In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pacifism

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  • Classic Overviews
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Military History Pacifism
Sandi Cooper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0047


Along with other “isms” such as feminism, pacifism was coined in the late 19th to early 20th centuries to describe a set of beliefs and movements that had existed long before they were named. As with other ideologies, pacifism might more rightly be called “pacifisms.” Adherents can be found across the political and ideological spectrum. The idea that human beings can solve their differences without murdering each other has deep roots in recorded human history. Among the major religions created during the so-called axial age (the period from 800 to 200 BCE), Buddhism and Taoism in ancient India and China professed humanitarian and peaceable relations as the basic good of human behavior; in the Western tradition, the Sermon on the Mount attributed to Jesus Christ provided a foundation for pacifist thinking. Until the 19th century in the Euro-American world, pacifism remained largely a religious, moral, and/or intellectual philosophy and was practiced by religious sects such as the Quakers and Mennonites. However, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1814–1815), secular organizations, societies, and movements emerged in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Europe. Arguments made by these groups varied. Absolute pacifists who eschewed war under any and all circumstances insisted that Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” trumped all practical considerations. During the post-Enlightenment period, however, emerging industrial societies in Europe developed secular arguments: that advanced societies could solve international problems through legal and diplomatic means; that interdependent economies would suffer from military violence; that governments increasingly based on democratic participation rejected dynastic aggression as a measure of national greatness; and that legal mechanisms could be developed among states as they had within states to solve conflicts. Peace societies formed during the 19th century were largely middle class and male in membership; however, by the 1890s socialist organizations and feminist societies joined in the mix, bringing very different perspectives on how to preserve or achieve peace. For most socialists, the redistribution of wealth and power in capitalist societies was the prerequisite; women’s groups largely believed that peace and justice would emerge when women became fully educated citizen participants. The Great War (1914–1918), which peace societies had valiantly tried to prevent, transformed pacifism, as did the unexpected emergence of Gandhian nonviolence in the Indian national movement. In the 20th century, peace societies ranged from groups such as nongovernmental organizations advocating the League of Nations or the United Nations to organizations promoting social and environmental justice. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear weapons race between the Soviet Union and the United States, arms control emerged as a central feature of peace activism, whereas once it had not been emphasized out of fear of arousing nationalist sarcasm. Peace movements since the 1960s have often been shaped by opposition to an ongoing war (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), not as an overarching effort to establish global nonviolence. Given the realities of 20th-century interstate warfare, peace activists are usually not denounced as childish utopians but are chided for not believing that peace is kept through strength and preparedness.

Classic Overviews

This section contains selected titles reflecting the approach to the study of peace activism in the period between the two world wars of the 20th century. Authors including Irwin Abrams (Abrams 1938), Merle Curti (Curti 1972), and A. C. F. Beales (Beales 1971) recovered unknown historical origins of peace activism that were essentially ignored by diplomatic and political historians. Coudenhove-Kalergi 1926 and Madariaga 1929 argued for the realism of peace institutions from the viewpoint of in-service diplomats in their explorations of historical precedents. Faries 1915 captured the moves toward internationalism that emerged from civil society initiatives in the 19th century. Inter-Parliamentary Union 1939 and Ruyssen 1954–1961 are works by organizers and activists in pre-1914 and post-1919 peace societies representing German, Scandinavian, and French collaboration. These reflect the efforts of engaged citizens in ceaseless efforts to establish a European community through international legal and institutional creation. Jacob ter Meulen, librarian at The Hague Peace Palace, built and used its important assemblage of peace documents stretching back to the Middle Ages, and his three-volume history developed from a PhD dissertation at Zurich (see ter Meulen 1917–1940). Merze Tate, a rare example of an African American woman who obtained a doctorate in the late 1930s, wrote a historical analysis of efforts to control the world arms race and their shortcomings (see Tate 1942). Her often-ignored scholarship addressed issues still alive in modern scholarship—how to attain and enforce arms reductions and elimination.

  • Abrams, Irwin. “A History of European Peace Societies, 1867–1899.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1938.

    Elegant scholarship that the author chose to leave unpublished with the outbreak of war in 1939. A counterpart to Merle Curti’s coverage of the American peace movement (Curti 1972) informed in part by survivors of the pre-1914 pacifist efforts.

  • Beales, A. C. F. The History of Peace. New York: Garland, 1971.

    Originally published in 1931 (London: G. Bell). A first effort to narrate the development of modern peace organizations in the decades following the Napoleonic Wars. A scholarly work, but clearly aimed at educating the public about the alternatives created by 19th-century Europeans and Americans that would have avoided the Great War.

  • Coudenhove-Kalergi, Richard Nicolaus. Pan-Europe. New York: Knopf, 1926.

    Originally published in 1923 (Vienna: Pan-Europa-Verlag). A European diplomat whose vision of an organized Europe was a major contribution to peace-thinking between the wars, and even with the outbreak of war, he remained convinced of the future of an organized system to render war obsolete in Europe.

  • Curti, Merle. Peace or War: The American Struggle, 1636–1936. New York: Garland, 1972.

    An overview by the leading US scholar who essentially defined the study of peace history in the United States. Curti authored several other works, beginning in the 1930s, on peace and pacifism in US history.

  • Faries, J. C. Rise of Internationalism, 1829–1913. New York: W. D. Gray, 1915.

    An early and authoritative review of the commercial, economic, public health, scientific, and pragmatic institutions that began to evolve in modern Europe as a result of the first Industrial Revolution and the spread of international capitalism.

  • Inter-Parliamentary Union. The Inter-Parliamentary Union from 1889 to 1939. Lausanne, Switzerland: Payot, 1939.

    The authoritative history written by Ludwig Quidde and Christian Lange, two major activists and leaders of the Union.

  • Madariaga, Salvador de. Disarmament. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

    The eminent Spanish scholar-diplomat published an original historical examination of the idea of reducing or eliminating weaponry as the arms control discussions sanctioned by the Versailles Treaty entered into their last possible moment for success in interwar Europe.

  • Ruyssen, Théodore. Les sources doctrinales de l’internationalisme. 3 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954–1961.

    The author, a major French peace activist before 1914 and in the interwar years a legal scholar and president of l’Association de la Paix par le Droit as well as the international League of Nations Societies, examines the intellectual basis for European international institutions. Ruyssen came to peace activism and scholarship from studies of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy.

  • Tate, Merze. The Disarmament Illusion: The Movement for a Limitation of Armaments to 1907. New York: Macmillan, 1942.

    A dissertation that was published as a book by one of the first African American women to receive a doctorate in history, the book examines failed efforts to prevent war through international arms limitation agreements.

  • ter Meulen, Jacob. Der Gedanke der internationalen Organisation in seiner Entwicklung. 3 vols. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1917–1940.

    Volume 1 of the work summarizes the ideas of the major peace thinkers from 1300 to the French Revolution. Volume 2 (1919) describes the growth of Anglo-American and some European peace societies in the 19th century to 1870. Volume 3 (1940) covers 1870 to 1889 and features the evolution of international law and legal projects to maintain peace. Ter Meulen, librarian at The Hague Peace Palace, developed this classic work from his dissertation at Zurich, where he became interested in the peace initiatives of the early 20th century around the Hague Peace Conferences.

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