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DOUG SMITH: The Pacifist, Part 2: The Fighting Quakers

31 Dec

Right to fight or fight for right?

doug smith

Note from the editor:  This is the second in a series of columns by author and historian, Doug Smith, where he contrasts varying views on pacifism and the potential historical impact.

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There is a High School in Philadelphia whose mascot is “The Fighting Quakers.”  That makes me smile, just as any good oxymoron.  I’m not picking on Quakers, nor is this about the history of real “fighting Quakers”, but it helps to illustrate where the rubber meets the road in radical pacifism.

Last time I began to look at militant pacifist Albert Einstein.  Einstein held the belief of pacifism.  But he was also burdened with knowledge.  He understood, better than most in the 1930s, the incredible force available in atomic power and weapons.  Yet why did he, an avowed pacifist, embark on a course that ended with the dawn of the atomic age?

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There is actually a long history for his thought process. In colonial days in America, supplying guns to Indian tribes was a controversial method of war.  Guns increased their danger to the colonists. So, depending on whether you were a British General wanting to enlist their help, or a Colonial Governor wanting to ensure the safety of citizens or settlers, giving them advanced weapons might be a good or bad thing.

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In the run up to WW2, America supplied poorer or less advanced nations with weapons (and other material for fighting or surviving) to oppose the advance of the totalitarian NAZI regime. Likewise, in response to Japanese aggression and atrocities in China and Burma, the US held back from supplying oil to fuel their war machine and economy.

This raises the question of why one would choose to make it easier or harder for another people to wage war.  Why, indeed?  Nations, and individuals, ultimately act from a sense of their own best interest.  Moral considerations may or may not apply, but we do not choose to starve when we may eat, shiver when we may be warm, or suffer when we may be in comfort, as a matter of normal daily living. An individual, or a group, may make choices that cause them to be hungry, cold, and uncomfortable for a time, for adequate cause. But this is not the choice they would make for their lifetime, given the chance to have the better way.  So too, our choices about other peoples or nations are rooted in self-interest.

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The world has a long and sordid history of bandits and megalomaniacs who want to impose their rule on the world, and reap the benefits and resources of those they subjugate.  From the Khans, to the Caliphs, to Napoleon, to Hitler, our history is strewn with hundreds of millions of violent deaths, and countless millions more living in the misery born of the mad dreams of these men.

Einstein had to make his moral struggles within the context of the somewhat pathological pacifist movement in England of the post WW1 era.  The popular notion was that WW1 was totally unjustified, and that English involvement was as well, and that, by extension, all war was always unjustified.  As Rebecca West noted in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, “The Idea of Self-Preservation Was as jealously guarded from the Young as the Facts of Sex Had Been in Earlier Ages”.  A transcript from the trial of a British conscientious objector, being questioned by a military officer, before the battle of the Somme is enlightening.

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“If I hit you, would you not hit me back?” he asked.

“No,” Bert replied.

‘Then suppose the Germans got here, and those dear to you were in danger, would you stand by and see them ripped to pieces and not raise a sword in opposition?’

Bert: “I would certainly not strike them down. No man is justified in taking life.”

“But,” the official went on, “if you could save 500 poor women and children by fighting, would you not help them?”

Bert: “I would do my best to save life, but not by taking life.”

“So you would run away?” demanded his adversary, believing he had trapped Bert into an admission of cowardice.


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Sort of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?  That is militant pacifism.  Even if faced with the situation of knowing women and children were about to be brutalized and killed, this hardcore pacifist would not lift a sword, raise a gun, or even (in his case, peel a potato that might be fed to a soldier.)

Now, in this context, Einstein looked at the atrocities of the Nazis, the brutal aggression, and pictured them with atomic weapons.   He had a choice to make.

Do I peel this potato, or not?

Who contributes more to peace and prosperity, then?

The radical pacifist refuses to peel a potato for a soldier, stands by and prays for peace as Germans slaughter 10s of millions, but will not sully his conscience by shooting one German soldier to save 500 Jewish children.

The soldier grips his gun, swallows his fear, and says no.  Not on my watch. Not past me. Not while I can breathe and fight you. I will not let you do this.

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Consider this.  What would the world look like if everyone outside of Germany and Japan had been like the pacifist in 1939? Now, what would it look like if everyone was like the soldier?

What is the result of partial steps, like cutting off the oil to Japan? And what does it mean to accept being hungry, cold, and uncomfortable, and putting your life between aggressors and the innocent?

