Devi Prasad, 'War is a Crime Against Humanity: the Story of War Resisters' International'

IssueNovember 2005
Review by Michael Randle

Devi Prasad's history of War Resisters' International covers the first fifty-plus years of its existence from 1921 to 1973-4.

Based on the records of statements from its Council and Executive and the proceedings and resolutions of its International Triennial Conferences and Study conferences, the book traces its development from an essentially anti-militarist and anti-conscription organisation to one with the broader agenda of promoting nonviolent direct action on a range of issues, though with the anti-militarist commitment still at its core. Devi, first as General Secretary from 1962 to 1972 and subsequently as Chair, played a key role in this development.

From its inception, WRI committed itself not only to opposing all war as a “crime against humanity”, but also to working for the removal of its causes. However, it laid particular stress on opposing conscription. Its Manifesto Against Conscription, launched in 1926, was signed by sixty eminent personalities including Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Toyohiko Kagawa, Romain Rolland, H G Wells, Bertrand Russell, George Lansbury, Martin Buber and Albert Einstein.

In the 1930s, in the face of the fascist and Nazi aggression and the war in Spain, some of the movement's most prominent figures, including Russell, Einstein and Fenner Brockway (Chairman from 1926 to 1934) decided reluctantly that they could no longer take an absolute pacifist stance. WRI continued to do so, though the difficulties this posed for its leadership is evident in the statements and debates of the time.

However, the charge sometimes levelled at the pacifist movement that it supported a policy of appeasement to the fascist powers is refuted by the records, at least as far as WRI itself is concerned. It warned against the dangers of fascism from its emergence in the 1920s, and denounced fascist and Nazi aggression throughout the 1930s when the policy of appeasement was in full swing. Council Member Reginald Reynolds, for example, at the Triennial Conference in 1934, was scathing in his comments about a proposal by Bishop Barnes in Britain that some former German colonies should be handed back to the German government. The people living in these colonies, he said, were not so much property to be disposed of, and those who had endured British Imperialism “should not be handed over like chattels to Nazi imperialism”.

In the post-war period, the World Pacifist Conference in India in 1950 marked an important moment in the post-war recovery of morale and dynamism in the pacifist movement and the rise within it of a distinctively Gandhian/nonviolent actionist wing. Gandhi himself called for the conference shortly before his death in January 1948 and had planned to attend it.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a peak of the use of nonviolent action in many parts of the world, notably in relation to nuclear weapons, the war in Vietnam, and the US Civil Rights movement. The WRI and its sections were closely associated with many of these campaigns. In relation to Vietnam, the US Section, War Resisters League, pioneered civil disobedience in opposition to the war, notably in the form of draft card burning. Daniel Ellesberg took his decision to release the Pentagon Papers exposing the duplicity of successive US administrations over Vietnam, as a direct result of attending the WRI conference in Haverford in 1969.

WRI was no less critical of aggressive Soviet policies. When the Soviet and other Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, it organised simultaneous international demonstrations in Moscow, Budapest, Sofia and Warsaw. However there were also divisions within WRI over attitudes to the Soviet Union, though Devi no more than hints at these.

The work and achievements of WRI are not sufficiently well known even on the Left, much less in the general population. Devi's book should help to remedy this, and to give today's peace activists and war resisters a deeper understanding of the history and traditions of the movement.

Topics: War and peace
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