including Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and China, did form the League of Nations. Over the next several years, the league managed to resolve a number of regional conflicts without resorting to military action. But during the 1930s, as Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) rose to power in Germany, it became clear that the League of Nations did not have the strength to prevent a determined aggressor from waging another major war.

World War II

The American antiwar movement, which had been largely suppressed during World War I, suffered in the years following the conflict. Activists had been labeled as unpatriotic by the government. At the same time, however, millions of Americans vividly recalled the misery of World War I and dreaded the prospect of another war. Pacifist sentiments were widespread. Many also believed that the United States should maintain an isolationist position, one that concerns itself only with defense of its own borders and avoids involvement in foreign conflicts. As events of the 1930s unfolded in Europe, however, the prospect of preventing global conflict seemed dim.

Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany in 1933 as the leader of the Nazi Party. The Nazis promoted a fascist philosophy, which placed the welfare of the nation over individual liberties. A fascist system is marked by a powerful central government that is led by a dictator who eliminates all political opposition. A persuasive and powerful public speaker, Hitler appealed to millions of Germans with his passionate speeches about returning Germany to its former glory. Germany had suffered a humiliating defeat in World War I, and the nation had endured economic hardship as a result of the Versailles Treaty.

Hitler spoke of rebuilding Germany's military and economy and of restoring the nation's dignity. He angrily ranted about those he claimed were responsible for Germany's misfortunes, blaming Jewish people in particular. Hitler also targeted communists, homosexuals, people of color, and Slavic people, including Poles. Hitler repeatedly and heatedly spoke of "true" Germans as the master race. He voiced the need to get rid of any others who would "pollute" that race. In other words, Hitler advocated genocide, the systematic murder of people based on race, ethnicity, religion, or politics. His goal was twofold: to alienate and ultimately eliminate what he perceived as undesired elements within the population and to use the military to dominate as many other nations as possible. At the same time, Japan and Italy were also ruled by repressive fascist dictators. Emperor Hirohito (1901–1989) reigned over Japan while Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) ruled Italy. Both men sought far-reaching military domination.

Despite the widespread reluctance to engage in another large-scale war, many of the world's leaders came to view Hitler as a huge threat. They began to believe that Hitler's plans for world domination could only be stopped by force. When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, England and France declared war on Germany. Both Allied nations had earlier promised to defend Poland against invasion. Thus, World War II (1939–45) began. Germany, Italy, Japan, and others joined forces and were known as the Axis powers. Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and other nations were known as the Allied powers. (The Soviet Union began the war as an Axis power, but soon switched sides.) The United States, while supporting the Allies with loans as well as weapons and other supplies, initially refrained from entering the war militarily.

As Germany's massive military conquered one European nation after another, Hitler simultaneously began carrying out his objective of ridding society of Jews and others he considered dangerous, undesirable, or subhuman. In each nation Germany invaded, Jews were rounded up, arrested, and sent to large prisons known as concentration camps. In some areas, notably Poland, Jews were forced to reside in ghettos. These were small neighborhoods that were often surrounded by walls and guarded by Nazi troops. The ghettos housed tens of thousands of Jews in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, where food was scarce and illness was widespread. Thousands died of starvation and disease, and many others were killed by Nazi guards. Periodically, groups of ghetto residents were shipped out by train to concentration camps, where many were gradually starved or worked to death.

By 1941 Hitler had devised a plan known as the Final Solution. It involved the systematic murder of Jewish people throughout Europe. To that end, the Nazis constructed death camps, which were prisons designed for efficient mass murder. As news of the atrocities committed by the Nazis spread around the world, Jews and other concerned citizens felt an urgent need to stop Hitler.

On December 7, 1941, after months of increased tensions between Japan and the United States, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Several important ships were destroyed, and about 2,400 Americans were killed. The following day, led by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), the United States declared war on Japan. The American public was shocked and outraged over Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and the government easily justified its declaration of war to the masses. Three days later, Germany declared war on the United States. An ally of Japan, Germany hoped that the Asian nation would help it take over the Soviet Union. Thus, the U.S. military joined the Allies and became engaged in a war on two major fronts, Europe and the Pacific.

Opposition to World War II

Throughout the early years of the war in Europe, millions of Americans opposed U.S. intervention in the conflict. They were reluctant to revisit the horrors of a widespread European conflict so soon after World War I. In the fall of 1940, an isolationist organization called the America First Committee (AFC) formed in an attempt to prevent U.S. involvement in World War II. The AFC grew rapidly, attracting several hundred thousand members in hundreds of chapters. The AFC supported the idea of a strong American military, but only to defend the nation's borders. The organization contended that involvement in the war would harm rather than preserve American democracy. The AFC opposed any type of aid given to the Allies, claiming that funds would be better spent on building up the U.S. armed forces. The AFC believed that providing support to warring nations brought the United States ever closer to military involvement in the war. Members of the AFC included a number of prominent citizens, including writers, politicians, and business owners.

The best-known spokesperson for the organization was aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974). For many years, Lindbergh had been a national hero for his accomplishments in aviation. During the 1930s, as Hitler was rising to power, Lindbergh had attracted some controversy when he expressed admiration for Nazi Germany and shared his views on the superiority of some races over others. In spite of this controversy, Lindbergh's antiwar speeches drew massive crowds. A speech he gave in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941, however, ended in disgrace. In that speech, Lindbergh contended that the forces driving the United States toward war were the British government, the Roosevelt Administration, and American Jews.

