Peace Movements

Robert H. Ferrell

The idea of peace is ancient, reaching back to the beginnings of organized society and perhaps even earlier; but until the Renaissance it had not passed beyond the stage of individual thought. Society was rural, save for a few towns and cities. Nationalities, while recognized, were not well formed. International relations did not exist. The relations of the Greek city-states were casual and unorganized, moving from hostilities to lack of hostilities without much of a dividing line. The very basis of international organization—existence of different peoples, organized in states, usually speaking different languages, was not present in the Greek world. Nor was it present in the world of Rome, where a single city, through extension of citizenship, recognized no equals in the area of the Mediterranean. To the Romans the people with whom they came in touch were either to submit to the domination of the empire or forever remain barbarians. There was no such thing as interstate relations. The same lack of international relations marked medieval life, where princes and principalities might fight or not fight, for whatever reason, conducting warfare as if it were a natural state of affairs and halting it when convenient, without much or any formality. In such disorganized relations between the peoples of Europe there was, to be sure, little reason to try for a better order of affairs when all that people knew was chaos or domination. In any event, the generality of the citizens or subjects was not consulted in advance of fighting or its conclusion.

The appearance of peace movements awaited both the formal division of Europe into nation-states and a notable intellectual development often overlooked by analysts of modern European history—the division of international relations into times of peace and times of war. This latter change came during the Thirty Years' War in the seventeenth century, and did not occur so much in the statecraft of the time as in the thinking of jurists and students of law, who began to see not merely that the primitive international customs and traditions of the era must be ordered but also that the task of ordering involved division into laws for fighting and laws for peaceful existence. In this regard the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius proved most influential. A citizen of one of the major maritime states of the era, and therefore interested in the freest possible trade on the high seas, he found the military forces of his countrymen outnumbered by the professional armies of the monarchs whose territories surrounded the States-General. The convenience of trading with many European states had fascinated the Dutch, and they wanted to continue this commerce. At the same time they needed guarantees of freedom of trade. Life during the Thirty Years' War was almost insufferable for so rich a group as the Dutch burghers. Grotius was imprisoned, and friends contrived his escape in a large chest. With reason he wished to try to order the international relations of his time, and the result was De jure belli ac pacis (1625). In it he drew a sharp line between what was war and what was peace. It was, incidentally, a line that was not recognized until the nineteenth century, when there were no major European wars except the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). Grotius's distinction between war and peace would be blurred by the statesmen of the twentieth century, who through cold wars and other such undeclared conflicts pushed international relations back toward the pre-Grotian chaos. In any event, the drawing of a war-peace line—however theoretical, and thereafter slowly accepted and eventually violated—set the stage for popular peace movements. In a real sense Grotius and his supporters among the legal theorists were the originators of peace movements.

The essentially theoretical nature of peace movements was observable from the outset, and it may well have been one of the reasons why the innumerable drawings of ideal international societies, the perfect renderings of international relations, have never been translated even approximately into reality.

The first designs of men of peace in modern times, which themselves were not characterizable as the programs of peace movements but received a good deal of attention during their periods of interest, were markedly theoretical. One of the leaders of France in the early seventeenth century, the duc de Sully, was the author of the "great design" of King Henry IV, which, though it stipulated an international force, asked for one so small that it amounted to disarmament. Much notice was taken of this hope for peace, and it was speculated upon for years thereafter. The supporters of later peace movements were also accustomed to cite the hopes of Benjamin Franklin, who was convinced that standing armies diminished not only the population of a country but also the breed and size of the human species, for the strongest men went off to war and were killed. He pointed out obvious waste in the maintenance of armies. His analysis made sense to many Americans who themselves, or whose ancestors, had come to the New World to escape the constant wars of the Old. The Farewell Address of President George Washington in 1796 was plain about the need for peace and the wastefulness of war: "Overgrown military establishments are, under any form of government, inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty." Here was another rationale that would recur in the pronouncements of the nineteenth-century peace movements in both the United States and Europe.

The intellectual foundations of peace movements were laid in the years prior to 1815. Beginning in that year, with the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon at an end, and the emperor of France on his way to St. Helena in a British frigate, it was possible to bring together the formalities of the international lawyers and the philosophical hopes of Sully, Franklin, and Washington, and to enlarge upon and systematize ideas about how American or European—or even world—peace might be achieved.

