Arthur Young, The Masses, December 1915

Editors’ Note​ | Friends of Peace

The Editors

Ten thousand protestors assembled in Washington Square Park before heading up Fifth Avenue to 26th Street and looping back down to Union Square. Their signs bore phrases like “NO NATION CAN AFFORD BOTH WAR AND CIVILIZATION” and “WHAT PRICE GLORY?” This event, reported in Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, occurred in 1935, well before the Nazis invaded Poland; in 1936, Germany was the third-largest purchaser of American arms. But, sensing the stirrings of militarism at home, the War Resisters League held annual “No More War” parades in the early-to-mid ’30s, eventually drawing crowds of up to fifteen thousand. Because World War II is often remembered as “the good war,” an intervention so righteous that all foreign engagements since have been judged against it, we tend to overlook humanitarian alternatives to U.S. entry that were then proposed. In the early days of the Third Reich, a coalition of Quakers, socialists, and other peaceniks advocated for the U.S. to take in Germany’s Jews. As the war expanded, they tried to solve the hunger crisis in Europe, and, once news of the concentration camps spread, they urged President Roosevelt to make an exception to immigration quotas for Jewish refugees. The pacifists who tried to prevent a second world war have “really never gotten their due,” Baker writes, in dedicating Human Smoke to them. “They failed, but they were right.”

We’ve been taught that a military confrontation with Hitler was inevitable, but, as Baker shows, it’s worth examining the mythology that still frames the conflict as a straightforward demonstration of American heroism. Whether or not the pacifists were vindicated by the horrors of World War II — by the fifty million deaths, the fire-bombing of Dresden, the use of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — they were channeling the profoundly humane intuitions that have given the anti-war tradition such deep roots on the American left. Leftists also questioned the premise that the U.S. should enter World War I to save democracy in Europe, arguing that doing so would undermine democracy at home. At the time, the Wilson administration clamped down on such “sedition,” even targeting the socialist magazine The Masses through a convoluted legal case involving the post office. “America has been hitherto the least military of all the Great Powers, and the one where the individual enjoyed the greatest degree of political liberty,” wrote Bertrand Russell in the July 1917 issue. “Friends of peace and liberty are watching anxiously to see whether this is to change.” Max Eastman, the publication’s editor, penned a series of broadsides against the government’s censorship of such views — and the incoherence of its war propaganda. “A nation in which two percent of the people own sixty percent of the wealth, and ten percent of the people own ninety percent of the wealth, can not wage war for democracy. That nation has established within its own borders an industrial feudalism,” reads his October 1917 essay. “Its fighters for democracy and real liberty have their work to do at home.” Now, the U.S. has the largest military in the world, with bases spanning the globe, and Russell’s pronouncement sounds parodic; in an age when the top one percent holds more wealth than the entire middle class, Eastman’s critique is eerily familiar.

In 2022, the U.S. spent $877 billion on defense and exported arms to 58 countries. Our support fuels countless conflicts overseas, most of which we haven’t directly entered. Since October 7, over 280 American aircrafts and forty American ships have delivered 25,000 tons of weapons to Israel. According to Foreign Policy, if the U.S. hadn’t airlifted in ammunition, Israel would not have been able to sustain its offensive in Gaza. “We need three things from the U.S.,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in late January. “Armaments, armaments, armaments.”

Tens of thousands of Americans came out to oppose the invasion of Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands marched against the war in Iraq. Yet in every anti-war movement, there’s a turning point, a moment when the protests stop making headlines. We resign ourselves to the fact that drone strikes continue throughout the Middle East, that Guantanamo Bay is still open, that our tax dollars have enabled the “battle of civilization against barbarism,” in Netanyahu’s words, that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Gazans. Time and again, history shows the wisdom of unheeded calls for peace. Anti-war protestors were right about Afghanistan and Iraq and the quagmires that the U.S. has facilitated in every corner of the earth. Those who have chanted “not another nickel, not another dime,” who have been vilified and silenced and doxxed, have been right about the war in Israel, too.

Pacifist sympathies are threaded throughout this issue. For our interview, we spoke with Saree Makdisi about finding hope, even amid the bloodshed, for a just resolution in Gaza. In an essay examining the appropriation and denigration of Gandhi in right-wing Indian politics, Aditya Narayan Sharma interrogates the legacy of perhaps the world’s most famous pacifist. Brock Colyar reviews a new book about gender from Judith Butler, another strong proponent of nonviolence. Julia Rock profiles political firebrand Norman Finkelstein, who has long championed justice for Palestinians.

We’ve also saved room to examine the opposing forces. Oscar Schwartz writes about Ukraine-war-meddler Elon Musk, and how a recent portrait of the Silicon Valley blowhard fits into Walter Isaacson’s larger intellectual project. In reviewing a series of biographies of George Balanchine and Martha Graham, Juliana DeVaan tracks the role of Cold War patriotism in shaping American dance. Mark Chiusano reads campaign books from warmongering GOP hopefuls, and David Schurman Wallace reads historical fiction as, among other things, a nationalist endeavor.

Violent impulses crop up in short stories by Noor Qasim, Sophie Madeline Dess, Julian Robles, and Caroline Gioiosa. Our Dispatch contributors bring us to the original site of trauma, taking stock of the state of the family, in theory and in practice. The poets in this issue — Robert Wood Lynn, Nicole Adabunu, Michael D. Snediker, Topaz Winters, and Ellie Black — tend to wounds real and imagined: a branch suffers, a sailor weeps, vultures dance above roadkill, a god changes bandages in a mirror, and a cold bottle held to a forehead soothes after a terrible dream. Our Mentions pick a fight with the HP OfficeJet Pro 9015e All-in-One Printer and declare a truce with psychics.

Now and always, The Drift is on the side of peace. At least so far, the post office hasn’t shut us down for sedition.