Charles C. Walker
Gandhi’s influence on the peace movement in the USA
Article published on 20 November 2017
zuletzt geändert am 23 November 2017
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Gandhi’s influence on the peace movement in the United States was felt as early as the 1920s. An effective exponent of Gandhi’s ideas was John Haynes Holmes, a prominent Unitarian minister and reformer, and an outspoken pacifist in World War I. He first set forth his discovery of Gandhi in a 1922 sermon titled “World Significance of Mahatma Gandhi” which was widely circulated. In another sermon the same year, “Who is the Greatest Man in the World Today?” this designation of Gandhi amazed many listeners, most of whom had never heard the name before. Gandhi’s autobiography was first published in America in the magazine Unity, which Holmes edited.

There were landmark books: by Romain Rolland in 1924, and three by C.F. Andrews published in 1930 and 1931. The Power of Nonviolence by Richard B. Gregg first appeared in 1934, and two revised editions were subsequently published. Probably no other book on nonviolence has been so widely read by U.S. pacifists, or so widely used as the basis for a study program.

Krishnalal Shridharani’s War without Violence (1939) was a valuable exposition of the methods of nonviolent direct action. He was sharply critical of Western bourgeois pacifism, and emphasized that satyagraha was as much a method of struggle as of persuasion.

A popular lecturer in America was Muriel Lester, an English friend of Gandhi with whom he stayed at Kingsley Hall when he attended the Round Table Conference in London. In the early 1930s, she began a series of lecture tours in the U.S., speaking widely to groups outside the traditional peace ranks, and gave vivid accounts of Gandhi’s nonviolent undertakings. C.F. Andrews also came on a nation-wide lecture tour.

The movement for Indian independence found many sympathisers and supporters, outside as well as inside the peace movement. Instances of nonviolent resistance in the 1930-33 All-India Campaign were reported in the U.S. newspapers by such journalists as Negley Farson and Webb Miller [see the articles posted here by Negley Farson, and also by Webb Miller]. Liberals and progressives of various kinds were heartened by successful struggles against colonialism and imperialism. The Salt March Satyagraha was for many young idealists an inspirational example of principled action. John Gunther’s bestseller, Inside Asia (1939), gave sympathetic portraits of Gandhi and Nehru, and heightened interest in the Indian independence movement.

Between the two world wars, liberal religion with a strong social action emphasis became a significant force in American life. Pacific methods were argued to be more ethical than violent methods for the attainment of social and political objectives. Gandhian nonviolence was thought to be congenial to such a mood of thought and action. Religious leaders who were also social idealists were attracted by Gandhi’s efforts to apply religious insights to social and political problems. They were impressed by his battle against caste and untouchability. While John Haynes Holmes remained the leading exponent of Gandhi’s ideas here, there were also E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary deeply influenced by his experience in India; and Kirby Page, a key figure in the peace movement for many years.

Quakers were drawn to Gandhi because of their mutual interest in the practical application of religious experience, as well as their principled rejection of violence. Rufus Jones, noted philosopher and leader in Quaker affairs, was deeply impressed by the spiritual force of Gandhi’s personality (in an interview in 1926), and in later years referred to him as “the greatest person now living on our planet.” This was in spite of differences with Gandhi over interpretation and expression of the mystical element in religion.

Prominent Negro ministers such as Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman were also involved in the peace movement, and had interviewed Gandhi. In fact, Gandhi commented to Thurman, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

A highly influential sector of the peace movement in the 1930s had a generally socialist orientation. The country was passing through the serious crisis of the Depression, and the menacing figure of Hitler loomed on the horizon. This leadership element was impressed by the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial aspect of the Indian independence movement and, it must be said, there were those who were always pleased to see the Indians (or anyone) twisting the British lion’s tail. On the other hand, they were either baffled by or critical of Gandhi’s economic views, as they understood them, and there were Marxist elements, both Socialist and Communist, who were hostile to Gandhi’s influence.

Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential figure in religious circles and in movements for social justice, argued that Gandhi’s satyagraha was a form of social and political coercion, and not the pure example of social idealism to the extent believed either by Gandhi himself or by his American exponents. Niebuhr was a formidable critic of religious liberalism. While he believed that there is a religious sanction for coercive methods in the political and economic world, he held that a principled nonviolent actionist could be a witness to a more excellent way as a special religious vocation, so long as nonviolence was not advanced as a political strategy required by the ethic of Christian love.

