Peace Movements and Conscientious Objection to War

Peace movements are a loose assemblage of groups and individuals, often with dissimilar programs but in accord on seeking to reduce conflict or end war by achieving some change in foreign policy.


Peace movements are a loose assemblage of groups and individuals, often with dissimilar programs but in accord on seeking to reduce conflict or end war by achieving some change in Foreign policy;peace movementsforeign policy. Conscientious objection, termed pacifism in 1901 by the French war opponent Arnaud, ÉmileArnaud, ÉmileÉmile Arnaud, can be either the absolute renunciation of war or the opposition in principle to a specific war or governmental program on religious, philosophical, humanitarian, or social-justice grounds. Current historiographical trends include Conflict managementconflict management, which involves writings focused on achieving peace through negotiation, mediation, arbitration, international law, and arms control and disarmament; Social reformsocial reform, which involves writings seeking to change political and economic structures and ways of thinking; and World order transformationworld order transformation, which involves writings on world federation, better economic and environmental relationships, and a common feeling of security.Peace movementsPacifismPeace movementsConscientious objectionPacifism


Peace movements and conscientious objection are significant concepts in relation to the overall understanding of military conflict and the nature of warfare because of the fear of global annihilation. Estimates put the Casualties;twentieth centurytotal number of people killed by organized violence in the twentieth century, both military and civilian, between 167 million and 188 million. This would calculate to be roughly five thousand lives lost every single day for one hundred years. The goal of those engaged in peace efforts is to eliminate or at least restrict armaments, conscription (draft), nuclear proliferation, imperialism, racism, and war itself. Peace movements and pacifists are also part of a social-reform movement, presenting alternatives to the policies they oppose, which call for the elimination all forms of structural violence resulting in death and oppression.

History of Peace Movements and Conscientious Objection

Ancient World

In the ancient world, international relations did not exist. Greece;city-state warsGreek city-states coexisted in a casual manner, moving between hostilities and calm without much distinction. Every four years, ongoing hostilities were interrupted by a truce prohibiting Greeks from making war. The establishment of the Olympic GamesOlympic Games was a by-product of this truce. Perhaps the first to secure lasting peace was the Amphictyonic LeagueAmphictyonic League. City-states that joined agreed not to wage war with one another or cut off another’s water supply. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.)Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 b.c.e.), moreover, generated strong sentiments for peace among the citizens of Athens and Sparta.

In ancient Rome, however, conquest and domination was a way of life. During the first few centuries c.e., Christians;pacifismChristians were persecuted for refusing to serve in the Roman legions. The early Christian church considered military service as “idolatry” and taught that the renunciation of arms was part of the teachings of Jesus. In the ancient world, though, the idea of peace rarely passed beyond the stage of individual thought and was never an organized endeavor.

Medieval World

During the Middle Ages, theRoman Catholic Church;pacifismRoman Catholic Church attempted to limit war among Christians on the European continent. Two religious doctrines prevailed in the name of peace: the Truce of God (medieval Christian concept)“Truce of God,” which forbade warfare on Sundays and “holy days” (from which derived the modern term “holidays”), and the Peace of God“Peace of God,” which prohibited combat in certain holy places. However, one must not overlook the Church’s promotion of the Crusades and the prosecution of “Just war”[Just war]“just wars” as conveyed in the fifth century by Augustine, SaintAugustine, SaintSaint Augustine in his City of God, The (Augustine) De civitate Dei (413-427; The City of God, 1610) and later adapted and explicated upon by Saint Summa Theologica (Thomas Aquinas) Thomas AquinasThomas Aquinas Thomas Aquinas in his thirteenth century treatise Summa theologiae (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica, 1911-1921).

The appearance of traditions of absolute pacifism took place during the latter Middle Ages and the Reformation;pacifismReformation. These traditions were marked by a very strong antistate attitude. The WaldensiansWaldensians in the twelfth century and the sixteenth century AnabaptistsAnabaptists were opponents of organized rule and vigorously persecuted by the Catholic Church and the state. The Anabaptists–Mennonites, Moravians, Dunkers, and later the Church of the Brethren–were entirely German-speaking from Central Europe and based their doctrine of Nonresistancenonresistance on what they called WehrlosigkeitWehrlosigkeit, which meant renunciation of war and refusal to participate in politics.

