Peace Movements Research Paper

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‘Peace Movements’ may be used in two ways. On the one hand, a peace movement is a specific coalition of peace organizations that, together with elements of the public, seek to remove a threat of war or to create institutions and cultures that obviate recourse to violence. On the other, it is the organizational infrastructure to do so. Usage is usually clarified by context. Peace organization constituencies are people with shared commitment to common values and traditions, like religious pacifism, or to a program such as world federalism. Such groups form coalitions in order to enlist public support in response to salient issues. If the issue is war or a specific war threat, peace coalitions take the form of antiwar movements. In nearly 200 years of organized peace effort, specific peace movements have affected national policies, international institutions, and popular attitudes. Taken as a whole, they can be viewed as a single, evolving, and increasingly transnational social movement that has interacted with formal analyses of war, peace, and social movements. The conceptualization of peace movements has resulted from the dialectical interaction of the movement’s self-reflection on its experience and subsequent scholarly analysis.

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1. Growth And Self-Definition, 1815–1939

In western civilization peace has been understood mainly as the absence of war (Chatfield and Ilukhina 1994). Given war’s existence, there were two main ethical alternatives: a dominant ‘just war’ tradition that legitimated organized violence under specific conditions, and a minority tradition of individual Christian nonresistance that rejected violence altogether. There was no sustained tradition of organized popular effort to check interstate warfare.

That was the situation when small peace societies were formed in the United States and the United Kingdom (1815) by a few local nonconformist Protestants who denounced warfare. In the next 100 years civic associations for societal change became common in western societies, providing the context in which peace organizations grew and defined themselves.

1.1 Early Internationalism

Peace constituencies broadened within an educated elite. British and American leaders solicited support on the Continent, where peace advocates tended to be secular intellectuals and where Richard Cobden’s program of peace through free trade became very influential (Cooper 1991). During the 1840s leaders on both sides of the Atlantic promoted international arbitration. A few went further, a congress of nations, an international court, and even a united Europe. Then, in mid-century, peace advocates were shaken by wars in the Crimea, Germany, Italy, and America.

Gradually the movement was rebuilt in the latter third of the century. American and European leaders promoted treaties of arbitration, forming a programoriented peace movement propelled by a bias for internationalism—the conviction that warfare is irredeemable and that statesmen could render it obsolete by breaking down barriers, building up international law, and seeking practical mutual interests beyond conflicts. The American Peace Society (1928) and the Ligue internationale et permanante de la paix (Paris 1863) popularized this approach. The Ligue internationale de la paix et de la liberte (Geneva, 1867), however, pressed the view that peace could be secured only by political justice among self-determining, democratic peoples. Concurrently, the First and Second (socialist) Internationals held that peace was contingent upon economic justice—the overthrow of capitalism. In practice, though, as socialists entered the political mainstream they supported programs of arbitration, arms limitation, and anticolonialism— peace as liberal internationalism, which was christened ‘pacifism’ (Cooper 1991, p. 237, n. 1).

1.2 An Internationalist Peace Establishment

The movement for liberal internationalism obtained strong leverage from the First Hague Conference in 1899, when the great powers endorsed pacific alternatives to war. By then approximately 100 national and regional societies were linked by an office in Berne, Switzerland (International Peace Bureau, 1891). Within another decade there emerged (mainly in America) several well-funded associations, notably the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They constituted a kind of peace establishment, an elite of business, legal, and governmental leaders who promoted the arbitration process. In World War I most of these internationalists proved to be patriots first. The word ‘pacifism’ became narrowed, especially in Anglo-American usage, to mean the absolute, individual rejection of war. Wartime peace advocates were repressed.

1.3 Peace And Internationalism Redefined

The war that shaped the twentieth-century world reshaped peace movements, which emerged more transnational and politically activist than before.

A few internationalists concluded that peace required some constraints on national sovereignty, that war is irrational, and peace requires ‘a systematic effort to institutionalize managerial controls over the fragile interdependence of modern industrial civilization’ (DeBenedetti 1978, p. 8). Such liberal internationalism was institutionalized in the League of Nations and its efforts for arms control, but also in an international network of civic League of Nations Associations. From wartime pacifism there emerged other transnational associations: the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1919), the pacifist International Fellowship of Reconciliation (1919), the linked British and US Quaker service committees (by 1917), and the International War Resisters League (1921).

At the same time, a new constituency of political reformers carried their campaign against corporate evil and systemic injustice into the peace movement. Women fresh from suffrage campaigns, for example, revitalized earlier analyses of war as a problem of social structure. Especially in England and America peace movements acquired a constituency of middleclass women and men who linked peace and justice and for whom peace movements were social change agents.

