A Call for Humanists to Again Address the Question of War: Part 3

By Paul Heffron

In part 3 of his series about humanism and war, the author reviews articles in humanist magazines. (Read part 1 here and part 2 here.)

Humanist Manifesto II was published in the October 1973 issue of The Humanist Magazine. Written by Paul Kurtz, editor, and Edwin Wilson, editor emeritus and former president of the American Humanist Association, it lays out a humanist critique of war.

We deplore the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds. We have reached a turning point in human history where the best option is to transcend the limits of national sovereignty and to move toward the building of a world Community in which all sectors of the human family can participate. Thus we look to the development of a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government.

This world community must renounce the resort to violence and force as a method of solving international disputes. We believe in the peaceful adjudication of differences by international courts and by the development of the arts of negotiation and compromise. War is obsolete. So is the use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. It is a planetary imperative to reduce the level of military expenditures and turn these savings to peaceful and people-oriented uses. (Articles 12 and 13.)

The manifesto was originally signed by 282 prominent humanist world leaders in fields including education, science, government, and philosophy, and subsequently by thousands of other humanists. It served as a consensus statement, recognizing that some signers may have differences on particular points.

This statement may be viewed as an ultimate goal and as a framework for articles about war-related topics in humanist magazines. I have scoured the two major humanist magazines, The Humanist and Free Inquiry, from the 1980s to the present and found a  large number of relevant articles and speeches from conferences, enough to make up a tome-size anthology. I’ve assigned myself an impossible task. So I’ll give you some examples of how humanists have addressed this subject. 

But first, a word about the vision of a world federation and reduction in war and military expenditures. As various humanist writers have mentioned, the vision has some existential basis in history. The federation of the American states by the adoption of the Constitution made it unlikely that the states would carry on internecine wars as had taken place for centuries in Europe. It worked— except for the problem of slavery. It took a civil war to make the union one in which interstate wars became unthinkable. The European Union and NATO have likewise made war among the member states unthinkable. 

The Soviet Union made war within its empire impossible. Unfortunately, it failed to reform under President Mikhail Gorbachev, who identified with humanism, and it collapsed, breaking up into new nations and making future wars possible. The United Nations has lacked sufficient authority to prevent wars but has helped ameliorate or settle some conflicts and provided peace-keeping forces. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has effectively prosecuted political leaders for war crimes and has probably served to some extent as a deterrent to wars of aggression and war crimes. Not so in the current war in Ukraine. We can expect indictments for war crimes against Russia at the ICC.

So the humanist goal is not so hopelessly utopian. Progress can be reached when countries join in transnational federations and sign on to and support international structures like the ICC. 

Now for some examples of humanist takes on war over the years. 

NGOs as Peacemakers

In an article for the July/August 1999 issue of The Humanist, “How to End War,” Michael Renner, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute,  spelled out ways that the humanist vision could be pursued. Of particular interest are his comments about NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), which were prominent in the 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace international conference. Renner writes:

Impatient with the failure of governments to promote conflict prevention and peace building, NGOs—or civil society organizations, as they are increasingly called—are playing a more and more assertive role on the local, state, and international levels. And in an age in which peace and security concerns are focused more on internal than interstate matters, it is only sensible that civil society should be an active participant.

Recent years have seen the emergence of working coalitions that on an issue-by-issue basis bring together NGOs with like-minded governments. The anti-personnel landmines campaign is the outstanding example of this phenomenon. With the support of countries like Canada, South Africa, Belgium, and Norway, the campaign succeeded in putting landmines on the global agenda, hammering out an international treaty banning these devices and bringing the agreement into force at a speed far faster than any other arms treaty in history. Today, NGO representatives are frequent participants at intergovernmental gatherings. The 1999 Hague conference went even further: it was an attempt to set the agenda for 21st century peacemaking at which government and U.N. representatives were welcome guests but not the initiators.

An End to Landmines

The September/October 2001 issue of The Humanist carried a contest-winning youth essay, “A World Without Landmines” by 18-year-old Felicity Fields. She describes what devastating weapons landmines are, their victims often civilians who, after the war is over, step on them and lose their legs. Some, in fear of the mines, abandon their homes and neighborhoods or live in terror of stepping on or driving over one. She also describes the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which led to the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997. Signatories agreed to stop production and destroy stockpiles of landmines, and to clear fields of the mines left behind, a long-term task requiring community pressure and government action. 