Nevertheless, as far back as 1932 Niebuhr urged American Negroes to adopt satyagraha in the struggle for racial justice. And in the magazine The World Tomorrow (1934) Cranston Clayton also argued that Gandhian methods were especially appropriate to the American scene and were necessary as a stage beyond the traditional methods of persuasion and education. It was not until two decades later that this idea began to flower in the civil rights movement.

In labour relations A. J. Muste and others evolved methods of nonviolent action although their inspiration came more from European radicals than from Gandhi. Some labour historians assert that violence has been a prominent feature in the history of the U.S. labour movement. However the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1919, a landmark in U.S. labour history, was won primarily because of the determination of the workers to remain nonviolent in the face of severe provocation and violence by factory owners and police.

There were middle-class elements in the peace movement who were highly critical of strikes and overt economic struggle, believing them to be divisive or even inconsistent with religious ethics. While Gandhi had little noticeable impact on the development of the labour movement in America, some of the experiences in it were to prove significant as background for the later emergence of nonviolent direct action as a method of social change.

Challenges to the U.S. Peace Movement

The seminal stage for the emergence of the “radical caucus” in the peace movement was the decade of the 1940s, during and after World War II. This group was increasingly preoccupied with Gandhian ideas in action, with the conscious application of satyagraha as an organizational mode of action on the American scene.

The Second World War was a severe challenge to the U.S. peace movement. While its major task during that period was survival, it also directed attention to proposals regarding postwar settlements and the conditions of peace. In this connection, there were debates about the kind of movement that could be relevant and effective in the turbulent postwar period.

One wing of the movement was radical in orientation and ethos. It represented a curious amalgam of traditions including revolutionary Marxism, anarchism, Protestant activism, Quakerism, American pragmatism―and Gandhian nonviolence.

One might arbitrarily set as a symbol of the new period the publication in 1940 of A. J. Muste’s book Nonviolence in an Aggressive World. Muste directed his argument to three major groups: those in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, those in movements for basic social justice, and advocates of democracy. He insisted that nonviolence was an essential ingredient of all three, and that to depart from a nonviolent base was to introduce a deeply disorienting and corrupting factor. The chapter, “Pacifism as Revolutionary Strategy” foreshadowed much that was to appear later as significant ideological tendencies in the movement.

Jay Holmes Smith and Ralph Templin, two missionaries in India who were expelled for their sympathies with the Gandhian movement, formed an ad hoc committee on nonviolent direct action, centred in New York City. The actions and teachings of this group directly influenced A. Philip Randolph, a Negro labour leader, and some of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality. It was Randolph who threatened a large scale march of Negroes on Washington, in 1941, in protest against discriminatory racial practices in industry. To forestall this march, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing a Fair Employment Practices Commission.

However, it was in the staff of the religious pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, under the leadership of A. J. Muste who became executive secretary in 1940, that decisions were made which set the future course of nonviolent action in the United States. There it was decided to apply the strategy and tactics of nonviolent direct action to the field of racial justice. This decision was based on two major considerations: the growing moral consensus on racial justice, and a steadily increasing number of laws against the practice of racial discrimination.

It soon became clear that the FOR could not carry on this task alone. There were few Negroes who would take such a radical position, and some of them had little interest in a religious organisation. Furthermore, only a small minority of religious pacifists involved themselves in this kind of activity. A new organization was formed in 1942 called the Committee of Racial Equality (Committee was later changed to Congress) with a strategic commitment to nonviolent methods and discipline. In the combined work of CORE and the FOR, figures emerged such as Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, and George Houser. Action projects and workshops were devised not only to secure change in the field of race relations but, equally important, to educate for the broader application of nonviolence. It was in this undertaking that much was learned about fundamental strategic and tactical considerations, as well as the corporate discipline, appropriate to the American scene. These factors were later to become important as background resources for the emerging civil rights movement in the middle 1950s.

Writers on Gandhi

Speakers and writers were also preparing the soil. Pacifist groups, in particular the American Friends Service Committee, scheduled Indian speakers who recounted Gandhian campaigns and described the Gandhian approach: Amiya Chakravarty, Eddy Asirvatham, Haridas Muzumdar, J. B. Kripalani, Nirmal Kumar Bose, Bharatan Kumarappa, K.K. Chandy, Richard Keithahn, and Sushila Nayyar, A. K. Mitra, Gurdial Mallik and Marjorie Sykes.

