Book review

Author: Philip Byers

The Politics of Peace:
A Global Cold War History

Petra Goedde (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Review by Philip Byers


Politics of Peace bookcover

In September 1928, the Dutch-born American pacifist A. J. Muste penned a column in the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s organ, The World Tomorrow. He wanted to set right misconceptions about violence, which too many people associated only with war or revolutionary movements. Rather, the entire “order in which we live was built up largely by violence, is now being extended by violence, and is maintained only by violence.” Real peace, he insisted, required more than the dissolution of standing armies—it demanded the wholesale replacement of a violent industrial, political, and social system. The first task for serious pacifists involved clarifying what they meant by seeking “peace.”


Muste’s convictions were no anomaly of the interwar years. Peace has always been a contested concept, and as Petra Goedde (Temple University) demonstrates in her stimulating recent book, The Politics of Peace, a contest between “competing definitions” provides a fruitful interpretive frame for the early decades of the postwar era (4). Though Goedde’s historiographical aim involves bridging the literatures of the Cold War and of peace activism—too often viewed in opposition—the book’s coverage is so extensive that it will appeal to scholars in a range of specializations. The narrative includes a parade of the 20th century’s finest minds and brightest stars: Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Spock, and Rachel Carson; Aaron Copland, W. E. B. Du Bois, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Robeson; Johnny Carson, Donna Reed, and Dick Van Dyke; Margaret Mead, Noam Chomsky, and Mary McCarthy, just to name a few, as well as scores of organizations and associations. To achieve this breadth, Goedde incorporates material from archives in France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. If the “global” story thus remains, by Goedde’s own admission, largely focused on the United States and the major European powers, the vast research yields a book full of insights for any reader seeking a more peaceful world. 


Structurally, Goedde employs both diachronic and thematic approaches. Chapters one and seven bracket the narrative chronologically, assessing the geopolitics of peace in the immediate wake of World War II (ch. 1) and in the early-1970s move toward détente (ch. 7). In between are topical chapters that survey, in order, leftist politics, environmentalism, religion, gender, and decolonization. That structure opens itself, at points, to repetition. The interpretively discrete areas include much overlap, with environmental activists at times drawing on gender politics, New Leftists supporting national liberation movements in the global South, and religious clerics assuming leading roles in secular movements like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But the structure possesses several virtues. Besides making the chapters suitable as self-contained readings for those interested in a given topic, a thematic approach highlights the book’s contention regarding the bottom-up nature of peace politics. Goedde argues that the postwar era witnessed an “interplay . . . between grassroots advocacy groups and high-level diplomacy,” in which the “politics of peace emerged . . . only when idealist objectives met the needs of realist political ambition” (2, 5). The book’s structure drives home that process, first assessing the postwar state of high-level diplomacy, then reconstructing five venues in which popular  movements acted, before finally analyzing the new geopolitics that resulted. Rather than a top-down reaction to “internal challenges,” détente represented the intentional “adaptation of the rhetoric of peace, which had percolated upward from the grassroots level . . . into the halls of government” (190).            


The structure also reinforces the persistence of debates over the definition of “peace,” even if the Cold War’s notorious arch-enemies differed less than one might suspect. By the late 1940s, both superpowers had recognized the tactical utility of “peace” in global public relations. The Soviet Union tackled this head on, sponsoring international peace organizations even while building its military capacity. U.S. leaders decried these groups as propaganda tools and attempted to seize the moral high ground by promoting freedom as a higher value than peace. Yet Goedde contends that both the Soviet Union and the United States hewed to an “idea of peace through strength and security,” one that made their ambitions similar despite antithetical ideological origins (19). In actuality, internecine disputes proved more surprising and illuminating. One major rift arose within leftist politics, as activists “split over whether to regard peace as a precondition for or a consequence of other leftist causes” (39). Traditional communists and others affiliated with the Old Left believed peace would reign only after the abolition of capitalism, much as A.J. Muste had suggested in the 1920s. New Leftists, disillusioned first by the Stalinist purges, then by the 1948 Berlin Blockade and the 1956 invasion of Hungary, aimed to situate themselves in the “political space between the two Cold War adversaries,” seeking peace that exceeded the communist conception and freedom greater than that on offer in the liberal democratic West (56, 60).    