Modern World

The historical origins of Antiwar movementsPeace movementspeace movements as they are known today began during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);growth of armiesThirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in Europe. The gradual formation of nation-states, along with the development of professional armies in support of European monarchs, led some thinkers to question the desirability of society’s militarization. One of the first European thinkers to question the need for large standing armies was the Dutch jurist On the Law of War and Peace (Grotius) Grotius, HugoHugo Grotius (1583-1645). Witnessing the expansion of large armies on the continent that far outnumbered his native population, Grotius wrote De jure belli ac pacis (1625; On the Law of War and Peace, 1654). Although he recognized the prospects for international war, his work was the first to draw a sharp distinction between what was war and what was peace.

Later in the seventeenth century, pacifist sects relying on religious grounds of conscientious objection transplanted their beliefs in the New World. The best-known American sectarian peace group was the QuakersSociety of FriendsSociety of Friends (originally founded in England by Fox, GeorgeFox, GeorgeGeorge Fox around 1650). Led by Penn, WilliamPenn, WilliamWilliam Penn, who won a large tract of land from the king of England and called his settlement Pennsylvania in the 1680’s, the Friends (Quakers) believed that civil authority should flow directly from the power of the people’s experience of “inner light” (direct personal knowledge of the good). What drew them together were their common hatred of war and violence, belief in nonresistance as a way of life, and love for Christ. One of the most famous proponents of Quaker pacifism was the eighteenth century Friend from Mount Holly, New Jersey, Woolman, JohnWoolman, JohnJohn Woolman, who preached against slavery and criticized raising taxes for war purposes. During the American Revolution (1775-1783), Quakers made conscientious objection (later known as Passive nonresistancepassive Nonresistancenonresistance) an effective philosophical instrument.

Meanwhile, in Europe, at the end of the eighteenth century, one of the most important philosophical contributions to the principles of peace appeared. In Kant, ImmanuelKant, ImmanuelPerpetual Peace (Kant) Zum ewigen Frieden: Ein philosophischer Entwurf(1795; Perpetual Peace: A Philosophic Essay, 1897), German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) laid the empirical groundwork for examining the necessary conditions for peace. Kant focused specifically on the dangers of armaments. He also argued that as society advances, reason and logic will further moral perfection. A product of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, Kant insisted that universal truths are independent of time and place, and because of humanity’s ability to utilize rational principles, certain fixed principles, such as peace, will eventually prevail.

At the conclusion of the War of 1812 and the end of the Napoleonic conquests on the European continent in 1815, the first organized peace movements were formed in the United States and Great Britain. In the United States, an organized endeavor that was both religious and humanitarian, but not specifically tied to any one sectarian group, emerged under the leadership of New England sea captain and Harvard graduate Ladd, WilliamLadd, WilliamWilliam Ladd (1778-1841). Perhaps the world’s first national peace organization, the American Peace SocietyAmerican Peace Society coordinated activities among the fifty or so peace groups. In England, the London Peace SocietyLondon Peace SocietyLondon Peace Society led the way, composed mainly of Quakers. On the European continent, moreover, the ideas for the establishment of permanent arbitration tribunals and a federation of nations advocated by thinkers such as Dubois, PierreDubois, PierrePierre Dubois (c. 1255-c. 1312) and the Saint-Pierre, Abbé deSaint-Pierre, Abbé de[Saint Pierre, Abbe de]Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743) were widely popularized. The Holy AllianceHoly Alliance of Czar Alexander IAlexander I (czar of Russia)[Alexander 01]Alexander I also seemed to be an indication that such ideas might be workable. In large measure, nineteenth century organized peace movements were products of the United States and Great Britain and would remain so for much of the twentieth century as well.

One of the most important advocates of peace during this period was the “Learned Blacksmith” from Connecticut, Burritt, ElihuBurritt, ElihuElihu Burritt (1810-1879). During the Oregon Crisis (1840’s)Oregon Crisis between Britain and the United States in the mid-1840’s, Burritt cooperated with Friends and other peace activists in England in an exchange of “friendly addresses.” This exchange was carried out between British and American cities and involved merchants, ministers, laborers, and women. Burritt himself carried two “friendly addresses”–with impressive lists of signatures–one from Edinburgh, Scotland, and another from women of Exeter, England, to Washington, D.C., where Senator Calhoun, John C.Calhoun, John C.John C. Calhoun and other senators applauded this “popular handshaking” across the Atlantic. In addition, Burritt founded the largest and most uncompromising nonsectarian pacifist organization yet known among Western peace seekers: the League of Universal BrotherhoodLeague of Universal Brotherhood. By 1850, this “world peace society” had collected seventy thousand British and American signatures for its pledge of complete disavowal of war.

