Kristian Skrede Gleditsch
University of Essex & PRIO
Akst examines pacifist resistance during World War II and how it shaped post-war politics in the US. Pacifism has a long tradition in US radicalism, often linked to Christian activism, and the widespread isolationist sentiment after WWI made it more prominent. WWII created challenges and divisions, turning many to support war, but the pacifist movement did not disappear. Resistance to the 1940 draft brought conscientious objectors to prominence, and their activism while imprisoned helped develop capacity for later mobilization and direct action against racial discrimination, nuclear weapons, and the Vietnam war. Four leading pacifists are singled out – Dorothy Day, David Dellinger, Dwight MacDonald, and Bayard Rustin. Although rich on interesting details, the book focuses more on their WWII experiences than substantiating the entirely plausible thesis on the post-war legacies. This may be a call for a different book than Akst wanted to write, but still seems like a missed opportunity. Akst seems sceptical of the viability of pacifism after an invasion or the horrors of WWII, but underscores how pacifists provide a helpful antidote to the consequences of war ('Even on the rare occasions when a fight is necessary, pacifists have served the useful purpose of demanding that we distinguish ourselves from our enemies by more than just victory', p. 309) and a 'pretty good response whenever we are faced with the choice of military action in circumstances short of foreign invasion' (p. 313). Moreover, he correctly identifies how 'the genius of the pacifist project' consists in how it does not seek to 'destroy or overcome its antagonists … [but] bring people around to the cause of justice' without violence (ibid.).