Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 29May 1992

Different sources of the peace movement

by Vic Williams

The peace movement arises from several different sources. In a crisis or war situation, the first people and groups to act do so from moral grounds. They can be pacifists, against all wars from religious convictions, there are those acting from humanitarian convictions, and those who oppose the particular war or war preparations from a class conscious understanding of the role of imperialist governments and major transnationals as the instigators and profiteers of war. These different streams are represented in the established peace organisations. In the main, they have learned in action to combine and adjust to their different views and approaches. These groups and people most deeply motivated by moral and political convictions are the first into action, and call on those similarly motivated to join them.

There is, however, a limit to the proportion of the population who respond on those grounds. It is a fluid limit which can vary according to immediate circumstances, such as reports of atrocities or, on the other hand, provocative actions by a minority of demonstrators. Nevertheless, there seems to be only a definite minority who will act on motives of morality.

In the United States, in the period of the USA and allied air offensive against Iraq, a solid core of about 20 per cent remained opposed to the war actions of the Bush administration. There was a higher proportion opposed at one stage but some were swayed by the call for national unity at the time of the air attack. The 20 per cent have their stand mainly on moral grounds.


But there is another group of organisations and people who come later into the movement for peace. They act out of self-interest. They do have moral convictions, but the main and deciding motive is self-interest.

One example was the growth of the peace movement in the USA and Australia when conscription for service in the Vietnam War was introduced. Of course, moral issues were involved but the opposition of the potential and actual conscripts and their families was self-preservation, self-interest.

An examination of the reaction of American workers and their trade unions shows that self-interest built up the anti-Vietnam war opposition to a decisive majority. Phillip Foner, in the pamphlet American Labor and the Indo-China War, gives the history of that growth of opposition.

The leading union body, the AFL-CIO, supported the war and at its 1965 Convention fully supported President Johnson in “all measures the Administration might deem necessary to secure a just and lasting peace”.

At the same time, the trade union division of SANE (National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, renamed Citizens’ Organization for a Sane World in 1969) – which included 250 union leaders – called for immediate de-escalation of the war. As part of SANE, their opposition was mainly on moral grounds and they made their call for action on those grounds.

During the March 1967 Peace Parade, some peace forces came together for the first time. Speakers included Martin Luther King Jnr (for the first time at a peace rally), Dr Spock, Co-Chairman of SANE, and Mr Mazey, the Secretary-Treasurer of the United Auto Workers, speaking on behalf of the Chicago trade union division of SANE and united with others in a peace demonstration for the first time.

New forces

In May 1967, new forces came into the campaign. Trade union divisions of SANE called a conference that set up the National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace. They called for an end to the war because of the cost: “The annual cost of the war to America will soon reach $30 billion a year undermining every program to meet needs of the cities and intensified violence in our land.”

The Assembly decided that “American labor must play its part in bringing this savage war to a swift and just conclusion, so that we can devote our wealth and energies to the struggle against poverty, disease, hunger and bigotry.” This was the first big break with the AFL-CIO leadership with an appeal to the workers on the grounds of self and national interest.

However a poll of union delegates to the AFL-CIO showed that 1,448 wanted to continue the war, 1,368 to escalate it, 471 to de-escalate and 276 wanted the US to withdraw; about four pro-war to one anti-war.

In late 1967, unions and workers in bigger numbers started to oppose the war on the grounds of its economic and social effects. By January 1968, a New York Times poll found that trade unionists were evenly divided with about half feeling the war was wrong.

The Tet offensive took place in late January 1968 and the Gallup poll conducted in March that year showed 69 per cent of people questioned favoured the US pulling out of Vietnam.

The Labor Assembly for Peace had an older leadership which put emphasis on peaceful protest, meetings, demonstrations and petitions. A new left had developed with confrontation tactics, burning draft cards, confrontation with official spokesmen, obstructing recruiters. The middle class peace movement was alienated and the Assembly for Peace was reluctant to do anything more radical than was contained in the SANE policy.

In 1968 the biggest union, the United Auto Workers, left the AFL-CIO. This was not necessarily because of the AFL-CIO war policy, for the union estimated that withdrawal from the war would mean a reduction of billions of defence dollars spending and a loss of jobs.

When Nixon was elected in 1969, the war and its cost went on. The cost of living was still rising and domestic ills were increasing. The Teamsters and the United Auto Workers called a two day convention and formed Alliance for Labor Action (ALA) which stated: “This war will tear down the fabric of America ... [we] doubt that tear can be mended”. ALA policy was to work in such a way as “to repair the alienation of the liberal intellectual and academic community and the youth of the nation”.

In that period, there was a growing tendency among the rank and file to reject agreements made by union leaderships and there were more wild-cat strikes. They were tired of being robbed by rising prices but their demands did not include “end the war.”

The ALA and the union groups set out to convince the rank and file that war brought enormous profits to big corporations but brought the workers exorbitant prices and outrageous taxation. Unemployment was growing.

In 1969, the New Mobilising Committee was formed in response to the realisation that the anti-war movement had to include those not ready to accept the tactics of the anti-war left.

The Committee did not accept the left view that there was no difference between Meany, the leader of the AFL-CIO, and Reuther, the President of the United Auto Workers, who had begun to oppose aspects of the war. A big section of the radical left finally came to realise that students did not have the power to force real changes in government policy and that the anti-war movement had to build ties with workers.

Growing unity

Moratorium Day (October 15) in 1969 saw a growing unity of labor and peace forces. “Labor says: End the war. Workers are paying the cost of war in Vietnam. This disastrous, costly and racist war is killing our sons, taxing hell out of our pay checks and sucking up the rest in high prices ... As long as we are in Vietnam, we will have insufficient housing, education and health care. Our cities will rot.”

A Gallup Poll in April 1970 showed that less than half the people interviewed approved of Nixon and the Vietnam War.

On April 29 Cambodia was invaded. A few days later, students were killed at Kent, Augusta and Jackson. After these events, many new unions came out against the war. They believed that the Bill of Rights and trade union rights were in danger. The day after “bloody Friday” there were 120,000 demonstrators at the White House.

When United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther was killed in a plane accident, a work stoppage at the Chicago Ford Assembly plant in tribute to him for three minutes was extended to the full day in opposition to the war and repression at home. In Detroit, 20 plants stopped. Unions supported students when they protested at Nixon’s slashing of $1 .5 billion from education while spending $120 billion for war.

It was in this period that the massive growth of the anti-war protests from many sources became such a majority that a motion in the Senate to end the war was lost by only 39 votes to 55.

Those people and groups acting for peace on moral grounds have been the initiators and driving force of the peace movements. As the organised movement, they need to assess the different forces and issues that affect the movement, the new forces that come in mainly from the point of self-interest, and to find the most effective approaches to these new forces.

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