Pacifism, opposition to war and other violence, expressed either in an organized political movement or as an individual ideology. Pacifism varies from a form that is absolute and doctrinal to a relative and more practical form. Absolute pacifists are against all wars and against violence in any form whatsoever; relative pacifists are selective of the wars and violence they oppose. Most absolute pacifists stress the immorality of the taking of one person’s life by another person. The philosophy of pacifism has been propounded throughout history on grounds of morality, divine will, or economic and social utility; the term itself, however, did not become popular until early in the 20th century.
In attempting to prevent war, pacifists must achieve four principal goals. A climate of feeling favorable to peace must be established; the potential causes of conflict, inherent in such factors as economic competition, the quest for power, and fear of foreign domination, must be eliminated or minimized; means for the settlement of disputes must be provided, as in mediation, arbitration, and trial procedures; and, finally, ways must be found to ensure observance of the settlements that are made. Several distinctive approaches to achieving these goals have been advanced.
Members of some religious groups, such as the Mennonite Church and the Quakers, believe they can convert aggressors to peaceful ways by setting an example of loving, nonviolent behavior. This is the attitude expressed in the New Testament Sermon on the Mount, but it is much older than Christianity, permeating the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, and other Eastern philosophers. Absolute pacifism assumes both that its practitioners will be able to maintain moral courage when faced with aggression and provocation and that their opponents will be affected by a constant return of good for bad. Such pacifism has never been entirely successful, however. Although the early Christians maintained this attitude through several generations, their uncompromising opposition to the use of force disappeared after the church became allied with the Roman state in the 4th century. A contemporary proponent of absolute pacifism usually claims the status of conscientious objector when faced with military service.
Less absolute pacifists advocate other codes of behavior. Some pacifists bar the use of force and urge moral persuasion but also encourage passive resistance to achieve their goals. Two examples of this approach are the resistance offered to British rule in 20th-century India and the civil disobedience of American civil rights activists. Critics of this view contend that even passive resistance provokes frustration, resentment, and further oppression on the part of an aggressor.
Many pacifists believe that peace can be maintained only by a readiness to use force in certain circumstances, usually characterized as defensive. One approach permits armed defense against attack, but not assistance to other nations being attacked. Proponents of the theory of collective security urge a defensive combination of peace-loving nations against violators of the peace. If such a policy is not to result merely in a system of rival alliances, it must be implemented by international machinery that is able not only to make settlements but to enforce them as well. Advocates of collective security accordingly support all international organizations such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the League of Nations, and the United Nations.
Although organized peace movements did not appear until the 19th century, the modern search for a means of preventing war began with the rise of nation-states at the end of the Middle Ages. In the 14th century Dante proposed a world empire to abolish war; in the 15th century George of Poděbrad, king of Bohemia, proposed an international parliament; in the 16th century Henry IV, king of France, made a similar suggestion; in the 17th century the English Quaker William Penn wrote An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe (1694); and in the 18th century the French writer Charles Irénée Castel, who was known as the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, influenced readers of his time with his proposals for securing “perpetual peace.”
The first peace society in history was organized in New York in 1815 by the American merchant David Low Dodge; another was organized in Massachusetts in the same year by the theologian Noah Worcester; and both were incorporated into the American Peace Society founded by the pacifist William Ladd in 1828. Other peace societies were established in European countries later in the century; and, in 1848, the American linguist Elihu Burritt founded the League of Universal Brotherhood, which established branches in the United States, Britain, France, and Holland. These early idealistic groups formulated no specific plans to prevent war, however. The peace movement in the U.S. lost momentum during the American Civil War, when many of its adherents maintained that preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery had to be achieved at any cost.
Many new groups were organized toward the end of the 19th century, including the International Workingmen’s Association, which advocated workers’ strikes to prevent wars, and the International Peace Bureau, composed of national peace councils and committees from various countries. Frequent meetings and congresses and the announcement of such awards as the Nobel Peace Prize stimulated public interest in the peace movement. Nevertheless, wars multiplied in frequency and intensity during the same period. The South African War, the Spanish-American War, and finally World War I all but destroyed the peace movement.
Following World War I, the hopes of many pacifists for achieving collective security were directed toward the newly formed League of Nations. This organization was loosely constructed, however, and provided no really effective means of preventing war. By 1941 most of the nations of the world were involved in World War II. This was followed in turn by the establishment of the UN, with its more elaborate machinery for keeping the peace.
Many other international peace organizations also continue to exist. The greatest impetus to pacifism in modern times was the development and use of nuclear weapons at the close of World War II. Faced with the possibility of total nuclear war, many previously uncommitted individuals joined pacifists throughout the world in working for a ban against the production of nuclear weapons, for the cessation of the testing of such weapons, and for the disarmament of those nations already possessing them.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the war in Southeast Asia was opposed by millions of individuals around the world. It was apparent, however, that a majority of these people would not be in opposition to a war they deemed to be justified—for example, World War II. In the U.S. such activities of the antiwar movement as marches, demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns inevitably had an effect, and by mid-1973, U.S. combat forces were no longer active in Southeast Asia.