Lindbergh spoke of his belief that the Jewish people had undue influence on American policy. He alleged that Jews posed a danger to the nation because they supposedly controlled the media, the motion picture industry, and the government. Lindbergh's claims echoed those that had been made in the past, in the United States and elsewhere, as attempts to justify anti-Semitism, or hatred and persecution of Jews. Although Lindbergh stated that he was not anti-Semitic and that he condemned Hitler's treatment of the Jews in Europe, his remarks caused an outcry. The speech tarnished his reputation and that of the AFC. The AFC disbanded a few days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Like the AFC, most antiwar voices became silent after the United States formally entered the war. While most citizens had hoped that American participation in the war could be avoided, many came to believe there was no other choice once Pearl Harbor was attacked. To persuade those who were still unsure about supporting the war, the government generated propaganda in the form of posters, films, pamphlets, and other media. The propaganda illustrated American strength and glory as well as portraying the dangers posed by the Axis nations. Such propaganda capitalized on American fears of enemy invasion, emphasizing the importance of protecting American women and children from the brutal, oppressive dictators of Germany, Japan, and Italy.

In addition to those who objected to U.S. involvement in the war because of their isolationist views, a small but significant group of citizens protested because of the long-held belief that any war was immoral. For many citizens, their pacifist views stemmed from their religion. Members of the historic peace churches and other pacifist religions contended that any activity in support of a war violated their beliefs. Before the United States entered the war, these conscientious objectors (COs) began formulating plans to serve their nation in ways that had nothing to do with the military. The U.S. government had passed a draft law in 1940, and the peace churches lobbied successfully to amend the law with a passage allowing for conscientious objection. The law only allowed such status for those whose views came from their religious training. Objectors who opposed the war for moral, political, or philosophical reasons would still be required to register for the draft. The law provided two options for COs. First, they could be drafted into the armed services but given jobs that did not involve combat. Second, if their beliefs dictated that they withhold all support for military operations, they could be assigned a civilian job that would benefit the nation in some meaningful way.

Approximately 25,000 COs chose to join the U.S. armed forces and serve in noncombat positions. More than 6,000, most of whom were Jehovah's Witnesses, refused to perform any service for the government, military or civilian, and faced imprisonment for that decision. Approximately 12,000 COs chose to perform alternative service that was, as the draft law stated, "of national importance." To accommodate those COs, over 150 Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps were established throughout the nation. The CPS camps were funded by the peace churches, which paid the cost of maintaining the camps and meeting the needs of the workers. The workers did not receive any government wages for their work.

Although some CPS workers were assigned meaningless tasks to fill their days, others performed important functions. Several hundred CPS workers were trained as smoke jumpers, firefighters who parachuted down into isolated areas to put out forest fires. Others worked as road builders, soil conservationists, and agricultural laborers. One of the most significant contributions came from those COs who worked in hospitals for the mentally ill. They publicized the horrendous conditions and sometimes violent treatment imposed on patients in such hospitals. In addition, they introduced new, more humane, methods of care.

The path chosen by COs during World War II was a difficult one. The families of CPS workers suffered economic hardship. They received only minimal support from the cash-strapped peace churches. The COs themselves endured harassment and sometimes physical violence from fellow citizens who failed to appreciate the pacifist stance. And many of the CPS workers wondered what their purpose was at the camps. Their religious beliefs dictated not only an avoidance of war but an active promotion of peace. Many felt they should be doing more to spread pacifist values rather than working in forests or hospitals. They also struggled with the question of how to stop a man like Hitler without using violence. In spite of the difficulties, COs persisted in their belief that using physical violence to solve problems was immoral.

As World War II came to a close, the Allies emerged as the clear victors. The leaders of the Allied nations began discussing the terms of a global peace. Out of these discussions came an agreement to form an international organization of governments that would be known as the United Nations (UN). The UN was seen as a successor to the League of Nations. Like that organization, the UN was designed to avoid future global conflicts. In the years since its formation in 1945, the UN has met with both failure and success, generating significant controversy along the way. Some critics complain that the UN possesses too much power, while others are saddened by the organization's limitations. Regardless, the UN does provide a forum for discussion and debate among the nearly 200 member nations.

The Cold War

In the months following the conclusion of World War II, tensions between the world's two superpowers, the United States and its former ally, the Soviet Union, grew rapidly. The Soviet Union lent its support to communist forces in Greece, China, and other nations. Such actions sparked fears in the United States that the Soviet Union planned to spread communism throughout the world and extend its own influence in the process. Soviet communism was a political system that had an authoritarian government, which controlled the economy. Its goal was to eliminate class distinctions and private property. In the United States, most government officials and many citizens viewed communism as a genuine threat to democracy, capitalism, and American security.

In the spring of 1947, the U.S. government passed a law known as the Truman Doctrine, named for President Harry S Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53). The Truman Doctrine reflected the government's top priority: preventing the spread of communism through a policy known as containment. The law declared that the United States would offer its support, from funding to weapons to American troops, to any nation struggling against communist forces.

The hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union led to an extended political and economic conflict known as the Cold War (1945–91). Unlike other "wars," this struggle did not involve direct military battles between warring nations like those present in a "hot" war. Instead, the threat of a military war loomed over both countries. And because the atomic bomb had been invented by the United States during World War II, both countries understood the massive damage that could result if a nuclear war began.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in diplomatic battles, economic fights, and intensive spying missions. They both took part in a number of proxy wars, wherein the two countries became involved on opposite sides of another nation's military struggle. The Korean War (1950–53) was one example of a proxy war. From 1910 until 1945, Korea had been under Japanese control. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to send troops to Korea in the wake of Japan's departure from that South Asian nation. Korea was divided in half along the 38th parallel, a latitudinal line that crosses Asia, the Mediterranean, and the United States. The Soviet Union occupied North Korea and the United States occupied South Korea.

