FIVE: “Speak Truth to Power:” A Thirty Years Retrospective (1985)

H. Larry Ingle

When the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) published “Speak Truth to Power” in the spring of 1955, it did two important things, one advertent, one inadvertent. The authors intended to, and did, produce the most lucid pacifist tract ever penned in the United States; they probably did not intend to, but nevertheless did, raise basic questions about what people should be and do to end war and establish peace.

Unfortunately, the book’s immediate influence was minimal. Only 25,000 copies were printed. The Progressive [magazine] did turn over a major portion of its October number to a symposium on the issues it raised and in December carried nearly two pages of reader responses. Lewis Mumford, the well-known intellectual and scholar, wrote letters to a cross-section of newspapers calling attention to the pamphlet and joined Robert M. Hutchins, Hans Morgenthau and Erich Fromm, each a prominent molder of opinion in a plea that it be given the widest possible attention. But despite a scattering of reviews and editorials some hostile, some friendly the AFSC’s booklet seems to have had little impact. The Christian Century let its appearance pass in silence.

Fourth in a series begun in 1949, the pamphlet openly and explicitly challenged the prevailing mentality of the time, a period marked by what historian Lawrence Wittner. in his Rebels Against War, has called the nadir of the peace movement. The three earlier publications had all argued against American foreign and military policy, but had done so without openly confronting the assumptions undergirding it. Fearful of being considered radical, they tended to accept the controlling ideas of the Cold Warriors and tried to argue from similar premises to different conclusions. It was an impossible task, doomed to be unconvincing.

This time, prodded by A. J. Muste. whom Time a decade before had dubbed “America’s Number 1 Pacifist,’” the 13-member drafting committee undertook a more principled approach, one that they hoped would help extract the peace movement from the depths into which it had plunged. And, just as important, they hoped that their effort might help banish some of the fears that the McCarthy crusade had unleashed and offered a counterposition to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s “brinkmanship” and “massive retaliation” some of the concepts that had reduced the peace movement to its low estate in the first place.

In addition, the authors of “Speak Truth to Power’‘ directed its 70 pages against Reinhold Niebuhr’s devastating charge that peace advocates had overlooked the real nature and destiny of the human animal. After Niebuhr’s long flirtation with theological liberalism, his espousal of neo-orthodoxy had, by the 1950s, just about conquered the nation’s religious mind and won him powerful disciples even among secular intellectuals.

His denial of the possibility that human beings could create a good and peaceful world had banished the topic of pacifism to an easily overlooked page or two in the ethics books used in seminaries. Among adherents of the traditional peace churches, the Quakers, Brethren and Mennonites, pacifism was carefully nurtured and husbanded, but it seemed unable to survive transplanting outside those small and suspect ecclesiae into a mainline made uncongenial by neoorthodoxy. No wonder that the interdenominational Fellowship of Reconciliation and the more secular War Resisters League languished close to moribundity.

“Speak Truth to Power” was divided into two main parts. One consisted of a finely argued critique of the prevailing realism, with its stress on the necessity for engaging in a larger and larger arms buildup until, sometime in the uncertain future, a remarkable state of equilibrium called deterrence would be reached. The authors underscored what to them were certain obvious realities that advocates of military power had chosen to overlook. United States military power had not weakened the Soviet Union’s influence, nor had it prevented communism’s advance. For proof, a critic only had to cite the triumph of communist revolutionaries in China, their growing influence in Southeast Asia, and the increase of internal communist political sentiment in France and Italy.

Moreover, rather than enhancing U.S. influence, military power had eroded it among those of the emerging world who wanted independence, economic justice and control over their own institutions. If this development were not ominous enough, the anti-communist sentiment that led to increased militarization and McCarthyism had seriously compromised America’s own democratic values. Our development of the H-bomb and the Soviets’ successful rush to catch up, as well as the paranoia that Western military power helped feed in the U.S.S.R., further contributed to making the world less secure in 1955 than it had been in 1945. These realities made imperative a common-sense policy.

