From Protest to Resistance -- The Quaker Peace Testimony During the Vietnam War -- 2
Jeremy Mott


 

Yet I am getting ahead of myself now. For most of our history, like true prophets. Friends have spoken the truth in war protest, as God gave it to them, without worrying too much about effectiveness.

It’s easy to see how these four elements of the Quaker Peace Testimony sometimes work against each other. For example, it’s hard psychologically to be completely opposed to violent revolution and also support nonviolent revolution. Though I’ve described the Questing Beast quite differently from the way Chel Avery describes it maybe one must expect different people to describe a Questing Beast quite differently -- I’ve certainly described a Questing Beast. Yet the strangest element is still to come.

The Quaker Peace Testimony is the one thing in Quakerism that, we are told, will never change. Read the original document: “That the spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never (my emphasis) move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ, nor for the Kingdoms of the world.” (That’s from the Nickalls edition of Fox’s Journal.)

Because of this statement, the peace testimony is the most permanent part of our ever-changing Spirit-guided religion. Yearly meetings -- most of them -- have abandoned silent worship. Several yearly meetings have explicitly downplayed the Inward Light, almost to the point of denying it. Yet we read that no yearly meeting, even if virtually none of its members are pacifists, has ever repudiated the Quaker Peace Testimony. To do so would be to write oneself out of Quakerism, to disown oneself -- all because this would contradict a declaration made by a handful of Friends in 1660.

Of course, supposedly unchangeable human creations have a way of changing. Within thirteen years of 1660, the Quaker Peace Testimony had grown a new limb, as it were: Friends would endeavor to prevent wars by bringing about the settlement of disputes by peaceful diplomatic methods. In 1673, Nicholas Easton -- the same Quaker governor of Rhode Island who approved the first conscientious objector legislation in North America -- made desperate last-ditch attempts to prevent King Philip’s war by initiating negotiations between colonists and American Indians.

More successfully, in 1682 William Penn and other Friends who settled Pennsylvania with him negotiated the Treaty of Shackamaxon with the Pennsylvania Indians. William Penn and John Bellers made early proposals for leagues of nations, and countless out-of-power Quakers have quietly lobbied against war and militarism with their own governments.

I call this new part of the still-young Quaker Peace Testimony the “upper-crust peace testimony” or, less invidiously, the “closed-door peace witness.” It seems a slight addition to the original, but surely adds an emphasis on effectiveness largely absent from the original Quaker Peace Testimony.

In the late 1700’s and 1800’s Quakers gradually created one of the largest and most important parts of our Peace Testimony: the testimony of service. Some Friends believe that our testimony of service is or should be separated from our peace testimony. However in history and in the hearts and minds of Friends and friends of Friends and the world at large, the service testimony is intimately joined to the peace testimony, and this is how I will treat it. It is noteworthy that the testimony of service, like several other parts of the Quaker Peace Testimony, is little-mentioned in Faith and Practice books. Don’t you think these books might be made current as of 1790 or 1870?

One reads that large-scale Quaker service, involving relief to the general population (not just other Friends), began in Boston during the Revolutionary War. I believe that large-scale volunteer relief and rescue became the Quaker norm -- or at least the North American Quaker norm -- during the time of the Underground Railroad (which is said to have been operated mainly by Quakers and free African Americans.) During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Northern Friends mounted an enormous relief campaign among the newly freed slaves in the South. (One can read about this in Linda Selleck’s wonderful book, Gentle Invaders.) British Friends did extensive relief work during the Boer War and earlier.

One may say, without fear of contradiction, that war relief work, sometimes extended into other volunteer service to sufferers, was an integral part of the Quaker Peace Testimony by the turn of the 20th century.

Our Peace Testimony had one additional noteworthy change in the mid-1800’s: we subtracted the previous expectation that every Friend would be a conscientious objector if called for military service or required to perform certain other war duties (such as loyalty oaths). In the Civil War, a young male Friend could obey the conscription law and serve in the Union army without much fear of being disowned, and half of them did so (it is said), making only perfunctory acknowledgment in many cases. It is difficult to see how either Quakerism or the Quaker Peace Testimony could have survived any continued attempt to compel young Friends to live by the Quaker Peace Testimony.

The domain of the Questing Beast deserves a brief description. The Quaker Peace Testimony is the peace testimony of the entire Quaker movement and, almost without change, of pacifists in the “mainline” Protestant churches. In other words, our peace testimony is also the peace testimony of pacifist Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Methodists. Furthermore, Jewish pacifists generally adopt the Quaker Peace Testimony with only slight changes.

Of course, Mennonites have a peace testimony that is distinctly their own, as do Jehovah’s Witnesses. Roman Catholic pacifists, still few in number as the Vietnam War approached, have a peace testimony slightly more radical than Friends’. Gandhians and Buddhists, also not numerous in the US as the Vietnam War approached, have still another peace testimony, also highly influenced by Friends. The Muslim peace testimony was as yet unknown outside Muslim communities.

The oldest and most influential of these peace testimonies, at least of those attempting to influence the affairs of state and war and peace, is the Quaker Peace Testimony.

What happened to our peace testimony during America’s longest war?

This question is as difficult as any in Quaker history that I know of. Few written sources exist outside archives, which I have not explored. There were fierce struggles among Friends, making memory even more suspect than usual. Nevertheless, I must and do rely on my own memory, the memories of a few other Friends, and a few memoirs. You will find errors here. Please correct them in writing if possible, as soon as you can.

First, let me state a few facts, and assumptions which I treat as facts:

1.    The American war in Vietnam lasted from 1961 to 1975. This war was enormous from 1965 to 1973 -- eight dreadful years.

2.    Draft calls, which had been very small from 1953 to 1965, increased greatly in 1965 and did not diminish greatly until 1970, finally being ended in 1973

3.    In Vietnam, nationalism and communism merged and the result was a nation of fighters who could hardly be beaten, short of extermination.

4.    A US anti-war movement emerged in a major way in 1965 and nearly vanished only in 1973.

5.    Quakers and other pacifists were among the leaders of the anti-war movement from beginning to end.

6.    Assorted left-wingers were also among the leaders of the anti-war movement from beginning to end.

7.    In the post-McCarthy era, US left-wingers, including pacifist and Quaker left-wingers, were angry at and afraid of their country and their
government.

8.    Not until the McGovern campaign of 1972 were anti-war forces finally brought into conventional politics.

9.    The US government and military officials who planned and promoted the Vietnam War were extraordinarily ignorant about Vietnam and the war. Even now, their ignorance boggles the mind.

10.  At various points between 1965 and 1968, almost every high US government and military official involved in the war learned enough to lose faith in the war.

11.  Yet the US continued to fight the war until 1973. Half the American military deaths during the Vietnam War took place after Richard Nixon was first inaugurated. The Vietnam War from 1969 onwards, led by a Quaker president, was the greatest exercise in cynicism ever conducted by Americans.

12.  To say these things fills the eyes with tears and the heart with fury. One wishes to take our government’s leaders then and tear them to pieces, limb from limb.

13.  The Vietnam War was not an auspicious time for the Quaker Peace Testimony.

Let’s take a look, part by part, at the Quaker Peace Testimony during the war.

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