Following the war these activists informed and mobilized public opinion, engaging in the politics of pressure groups to challenge military spending and influence foreign policy. Peace advocates were vocal also in Germany and France, where they had been suppressed in wartime, and socialists throughout Europe took up the peace cause. Unfortunately, differences over priorities and policy hobbled peace efforts throughout the 1920s. The American movement was a sad case in point: groups promoting the League of Nations, the outlawry of war, disarmament, peace education, and international law failed to coalesce. Early in the next decade peace advocates organized internationally to support the League’s 1932 disarmament conference, but in the face of aggression they soon realigned as rival supporters or opponents of collective security. No cohesive peace movement could be discerned among the bitter contests waged for public opinion.

2. External Assessment: Early Histories

The self-reflection of peace advocates on their experience affected the formal studies that began in the early 1930s with a few general histories. British scholar A. C. F. Beales, for example, interpreted The History of Peace (1931) optimistically in light of alternative programs broached when he wrote. A half decade later, Merle Curti’s Peace or War: The American Struggle 1636–1936 (1936) more soberly emphasized the gap between pacific ideals and the realities on which warfare is grounded (notably economic factors). Pacifist Devere Allen’s earlier The Fight for Peace (1930) interpreted the historic American movement against his own norm of nonviolent activism and war resistance.

3. Nonviolence

Allen’s book itself was part of the historic development of secular pacifism into an ideology of proactive, nonviolent change. That shift made the early Satyagraha campaigns of Mohandas Gandhi in India important to western contemporaries, and later to American civil rights leaders experimenting with nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. Early sociological interpretations of Satyagraha were absorbed into the pacifist literature on nonviolence by the 1930s. Conversely, later experiments with the method in civil rights and antiwar campaigns expanded scholarly analyses of it. Thus nonviolent direct action developed dialectically along practical and theoretical lines (see Powers and Vogele 1997).

Moreover, the use of nonviolence in the struggle for justice applied the concept of peace as change without violence. Understanding peace as nonviolent social change for justice, rather than only as the absence of war, underlies the now common analytical distinction between positive and negative peace.

4. Cold War Mobilizations

During World War II, a fresh peace coalition formed around the United Nations (UN) ideal. It was grounded in liberal internationalism and it generated public support for a UN organization. Movement- related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were responsible for including human rights under UN purview and for gaining consultative status in the organization. Even world federalism elicited much public support until it, along with initial efforts to contain nuclear arms, was undercut by the Cold War. By 1950 peace and liberal internationalism were victims of global polarization. The older peace organizations remained intact, but they lacked a salient issue around which to build any coalition.

4.1 The Nuclear Test Ban Movement

In the mid-1950s the issue of testing thermonuclear weapons on a massive scale aroused a fresh, transnational peace movement. It was grassroots based and was well organized on national levels. It made use of print and film media, mass demonstrations like the annual Aldermaston marches in England, political lobbying, and nonviolent civil disobedience such as sailing into test zones. The movement contributed significantly to a temporary moratorium on testing and to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty.

4.2 The Antiwar Movement Of The Vietnam War Era

Then the global movement lost coherence. The nuclear threat seemed to diminish and activists faced other issues, most dramatically the US war in Vietnam, which provoked worldwide opposition. The center of the storm was in the United States, where political radicals, pacifists, and liberal internationalists aligned in a loose, tenuous coalition. The whole repertoire of activism was employed: popular education, political pressure and lobbying, electoral politics, and street demonstrations. Although identified with radical counterculture in public opinion, opposition to the war increasingly enlisted mainstream activists and infused congressional politics. Extrication from Vietnam coincided with an exhausted peace movement and apparent detente in the Cold War.

Detente collapsed at the end of the 1970s. In response to a heightened nuclear arms threat, a new peace coalition arose that was transnational, massive, grassroots based, and aligned with environmentalists (most fully the Greens in Germany). Internationally, movement cooperation focused on UN disarmament negotiations, but it was ineffective owing to rival political agendas. Nonetheless, the movement enlisted broad public support, which it focused on the threat of nuclear war, and it reinforced arms control negotiations. It also broadened the political base in several countries and stimulated movement contacts with counterparts in the Soviet bloc.

Meanwhile, an informal coalition of peace and human rights activists in Central and North America effectively stymied overt US intervention on behalf of repressive governments there. An international campaign was mounted against South African apartheid. A small coalition called the Neptune Group helped to broker UN negotiations that led to the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty. Movement related human rights activists in North and South America parlayed Perez Equeval’s 1980 Nobel Peace Prize into leverage for victims of oppression. Throughout the century the Peace Prize Committee had broadened both its understanding of peace and the regions from which winners came; in this it reflected the peace movement itself.