The Soviet Union installed a communist government in North Korea while the United States attempted to establish a democratic government in South Korea. The leaders of both Korean governments wanted to rule over a unified Korea. During the summer of 1949, fighting began along the 38th parallel. Not long after communist forces emerged victorious from a civil war in China in October 1949, the new leader of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong (1893–1976), forged an alliance with the Soviet Union. He pledged military support to North Korea. On June 25, 1950, North Korea, having received training and weaponry from the Soviet Union and China, invaded South Korea. The United States promptly responded by authorizing additional troops to attack North Korea by land, air, and sea.

At the center of the Cold War was the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States had developed nuclear weaponry for possible use against Germany during World War II. (Nuclear weapons are extraordinarily devastating devices that use nuclear reactions as their source of power.) Instead, the United States dropped atomic bombs, a type of nuclear weapon, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 in an attempt to end the war with Japan. (The war with Germany had ended earlier that year.) The bombings of those cities resulted in their near-total destruction and the deaths of several hundred thousand people. Japan surrendered a few days later. The U.S. government stood behind its decision to use nuclear weapons, stating that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hastened the end of the war with Japan. U.S. officials noted that the bombings made a costly invasion of Japan to end the war unnecessary, ultimately saving the lives of as many as 500,000 American soldiers.

The use of nuclear weapons also served as a display of America's vast military power and its willingness to use such weapons against its enemies. Observers around the world were shocked and horrified by the devastation of the Japanese cities, with many critics describing the bombings as mass murder. Many historians argue that Japan was on the verge of surrendering even before the bombs were dropped. Others note that Japan had been warned in a statement called the Potsdam Declaration in July of 1945 that if the country did not surrender unconditionally, it would face "prompt and utter destruction."

Within a few years, the Soviet Union had also developed nuclear weaponry, detonating a test atomic bomb in 1949. From that time on, considerable military funding and research in both countries focused primarily on the buildup of nuclear weapons and effective means of launching such weapons against the enemy. Fears of communism, the Soviet Union, and the Soviet nuclear program were widespread in the United States. However, many people disagreed with the notion that a nuclear arms race would make America safer. They contended that the possession of nuclear weapons would inevitably lead to massive destruction.

The antinuclear movement

In a response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an international antinuclear movement arose. A number of prominent citizens, including scientists who had contributed to the development of this technology, publicly expressed their opposition to nuclear arms. In 1955 two influential thinkers published a document that established the foundation of the antinuclear movement. Welsh reformer, philosopher, and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and German-born American scientist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) wrote The Russell-Einstein Manifesto. In the document, they pleaded with the world's leaders to abandon nuclear programs and concentrate on peaceful conflict resolution. Russell and Einstein pointed out that a nuclear war is unwinnable and would be likely to destroy the entire human race. As quoted in The Antiwar Movement, they wrote: "Shall we … choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels?"

Opposition to nuclear weapons stemmed not just from the immediate danger of detonation but also from the lingering damage done to all life forms in the area surrounding a nuclear explosion. Whether occurring because of an attack, a weapons test, or an accident at a nuclear power plant, a nuclear detonation creates large quantities of radioactive fallout. This fallout, containing materials that emit harmful radiation, rises into the atmosphere and then settles back to the earth, potentially covering a large area. Radioactive fallout contaminates the water supply, soil, and plant life that is then consumed by humans and other animals. Radioactive contamination can last for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and poses a significant health risk, causing several types of cancer as well as other serious ailments.

A number of citizens' groups formed to protest the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. One of the largest and most influential of these organizations was the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, known as SANE, which formed in 1957. SANE worked to persuade world leaders to end nuclear testing and halt the accumulation of nuclear weaponry. With such prominent members as editor and peace activist Norman Cousins (1912–1990) and renowned pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903–1998), SANE played a significant role in convincing the government that the American public was passionately opposed to the further spread of nuclear arms.

Women activists played a major role in the antinuclear movement as well. They organized protests, made speeches, and lobbied lawmakers. Lawyer and activist Bella Abzug (1920–1998) helped form a group called Women Strike for Peace (WSP), which spearheaded a nationwide protest against nuclear testing on November 1, 1961. College students also participated in the antinuclear movement in large numbers. The Student Peace Union (SPU), which formed in 1959, had chapters at colleges and universities across the nation.

An incident in the autumn of 1962 emphasized the threat of nuclear war and the urgency of halting the arms race. The U.S. government had learned that the Soviet Union had positioned missile launch sites in Cuba that could enable it to mount nuclear strikes on the United States. Cuba, a communist nation ninety miles south of Florida, had formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) convened a committee of military and civilian analysts to discuss the nation's next move. Options considered by the committee included invading Cuba, attempting to bomb the missile sites, conducting private negotiations with the Soviet Union or Cuba, and installing a naval blockade to prevent shipments of weapons from reaching Cuba's shores.

President Kennedy decided to install the blockade on October 24, a move that was greeted with fury by the Soviet Union. Over the next few days, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union exchanged threats. People around the world tried to prepare themselves for the possibility of nuclear war. On October 28 the two leaders reached an agreement. The Soviet Union would remove its missiles from Cuba under the supervision of the United Nations. In turn, the United States agreed not to invade Cuba. For the time being, nuclear war had been averted.