Unfortunately for the pamphlet’s immediacy, the Montgomery bus boycott, which gave Martin Luther King. Jr., an opportunity to charge words like love and truth with a new and electric political meaning, was still more than six months in the future. To demonstrate the practicality of nonviolence, “Speak Truth to Power” drew instead on the example of Gandhi’s Indian independence campaign. Emphasizing that each individual had to renounce violence (“for war grows directly from the accumulated prejudices. selfishness, greed and arrogance of individual men”), the authors called on each person to take a committed stand so that “the impossible moves nearer to the possible.” A national policy of nonviolence not only would end segregation, but would establish maximum freedom of thought and expression” and awaken more sensitivity to “the deadening impact of our industrial life; Americans would support the “great social revolutions” abroad, “a major hope of our time”; the government would commit skills and resources to “great programs of technical and economic assistance” through the United Nations; and, finally, the country’s military establishment would be dismantled.

Interwoven with this rather pragmatic discussion of power was a second theme, one that grew inexorably and inevitably out of the committee members’ Quaker faith. “Our truth,” they emphasized, “is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes, that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden.” If the pamphlet’s policy sections often sparkled with insights, the call to an active faith had the power to challenge and inspire the reader. Faith an ultimate allegiance to God and his will must be central, they held, to the decisions people make, the ways they respond to the world.

In words that still sound a telling indictment of those moderns who would presume to fashion their own world, oblivious of God and history, they wrote, “Man’s curse lies in his worship of the work of his hands, in his glorification of material things, in his failure to set limits on his material needs.” Such idolatry leads a person “to lust for power, to disregard human personality, to ignore God, and to accept violence or any other means to achieve his ends.”

In their final “Affirmation,” the writers repudiated pragmatism. They knew that arguments alone would not convince. “A politics of eternity,” a politics ruled “by reason ennobled by right,” was required to lead one to follow “his own inner sense of integrity” and to say, “Here I stand. Regardless of relevance or consequence, I can do no other.” To act on such a faith would require repentance and a turning-away from evil, something that people could achieve only if they listened to the Voice that spoke from within. No wonder their work received such scant attention, for in a secular world such a religious approach may seem hopelessly irrelevant.

The AFSC has never again published this kind of analysis nor kept an updated “Speak Truth to Power” in print. The tract came directly out of what might be called the “liberal” or accommodationist wing of the Quaker movement. This faction of Friends has always viewed the AFSC as an agency for molding enlightened public opinion to support humanitarian policies, and for convincing intelligent people that Quaker concerns were eminently reasonable and acceptable. But these authors were stressing that religion and transcendent religion at that offered the only way forward. They were answering both a negative neo-orthodoxy and an overly optimistic modern liberalism with a strong call to repentance and faith.

Forsake the politics of reason, they recommended, for such an approach might well lead a nation to attempt to destroy those it perceives as enemies. The first step toward a just and peaceful world was releasing “into society integrated men and women, whose lives are at one with God, with themselves and with their fellow men.” Then people could renew a “sense of community, of mutuality or responsible brotherhood for all men everywhere.’‘ In a pointed rejoinder to those who thought that communists could not be trusted, they stated: “The politics of eternity do not require that we trust [them]. They require us to love [them] and trust God”

Finally, in words like those of the ancient prophets, the authors concluded:

“The race is on; it may be almost run. Man plays with the politics of time, thinking to be master of his own destiny. But God is not mocked: His politics still govern, for the human soul is perplexed and afflicted by the pervading pressure of power exercised by men and nations in their pursuit of the politics of time alone.”

Like the early Friends, the authors of “Speak Truth to Power” relied on an inner sense that the Kingdom of God “would never come until somebody believed in its principles enough to try them in actual operation.” Although their examples are dated, their overall analysis rings true, a clarion call echoing the old advice that peace begins with repentance and turning about, and ends with Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom. Perhaps now, 30 years after its first appearance, we can reopen “Speak Truth to Power” and begin to give it the attention it still deserves.

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