Significant writers had been deeply influenced by Gandhi, and their writings had an impact far beyond the peace movement. These included Louis Fischer, Vincent Sheean, Pearl Buck, Aldous Huxley, Herrymon Maurer, John and Frances Gunther, Edmond Taylor, and Chester Bowles.

Peacetime Conscription

The advent of peacetime conscription in 1948 was another important event for the American peace movement. There was no organization able to spearhead civil disobedience against conscription. A new group was formed called Peacemakers. While draft resistance was the immediate catalyst, the founders of Peacemakers hoped to inaugurate a new phase of disciplined and revolutionary activity in the peace movement. There were also those interested in pressing the method of tax refusal. While Peacemakers had some influence, and it became a focus for Gandhian ideology for a time, it never became a large organization and finally fragmented into several interest groups.

Another effect of the beginning of peacetime conscription was to raise, for the first time publicly, the possibility of Negroes engaging in civil disobedience to the draft. A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and others formed the “Committee Against Jim Crow In The Armed Forces”, urging Negroes to refuse to be drafted into segregated military units. While few Negroes responded to this appeal, the undertaking encouraged the idea of nonviolent action in the field of racial justice.

In 1949, the World Pacifist Conference was held in India. This occasion gave impetus to systematic thinking about the ideology, strategy, and future direction of a movement incorporating fundamental Gandhian ideas. It was recommended that satyagraha “brigades” be established in different countries. Key leaders developed personal relationships there which stood them in good stead as the movement had become more “internationalized”.

The Korean War of 1950-53 had a far-reaching impact on the peace movement. Nationalism and chauvinism grew apace, McCarthyism emerged and a climate was produced where most of the nonpacifist periphery of the movement melted away. Furthermore, those peace organizations whose stock-in-trade was proposals for negotiation found it difficult to relate their strategies to political realities. Neither the government nor the public was much interested in negotiation, especially after the protracted efforts to end the Korean War.

For a while the arguments within the movement were centered on the issue of negotiated versus unilateral disarmament. This modulated into a full-scale debate over the basic orientation of the pacifist sector of the peace movement. It culminated in the publication in 1955 of a pamphlet by the American Friends Service Committee titled Speak Truth to Power, in which a reasoned case was set forth for the application of nonviolence to the politics of peace. What gradually took shape was the ascendancy of the “radical caucus” in the peace movement, in the sense that the politics of this group either prevailed in some organizations or in others gained substantially in influence. While some of the moderate groups were less than enthusiastic about direct action, there was a heartening degree of coordination, consultation and joint action by leaders and groups.

The next chapter had to do with direct action for peace and against military preparations or actions. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there had been direct action projects and demonstrations in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and other cities. Frequently they were sponsored by an ad hoc committee of Peacemakers, Catholic Workers, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the War Resisters League.

Direct action for peace became a burgeoning effort starting in 1957. At the insistent urging of Lawrence Scott (himself deeply influenced by Gandhi) the peace organizations mobilized themselves for action against the threat of continued nuclear testing. At a meeting in Philadelphia, the groundwork was laid for the formation of two organizations, which later became the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) to work with liberals and moderates, and Nonviolent Action against Nuclear Weapons (NVA) to serve as a vehicle for radicals. It was agreed that more effective action would result if there were two organizations working in coordinate fashion rather than one organization in which a great deal of time and energy would be spent in resolving basic policy differences.

NVA first conducted Nevada Action, an effort to protest the exploding of a test atom bomb in the Nevada desert. The second project was much more ambitious: the sailing into the Pacific test zone of a small 30-foot ketch, the Golden Rule, captained by former Naval officer Albert Bigelow. There followed Omaha Action, against the building of a missile base in Nebraska; and, most dramatically, the March from San Francisco to Moscow. In 1959, A J. Muste, Bayard Rustin and Bill Sutherland helped coordinate the Sahara Protest Team, an international group which demonstrated against French nuclear testing on the African continent. Following that came Polaris Action, organized as a long-term project in New London, Connecticut, the centre for building Polaris submarines capable of launching an atomic attack.

Among students, the Student Peace Union was the group most friendly to Gandhian ideas. In the nation’s capital it mounted a large-scale demonstration of college and high school students committed to nonviolent discipline, which received widespread favourable comment.