The incident became known as the Cuban missile crisis. It had brought the world's two superpowers to the brink of a nuclear war that would have led to the devastation of both nations. In the months after the crisis, both leaders softened a bit in their approach to each other, showing a desire to ease tensions. The time was right for peace activists to intensify their campaign.

A primary focus of the antinuclear movement was halting the testing of nuclear weapons. Activists sought to end testing because of concerns about radioactive contaminants spreading worldwide. In addition, many believed that a ban on testing would pose a significant obstacle to the development of new nuclear weapons. During the summer of 1963, the pressure activists had applied to politicians seemed to have paid off.


Fear of communism became extreme after World War II. Although the Soviet Union was a U.S. ally during the war, mistrust of the communist superpower ran high among Americans. When people learned that the Soviets had obtained classified information during the war from American spies, including information that helped them develop nuclear weapons, many Americans became convinced that communism posed a serious threat.

Rooting out communists in government, the media, and many other industries became popular. The federal government began removing suspected communists from positions of power. In 1947 President Harry S Truman established a loyalty review program that would investigate all federal employees, firing those suspected of communist affiliations or sympathies. That same year, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a group in the U.S. House of Representatives, began an investigation into the movie industry in Hollywood. The committee looked into allegations that communist or other left-wing sympathies thrived in Hollywood.

The HUAC obtained testimony from several people in the film industry who were conservative and deeply opposed to communism. These witnesses named people in the industry who were suspected of having communist ties. Those called to testify before the HUAC were given a choice: either provide names of suspected communists or be blacklisted (have their names placed on a list of people who would not be hired by any movie studio). Some cooperated, others refused. Several people received prison sentences for refusing to cooperate. Hundreds of careers were destroyed and many lives ruined.

Anticommunist hysteria increased in 1949 when the Soviet Union successfully detonated an atomic bomb. That year also saw communist forces gain control of China. High-profile spy cases, including those of Alger Hiss and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, gave Americans the illusion that communist spies were everywhere and would have to be aggressively rooted out. The Rosenbergs' case sparked considerable debate, with the alleged guilt of Ethel Rosenberg called into question. The Rosenbergs left behind two young children when they were executed by electric chair in 1953. They were the only Americans executed for treason during the Cold War.

In early 1950, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) of Wisconsin gained fame after announcing he had a list of dozens of names of U.S. state department employees who were communists. Although his claims were shaky at best, McCarthy fed the fear of Americans. His hunt to root out communism became known as McCarthyism. He was allowed to conduct far-ranging investigations into the political views of government employees and other citizens. Witnesses were aggressively questioned about their ties to communism. McCarthy pushed those who testified to give up the names of other alleged communists. If they supplied names, witnesses could have their names cleared. If they refused, they faced disgrace, the loss of their jobs, and imprisonment. Just being accused by McCarthy could destroy reputations and careers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), led by J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), supplied McCarthy with information about suspected communists.

Anyone who challenged McCarthy's tactics became the next person he investigated. McCarthyism silenced many social reformers, including antinuclear activists, who were called traitors because they sought to bring change to America. By 1952 McCarthy had gained numerous enemies in the government and elsewhere. When McCarthy launched an investigation into the U.S. Army, questioning the loyalty of senior military officials, many believed he had gone too far. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings in the summer of 1954 gave the nation a good look at his ruthless tactics and unpleasant manner. Later that year, his fellow senators voted to censure him. This public condemnation of his actions thus ended McCarthy's reign of terror.

At the request of President Kennedy, Norman Cousins of SANE helped to devise a treaty banning nuclear weapons testing. On August 5, 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty. It has also been referred to as the Limited Test Ban Treaty. This agreement banned the testing of nuclear weapons (and any other type of nuclear explosion) in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater. The treaty also placed limitations on the testing of nuclear weapons underground. While the treaty was far from perfect, and did nothing to slow down the stockpiling of nuclear weapons on both sides, it was an important first step and signalled an improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations. Historians have since acknowledged the important role played by antinuclear activists. The development and testing of nuclear weapons was extremely unpopular with the American people, and the Partial Test Ban Treaty was in large part the result of pressure applied by citizens to their government.

The Vietnam War (1954–75) begins

Vietnam, located in Southeast Asia near China and India, had been a French colony for many years. In the early 1950s Vietnam engaged in a war with France for its independence. At the conclusion of that war in 1954, the northern part of Vietnam was under the control of Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), a communist leader. At a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, officials from the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China met in an attempt to settle the conflicts in both Korea and Vietnam. As a temporary measure, until elections could be held, it was decided that Vietnam would be divided into two halves. North Vietnam would be ruled by Ho Chi Minh, while South Vietnam would have an independent, non-communist leadership. The Soviet Union and China supported North Vietnam, while the United States supported South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh wished to unify Vietnam under his leadership, while Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963), the leader in the south, resisted. It wasn't long before fighting broke out between the two sides.

As with the Korean war, the United States began lending support to the anti-communist forces. America sent money and military equipment. It also sent a few thousand troops, which were referred to as "advisors," to train the South Vietnamese army. The Soviet Union and China supplied weapons to Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam. The U.S. government told the American people that its troops in Vietnam were there to train, not to engage in combat. In truth, American soldiers were flying bombing missions and aiding South Vietnamese troops in ground combat.

U.S. military involvement in Vietnam went on for several years on a small scale before an incident in the summer of 1964 changed the nature of the conflict. In early August, a U.S. Navy ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam, exchanged fire with some North Vietnamese torpedo boats. According to the U.S. government, the North Vietnamese initiated the attack, a report that continues to be disputed. A few days later, on August 10, 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) the power to wage war against North Vietnam.

Initially, many Americans supported the nation's military involvement in Vietnam. The government painted a dire picture of the consequences of allowing a communist takeover in Vietnam. Officials explained this as the "domino theory" of communism. They stated that if Vietnam became a communist nation, the other countries around it would also succumb to communism, giving China and the Soviet Union a dangerous advantage. Some antiwar groups, particularly student groups on college campuses, staged protests during the early 1960s. But opposition to the war had not yet developed into a broad, national movement.

When the United States began heavily bombing North Vietnam in early 1965, the number of people voicing objections to the war increased. Many raised questions about the costs of the war, in terms of both money and human life. A number of people also expressed concern about the morality of the war, particularly the killing of innocent Vietnamese civilians through bombing raids and other means. A significant number of protests centered on the draft, known as the Selective Service. Young men were legally required to register for the draft, after which each received a draft card with a number on it. When a cardholder's number was selected, that person was required to report for duty in the armed forces. College campuses remained a central part of the growing antiwar movement. Professors conducted teach-ins, sessions designed to inform students about the war in Vietnam.

Two significant developments in American society at that time had a strong impact on the Vietnam antiwar movement. The civil rights movement, which had begun in the mid-1950s, had grown in size and influence. The injustices committed against African Americans, particularly in the South, had motivated vast numbers of people, especially college students, to become social activists. As American involvement in Vietnam deepened, many of these reformers began speaking out against what they saw as an unjust war. They had seen from the civil rights movement that ordinary citizens, working together, could make a real difference. They wanted to use their influence to bring about an end to the Vietnam War. They applied the techniques and strategies they had learned in civil rights protests to antiwar demonstrations, staging nonviolent protests and acts of civil disobedience. Among the youth-oriented organizations that shifted their focus from civil rights to the Vietnam War were Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Free Speech Movement (FSM).

A growing number of college students became increasingly radical, both politically and socially. They felt that they had little in common with older adults, differing in appearance, values, politics, and goals. The lack of understanding between young and old became known as the "generation gap." These young people, usually sporting long hair and colorful, casual clothes, became known as "hippies." This term was often used negatively by more conservative observers. In return, the hippies critically referred to mainstream society—the media, corporations, and government—as the "Establishment."

The youth movement, also described as the counterculture, opposed the war, consumerism, and big business. Many embraced rock and roll, free love, and mind-altering experiences through drugs, meditation, and other agents. Others expressed their rebellion politically, in a movement known as the New Left. Promoting the principles of peace and justice, members of the counterculture zeroed in on the Vietnam War as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Establishment.

The war, and the antiwar movement, escalate

As the war continued, the U.S. government drafted more and more men to send to Vietnam. Opposition to the draft intensified, with thousands of men joining a national draft-evading organization called the Resistance. Many young men staged protests where they burned their draft cards. Others evaded military service by fleeing the country, with many finding sanctuary in Canada. Some simply refused to be drafted, facing imprisonment instead. Some of the controversy regarding the draft stemmed from the ability of the wealthy and powerful to keep their family members out of Vietnam. Parents with political connections obtained non-combat assignments for their sons, while working-class boys chose between serving in the military or breaking the law.

By 1967 the antiwar movement had spread far beyond college campuses. Religious associations, civil rights organizations, and community groups participated in marches and other protests. In April of that year, hundreds of thousands of antiwar demonstrators marched in New York City. Later that year, in October, some seventy thousand protesters marched in Washington, D.C., surrounding the Pentagon and other Washington-area landmarks. Numerous marchers were arrested during what many historians consider to be a turning point for the administration of President Johnson. The formerly popular president was under siege, encountering antiwar protesters at every public appearance and facing dramatically lower approval ratings.

Johnson had attempted to improve morale at home by conveying positive news about progress in Vietnam. He enlisted the help of military experts to tell the public that the war was winding down. Evidence to the contrary came out in early 1968 when the communist forces in Vietnam staged a surprise attack. Known as the Tet Offensive, the action began in late January. Although the U.S.-led forces eventually repelled the attack and regained lost territory, many thousands died on both sides. The images broadcast on the television news showed chaos and devastation. The news coverage revealed that, far from coming to a close, the war was reaching its peak.

Two months later, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection to the presidency. During the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968, thousands of demonstrators surrounded the convention hall, demanding that the delegates inside the hall make ending the war a priority. The police and Illinois National Guard came down hard on the demonstrators, spraying tear gas, beating protesters, and making arrests. A full-blown riot erupted, with dozens of injuries on both sides and a number of protesters sent to jail.

Johnson's successor, President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74), inherited a messy, unpopular war and a deeply divided nation. Reflecting the views of many in his generation, Nixon considered the antiwar movement to be a destructive force that was encouraging American enemies and extending the war. Nixon decided that the best way to change opinions about the war was to withhold information from the public, a plan that later backfired. In March 1969, Nixon ordered a secret bombing campaign of Cambodia, a neutral nation adjacent to Vietnam where communist forces had been hiding out. The bombing of Cambodia was hidden not only from the public, but also from many members of the U.S. Congress and even several military leaders. When news of the bombings in Cambodia reached the American public during the summer of 1969, citizens were angered by the deception. Many lawmakers charged that President Nixon had violated the U.S. Constitution.

Also in March 1969, a company of U.S. Marines entered a Vietnamese village called My Lai to find and destroy enemies. The attack turned into a massacre, with more than three hundred unarmed villagers, including women, the elderly, and children, killed by American soldiers. The incident was kept from the American people until a journalist published details of the massacre in November. Even supporters of the war reacted with shock and outrage. In response, several hundred thousand antiwar protesters marched in Washington, D.C., on November 15, staging the largest peace march to date in the United States.