The years from 1815 to 1848 saw major developments in organization of peace groups in the United States. For a while it appeared as if they might carry everything before them. Peace seemed secure between the United States and Great Britain. In the Rush-Bagot Convention (1817) the two English-speaking nations undertook a virtual disarmament of their borders upon the Great Lakes, across New York State, and along the northern borders of the New England states. Why could not such an arrangement between erstwhile enemies spread to the entire world? This was the era of the founding of the American Peace Society in 1828 and of state peace societies. It was an ebullient time, often characterized by later historians as an age of reform: the antislavery movement, prison reform, insane asylum reform, experiments in communitarian living, and the rise of reformist religions such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Members of the new peace organizations advanced their ideas with unwonted vigor and with a very considerable intellectual precision. The principal organizer of the American Peace Society, William Ladd, arranged for distribution of tracts and advocated a congress of nations, together with the riddance of war through treaties of arbitration. Elihu Burritt established the League of Universal Brotherhood in 1846, which soon was claiming an American membership of twenty thousand and a similar number of British members; Burritt's organization was largely responsible for a series of "universal peace congresses" held in European cities over the next years.

The peace groups of the first half of the nineteenth century took interest in international law, as Grotius had two centuries before, and the American Peace Society in the person of Ladd, as well as the reformer Alfred Love, founder of the Universal Peace Union (1866), looked to a stronger law of nations that, they were certain, would make war more difficult, perhaps even impossible.

As for precisely how influential the peace groups were, during the years from Waterloo to the revolutions of 1848 and the Crimean War (for Europe) and to the Mexican War and the passing of the slavery issue into national politics, and ultimately the coming of the Civil War (for the United States), it is impossible to say. The problem of analysis here is that during an age of reform there was goodwill in so many directions, often expressed by the same individuals, that its forcefulness or lack thereof cannot be easily determined. Moreover, the absence of even fairly small international conflicts was probably not a result of the peace movement, but of contemporary circumstances in the international relations of Europe—the unpopularity of war after the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the momentary sense of community among the great powers known as the Concert of Europe. To many people of the time, peace nonetheless seemed a logical outcome of the peace movement; and the workers for peace tended to pursue their plans and purposes—abolition of standing armies, development of international law on land and sea, organization of peace congresses—with a confidence that was unjustified by the international relations of the time.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, peace workers began to have a new sense of urgency because of an armaments race that at first was not very noticeable but later became highly evident. By the 1860s and 1870s the stresses and strains incident to the rise of a Prussia-dominated German state in Europe began to send armament expenditures on an upward trend that continued into the twentieth century. The sharpening of nationalisms everywhere, and the increasing authority of national bureaucracies, impelled nations to increase their armaments. Weapons also began to increase in complexity and costliness. Muskets gave way to rifles. Smooth-bore cannon were replaced by rifled guns, and projectiles went farther and penetrated deeper. The navies of the world converted from sail to steam. They armored their ships. Transport—first the railroad and then, after the end of the century, motor transport over paved roads—made land armies mobile in ways unknown to generals during the age of Napoleon, Gebhard von Blucher, and the duke of Wellington.

The Industrial Revolution allowed nations with heavy industries to produce arms for themselves and sell arms to their agricultural neighbors in exchange for foodstuffs. Introduction of such weapons as the French 75, a new field gun, forced all the leading European states to purchase the new ordnance. By the 1890s men of goodwill everywhere were alarmed at the dreadfully costly battles and campaigns of any new war, given the new equipment. They were alarmed at the talk about military might by the leaders of Germany after Bismarck. The surge of imperialism in the 1890s momentarily took European and American energies into the Far East. Earlier the Europeans had devoted themselves to the imperial task of dividing Africa. Shortly after the turn of the century, there was no more territory to divide, and rivalries began to concentrate in Europe, as they had just before outbreak of the Napoleonic wars. It was a vastly troubled situation; and peace groups began to look for solutions, to try to do what statesmen seemed incapable of doing—to contrive some kind of international arrangement of ideas and interests so that war could be prevented.