The civil rights revolution, beginning with the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, posed a major challenge to those elements of the peace movement embracing Gandhian method. The civil rights movement, of course, was primarily about racial issues, although it made reference to other issues such as anti-colonialism in Africa. The name of Gandhi was often associated with the Montgomery Bus Protest and with Martin Luther King, Jr. King recounts two meetings as notable in his spiritual pilgrimage to nonviolence. When he was a student at Crozer Seminary, he attended a lecture by A. J. Muste (which this author arranged) on the implications of nonviolence for the Christian church. While at the same Seminary he attended a monthly interracial and inter-religious meeting in Philadelphia where Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, gave a passionate and powerful address on the significance of Gandhi, having just returned from the World Pacifist Conference in India. King wrote, “His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought half a dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.” As he delved into these books he concluded: “Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months….I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” At first he regarded it primarily as a valuable and potent instrument of struggle, but later he embraced nonviolence more completely and joined the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Chester Bowles wrote a featured article in the mass circulation magazine Saturday Evening Post (March 1, 1958) on “What Negroes Can Learn From Gandhi”. Two of the Negro college students who initiated the sit-in movement (Greensboro, North Carolina, 1960) told the author that one of the influences that impelled them to action was a television program on Gandhi. They saw going to jail for a worthy cause in an entirely new light. Out of the sit-in movement grew the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which incorporated nonviolence as a strategic commitment into their operational methods. A leading adult movement in the South was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also committed to nonviolence.

Most of the civil rights leaders, both youth and adult, articulated their views not specifically in Gandhian terms but either in largely Christian terms, indicative of the southern USA, or in humanistic and pragmatic terms, indicative of the North. There were some who extended their nonviolence beyond the cause of racial justice and questioned other aspects of national life inimical to human welfare, especially some aspects of U.S. foreign policy. As one young leader said: “We have to hope for more than dying in an integrated bomb shelter.”

There is some crossover from the civil rights movement to pacifism. Among the top civil rights leadership could be found many who were interested in disarmament and opposed the military emphasis of U.S. foreign policy. These would have to include Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and James Baldwin. Most of all James Farmer and Bayard Rustin had long-term involvements in the peace movement. Conversely, the peace movement brought organizational expertise to the civil rights revolution, especially in the 1950s and 1960s through the skills of Bayard Rustin, Glenn Smiley, James Lawson, and James Farmer. The peace movement also understood and helped explain nonviolence, and nonviolent strategy because of their exposure to Gandhian ideas over the years and, in some cases, to Gandhi himself.

In colleges and universities there was a continuing interest in Gandhi. He commanded respect not only as a historical figure but also as one who challenged some traditional American ideas. William Stuart Nelson, Vice-President of Howard University who visited India three times, taught a course, “The Philosophy and Methods of Nonviolence”. He received numerous enquiries from other universities and frequently lectured on Gandhi.

At Haverford College in 1963 there was a research seminar on methods of nonviolent action. At Spelman College, Professor Staughton Lynd taught a course on “The History of Nonviolence in America”. A number of courses in the analysis of conflict dealt with Gandhi, and one frequently heard of graduate studies on Gandhi. The technical Journal of Conflict Resolution published at University of Michigan frequently contained articles on Gandhian ideas or strategies.

Few Americans have attempted a systematic analysis of Gandhi’s political or organizational ideas. In addition to Richard B. Gregg mentioned earlier, there have been Joan Bondurant’s Conquest of Violence subtitled “The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict”; sections of Edmond Taylor’s Richer by Asia; Vincent Sheean’s Lead Kindly Light; Paul Power’s Gandhi on World Affairs; and Louis Fischer’s Gandhi and Stalin.

At the founding conference of the World Peace Brigade, held in Lebanon, and in its subsequent actions such as the Delhi-to-Peking Friendship March, there was a valuable and fruitful interchange between leaders of Gandhian thought and action in India and in the West. An important beginning was made towards overcoming an apparent dichotomy between the Western peace movement’s emphasis on war resistance and the Indian emphasis on Gandhi’s constructive program. An attempt was made to reformulate, and resolve, the dichotomy in terms of “nonviolent revolution”, or “revolutionary nonviolence” as the Statement of Principles and Aims of the World Peace Brigade indicates.