Antidraft riots in New York City in 1863.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-1865), European peacemaking efforts had a profound impact on the American quest to eliminate war. Attempts to promote the importance of international law in Europe occurred roughly at the same time that the American Peace Society began widespread propaganda forArbitrationarbitration. SirCremer, RandalCremer, RandalRandal Cremer (1828-1908), a tireless British peace advocate and labor organizer who was instrumental in furthering Anglo-American arbitration negotiations, organized a vast Paris Peace Congress (1878)peace congress in Paris in 1878. With spokespersons from thirteen countries, this congress called for a court of arbitration and for an international commission to estimate the armaments of each nation. The congress placed emphasis on the cost of wars to workers and the need for strike action to prevent war, proposing that the peace societies in various countries be federated. Subsequently, Cremer and Passy, FrédéricPassy, FrédéricFrédéric Passy (1822-1912) of France established the Inter-Parliamentary Union[Interparliamentary Union]Inter-Parliamentary Union in 1889, and their efforts led to the Lake Mohonk Conferences on International ArbitrationLake Mohonk Conferences on International Arbitration in the United States (founded 1895). The work of European and American arbitrationists and internationalists led to the creation of 130 new international Nongovernmental organizations;peace groupsnongovernmental organizations in the last quarter of the nineteenth century–and, as peace historians have pointed out, to the very term “international organization.”

During these same years, inspired by the movement for international arbitration, European peace activists also created their own international network. Though not organized as peace movements the way they were in Great Britain and the United States, peace societies sprang up in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and even czarist Russia, thanks in large part to Tolstoy, LeoTolstoy, LeoWar and Peace (novel) Count Leo Tolstoy (who would become most famous for his novel Voyna i mir [1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886]). In 1892, peace societies created the International Peace Bureau International Peace Bureau in Bern, Switzerland, as a clearinghouse for publicizing their differing philosophies. Until 1914, peace workers lectured throughout the Continent, wrote books and pamphlets criticizing military expenditures, developed peace curricula for schools, and held meetings nearly every year, at which peace resolutions were submitted to foreign ministries.

The movement for international arbitration also became widely popular in the United States at the start of the twentieth century. Among the most influential organizations were the American Society of International LawAmerican Society of International Law, the Carnegie Endowment for International PeaceCarnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), and the World Peace FoundationWorld Peace Foundation (WPF). These organizations were specialized agencies for transmitting the experts’ knowledge of peace to the masses and encouraging conciliatory gestures among governments. At the same time, the Hague Peace ConferencesHague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 created the hope that disarmament and arbitration would end wars forever.

The outbreak of World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];conscientoius objectorsWorld War I in 1914, however, presented serious challenges to the rights of conscientious objectors as well as the two major organized peace movements. In Great Britain, Grubb, EdwardGrubb, EdwardEdward Grubb (1854-1939), a theologian, Friend, and social reformer, played a prominent role in establishing theNo-Conscription Fellowship[No Conscription Fellowship]No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF). The NCF waged a vigorous battle in its efforts to protect the right of conscience and in breaking down barriers separating religious and nonreligious war resisters. Largely through Grubb’s efforts, the British government reexamined its views on the treatment of war resisters and absolute pacifists, adopting an entirely new policy that recognized their legal rights to exemption from state service.

During the war, the National Peace CouncilNational Peace Council (NPC) served as the arm of the peace movement in England and the most recognizable peace organization in Europe. Founded in 1908, the NPC was a coalition of voluntary organizations that acted as a check on the government’s attempt to militarize the populace and stifle dissent. The NPC encouraged an end to the conflict and looked forward to the establishment of some type of international peacekeeping organization. After the war, moreover, the establishment of the Peace Pledge UnionPeace Pledge Union in the 1930’s secured numerous adherents to its pledge: “I renounce war and will never support or sanction another.”

In the United States, the administration of President Wilson, WoodrowWilson, WoodrowWoodrow Wilson respected the rights of the historic peace churches. However, nonreligious war resisters received harsh treatment and imprisonment. Many were beaten and placed in strip cells at federal prisons such as Alcatraz and Fort Leavenworth. Those found guilty of violating the Selective Service Act went to prison. When findings with respect to the treatment of imprisoned war objectors became public, President Wilson issued an executive order requiring the elimination of such harsh penalties.

