Direct Action

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James Tracy. Direct Action: Radical Pacifism from the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1996. Pp. xv, 196. Cloth $34.95, paper $10.95. ISBN: 0226811301 [1]

Written in 1996, James Tracy’s Direct Action: Radical Pacifism from the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven examines the rise of radical pacifists from the early 1940s to 1970. This group sprang from the conscientious objector population of World War II, and although the movement remained small, it had a dramatic impact on the postwar Left, serving as “the principal interpreters of Gandhism.” (xiii) In Tracy’s mind, however, the “full history of radical pacifism…is not a triumphant one.” (xiv) Although the peace movements of the 1960s are indebted to these radical pacifists, “the tactics and ethos that suited small groups calling out in the political wilderness of the 1940s and 1950s were not particularly apt for the mass-based movements that emerged in the 1960s.” (xv) Indeed, “radical pacifism’s influence upon the foundations of the new radicalism…was both a major reason for the powerful symbolism of public protest during the late 1950s and 1960s and a key contributory factor in the ultimate unraveling of the Left in the late 1960s.” (xv)

A slim volume, Direct Action provides the reader with what Tracy calls a collective biography of influential pacifists, including David Dellinger, Jim Peck, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer and A. J. Muste. While the book does meander, plagued by awkward transitions, the stories of these men are fascinating. However, the story seems incomplete, lacking in analysis. Given that this book is Tracy’s first, it is an admirable attempt. Indeed, this book would appeal to those unfamiliar with the story of post-WWII dissent.

As previously stated, Tracy views “these radical pacifists became the principal interpreters of Gandhism on the American Left.” (xiii) They were, in Tracy’s mind, radical libertarians—a term, like Gandhism and other terms, that he fails to define adequately. The first of these radical pacifists he introduces is the Union Eight, a group of seminary students who refused to register with the Selective Service. Tracy boldly states, “the men did…hope to start a general movement, one of ‘extreme libertarianism’ against the coercive power of the United States government, which they felt was marching in lockstep toward fascism.” (2) Perhaps the reader would have understood this quotation better if Tracy had even discussed the Union Eight. It is unclear why they are even in the subtitle, as Tracy devotes a scant page and a half to these men. If they served as leaders for the radical pacifist movement, why do we not learn more about them? Tracy does not even mention their names.

Although Tracy does not fully flesh out his characters, and the book suffers from some organizational problems, he does demonstrate that the pacifists were ideologically consistent, opposing all forms of tyranny and repression. Although wary of Communism, “radical pacifists took a principled and courageous public stand on behalf of the civil liberties of persecuted Communists,” during the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed “all radical pacifist organizations maintained this stand throughout the 1950s, a time when public declaration of concern for the civil liberties of those convicted under the [anti-Communist] Smith Act was a rarity on the American Left.” (69) He also provides an interesting linkage between radical pacifism and the struggle against racial inequality. He does demonstrate how radical pacifists waged a war against segregation, indeed a great portion of his book deals with racial issues, from the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to the radical pacifists’ helping organize bus boycotts. The great misfortune is that the reader never realizes the full size and scope of this aid. Were the majority of radical pacifists so dedicated to racial equality? Did any oppose the tactics employed? Indeed, the reader never really gets to know what groups comprised radical pacifism, so we cannot know just how widespread the movement was.

In his concluding chapter, Tracy discusses the “end” of radical pacifism with an all-too-brief summary of the trial of the Chicago Seven (the trial of the Yippies who caused disruption and chaos at the 1968 Democratic nominating convention). He then concludes, “the movements radical pacifists led or influenced proved far more adept at challenging and disrupting the institutions or policies they deemed unjust than in creating sustainable alternatives.” (153) Although, he makes it sound as if the movement ended in failure, he also contends that the nonviolent direct action pacifists used, “is often used today by groups on both the Left and the Right whose leaders have little or no knowledge of radical pacifist history.” (153) In the end, he has not proven his thesis, that the radical pacifist movement was not a “triumphant one”. (xv) The reader sees that they had some successes in the 1940s and 50s, and they bequeathed a legacy to both the Right and the Left. The book is interesting one, but one that needed further research, as evidenced by the bibliography replete with secondary sources.

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