Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came

War appalls me. War is violence. War is destruction. War is death. War, in a rational world, is completely unnecessary.

War can be justified in self-defense against an aggressor. War can be justified to intercede on behalf of those who are attacked by rogue nations. But war, ever and always, must be seen as a last resort.

Peacemakers Not Warriors

We have a tendency to glorify war. People are drawn to the warrior, the strong and powerful leader who proclaims his willingness to go toe to toe with the "enemy". And in so doing, we neglect those whose aim was peace. We glorify Winston Churchill and denigrate Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain who signed the Munich Accord with Hitler and returned to declare "peace for our time".

We forget that, as related in Wikipedia, "Chamberlain returned to London in triumph. Large crowds mobbed Heston (Aerodrome) where he was met by the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Clarendon, who gave him a letter from King George VI assuring him of the Empire's lasting gratitude and urging him to come straight to Buckingham Palace to report. The streets were so packed with cheering people that it took Chamberlain an hour and a half to journey the nine miles from Heston to the Palace." The people wanted peace. They did not want war.

The people wanted peace. They did not want war.

We have peace movements, sometimes called anti-war movements. We do not have pro-war movements.

Jesus said "blessed are the peacemakers", not blessed are the warriors.

War is a manifestation of the omnipotent state. Individuals do not launch wars. Governments do. In a previous blog, I outlined how deadly governments can be, even our Western governments. George W. Bush launched a war against Iraq, proclaiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, a claim that proved to be bogus.

Canada had always taken the position that we would not get involved in a war unless it was as peace-keepers. Now, I was not a fan of our former Prime Minister Jean Chretien. I never voted for him. But I am eternally grateful that he kept Canada out of that hell hole. Chretien is blessed in my book.

The Origins of a Peace Activist

During the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s, the title phrase of this essay became popular - suppose they gave a war and nobody came. The line has its origins in an epic poem by Carl Sandberg called "The People, Yes".

The line would probably have been forgotten except that it was misquoted in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in 1961.

Sandberg was a prolific writer and the winner of three Pulitzer prizes, two for poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. “The People, Yes” is an epic poem filling 300 pages of a book. Published in 1936, it is a tribute to America, and includes many folk tales as well as history. The actual line from the book is, "Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come."  The line is spoken by a small girl watching a military parade.

Buried on page 270 of the book, the line would probably have been forgotten except that it was picked up by James R. Newman, editor of Scientific American, who misquoted it in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in 1961. Writer, poet and peace activist Charlotte E. Keyes saw the letter and filed it away for future reference.

“The mother of a draft-card burner, a young man already imprisoned four times for his beliefs, tells of her own agony - and her son's," goes the introduction to the article Keyes wrote for McCall's magazine in 1966. She used that filed away letter from the Washington Post to come up with the title, Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came.

She tells of her son's evolution to radical peace activist and how it was influenced by his upbringing. Her husband, a Quaker, and she, a partial Jew, were both peace activists themselves before World War II but when the war started, "we regretfully felt that Hitlerism had to be fought with violence."

A Prayer for Peace on Earth

Their son Gene, born during the war, imbibed his parents' strong moral sense, and it affected his grades at Harvard. His extensive activities with the peace movement cut into his studies. He finally quit university to join Polaris Action, a peace group that advocated civil disobedience. The group was strongly opposed to nuclear war and agitated against the nuclear-warhead carrying Polaris submarine, "Polaris activists underwent several attempts to break security lines on docks to board submarines carrying nuclear missiles in the summer of 1960."

Letters were exchanged between parents and son, but all attempts to instill moderation failed. Gene declared, "Don't you know what William Lloyd Garrison- you know, the abolitionist - wrote? Something like this: 'Friends have said my words are too harsh, that I should be more moderate. Tell a husband to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of a ravisher. Tell a mother to moderately extricate her babe from the flames into which it has fallen. But urge me not to use moderation in my present course! I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - and I will be heard!"

He had reached a turning point and formulated a plan to challenge the draft.

He burned a copy of the Constitution because it sanctioned slavery. But he settled down and attended a Quaker school to study "nonviolent ways of meeting the problems of race conflict and war."

While studying there, he went to a congressional hearing to testify against extending the draft. He went to "indicate my favoring of the idea of establishing an integral strategic nonviolent national defense system...What is suggested is a basic reorientation of the defense posture of this nation."

He had reached a turning point and formulated a plan to challenge the draft. He believed that the flaw in the draft lay in giving it consent. Charlotte Keyes quotes Mildred Olmstead of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, "I have often wondered why it is that a family which would make a great protest if the government took away their automobile or even their dog, says nothing when the government takes away their sons."

Gene sent letters to two local newspapers. "As a prayer for peace on earth, I will be holding a vigil on Christmas Eve in front of the office of the local draft board. At midnight I will be using my One A draft card to light a candle."

The Draft Office Vigil

At noon on the 24th, he began his vigil outside the draft board office wearing a sign announcing his intentions. His girlfriend kept him company. Family members dropped by periodically to encourage him. Strangers stopped by to talk, even if not always agreeing with him.

He lit the draft card with a lighter, and then lit the candle.

By midnight, around twenty-five people gathered, including reporters and a TV cameraman. His girlfriend held the candle as he lit the draft card with a lighter, and then lit the candle. Although it was not the first draft card burning, it was one of the earliest occasions and still considered a novel action at the time.

Keyes concludes, "As we have watched him grow and climb his high places, we no longer argue with him, no longer call him foolish. We stand by our son, and we learn from him."

The expression "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came" was turned into a bumper sticker, which in turn was displayed by David Brinkley on his NBC newscast. From there, it became part of mainstream culture. It was even used in an obscure but very interesting song called Zor and Zam by the Monkees.

Gene Keyes continued with his peace activism and eventually became a Professor of World Politics (now retired) and a cartographer of note. He took some map work of Bernard Cahill who died in 1944 and refined it into the Cahill-Keyes Projection. He also became an expert in Esperanto, as well as an occasional science fiction writer.

Most notably, he wrote extensively on the idea of developing a non-violent military, an idea that seems like a contradiction in terms, but has enormous appeal. His essays on World Politics and Strategic Nonviolence are available online.