The organized peace movement in the United States became divided between liberal internationalists who supported the war and pacifists who opposed it. Ultimately, this division resulted in a reorganized peace movement that would be led by groups such as the religious Fellowship of ReconciliationFellowship of Reconciliation (originally founded in England in 1915 but establishing headquarters in the United States after World War I), the Women’s International League for Peace and FreedomWomen;peace activistsWomen’s International League for Peace and Freedom (the first American female to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Addams, JaneAddams, JaneJane Addams, was a member), the War Resisters LeagueWar Resisters League, and the American Friends Service CommitteeAmerican Friends Service Committee. These new organizations were born during and immediately after the war and considered peace as something more than the absence of armed conflict. Their creation defined the “modern” peace movement in America.

The leading peace advocate of the “modern” movement during this period was Muste, Abraham J.Muste, Abraham J.Abraham J. Muste (1885-1967). Labeled “America’s No. 1 Pacifist” by Time magazine in 1939, Muste elevated peace action and connected it to labor and economic issues. His form of nonresistance would later inspire a peace strategy known as Direct action direct action. Muste played a prominent role in the Christian nonviolence movement in twentieth century America and, with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, established effective relationships with peace societies in Europe, East Asia, and South Africa.

A young woman offers a flower to a military policeman at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in 1967.


By the late 1930’s, as fascism and militarism took hold in Europe, organized peace movements–still located in Britain and the United States–once again split apart. Devoted pacifists opposed the use of arms, while internationalists considered the defeat of German chancellor Adolf Hitler and Japanese aggression a necessity for establishing world order. Unlike Great Britain, which had come to grips with the issue of conscientious objection, the United States required some form of alternative service to bearing arms. A Civilian Public Service camps program was established and paid for by the Historic Peace Churches. Still, this approach did not satisfy absolute pacifists, and the controversy continued for the duration of the war.

After World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];peace activismWorld War II (1939-1945), the reality of atomic and then nuclear warfare, highlighted by the Cold War, led to the establishment of new peace groups in the United States, such as the Committee for a SANE Nuclear PolicyCommittee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, as well as disarmament groups on the European continent such as Great Britain’s Direct Action CommitteeDirect Action Committee, which sponsored the annual Aldermaston marchesAldermaston marches. These peace organizations were committed to halting aboveground nuclear testing and encouraged disarmament talks between the principal nuclear powers. In addition, both the success of the nonviolence movement of Gandhi, Mohandas K.Gandhi, Mohandas K. (Mahatma)Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi in India and antinuclear awareness promoted by the Hibakushahibakusha, Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, influenced the peace movement’s role in Third World countries.

The most dramatic peace protests of the twentieth century took place in the United States during the Vietnam War (1961-1975);antiwar movementAntiwar movementsVietnam War (1961-1975). Massive antiwar demonstrations frequently took place in major cities, and direct action strategies were carried out to disrupt the machinery of government. Opposition to the war was widespread on college campuses. To a considerable extent, the antiwar movement was fueled by resentment over the draft as many young men questioned the legitimacy of the war. As a result, U.S. Supreme Court decisions gave wider latitude to the meaning of conscientious objection and no longer adopted a rigorous policy of alternative service.

The Antinuclear movements1980’s witnessed the peace movement in the United States and on the European continent calling for a freeze on the deployment of missiles and halting development of more nuclear warheads. What provoked such a sharp response was the growth of antinuclear movements in Western Europe. In 1981, massive protests were carried out in various Western European cities aimed at stopping a plan by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in five European nations. Major demonstrations were conducted in Paris, Rome, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Bonn. British historian and left-wing social critic Thompson, E. P.Thompson, E. P.E. P. Thompson (1924-1993) became the leading intellectual light of the movement against nuclear weapons. He rallied the British peace movement and took the lead in numerous Aldermaston marchesAldermaston marches. His writings also inspired American pacifists, who initiated a series of direct action campaigns aimed at defense plants, submarine bases, missile sites, and the Pentagon. In America, moreover, scientist Forsberg, Randall CarolineForsberg, Randall CarolineRandall Caroline Forsberg (1943-2007) led the way in calling for a Nuclear freeze movementnuclear freeze.

