Radical Pacifism

Radical pacifism refers to a particular nonviolent movement in the United States in the 1940s and 50s of conscientious objectors (CO’s).  These men, who refused to fight in any war and took active steps to undermine the war system, were mostly from the Christian Peace Churches and also were influenced by Gandhi. Radical pacifism began in opposition to World War II, when A.J. Muste, David Dellinger, John Yoder, and others refused to fight in “the good war.” Some objectors believed it was acceptable to serve in an ambulance corps, others refused to take part in the war system in any way and instead requested an alternative service assignment. Alternate service consisted of being held indefinitely, without pay, in special camps for CO’s that often provided a  miserable existence and meaningless hard labor. Some refused to comply even with the requirement to register for the draft, choosing prison rather than the alternative service.

While in jail, Dellinger and others were successful in a strike that resulted in desegregation of their prison years before the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. CO’s also worked to reform the dehumanizing psychiatric hospital system where some were placed for their alternate service. Participants in these early nonviolent experiments went on to apply their considerable experience in the Civil Rights Movement. For example they participated in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, a forerunner of and template for the later Freedom Rides of the 1960s and by becoming founding members of the influential the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Later, radical pacifists took action against the Vietnam War.


Film: “The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It”