Gandhi’s Impact

The influence of Gandhian nonviolent civil resistance has been most evident among US pacifists. Prior to World War II Gandhi was a symbol of dedicated action, of a possible alternative to violent means of political and social change. But it was not until after 1940 that groups began to adopt satyagraha as a method of organizing. His impact may be summarized in a five-fold fashion:

Methodology. The methods of satyagraha helped to change aspects of American life. More experiments with Gandhian nonviolence may result from a combination of organizational efforts of groups committed to Gandhian principles, and efforts by thinkers and scholars to correlate Gandhian ideas and experience with developments and ideas in the behavioural sciences.

Principled Action. The peace movement has been bombarded with charges of utopianism and perfectionism, and has sometimes been caught in an unconscious reaction: making too many concessions to what passes for political realism. Gandhi has been a relentless reminder of the importance of “right action” in politics.

Gandhi’s style of leadership was direct, person to person, unaffected. One deeply impressed by the life of Gandhi could hardly aspire to be a Big Shot of the American variety. Simplicity and directness are generally regarded as cardinal virtues in American peace leadership. It would seem that Gandhi’s influence is one factor. As Dwight Macdonald put it, commenting on Gandhi’s ready availability to all: “He practised tolerance and love to such an extent that he seemed to have regarded the capitalist as well as the garbage man as his social equal!”

Discipline. Americans have usually been repelled by the idea of discipline. They have associated it with Puritan asceticism or Prussian militarism. There has also been negative experience in radical circles with manipulative discipline in some Marxist movements. Gandhi showed the creative uses of discipline in a way that has deeply impressed American exponents of nonviolence who reject authoritarianism but realize the weakness of undisciplined individualism.

Constructive Program. Resistance to an unjust social order is unintelligible or even nihilistic unless it is linked to an interaction process leading to a new social order. U.S. Gandhians admit that the many constructive activities in which nonviolent actionists are involved are not sufficiently coordinated or integrated with a nonviolent revolutionary program. Gandhi’s stress on the complementary nature of nonviolent resistance and a constructive program is an insistent guide-line in that regard.

Gandhi drew upon the traditions and ideas deep within the soil and soul of India, integrating them into an unforgettable life. Likewise, each time nonviolence finds expression it draws upon the traditions, experience and patterns of thought of the culture in which it is working. So it is in America, for the enduring legacy of Gandhi belongs not only to India but also to the whole world and to all time.

Recommended Reading:

01. The Gandhi Reader edited by Homer A. Jack. Indiana University Press, 1956.
02. Peaceful Agitator: The Story of A. J. Muste by Nat Hentoff. Macmillan, 1963.
03. “A Strategy for Negroes” by Cranston Clayton, in The World Tomorrow, issue of January 18, 1934.
04. Conquest of Violence by Joan V. Bondurant. Princeton University Press, 1958.
05. “Gandhi” by Dwight Macdonald in Politics, Winter issue, 1943.
06. Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr. Scribners, 1932.
07. Gandhi on World Affairs by Paul F. Power. Public Affairs Press,1960.
08. Richer by Asia by Edmond Taylor. Houghton Mifflin, 1947.
09. The Idea of Peace and War in Contemporary Philosophy by Irving L. Horowitz. Paine-Whitman, 1957.
10. The Power of Nonviolence by Richard B. Gregg. Lippincott 1934; revised editions by Fellowship Publications in 1944 and 1959.
11. Essay in Politics by Scott Buchanan. Philosophical Library, 1953.
12. Gandhi and Stalin by Louis Fischer. Harper, 1947.
13. “Problems of Nonviolent Revolution” by A.J. Muste. Peacemaker, 1950.
14. Speak Truth to Power by the American Friends Service Committee, 1955.
15. Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King, Jr. Harper, 1958.
16. When Negroes March by Herbert Garfinkel. Free Press, 1959.
17. Teaching about Peace Issues published by the Studies Program of the Peace Education Division, American Friends Service Committee, 1964.
18. I Speak for Myself by John Haynes Holmes. Harper, 1959.
19. Lead Kindly Light by Vincent Sheean. Random House, 1949.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Charles C. Walker is the author of Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice. In the 1950s he was Regional Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. According to Coretta Scott King, Walker gave a talk on Gandhi at Crozer Theological Seminary, when Martin Luther King was a student there, and Walker’s talk influenced King to study Gandhi. Thanks to for permission.

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