David McReynolds, who died in New York at the age of 88 on 17 August, played a leading role in the US and international peace movement. He was one of the main organisers of the anti-Vietnam war mobilisation in the US, which not only contributed to the ending of that war but had a profound impact on US politics and society. He was also prominent in the anti-nuclear campaign both in the US and internationally, and, though not a gay rights campaigner as such, he declared himself a homosexual at a time when this incurred social ostracism and the risk of arrest.
In the early 1950s as an outspoken student radical in the Political Science faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), David refused be drafted to fight in Korea but turned down the option of a student deferment on the grounds that this privileged mainly middle-class young people. David graduated in 1953 and was active in the left wing of the Socialist Party USA.
In 1956, he moved to New York and took on various part time jobs before becoming the executive secretary of the radical pacifist monthly magazine Liberation. He was a frequent contributor to that journal and to the Village Voice. (A collection of his essays was published in 1970 by Praeger with the title We have been Invaded by the 21st Century.)
David joined the staff of War Resisters League (WRL) in New York, as field secretary, in 1960. The WRL was one of the most dynamic of the national sections of War Resisters International (WRI). David served on the WRI International Council from 1966 to 1988, and was its chair from 1986 to 1988. He twice ran as the Socialist Party USA candidate for the US presidency, in 1980 and 2000, not with the expectation of winning or even getting a sizable vote but as a means of publicising the case for a nonviolent socialist society.
At the 1966 WRI Triennial conference in Rome, it was David's advocacy, in my view, that was decisive in persuading WRI to prioritise opposition to the Vietnam war in its campaigning work. Consequently, WRI issued two leaflets. One was for US visitors to Europe on the Vietnam issue. The other was addressed directly to US soldiers stationed in Europe, informing them of their right to conscientious objection and setting out other measures they could take to oppose the war, up to and including desertion. (The leaflet did warn, however, of the possible dire personal consequences of desertion). Tens of thousands of these leaflets were printed and distributed.
At the WRI council meeting in Vienna, Austria, in 1968, a small delegation from the council, which included David and myself, held a meeting with the leadership of the Soviet-backed World Peace Council at their headquarters in the city. They assured us that military manoeuvres by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, on the borders of what was then the country of Czechoslovakia, were simply exercises and nothing to worry about.
However, a few days later, we had a meeting with members of the Slovak Peace Committee in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. They said they, too, were very worried and did not know what was going to happen. It was the first time I had ever heard officials of a Peace Committee affiliated to the World Peace Council dissenting from the Soviet line.
A few days later the Russian tanks moved in to occupy Czechoslovakia. David was in the capital, Prague, to witness the event, as was John Hyatt, a member of the British Peace Pledge Union (PPU). Soon afterwards, there was a purge of the Slovak Peace Committee leadership.
David was prepared to put his own liberty on the line. In 1965, he was one of a group of five people who were arrested for publicly burning draft cards in contravention of US federal law. Unlike some of the other participants in the action, he was not given a prison sentence, possibly because at he was over the draft age. Peace News at the time carried a splendid photo of him holding aloft a burning card.
He and I were also participants at the large international conference on Vietnam held in Stockholm in 1967 which, controversially, was attended by two members of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.
Let me, in conclusion mention a few of my personal memories and impressions. First, David's fondness for cats – not only his own, which ruled his apartment, but even the strays who were everywhere to be seen during the Triennial conference in India in 1985. Second, his enthusiasm and skill as a photographer – it was always a pleasure after a WRI meeting to receive the latest selection of his pictures.
David relished controversy and was never shy of engaging in debate. Friday night was his 'at home' night when he invited friends round to debate current issues. He was also a prolific blogger, and his blogs, which continued up to within a few weeks of his death, showed that he kept abreast of events and debates.
David had lists of various groups to whom he sent his blogs, usually with his own comments though sometimes forwarding articles by others.
The last one I received on 28 July was an article from Foreign Policy in Focus by one of its columnists, Conn Hallinan, headed 'It’s time for NATO to go the way of the Warsaw Pact'.
Like his friend, and one time co-worker in the WRL office, Bayard Rustin, David had impressive powers of concentration and multi-tasking. One of my enduring memories is of him during a WRI council meeting reading an Agatha Christie novel half concealed under the table in front of him yet being able to respond promptly to the points being made. Another is of him completely focused on a game of Stratego with Netherlands’ council member, Reinoud Doeschot.
David had sense of mischief and fun and was no po-faced moralist. While a few of us were sitting round an outdoor table at a café in Namur, Belgium, during another council meeting, he somewhat shocked a young US participant by whipping up the glass ash tray on the table and legging it away over the brow of a hill like some tall, lanky figure in a cartoon film.
But the best story about David was told to me by a participant at another international conference. While he was addressing the meeting, some of the delegates who were not native English speakers kept interrupting David with shouts of 'Speak slower! Speak slower!' At length, losing patience, he retorted: 'Listen faster!'
David died alone in his apartment after suffering a fall. Sadly, yet somehow appropriately, the body of his beloved cat was found with him in the apartment. He will be greatly missed for his energy, his range of knowledge and political insights, and for his willingness when one disagreed with him – which I did myself on a number of occasions – to engage in vigorous but civilised debate.