Limitation of armaments was the task of the peace movements prior to 1914, and the result was disappointing. Calvin D. Davis has justly remarked that a strange dichotomy of thought existed in the United States and Europe. International rivalries never had burned so brightly, and never had there been so much talk about national interest; yet never had there been more popular interest in peace. Peace groups received broad public support, even from statesmen, who perhaps saw them as so important, so obviously influential, that it would be best to join them, at least in appearance. Universal Peace Congresses began to assemble, the first such meeting being held in 1889. The men and women who attended these meetings favored disarmament and the advance of arbitration through treaties. The Dissenting churches of Great Britain heartily supported disarmament during the 1890s, before the British army and navy were modernized on the eve of World War I. British members of these groups looked anxiously to their American cousins, hoping that from unity of language could come unity of national purposes. The English-Speaking Union was a reflection of this hope. During the years from the turn of the century until 1914, a rapprochement became apparent between the two countries and was much remarked upon. The two countries together could join their European friends in a peace movement that would overwhelm the forces for war. It was thought by people who were interested in peace that the two English-speaking nations might well be considered impartial in urging a disarmament conference because of their separation from Europe by water—not very much in the case of Britain but a vast expanse in the case of America.

The pre–World War I years seemed to promise a great peace reform. Baroness Bertha von Suttner in 1889 published a book titled Die Waffen Nieder (Lay Down Your Arms). It was perhaps the greatest peace novel of all times and was translated into almost every known tongue. The British journalist W. T. Stead reprinted it in English in 1896, and sold the book at the nominal price of one penny. The Russians appeared to be interested in world peace, or at least it was clear that the great novelist Leo Tolstoy was fascinated by the idea. At the suggestion of Baroness von Suttner, the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, became devoted to the peace movement. Nobel, who believed that he could cooperate with the baroness through making dynamite, wrote to her on one occasion, "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your Congresses; on the day when two army corps may mutually annihilate each other in a second, probably all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops." Little did Nobel know that this day to which he looked mystically, albeit seriously, would arrive in the latter twentieth century, but civilized nations not only would fail to recoil with horror and disband their troops, but also would prove willing to allow the weapons of destruction to proliferate.

Nobel characterized the hopes of his generation by endowing a peace prize that was to go annually "to that man or woman who shall have worked most effectively for the fraternization of mankind, the diminution of armies, and the promotion of Peace Congresses." This was the spirit that produced the most notable product of the peace movement of the turn of the century, the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907.

Unfortunately, the first conference did little for peace. The czar of Russia called it in the vain hope that it would limit adoption of French 75 rifles by the armies of Europe, so that the Russian government could put available funds into modernizing its navy. This purpose was well understood by representatives of the nations meeting at The Hague, and nothing came of it. Evidence of how little the administration of President William McKinley expected from the First Hague Peace Conference could be seen in the composition of the American delegation, which included Captain William Crozier of the U.S. Army and Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, who had recently retired from the U.S. Navy. Crozier was coinventor of an ingenious disappearing gun carriage, and Mahan was the philosopher of a large American navy; neither was about to let the czar's government get away with anything. The first conference did, however, define the rules of civilized warfare. It arranged for an international tribunal that nations thereafter promised to use, albeit excepting so many of their national interests that such use was virtually a symbol of the court's uselessness.

The Second Hague Peace Conference was delayed until after the Russo-Japanese War, by which time the European armaments race was so far developed that the conference's prospects were almost zero. President Theodore Roosevelt knew that 1907 was not a good year for peace, yet felt that he had to do something, for many of his Republican friends in New England were members of peace societies and anxious for achievement. He sent the American fleet around the world that year, and later wrote that the voyage was the best thing he had done for peace. He considered doing more, and urged the British government to limit the size of battleships to fifteen thousand tons displacement. Apparently he was seeking to halt the naval arms race begun by the British with the launching of the battleship Dreadnought the preceding year. But then Roosevelt's idea disappeared, as naval architects pointed out to him that fifteen thousand tons was too small a platform for the best combination of the essentials of fighting ships—guns, armor, and propulsive machinery. Neither the British nor the German government wished to do anything serious about disarmament at the Second Hague Peace Conference, and so the idea languished and the conferees contented themselves with tidying up the projects for judicial settlement and international law advanced at the initial conference. The Third Hague Peace Conference was scheduled just about the time World War I broke out; and the Hague idea, as it was called, then blended into the larger notion of a League of Nations.