In San Francisco, people of all ages demonstrate against the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

(Getty Images)

In June, 1982, the movement for a nuclear freeze was dramatically illustrated at a disarmament rally in New York City. More than 700,000 people participated, making it the largest political demonstration in U.S. history. The campaign’s grassroots impact was enormous as the freeze referendum appeared on state ballots across the nation. “It represented,” in the words of one reporter, “the largest referendum on any issue in American history; sixty per cent of the voters supported the resolution.” Although the freeze movement did not achieve its ultimate goal, the anti-nuclear arms movement did result in a change in attitude, both at home and abroad. It provided a badly needed political platform in support of arms control and disarmament.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that began after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;antiwar movementsSeptember 11, 2001, have also witnessed massive antiwar demonstrations. Among the salient aspects of this peace movement have been the sheer size of protests and its global scale. Prior to the commencement of military action in Iraq War (beg. 2003);antiwar movementIraq in 2003, peace demonstrations were larger than those that opposed the Vietnam War at its height. One of the unique aspects of this peace movement, particularly in the United States, has been its Internet;antiwar movementsonline organizing, which has helped many antiwar groups succeed in their efforts to mobilize at the grass roots. This peace movement has emerged as a force for organizing, raising money, and influencing politicians and the media through blogs and e-mail messages. Using conference calls and e-mail messages to the U.S. Congress are new weapons for these protest movements, as peace workers aim to influence votes rather than gather in mass demonstrations.

Thus, the peace movement that emerged after 9/11 has embraced the notion of advancing international collective political struggles in novel as well as traditional ways. The interconnectedness associated with globalization and new communication technologies has elicited new opportunities to forge a global collective identity. No longer are organized peace movements primarily the domain of the United States and Great Britain alone. While military theorists believe that the future of warfare will revolve around social and communication networks worldwide, antiwar groups are demonstrating that theory as they get out the message of peace and justice.

One of the most important developments involving the issue of conscientious objection is that governments have moved away from a strict interpretation of “conscience” based on religion to a more secular understanding of people’s views regarding a particular war. With respect to peace movements, it is safe to say that their importance has grown globally in size and stature, given the realities of modern warfare and the possibilities for nuclear annihilation. No longer are peace movements confined to nations composed of traditional peace societies and organizations. While peace movements, historically, may not have been effective in preventing all wars, it is clear that they have been responsible for informing publics as to the destructiveness of modern warfare.Peace movementsConscientious objectionPacifism

Books and Articles

  • Beales, A. F. C. The History of Peace: A Short Account of the Organized Movements for International Peace. New York: Dial Press, 1931. A survey of the peace movements in the United States and Great Britain to World War I, with primary emphasis on the London Peace Society.
  • Brock, Peter, and Nigel Young. Pacifism in the Twentieth Century. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999. A revised and expanded version of one of Brock’s earlier works, Twentieth Century Pacifism (1970), analyzing pacifist ideals and peace movements throughout the twentieth century in Europe and the United States.
  • Carroll, Bernice, Clinton F. Fink, and Jane E. Mohraz, eds. Peace and War: A Guide to Bibliographies. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1983. A massive annotated bibliography covering topics on peace and war from 1785 to 1980 from a transnational perspective.
  • Chatfield, Charles. The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism. New York: Twayne, 1992. A historical survey of the organized sectarian movement to the 1980’s campaign against nuclear weapons through the lens of social movement theory.
  • Cooper, Sandi. Patriotic Pacifism: Waging War on War in Europe, 1815-1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Examines the role of citizen peace activism by focusing on national and international societies, schools and curricula, and the effects of peace movements on the political process in Europe during this period.
  • Cortright, David. Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. A valuable work discussing the meaning of peace, origins of peace societies, and internationalism, with an emphasis on religion, democracy, social justice, morality, and disarmament.
  • DeBenedetti, Charles. The Peace Reform in American History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Expanding and updating the classic work by Merle Curti, Peace or War: The American Struggle, 1636-1936 (1936), this survey emphasizes peace work as part of the larger reform movement in American society.
  • Ferrell, Robert H. “Peace Movements.” In Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, edited by Alexander DeConde et al. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002. Offers a brief overview of the origins of peace movements and American foreign policy efforts in the realm of international relations.
  • Howlett, Charles F., and Robbie Lieberman. A History of the American Peace Movement from Colonial Times to the Present. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008. The most comprehensive survey of the struggle for peace and justice in America to date, with an emphasis on achieving social and economic justice; contains a thirty-two-page bibliographic essay on peace scholarship.
  • Wittner, Lawrence S. Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009. An abridged version of Wittner’s award-winning trilogy The Struggle Against the Bomb, which stresses the effectiveness of grassroots movements worldwide in challenging and thwarting the nuclear desires and ambitions of the great powers.

Collaboration in War



Prisoners and War

War Crimes and Military Justice