Writing a Twentieth Century American Peace History Textbook for Students

By Chuck Howlett, Molloy College

Chuck Howlett is a professor at Molloy College with an extensive background in peace studies. His previous works include Troubled Philosopher: John Dewey and the Struggle for World Peace (Kennikat, 1977) and Brookwood Labor College and the Struggle for Peace and Social Justice (Mellen Press, 1993) among others. His newest textbook,  The American Peace and Justice Movement from the Early Twentieth Century to the Present hit the shelves in April 2016 and is available in both paper- and hardback through Amazon and other booksellers.


   There are many worthy scholarly surveys detailing the history of the struggle for peace in America’s past. One can easily consult Merle Curti’s classic, Peace or War: The American Struggle, 1636-1936 (1936), Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr’s (my mentor) The Civilian and the Military (1956), Charles DeBenedetti’s The Peace Reform in American History (1980), which deservedly updated Curti’s important contribution to the study of peace efforts, Charles Chatfield’s The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism (1992), which addresses the peace movement from a social theory perspective, and, more recently, the very large survey by Charles F. Howlett & Robbie Lieberman, A History of the American Peace Movement from Colonial Times to the Present (2008). Each of these works is richly detailed and thoroughly documented with comprehensive end notes. These works, however, are designed more for scholarly audiences than undergraduate students interested in learning more about the peace/antiwar movement in the nation’s past.

    Rather interestingly, it was Lewis Paul Todd of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Merle Curti, who formerly taught there and then went on to a distinguished scholarly career at the University of Wisconsin, who were the first to include a discussion of the history of the American peace movement in their very popular high school textbook, America’s History (1951). Naturally, textbook publishers of American history textbooks were reluctant to address peace activism given the emphasis placed upon patriotic citizenship in social studies classrooms. However, despite the post-World War II Cold War atmosphere, the enormous cost of blood and treasure exacted from the war and the advent of the atomic, then, nuclear, bomb convinced the authors that it was time to remind the nation’s secondary school students that the struggle for peace was, indeed, part of the American experience.

    Unfortunately, the aftershocks of McCarthyism and the post-World War I Wilsonian internationalists were consumed by the Cold War and need to contain the spread of communism. The textbooks being published at the time chose to emphasize America’s military successes at the cost of defining the contributions made by peace activists. Peace through strength, a theme we are currently hearing in the Presidential primaries, became the mantra defining America’s greatness in the twentieth century. Only the Todd-Curti textbook survived the test of time.

    The Vietnam War provided renewed enthusiasm for the development of peace history and peace studies. Although numerous scholars began creating peace history courses there still was no textbook designed specifically for student use. The scholarly surveys above clearly fulfilled their mission, of course. Peace educators, like David Barash and Ian Harris, were more effective in developing peace texts, although not from a historical perspective. These works were more practical as manuals in terms of how to work for peace within the context of presentism. In large measure, the pioneering efforts of Morton Deutsch of Columbia Teachers College made peace studies a respectable endeavor and his ideas were certainly incorporated by Barash, and Harris, among others.

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    Given these circumstances and the current realities of world politics marked by a failed mission in Iraq, the widespread growth of terrorism, and, of course, the events surrounding the 9/11 attacks on American soil, I decided to revise, reorganize, and develop a simple narrative text addressing the role of peace activism in the United States from the time of World War I, a turning point in global history, to the present. My first debt of gratitude, of course, belongs to Robbie Lieberman. During the Iraq War, I invited Robbie to collaborate with me on a comprehensive survey of the American peace movement. The above-mentioned work is the fruit of our combined efforts. The work received very positive reviews, but like most surveys it did not provide a substantial analysis of all the peace organizations and the leadership issues surrounding their successes or failures. The same could be said for all the movements related to peacework, past and present. However, it served its purpose in terms and breadth and scope. My second debt is to Scott Bennett. He suggested that I take on the assignment of developing an inexpensive text in paperback suitable for classroom adoption. That was the hard part. While I knew how to strategically put together a reliable textbook, the real problem was affordability for students given how expensive textbooks are today

   While I invited Robbie to partake in this new adventure, I appreciated her response that she had numerous outside and administrative tasks to address and therefore could not participate. Hence, given my own background teaching in the Division of Education at Molloy College and determination to follow through on Scott’s recommendation, I tailored the textbook to the most relevant aspects of the twentieth century and the fact that the most dynamic aspects of peace activism were in response to the world wars and regional global conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam, antinuclear activism so compelling described by Larry Wittner’s excellent global analysis, and the Middle East, currently ongoing. Let me explain how the textbook, The American Peace and Justice Movement from the Early Twentieth Century to the Present was constructed and why educators can use it with their students. What should be considered in terms of content and pedagogy in the current political and cultural environment?

Howlett, Charles Cover Photo American Peace and Justice Movement (1).JPG

    First, with respect to content, there are two very important themes I attempted to convey. The first theme I wanted to express is that peace activists in American history are not really obstructionists; they are the embodiment and expression of what democracy is all about. Their right to dissent from war is based on a careful analysis of social, political, and economic events and a strong desire to make America a better place in which to live. Second, when looking at the facts, the individuals and organizations working for peace are not unpatriotic. It’s just the opposite because they truly care about their society; they are not out to destroy it but to improve it.