During the spring of 1970, Nixon announced that U.S. forces had begun a land invasion of Cambodia. This decision sparked another wave of protests. On college campuses across the nation, students expressed their anger and frustration. Years of peace activism had made little difference in U.S. policy. By 1970, many activists had abandoned the principle of peaceful protest. They set fires, broke windows, and sometimes hurled rocks at the police. In early May, at one such demonstration on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio, some students set fire to the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) building. In response, the governor of Ohio called in the National Guard. On May 4, after four days of demonstrations, the National Guard threw tear gas at the demonstrators, who responded by throwing rocks and insults. Amid the haze and confusion, several dozen troops opened fire on the unarmed protesters, shooting into a crowd of students for thirteen seconds. Four students were killed, including two who just happened to be walking by on their way to class. Several more were injured.

News of the tragedy at Kent State spread rapidly. Students all over the country gathered on their campuses to protest the killings. Over the next several days, hundreds of campuses were shut down by student strikes or, in some cases, by college administrators fearing that further violence would erupt. A large demonstration was staged in Washington, D.C., five days after the deaths at Kent State. The nation, however, remained deeply divided. As millions mourned the deaths of the students, others voiced intense resentment toward antiwar protesters. Many saw the peace activists as traitors whose failure to support the U.S. government and troops was tearing the nation apart.

As veterans from the Vietnam War returned home, they were surprised to encounter hostility from some of their fellow citizens rather than support or gratitude. The conditions in Vietnam were grueling, and veterans came home bearing emotional and often physical scars. Many felt pained by the actions of antiwar protesters, but others agreed that the war was immoral and could not be won. Some believed that American troops should withdraw from Vietnam. A number of such veterans joined the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. One member of this group, John Kerry (1943–), later became a U.S. senator and the 2004 Democratic candidate for president.

In the months before the 1972 presidential election, President Nixon, aware that antiwar activists could help prevent him from being re-elected, announced that secret negotiations with North Vietnam had begun. In August, Nixon announced that American combat troops had left Vietnam, though the U.S. military maintained a strong presence in the air and the sea. Nixon was re-elected in November 1972. During the next month, after unfavorable developments in the peace talks, American planes bombed the Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong for eleven solid days, killing numerous civilians. Antiwar activists stepped up their protests, with more and more citizens and organizations joining the movement in response to what was widely viewed as an immoral and unjust war.

Due in part to pressure applied by peace activists, American involvement in Vietnam finally ended in early 1973. A peace treaty was signed at the end of January, and the last American troops left by the end of March. Two years later, in violation of the peace treaty, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam and the two nations soon became one. They became united under communist rule, the very outcome the war had been designed to prevent.

COINTELPRO: Crushing Dissent

When social activists express dissent, or opposition to government policies, government officials take notice, wondering if the dissent of a particular group poses a threat to the nation's power structure or security. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, however, protects all citizens, including dissenters, by guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to assemble and petition. At certain points in American history, members of the government have violated those rights, justifying such transgressions as necessary actions to maintain national safety.

In 1956 the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), J. Edgar Hoover, established a counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO. It was designed to uncover information about dissenting organizations and to take steps to weaken them. COINTELPRO, initially aimed at the Communist Party, was expanded to include a number of other activist organizations. It set up secret and illegal surveillance, spying on American citizens who had expressed disagreement with government policies. Among others, COINTELPRO campaigns targeted the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., the antiwar movement, and the New Left, a movement of political activists seeking social change.

In addition to spying on activists, the FBI used numerous tactics to undermine targeted groups. FBI agents infiltrated organizations, pretending to be members in order to gather information. They also caused problems within organizations by asserting false claims that loyal members were in fact government spies. In addition, the FBI waged a propaganda campaign, planting false or exaggerated stories in the media to discredit activist groups and issuing fake pamphlets and other publications in the name of such groups. The FBI also harassed activists, in some cases physically intimidating them, and arrested others on fraudulent charges.

COINTELPRO continued in secret until 1971, when a radical citizens' group broke into an FBI field office and stole numerous documents recounting illegal counterintelligence activities. These documents were passed on to the news media. Once the information became public, it was only a matter of months before COINTELPRO was dismantled.

The antinuclear campaign

In 1980, just a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) was elected president of the United States. Early in Reagan's presidency, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, ending a period of relative calm between the two nations. The threat of nuclear war and global devastation again loomed as both countries engaged in a massive buildup of nuclear weapons. In response to the nuclear arms race, a broad coalition of organizations and citizens united in what many believed to be a struggle to save all humankind. Antinuclear activists pointed out that nuclear war held the potential to destroy all human life. As such, it was vital for all citizens to pressure the government to end the arms race.

Peace groups from the 1960s, notably SANE, continued to exert influence. They were joined by many new organizations at the local, state, and national level. Numerous political organizations, religious groups, labor unions, and community associations joined the antinuclear movement. In a paper delivered in January 2006, Lawrence S. Wittner characterized it as "the greatest outburst of peace movement activism in world history."

The focus of the movement was exemplified by the goals of both SANE and another major national organization, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (NWFC). The groups sought to bring a halt to all testing, production, and detonation of nuclear weapons in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Once this "freeze" had been achieved, activists intended to shift their focus to reducing the number of existing nuclear weapons. The nuclear freeze movement held rallies and staged protests while also working at the political level to elect pro-freeze candidates and pass pro-freeze legislation. Polls taken at the time reflected widespread support for the freeze movement, with as many as 70 percent of Americans opposing the nuclear arms buildup. In June 1982 activists gathered in New York City for what turned out to be a massive peace demonstration, the largest protest rally up to that point in American history. Estimates of the number in attendance at what was called the "No Nukes" rally ranged from 500,000 to 1 million demonstrators.