This phenomenon of internal dissension repeated itself. The instructive chapter on gender describes how some women managed to access political power by exploiting stereotypes about female roles. The Committee for Nuclear Information, though fronted by biologist Barry Commoner, drew most of its energy from women activists like the group Eves Against Atoms, which framed concerns about nuclear fallout as a matter of protecting hearth and home. But “the gendering of peace” had a drawback: it allowed male politicians to pigeonhole the topic as a “women’s issue” (129). Worse still, it exacerbated tension between generations. An earlier cohort of activists had leaned into the conventional wisdom, founding organizations like Women Strike for Peace and highlighting subjects including children’s health and the military service of their sons. But a new generation of feminists regarded such groups as “white, middle-aged, middle-class, ‘ladies’ club[s]” (147), rejecting them in favor of the outlooks of writers such as Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, who eschewed any notions that women possessed a distinct nature. While some women had imagined that “common experiences . . . united them across national, ideological, and religious divides” (129), they eventually split over the same definitional problem that had estranged leftists: peace—the germ of justice or its fruit?  


Goedde shows how those in the justice-comes-first camp frequently flirted with violence as a necessary precursor to peace, a logic that reached beyond the two great powers. Nations affiliated with the nonalignment movement, first convened at the April 1955 Bandung Conference, illustrate the reasoning. Peace for these countries, Goedde explains, “became intimately connected to issues of economic development and national self-determination” (32). Every participant at Bandung supported peace in the abstract, but they differed over the path to its attainment. Some militants prioritized freedom, accepting or even embracing violence if it could undo the greater evil of colonialism. So, too, with militant antiwar activists such as Ulrike Meinhof or Bernardine Dohrn, who ironically mirrored the U.S. assertion “that only the willingness to wage war could produce a free—and supposedly peaceful—society” (187). Peace retained an abiding appeal, never more so than when practiced by one’s enemies.


With fine-grained attention to such morally complex debates, The Politics of Peace makes for compelling reading. Still, some topics could have benefited from greater nuance, as exemplified by the book’s treatment of religion. This generally involves little more than a glancing phrase that might raise the eyebrows of specialists. A generation’s worth of scholarship in religious history, for example, seems to have put to rest the notion that the onset of the Cold War “turned religious groups and individuals into political activists” (97); if the form and aims of activism shifted over time, political engagement had been the norm, not the exception, among U.S. religious communities. More serious, however, is the tendency for the religious story to become Manichean—good faith religious actors were, by definition, those who sought nuclear disarmament, and vice versa. John Foster Dulles, unsurprisingly, comes in for censure. How, Goedde asks, could Dulles—who chaired the Federal Council of Churches’ Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, and who signed that body’s August 1945 statement decrying the use of the atomic bomb—subsequently embrace a nuclear deterrent as secretary of state? Goedde strongly implies disingenuity as the only feasible answer. Figures like Dulles and Reinhold Niebuhr “fell in line with the anticommunist agenda” and promoted their positions “under the mantle of religious piety,” a stark contrast to the depiction of religious peace activists such as Martin Niemöller, whose decisions were “rooted in . . . faith” (103, 113–14).


To criticize not only the oft-maligned Dulles but also Niebuhr and to impugn the theologian’s motives in the process suggests that Goedde doubts whether genuine religious conviction could ever align with support for deterrence. Niebuhr is far from above criticism, but it would be unfair to class him as a militaristic lemming. What he called an “uneasy balance of power” made sense to him not because war was so wonderful, nor because the United States was so righteous, but because nations were so fallen and original sin so inescapable. Niebuhr knew that power corrupted, especially in corporate form—an argument he developed first in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1933) and then recapitulated two decades later in The Irony of American History: “nations, unlike some individuals, lack the capacity to prefer a noble death to a morally ambiguous survival.” True, he viewed some outcomes as worse than violence, but he was never glib. The exercise of hegemony would morally implicate the United States, unavoidably, yielding “the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound.”  