    Both of these concepts can be developed into pedagogy for teaching peace history. As I noted many years ago in the American Historical Association pamphlet with Glen Zeitzer, The American Peace Movement: History and Historiography (1985): “American historians for the most part continue to view peace history as a separate discipline and have not sought to integrate peace research into their own work….[P]eace history remains a tangential part of America’s history.” Sadly, and a motivating reason for developing this particular text, is that “When peace movements…have been included in textbooks, diplomatic studies, or histories of domestic America, it has often been pejoratively, in order to criticize pacifists as obstructionists or traitors to the realpolitik patriotism of the national policy known as war. The justification for omitting peace history has been that without war, or at least the threat of war, pacifism is merely a reactive ideology, with little to offer on its own.” Yet, the record does show that not only do pacifists, for example, oppose war and armaments, they also embrace social justice issues like pollution, racism, worker oppression, and colonialism. Peacework is an active ideology in that these activists have presented and continue to present “unique alternative to the policies they oppose.”

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Demonstration against conscription in Times Square, New York, New York, 1916, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Records.  Photo courtesy of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

    Structurally and in terms of content in order to drive home these concepts, I first wrote an introductory chapter that covered the origins and actions of the history of the peace movement from colonial times to the end of the nineteenth century. In this chapter I touched upon the main themes of religious non-resisters, most notably the Society of Friends and the work of John Woolman who exemplified peace action described in his journal as not only one of opposing violence and war but also criticizing the evils of slavery. I proceeded to describe the origins of the organized peace movement and its conservative and religious humanitarian outlook while criticizing it for lacking any real understanding of the economic causes leading to war—a charge Curti effective made in his important study. The work of Elihu Burritt and how he effectively used peace propaganda is included, which emphasizes the activist perspective mentioned above. Also included are discussions related to the growth of international arbitration at the turn of the new century. Simply put, the design of the book is to set the tone and substance of what is to follow and to demonstrate that Americans working for world peace and justice has always been part of the nation’s experience.

    It is after that initial chapter when I launch into my narrative in lively detail discussing the emergence of a more radical form of peace activism emerging from World War I. What I attempt to do is contrast the respectable work of peace activism before the war to a more wide-ranging examination of peace efforts addressing not only the problem of war and internationalism but also racial justice and the role of the labor movement. The defining aspect here is that the postwar peace movement, captured by the efforts of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, the War Resisters League, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, now began to publicize the idea that peace is more than the absence of war. It is also about justice!

    Thus throughout the remaining chapters not only are the events discussed surrounding opposition to America’s wars in the twentieth century but also some of the emerging leaders like A.J. Muste, Jane Addams, Jessie Wallace Hughan, Emily Greene Balch, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a host of others. One telling point in terms of pedagogy is that the peace movement that evolved after World War I is largely defined by the seminal role women played in it. In contrast to the male-dominated movement in the nineteenth century, the new movement was greatly influenced by female activists who had tied their struggle for suffrage to the battle for peace. At the same time, explanations are provided for how the organized peace movement called for an end to racial discrimination in America through helping to establish the Congress of Racial Equality during World War II to participating in the Journeys of Reconciliation in the late 1940s and early 1960s. The early 1970s revolt on the part of Native Americans for justice is also discussed as part of the larger narrative for peace.


Eugene V. Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio, 1917. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society

    Looking at the movement in terms of political success, the narrative addresses how the peace movement sought to mediate the conflict between American Marines and Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua in the late 1920s, how it played an important role in supporting the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1921-22, influencing the treaty to outlaw war in 1928, although flawed but nonetheless an expression of postwar peace sentiment, the US Senate examining the munitions industry—“Merchants of Death”—on the part of the Nye Committee in 1934-35, the adoption of the 1973 War Powers Act stemming from the Vietnam War, the origins of anti-nuclear activism during the 1950s to the “Freeze” in the 1980s, the popularity of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s—this can be tied to the ongoing immigration debate today—and the influence and role of the internet in mobilizing worldwide support for peace during the Iraq War. These are just some examples the text addresses and, which can be used for discussion purposes in the classroom.

    What should make this text appealing to students is that it is written in narrative form and seeks to minimize quoted material. Since this work is derived from the much larger survey Robbie and I co-wrote, interested parties can refer to the extensive citations listed in the back of that work. Another feature is that the book tries to tell a story through each chapter. Although designed as a textbook, the narrative is told in complete chapter form and is not broken down into subtopics. Purposely, I chose to frame it in such a way that instructors can use it to develop appropriate essential questions for in-class discussion as well as encouraging students to read it for critical comprehension. Rather than developing a set of questions for each chapter, which is normally found in textbooks, I decided to let the narrative speak for itself.

    Lastly, there is included a few illustrations and charts tailored to highlight the topic under discussion. While I wanted to include a number of images as part of the text, the cost was prohibitive. So, to compensate for that, I included a series of appendices. These appendices were created to assist students get a better feel for the history of peace activism itself. Included are a list of notable peace leaders, a chronology of events, a brief description of peace organizations, and some primary source documents. The tone, substance, and balance of this textbook resulted in a paperback edition of close to three hundred pages and priced, presently, at $39.95.

    By focusing on new insights and interpretations that demonstrate knowledge of the field, it is my hope that students will become more familiar with how democracy encourages citizens to play an active role in the struggle for peace. This particular exercise was designed to demonstrate to students that individuals like them took an active interest in issues such as peace and justice from a grassroots perspective and that their non-governmental participation can not only improve our democratic way of life but make it better.

    Equally important, while the popular culture may not give much credence to studying peace history, it certainly cannot ignore the reality for scholars that writing a textbook about peace and antiwar movements helps refine the process of thinking about the critical issues of the day. The purpose is thus very simple. It is to achieve one very important common objective, which was so eloquently stated by publisher Alfred A. Knopf.  When Knopf asked the eminent Columbia University cultural historian Jacques Barzun to write a book about teaching all Barzun could do was ask why? Knopf, in his own inimitable way, succinctly responded: “the substance of what we think, though born in thought, must live in ink.”                                             

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