Initially, President Reagan gave little indication that the antinuclear movement had any impact on his policies. He spoke of a desire to avoid nuclear war. Yet he continued to believe that the best insurance against a Soviet nuclear attack was to possess the weapons necessary to destroy the Soviet Union. By the mid-1980s, however, with the rise to power in the Soviet Union of reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–; served 1985–91), the United States and the Soviet Union began peace talks with the eventual goal of reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons. The Cold War officially ended in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union into a number of separate nations. Although relations between the United States and Russia warmed considerably in the final years and the aftermath of the Cold War, both nations, and a number of additional countries, continue to maintain nuclear weapons.

Peace activism in the aftermath of September 11

When terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, nearly three thousand people were killed. After investigating the crime, the U.S. government concluded that the attacks had been carried out by members of an Islamic fundamentalist group known as al-Qaeda. Not affiliated with any one nation, al-Qaeda proved to be a difficult target for retaliation. Afghanistan, ruled by the fundamentalist movement known as the Taliban, had close ties with al-Qaeda and was thought to have provided safe haven for al-Qaeda's leaders, including Osama bin Laden (1957–).

After a brief internal debate and attempts to persuade the Taliban to hand bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders over to the U.S. government, the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Peace activists opposed the invasion, pointing out that the Afghan people would be made to pay the price for the actions of the Taliban. However, the vast number of American citizens supported the invasion, hopeful that it would not only remove the repressive Taliban from power but also lead to the capture of bin Laden. As a result of the invasion, the Taliban were removed from power, but bin Laden managed to escape. Afghanistan remained politically unstable.

A few months after the invasion of Afghanistan, President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) began making serious allegations about the leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein (1937–). Hussein was widely considered to be a brutal and repressive dictator who harbored hostility toward Western nations, particularly the United States. Some ten years earlier, a short-lived war had occurred in that region. Led mainly by U.S. forces, Operation Desert Storm (1991), also known as the Persian Gulf War, had ended Iraq's occupation of neighboring Kuwait. However, the war failed to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

At the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, United Nations weapons inspectors had searched throughout Iraq for evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These included nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. The raw materials for such weapons were destroyed whenever possible. Weapons inspections continued for the next several years. Iraq's cooperation with the inspectors was inconsistent during that period. Hussein tried to use cooperation as a bargaining tool to end the harsh sanctions that were imposed on Iraq after the Persian Gulf War. Some believed his failure to cooperate was an attempt to slow inspections so weapons could be moved to another site. On December 16, 1998, the United Nations recalled its inspectors hours before air strikes were launched by the United States and Great Britain, thus putting a halt to weapons inspections for the next four years.

In the spring of 2002, President Bush began threatening a military attack if Hussein did not allow the UN inspectors back into Iraq. In September 2002, Hussein agreed to let the inspectors back in. Despite this concession, President Bush continued to warn the American people that, even if such weapons were not found during the inspections, Iraq still posed an imminent threat to the United States. Bush further claimed that Iraq had close ties to al-Qaeda and offered support to terrorists, a claim that was widely disputed.

The Bush administration repeatedly told the American public that the weapons inspections were not working and that the only way to eliminate the threat Hussein posed was to invade Iraq and remove the dictator from power. In October 2002, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. The Bush administration also sought a United Nations resolution authorizing a military strike, but the UN did not endorse the invasion.

The U.S. government attempted to build a coalition of nations to participate in an Iraq invasion—dubbed by President Bush as the "coalition of the willing." Several world leaders did pledge their support for the U.S.-led effort. Without the endorsement of the UN, however, most of the United States' major allies, with the exception of Great Britain, Italy, and a few others, refused to participate at all, or pledged a token number of troops to aid in the invasion. U.S. plans to invade Iraq continued, regardless of the lack of widespread international support.

President Bush continued his warnings that Saddam Hussein posed a great danger to Americans. This persuaded many citizens that a pre-emptive attack was justified. A pre-emptive attack is one that is designed to prevent a possible future attack rather than to defend against a current or clearly imminent one. A significant number of Americans, however, opposed the impending invasion of Iraq for several reasons. They pointed to a lack of evidence that Iraq possessed WMDs, noting that the UN weapons inspections had been an effective means of thwarting Iraq's destructive capabilities. In addition, critics questioned the claim that Hussein had an alliance with al-Qaeda. Opponents of the impending war also pointed out that a U.S.-led invasion would devastate Iraqi towns and cities, killing many civilians. They believed that invading Iraq without a UN resolution was a poor decision, not to mention illegal. Some suggested that the true reason for the invasion was to protect American business interests in the region, particularly those related to oil production.

In the months leading up to the March invasion, antiwar sentiment spread throughout the United States and in numerous other countries as well. In an unusual development in the history of antiwar expression, this movement developed prior to the start of the war. This showed that the activists hoped that a groundswell of opposition could prevent the invasion from occurring. On February 15, 2003, citizens in countries all over the world gathered for historic peace demonstrations. They assembled in dozens of American cities, large and small, and in several hundred cities throughout Europe and the world. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), estimates of the total number of participants worldwide range from six to ten million, with some estimates much higher. Many of the larger cities hosted record-breaking crowds. The approximately three million demonstrators in Rome, Italy, constituted the world's largest antiwar rally, according to the Guinness World Records Web site.

