Pledging War Resistance

  October 21, 2021   Read time 2 min
Pledging War Resistance
In the latter half of the 1920s a sense of moral outrage and repugnance at the folly of war became widespread and a significant movement for absolute pacifism developed.
In 1925 Arthur Ponsonby launched his famous Peace Letter campaign, seeking signatures on a pledge to “refuse to support or render war service to any Government which resorts to arms.” Ponsonby’s appeal was enormously popular and brought in more than 128,000 signed pledges, which he delivered to the government in December 1927. Ponsonby appealed for support on the basis of what he considered a new form of “utilitarian pacifism.” War was objectionable not only on religious, moral, and humanitarian grounds, but on the basis of practical considerations as well. The recent world war had proved, Ponsonby contended, that the horrendous costs of modern war far exceeded any conceivable benefit that might result. This perspective was similar to that of scientific pacifism, which predicted at the turn of the century that industrialized war would lead to such mass slaughter that losses would inevitably outweigh gains. Utilitarian concerns thus combined with moral appeals in a broad public rejection of war.
As the movement for pacifism grew Albert Einstein lent his enormous prestige to the call for war resistance. He actively supported campaigns for conscientious objection and the refusal of military service. Einstein’s espousal of war resistance reinforced a growing movement for absolute pacifism on British and US campuses. In 1930 he joined with Jane Addams, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Rabindranath Tagore, and other prominent intellectuals in an appeal against conscription and the military training of youth. He counseled “thoughtful, well-meaning and conscientious” people to accept a“solemn and unconditional obligation not to participate in any war.” During a December 1930 speech at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York Einstein offered his famous “two per cent” solution to the problem of war:
Even if only two per cent of those assigned to perform military service should announce their refusal to fight, as well as urge means other than war of settling international disputes, governments would be powerless, they would not dare send such a large number of people to jail.
Einstein’s speech generated considerable enthusiasm among pacifists. In the United States buttons reading “two per cent” began appearing on campuses and in communities. Not all pacifists were enthusiastic about Einstein’s “two per cent” solution. The preeminent French pacifist Romain Rolland shared Einstein’s commitment to war resistance but criticized the “deceptive promise” and “puerile assurances” of his plan for individual refusal.
Given the increasingly industrial and technical nature of war and the development of air power and weapons of advanced destructiveness, Roland observed, it “becomes a matter of complete indifference to governments whether two or ten per cent of the population refuses military service.” Rolland was remarkably prescient in anticipating the trend toward technological warfare and recognizing that individualized resistance would never reach sufficient scale to cripple the war machine. He was an admirer of Einstein but also a devoted follower of Gandhi, and he advocated mass nonviolent action as an alternative means of preventing war and achieving social justice.