Einstein chose to peel that potato. Many others chose a soldier’s lot.  Many died, and yes, many killed, to prevent Hitler’s vision of the world, backed up by long range missiles and atomic weapons.

The pacifist who can truly say, and mean, I will stand by and not kill you, even though it means you kill  my wife and children is not going to survive. His instincts are such that he and his kind will die out in a generation.  His thinking and actions have a form of morality, but lack the substance.

That they survive at all is a debt they owe to the soldier.

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The American soldier, sailor, airman, and marine has done more to further the cause of peace than all the pacifists ever whelped.

War has been the norm in all but 230 of the past 3500 years of civilization.  Those who are prepared to do violence to preserve their home and family, and equally prepared to let men live at peace, if they so choose, are to me, much more on the moral high ground than the pacifist who will let an innocent die or suffer to avoid violence.


26 Dec

Which perspective will history favor?

From the FSP moderator:  This is the first of a series of columns in which author and historian, Doug Smith, offers contrast between varying positions of an age-old question of morality: “Turn the other cheek” or “an eye for an eye”?

doug smith

Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight, but Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.

Hilaire Belloc

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I am fascinated with the question of how pacifists come to the decision never to fight.   I struggle to overcome my own fight of flight instinct.  When I am challenged, or threatened, those impulses make me want to seek safety by running, or by hurting the threat before it can hurt me.  Oh, who am I kidding? I just want to hurt them before they can hurt me.  With time and maturity, I learned to check those impulses with a soft response.  On other occasions, they led me to charge into a fight I had little chance of winning.

I admit to being in conflict when I was a Cold War sailor on a Nuclear Attack Submarine.

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If we carried out our primary mission, many sailors would die at once in a radioactive cloud of steam.   I empathized with those Russian sailors who faced the same risks as we did.  They knew, as we did, how the weapons deployed against us could either vaporize us, or, in a near miss, crack our hulls and send us plunging to the dark, cold bottom of the ocean, dying somewhere along the way down.  It was impossible to truly wish that death on another Submarine sailor, even our enemy.

We all hoped it might never happen to either of us.

On the other hand, I am certain that if the orders came, they were mere minutes from them sending nuclear death toward our cities or our fleets, or even us.  There would be no hesitation.  On the contrary, we would run in our skivvies and socks to battle stations.   We would be manning phones while pulling on our shirts, plotting targets while we tied our shoes, preparing weapons, and updating position data as we zipped our trousers.  We would launch quickly as we had a firing solution, hopefully before they could do the same to us, or to New York, or Washington, or our own home towns.

We had nothing in particular against those young Russian boys a few miles from us. None of us were particularly anxious for a war, nor were any, well most of us, homicidal.  But our job was to kill them, and kill them we would.

Now this brings me to Albert Einstein.  An avowed pacifist, he once said

“I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.”

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Yet his name is right there in any history of the atomic bomb along with Robert Oppenheimer. Einstein, as much as anyone, formed the Cold War battlefields into which we sailed.  Einstein’s involvement was not simply theoretical, although his theories did lead, by inevitable progression to the mushroom clouds over Trinity and Japan.

He also used his influence as a renowned scientist to write a series of letters to FDR, urging him to launch the Manhattan Project and develop atomic weapons.  An odd undertaking for a pacifist, is it not?  So what made the difference for Al?  Hitler absorbed Austria and began a war of acquisition in Europe.  There was abundant evidence of the brutality and cruelty of the Nazis, as well as indications his scientists doing research in Deuterium that could lead to their development of an atomic bomb.

“My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is disgusting. My attitude is not derived from any intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.”

Albert Einstein

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(Einstein lied, people died! There were no WMD s in Germany. )

Maybe Einstein was in love with the idea of pacifism, until his own ox was gored.  Then he abandoned it all in a magnificent fashion.  He is hardly the first pacifist to discover in a bloody lip, or family, or country, that perhaps there ARE things worth fighting, and killing, and dying for.  Or that while dying for one’s country may be fine and noble, killing for one’s country is harder, more bitter in the mouth, yet more necessary when facing truly evil men.

He just happens to be the one whose revelation ushered in the Atomic Age.

So, when was he wrong? When he was a pacifist and would fight for peace?

And when was he right? When he was the intellectual and moral force behind the light of 10,000 suns bursting over the New Mexico desert?

An excellent question.  Stay tuned.

The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Edmund Burke

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