In spite of the unprecedented opposition, President Bush and the leaders of allied nations such as Great Britain and Australia did not stray from their course. Plans for the invasion continued. On March 17, 2003, Bush gave Saddam Hussein forty-eight hours to leave the country. Hussein refused, maintaining that he had complied with UN weapons inspectors. On March 20, 2003, U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq on land and by air. After less than three weeks, on April 9, 2003, Saddam Hussein's government had been toppled and President Bush announced that the Iraq war was officially over. Hussein himself was captured several months later, in December 2003.

The postwar policy of the Bush administration was that American troops would remain in Iraq to aid in the rebuilding of the country and the establishment of a new government. Once Iraq was stable, American troops would withdraw. In the months following the invasion, however, it became clear that stability in Iraq was a long way off. The task of unifying the Iraqi people under a democratically elected government appeared extremely difficult. Furthermore, while some Iraqis appreciated the removal of the brutal dictator, others intensely resented U.S. interference. Hostility toward the United States and its allies spread throughout many regions of Iraq. Insurgents, or rebels acting against the nation's established authority, staged numerous attacks, such as planting car bombs in crowded urban areas and ambushing military caravans. The insurgents also targeted members of the Iraqi police force and of the temporary government, asserting that any Iraqis who cooperated with the Western nations occupying their country were traitors.

As the hope for rapid troop withdrawal dwindled, objections of antiwar activists became more impassioned. Many felt the situation in Iraq echoed that of Vietnam, and they dreaded another lengthy, costly, and deadly involvement in a war that could not be won. The U.S. government referred to peace demonstrators as unpatriotic, and many citizens agreed. Bush earned enough support among voters to win election to a second term as president in 2004. As his second term went on, however, and the fighting in Iraq showed no signs of slowing down, opposition to the occupation increased.

No WMDs had been found in Iraq, and news reports revealed that some of the evidence of WMDs that had been used to justify the invasion was faulty. Some members of the Bush administration backed away from the claim that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda and the attacks of September 11, 2001. Many Americans, including a number of lawmakers in Congress, expressed the opinion that they had been deceived into supporting the invasion. President Bush's approval ratings declined, and a number of lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, came out in favor of troop withdrawal.

Department of Peace

Many people believe that wars are inevitable and that combat between nations will never be eliminated, regardless of the size and strength of the antiwar movement. Antiwar activists, however, continue to hope for and work toward a more peaceful future. A campaign begun at the start of the twenty-first century aimed to establish a U.S. Department of Peace (DOP), a Cabinet-level federal agency dedicated to finding nonviolent ways to resolve conflict. The organization behind this initiative, the Peace Alliance, introduced legislation to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to establish the DOP. The DOP would seek to address the causes of violence rather than reacting to the symptoms. Promoting peace on the international level, the DOP would advise government officials and military leaders on root causes of violence, share techniques for resolving conflict, and educate workers for deployment in overseas peacekeeping operations.

On the domestic level, the DOP would work with schoolchildren to develop strategies for avoiding violence and solving problems. The DOP would also offer prevention programs to address violence in the home, gang wars, and drug- and alcohol-related conflicts. In addition, the DOP would establish a U.S. Peace Academy, the counterpart of the U.S. Military Academy, designed to teach the most advanced techniques for minimizing violence at home and abroad.

The Department of Peace initiative is supported by a grassroots network of citizens groups in every state. A number of prominent individuals have lent their support as well. Popular spiritual author Marianne Williamson and actor Joaquin Phoenix have spoken out in favor of the DOP. Numerous organizations, including Amnesty International, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and Veterans for Peace, have all endorsed the DOP initiative. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich (1946–), a vocal critic of the Iraq war, made the establishment of a Department of Peace a key issue in his election campaign. In an essay on his Web site, Kucinich displayed the optimism of peace activists everywhere: "We can conceive of peace as not simply the absence of violence but the presence of the capacity for a higher evolution of human awareness, of respect, trust, and integrity…. We can bring forth new understandings where peace, not war, becomes inevitable. We can move from wars to end all wars to peace to end all wars."

For More Information


American Decades. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Feldman, Ruth Tenzer. World War I: Chronicle of America's Wars. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 2004.

Fincher, E. B. The Vietnam War. New York: Franklin Watts, 1980.

Grant, Reg. The Korean War. Milwaukee, WI: World Almanac Library, 2005.

Keim, Albert N. The CPS Story: An Illustrated History of Civilian Public Service. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1990.

Kent, Zachary. World War I: "The War to End Wars." Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1994.

Nickelson, Harry. Vietnam. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1989.

Scherer, Randy. The Antiwar Movement. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press/Thomson Gale, 2004.

Thomas, William. The Home Front in the Vietnam War. Milwaukee, WI: World Almanac Library, 2005.


"Antinuclear Movement in the 1980s." DISCovering U.S. History. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center. (accessed on April 3, 2006).

"Department of Peace." Dennis Kucinich. (accessed on May 23, 2006).

"Largest Anti-war Rally." Guinness World Records. (accessed on May 23, 2006).

"Millions Join Global Anti-war Protests" (February 17, 2003). BBC News. (accessed on May 23, 2006).

"Our Campaign." Department of Peace: The Peace Alliance. (accessed on May 23, 2006).

Wittner, Lawrence S. "Have Peace Activists Ever Stopped a War?" Paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, January 7, 2006. Available at ZNet. (accessed on May 23, 2006).