Glossing Niebuhr’s thought as an example of “falling in line” stands as just one instance in which counterarguments get short shrift. Goedde clearly rejects justifications for “military preparedness,” as evinced in the book’s final line, “Si vis pacem, para pacem”—if you want peace, prepare for peace, an adaptation of the old Roman adage. And the text includes ample support for such a rejection. One of Goedde’s signal contributions is attention to absurdism’s emergence in the face of Cold War politics. With engaging analyses of Camus, Orwell, Heller, and Kubrick, she skillfully traces absurdist themes in the era’s literature and cinema (3, 11, 62, 200–206). Christian activists, such as Dorothy Day, levelled their own criticisms at the postwar status quo, claiming that nuclear weapons had eradicated the possibility of just war. Pope John XXIII even propounded this perspective in the 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris: “Can one annihilate a civilization and whole populations under the pretext of defending them?” The case seems indisputable. 


But so much emphasis on the “irrationality of a politics of military preparedness” offers a reader little sense of why the concept attracted any adherents (209). Without question, ulterior motives—like links with the military-industrial complex (25, 207)—drove some advocates. Yet one must consider the most vivid historical lesson in many Cold War actors’ minds, the danger of “appeasement.” The 1938 cession of the Sudetenland receives only a few, somewhat perfunctory, allusions. But rabid, HUAC-affiliated McCarthyites of the 1950s are not the only figures who have associated “peace at all cost . . . [with] a repeat of Munich” (66). On the contrary, the trope has been deployed by politicians in every decade and every party. One contributor to The New Republic has recounted a three-month period in 2013 during which then-Secretary of State John Kerry invoked the ghost of appeasement to advocate for intervention in Syria, only to be accused weeks later of a Munich-style betrayal of his own during initial negotiations around Iran’s nuclear program. If 70-plus years of promiscuous application have revealed Munich’s analogical limits, those living in the immediate wake of the Holocaust could be forgiven their eagerness to avoid making the same catastrophic mistake twice. A hint more generosity toward the rationales of non-pacifists could have enriched the book’s analysis.


One of Goedde’s other insights about peace politics—their fundamental link to the project of “transcending borders” (6)—gestures toward what might prove the chief obstacle for current proponents. The book details the 1940s-era push for world government, an idea that faded after the Soviets acquired the atomic bomb but seemed to resurrect, at least in spirit, at the conclusion of the Cold War, with George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of a “new world order.” Thirty years later, cross-border projects face challenges. Percolating ever since the 2008 financial crisis, resistance to globalization found new energy in the late 2010s, a trend now crystallized in initial reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. The European Union, perhaps the most border-transcending endeavor of the last half-century, quailed in the face of contagion, with individual governments hoarding stockpiles of medical equipment: in the damning observation of Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese political scientist, “basically you have free movement of people . . . but no free movement of ventilators.” A July 2020 European Commission budget agreement, containing generous loans and grants for the bloc’s poorer economies, may help stem discontent. But even the most enticing fiscal package is pretty bland fare, rarely the stuff to win back a wounded lover, and Italians seem unlikely to forget that in their moment of crisis, they were left to fend for themselves.  


It remains an open question, then, whether nation-states can ever be relied upon to relinquish fully their sovereignty. Those in search of a vital peace politics could instead reconsider the role of religion. Goedde details how Quakers mediated between parties at pivotal moments in the 1960s, work facilitated by a position “on the margins” that enabled them to speak prophetically without “threaten[ing] the political order” in either camp (120–25). Admittedly, to envisage religious groups reclaiming such a role seems fanciful given the ongoing intensity of certain culture wars, not to mention history: if the various peace movements frequently suffered from fragmentation, they would still be hard-pressed to surpass religious communions’ long-established propensity to splinter. An optimist, however, might detect reasons for hope. After all, Goedde notes that religious groups are “inherently transnational” (10); they entail belief in a “universal moral code of conduct that could transcend ideological and religious differences” (99). In theory, religious leaders also possess the freedom to outpace their constituents, answering primarily to conscience. Goedde remarks that “it took political leaders considerably longer” than religious activists to pursue East-West reconciliation (126). That may simply reveal the inadequacy of certain political leaders, but it may also reflect the relative significance of democratic mandates. To borrow Niebuhr’s words, we should probably expect leaders of nation-states to choose “morally ambiguous survival” over idealistic confederation, at least until a grassroots groundswell persuades them of sufficient support. But if religious groups are again to play any mediating role, they will need to relearn the wisdom of operating from the margins rather than seeking to seize the levers of power, a move that only ever seems to result in those powers seizing them.  


Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center.

This review appears in the fall 2020 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.