The Cold War collapse in 1989 left peace advocates to redefine their movement. On the centenary of the First Hague Conference, about 4,000 delegates representing NGOs around the world assembled in The Hague to help set a UN agenda for a decade devoted to achieving a culture of peace. They explicitly defined themselves as a transnational peace movement consisting of a global network of NGOs that together reflect a world of growing, interactive social movements.

5. Scholarly Analysis: History And Sociology

Scholarly conceptualization of peace movements has tended toward a framework of analysis parallel to the historical phenomenon.

5.1 Peace Movement History

In the 1970s historical studies of peace movements flowered into a comprehensive field that expanded for two decades more. In some respects it paralleled growth of resource mobilization theory in the sociology of social movements.

Some historians revisited periods covered earlier and researched them more thoroughly. Others updated the story of peace advocacy. New patterns emerged. Given the massive work of Peter Brock, for instance, religious pacifists could be distinguished from and related to peace activists. Continuities emerged, such the growth of international organization from 1914 to 1945, the process of conceptually linking peace to justice and social change (positive peace), and the links between nonviolent activism against war and for human rights. Drawing on early sociologist Ferdinand Tonnes, ‘polity’ peace advocates (who stressed institutional arrangements for the sake of order) were distinguished from ‘community’ ones (who valued popular involvement and the well being of diverse peoples). Charles DeBenedetti incorporated much of the new work in The Peace Reform in American History (1980). The title was significant: treating peace as a social reform invited attention to the relationships between organizations, ideologies, and social movements.

Much has been done in the subsequent two decades, both to correct imbalances in the accounts of national movements and to connect them. Several historians rescued the vital roles of women in the movement from the neglect of male authors, for example (see Alonso 1993). Peace historians formed a transnational network of scholars from Europe, America, Canada, Australia, and Japan, working through the Arbeitskreis Historische Friedensforschung (German Working Group on Historical Peace Research) and the Peace History Society. Europeans revised Beales, while an American analyzed the nineteenth century European movement in terms of relationships between patriotism and internationalism and among varying class and political groupings (Cooper 1991). Together they studied the relationship of peace movements and political cultures. US and Russian historians produced a joint history of the concept of peace in western history (Chatfield and Ilukhina 1994).

5.2 The Sociology Of Social Movements

While historians were interpreting peace advocacy as a diverse reform movement, sociologists were analyzing social movements with resource mobilization theory: what are the terms on which social movements strengthen and use their resources? Basic works in the field date from the 1970s.

The fully developed method was applied to peace movements in the 1990s, especially to the Freeze campaign of the previous decade but also in a comparative analysis of three US peace coalitions. Most recently, modified resource mobilization analysis has been applied to the dynamics of transnational NGOs and social movements (see Smith et al. 1997). One study demonstrates the inter-relationships of developing nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations before 1945 (Chatfield, Chap. 2 in Smith et al. 1997), and Wittner reifies the transnational social movement model with a longitudinal study in the period since then (Wittner 1993, 1997).

Besides filling out the history of specific peace movements, therefore, the future of this field is likely to involve narrative and analysis of more transnational connections among peace and related movements. Future scholarship may well explore specific peace and antiwar movements as dynamic elements in the creation of transnational infrastructures in an increasingly integrated world.


  1. Alonso H H 1993 Peace as a Women’s Issue: A History of the US Movement for World Peace and Women’s Rights. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY
  2. Carter A 1992 Peace Movements: International Protest and World Politics Since 1945. Longman, London
  3. Chatfield C 1992 The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism. G K Hall, Boston
  4. Chatfield C, Ilukhina R (eds.) 1994 Peace Mire: An Anthology of Historic Alternatives to War. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY
  5. Cooper S 1991 Patriotic Pacifism: Waging War on War in Europe, 1815–1914. Oxford University Press, New York
  6. DeBenedetti C 1978 Origins of the Modern American Peace Movement, 1915–1929. KTO, Millwood, NY
  7. Howlett C 1991 The American Peace Movement: References and Resources. G K Hal, Boston
  8. Josephson H (ed.) 1985 Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders. Greenwood, Westport, CT
  9. Kuehl W (ed.) 1983 Biographical Dictionary of Internationalists. Greenwood, Westport, CT
  10. Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research. Quarterly. Blackwell, Boston
  11. Powers R S, Vogele W B 1997 Protest Power, and Change: An
  12. Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women’s Suff Garland, New York
  13. Smith J, Chatfield C, Pagnucco R 1997 Transnational Social Movements and Global Politics: Solidarity Beyond the State. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY
  14. Wittner L S 1993, 1997 The Struggle Against the Bomb: Vol. 1, One World or None: A History of the World Disarmament
  15. Movement, 1954–1970; Vol. 2, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Disarmament Movement, 1954–1970. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA


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