The United States and Russia did not sign the ban. Millions of dollars have been raised to clear the mines and provide medical treatment for the victims, on average $9,000 per survivor. Fields writes:  “As U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat—Vermont) asked of Congress, as the ICBL asks of every nation, I ask of you: what greater gift could we give to the people of the world in the twenty-first century than a world without landmines?”

Misleading about Nuclear Deterrence

An excerpt from a speech by Daniel Ellsberg at the American Humanist Association’s 45th annual conference in 1986 was published in July/August 1986 The Humanist : “Is U.S. and Soviet Defense Compatible with Survival?” Ellsberg, best known for releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, said the U.S.- proclaimed policy of using nuclear weapons only for deterrence was not true. 

President Eisenhower threatened China with nuclear weapons in the conflict over the islands of Quemoy. “The Quemoy case was only one of a dozen or more specific instances,” he added, “in which presidents used the threat of nuclear weapons in an ongoing crisis. Nearly every one of them was kept secret from the American public.” Ellsberg’s answer to the question in the title was: no, not as long as nuclear weapons were used as a threat and on a first-strike basis. Congress must defund the arms race, he maintained, as it did to end the Vietnam War.

Nuclear False Alarms

The Humanist carried an article about the additional risk of false alarms of nuclear attacks,  “The Five Minute Decision that Saved the World,” by Douglas Mattern, president of the Association of World Citizens (July/August 2006). On September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov, the duty officer in command of the Soviet main nuclear surveillance bunker, received radar warnings that the Soviet Union was under attack by U.S. Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. He had only five minutes to decide whether to call for launching nuclear missiles. He believed the U.S. would not launch an unprovoked nuclear attack and that there must be a system error. He decided not to launch and waited 20 agonizing minutes to detect incoming missiles. There were none. He was right.  “What is clear,” Mattern concluded, ” is the nuclear nightmare can only end when all nuclear weapons are eliminated.”

UN Reform

In Fall 2000, Free Inquiry carried an article by Alan Cranston, former U.S. Senator and president of the Global Security Institute. The title: “Humanity’s Worst Nightmare: It’s Worse than We Fear—and We’re Ignoring It.” Cranston said there had actually been many threats and false alarms of nuclear attacks. We simply can’t have a situation in which an individual can decide to launch nuclear weapons, he declared. He added that the solution is to reform the U.N., with nations giving up some of their sovereignty, to prevent nuclear war.

Obscenity of War

J. Harold Ellens wrote an article for Free Inquiry, “The Obscenity of War and the Imperative of the Evil Expedient” (April/May 2005). “I am a soldier. I have been for fifty years,” he writes. “I served in three wars and was wounded in two of them. I hate war.” He maintains that war is always obscene because of what it does to all those involved and affected by it. Ideas of just war, jihad, and holy war do not make the killing and maiming any less obscene. War as the lesser of evils is still evil.

Ellens added that engaging in war as a necessary defense is an “Imperative Evil Expedient.” He explained, “Soldiers hate war but serve for the sake of those they love. For a soldier, as it should be for a policeman, putting on the uniform is a daily confession that he or she has agreed that, if there is any wounding or killing to be done, he or she will stand in the stead of the civilian. Real soldiers know that, when they put on the uniform, they have already given their lives. It remains only a question of how much fear, loneliness, and pain they will need to endure before the last moment comes.” 

Ellens argues that the doctrine of preemptive defense is a sham. It makes the decision to engage in the bestiality of war a private judgment, outside of generally accepted ethical norms, and “undercuts efforts to establish humane constraints of warring nations and on war itself.”

Further Discussion

The forgoing examples are among the many subtopics by humanist writers in the magazines. These include war and the pursuit of world domination, order, or empire; war and overpopulation; war and economic interests; war and religious missions; education on the nature of war for school children and adults; and more.

Current issues, of course, include the war in Ukraine. Does the U.S. need to make sure Russia is defeated, not allowed to maintain its gains through negotiations to end the war? What about enforcing free trade for Ukraine so it can export its grain, etc. by establishing a no-embargo of ports and a no-fly-zone (instead of giving in to Putin’s terms)? Risk war with Russia, leading to nuclear exchange?

I hope my essays will help generate reading and discussion on humanism and war and lead to more position statements by humanists on the issues.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.