From 1856 to 1860 Elihu Burritt promoted a plan to prevent civil war through compensated emancipation, or the purchase and liberation of slaves by the government, an example that the English had set in the West Indies. Burritt traveled constantly, all over the country, speaking. He organized a mass convention that was held in Cleveland. He lined up prominent supporters. He edited newsletters.
And he was right. England had freed its slaves in the Caribbean without a war. Russia had freed its serfs without a war. Slave owners in the U.S. South would almost certainly have preferred a pile of money to five years of hell, the deaths of loved ones, the burning and destruction of their property, and the uncompensated emancipation that followed, not to mention the century and a half of bitter resentment that followed that. And not only the slave owners would have preferred the way of peace; it’s not as if they did the killing and dying.
What does being right get you? Forgotten. Who’s ever heard of Elihu Burritt?
In 1862 four peace activists, including Eliza P. Gurney, met with Abraham Lincoln in the White House. Lincoln, with tears running down his face, told them that he wished there had been no war, and that he would end it immediately if he could, but that he was merely a helpless instrument in the hands of his “Heavenly Father” who no doubt had some high purpose for all the suffering. Lincoln carried a comforting letter from Gurney in his pocket when he was shot three years later.
What comfort did Lincoln’s superstition bring to three-quarters of a million dead and wounded? What comfort did it bring to Burritt, who had known how to avoid the war and been forced to watch it proceed along with all the fools who supposed it “unavoidable”? What comfort did it bring to centuries of students cruelly propagandized in elementary schools from that day to this with the idea that slavery can only be ended with war?
In 1885, U.S. peace activists prevented the Atlanta, a ship loaded with arms and munitions, from departing Philadelphia for Cuba. They appealed to the governments in Washington and Madrid to submit their disputes to arbitration. In 1896, the Universal Peace Union urged the Spanish government to give the Cubans their autonomy and withdraw all troops, while opposing any U.S. military intervention. In 1898, the Pen and Sword, edited by D. R. Coude in Chicago, urged the President and Congress not to be “played for suckers” by yellow journalists out to sell more newspapers at the cost of launching a war. Coude documented the lies and deceptions that had been moving the nation toward war.
Peace activists flooded Washington with telegrams and letters insisting that the matter of the Maine be submitted to arbitration. But many who favored peace in the abstract abandoned it, as is the custom, in the concrete. “Though I hate war per se,” wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “I am glad that it has come in this instance. I would like to see Spain swept from the face of the earth.” If that statement makes you think of what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said of Israel, it’s worth remembering that he actually never said that, but that good U.S. liberals have said it of many nations over and over again for centuries now.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Theodore Roosevelt, and President McKinley were wrong, wrong to go to war, wrong to lust for genocide, and wrong to imagine they could wipe Spain off the earth. D. R. Coude was right. And who has ever heard of D. R. Coude? Google hasn’t.
In 1915, Jane Addams met with President Wilson and urged him to offer mediation to Europe. Wilson praised the peace terms drafted by the Hague conference held by women for peace. He received 10,000 telegrams from women asking him to act. Historians believe that had he acted in 1915 or early in 1916 he might very well have helped bring the Great War to an end under circumstances that would have furthered a far more durable peace than the one made eventually at Versailles. Wilson did act on the advice of Addams, and of his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, but not until it was too late. The Germans did not trust a mediator who had been aiding the British war effort.
What good is being right? As early as 1935, U.S. peace activists were marching against U.S. provocations of Japan. Can you imagine anyone more forgotten than they are? It’s almost treasonous to know about them.
But consider this. During the U.S. civil war, pressure from peace activists forced a dispute between the U.S. and Britain to arbitration and away from conflict. They did the same in 1869, leading to momentum in Washington and Europe for treaties of arbitration. Among those celebrating progress in 1869 was Elihu Burritt. Peace activists similarly prevented war with Mexico 20 years later and again advanced the cause of peaceful dispute resolution. Peace groups in Europe helped prevent a war between France and Germany in the early years of the 20th century. And in 1926 -1927 U.S. peace activists again helped forestall war with Mexico. At the same time, they built support for the Kellogg-Briand Pact that in 1928 banned war and proved immediately useful in halting war in Manchuria, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
The education of the U.S. public by peace activists before and after World War I, led to the situation in the 1930s when 62% of college students rejected the idea that a bigger Navy would make them safer and 16% said they would refuse to fight even if the United States were invaded. In 1935, the New York Herald-Tribune’s Institute of Public Opinion found that 75% of voters wanted a public referendum before any war could be launched, and 71% opposed joining in any war with other countries to “enforce the peace.”
Nuclear bombs have not been dropped in our wars since World War II. The United States has not attacked Iran yet. Israeli troops have refused direct orders to prepare to attack Iran. The victories are never advertised. But neither are the failures. Silence is the strongest supporter of war. In both victories and failures, it’s worth knowing the facts and considering: Who has been right every time? And who, in contrast, make up the full roster of experts on network and cable TV?*
*For further reading, pick up “Peace Or War: The American Struggle 1636-1936” by Merle Curti from which almost every incident in this article has been lifted.