The American peace groups in these years concentrated not merely on congresses and conferences but also on a national program of bilateral treaties of arbitration and conciliation. Secretaries of State Richard Olney, John Hay, Elihu Root, Philander C. Knox, and William Jennings Bryan sought to negotiate such treaties, and Hay, Root, and Bryan concluded several dozen. The only way that this program of the American peace groups could have ensured world peace was for the United States to have signed up every nation—and the other nations would have had to arrange their own treaty networks. Because of the outbreak of World War I there was not enough time for so many instruments to be signed and ratified. Although the American network remains on the statute books, nothing came of the hope for peace through treaties of arbitration and conciliation.


Alonso, Harriet H. The Women's Peace Union and the Outlawry of War: 1923–1942. Knoxville, Tenn., 1989.

——. Peace as a Women's Issue: A U.S. Movement for World Peace and Women's Rights. Syracuse, N.Y., 1993.

Brock, Peter, and Thomas P. Socknat, eds. Challenges to Mars: Essays on Pacifism from 1918 to 1945. Toronto, 1994. Half of the twenty-eight essays are on the interwar period.

Buckley, Thomas H. The United States and the Washington Conference: 1921–1922. Knoxville, Tenn., 1970.

Chatfield, Charles. For Peace and Justice: Pacifism in America, 1914–1941. Knoxville, Tenn., 1971.

——. The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism. New York, 1992.

Cooper, Sandi E. Patriotic Pacifism: Waging War on War in Europe, 1815–1914. New York, 1991. Emphasis on the peace movement between 1889 and 1914.

Curti, Merle. Peace or War: The American Struggle, 1636–1936. New York, 1936.

Davis, Calvin D. The United States and the First Hague Peace Conference. Ithaca, N.Y., 1962.

——. The United States and the Second Hague Peace Conference: American Diplomacy and International Organization, 1899–1914. Durham, N.C., 1976. Relates the history of "the Hague idea" until World War I.

DeBenedetti, Charles. The Peace Reform in American History. Bloomington, Ind., 1980.

Doenecke, Justus. Discerning the Signs: American Anti-Interventionism and the World Crisis of 1939–1941. Lanham, Md., 2000.

Early, Frances H. A World Without War: How Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I. Syracuse, N.Y., 1997.

Ferrell, Robert H. Peace in Their Time. New Haven, Conn., 1952.

Foster, Carrie A. The Women and the Warriors: The U.S. Section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 1913–1946. Syracuse, N.Y., 1995.

Howlett, Charles F. The American Peace Movement: Reformers and Resources. New York, 1991. Annotated, 1,600 entries.

Joseph, Paul. Peace Politics. Philadelphia, 1993. Peace movement of the 1980s.

Kleidman, Robert. Organizing for Peace: Neutrality, the Test Ban, and the Freeze. Syracuse, N.Y., 1993. Covers the years 1936–1937, 1957–1963, 1979–1986.

Marullo, Sam, Alexandra Chute, and Mary Anna Colwell. "Pacifism and Nonpacifist Groups in the U.S. Peace Movement of the 1980s." Peace and Change 16, no. 3 (July 1991): 235–259.

Patterson, David S. Toward a Warless World: The Travail of the American Peace Movement, 1887–1914. Bloomington, Ind., 1976.

Peace and Change. Vols. 1–16 (1975–2001).

Peace Research Abstracts Journal. Vols. 1–38 (1964–2001).

Schott, Linda K. Reconstructing Women's Thoughts: The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Before World War II. Stanford, Calif., 1997.

Small, Melvin, and William Hoover, eds. Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Anti-war Movement. Syracuse, N.Y., 1992.

Tracy, James. Direct Action: From the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven. Chicago, 1996. Half the book addresses racial conflict.

Wells, Tom. The War Within America: America's Battle over Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 1994.

Wittner, Lawrence S. Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933–1984. Philadelphia, 1984.

——. One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953. Stanford, Calif., 1993.

——. Revisiting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954–1970. Stanford, Calif., 1997.

Ziegler, Valarie H. The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America. Bloomington, Ind., 1992.

See also Arbitration, Mediation, and Conciliation ; Dissent in Wars ; Gender ; Ideology ; Internationalism ; International Law ; International Organization ; Isolationism ; Neutrality ; Pacifism ; Peacemaking ; Public Opinion ; The Vietnam War and Its Impact ; Wilsonianism .

Also read article about Peace Movements from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: