The Peace Seeker and the Role of Government
Julian Bond, 1984
Julian Bond is a Georgia State Senator and an early standard bearer for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta he helped found the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. After serving four terms in the Georgia House of Representatives, he was elected to the State Senate in 1974 where he continues to serve. He is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and a member of the board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union and the Delta Ministry Project of the National Council of Churches.
Whiteley: You've indicated that it was easier to be against the war in Vietnam then than it is to be against American adventuresome overseas today. What do you mean?
Bond: In the case of the war in Vietnam there were American young men actually fighting, being wounded and being killed. There was a constant stream of body bags coming back from Vietnam. Every community in the United States lost someone or was touched in some way immediately and personally by what was happening in Vietnam, and so the war itself created a constituency opposed to it. In the instance of American involvement in Lebanon, let us say, with the exception of the deaths of the Marines, and in the instance of our involvement in Central America and Honduras, there are no Americans being killed. There are no body bags coming back to this country, so there's not the personal relationship we feel with these conflicts. Even though the American interest is there, and even though that interest is as wrong in Lebanon and in Central America as it was in Vietnam, we don't feel the immediacy of it. We don't feel ourselves pulled or repelled - repulsed by it, I don't think as we did in the case of Vietnam.
Whiteley: You've indicated that the forces working against the end of the Vietnam War were both more effective, more aggressive, and more sophisticated. What were they doing that in your view was more effective than the work for peace today?
Bond: Well, first of all they were aggressive. You can remember the marches, the demonstrations, the physical manifestations, that there was a large body of people in the country who were opposed to the war in Vietnam and who wanted it ended, wanted America's involvement in it ended, and ended quickly. So it was difficult to pick up a newspaper or to turn on the TV without being reminded that there was a sizable sentiment - you weren't sure how many - 10%, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 80% of the public - but you knew somewhere out there there were people who thought this was an awful mistake, and we ought to end it. One doesn't get the sense, or at least I don't get the sense today that that constituency exists, at least not in as vocal a way, as visible a way. I'm sure it's there, but you'd have difficulty assessing it; who are they, what do they want, what, you know, exactly what are they up to? In the 60s, in the case of the Vietnam War, there were political manifestations of the opposition to it. There was a political party in California, the Peace and Freedom Party, that grew out of protest against the war that ran candidates for office and were responsible, in one way or the other, in a negative way, I think, for the defeat or election of certain politicians. It's easy to say, for example, that the combined votes that Dick Gregory and Eldridge Cleaver got running for president on platforms that largely were based on opposition to the war in Vietnam, helped contribute in someway to the election of Richard Nixon, by taking votes from Hubert Humphrey.
So there was a physical and political presence to the anti-war movement, the peace movement then, that one doesn't feel today. You see the enormous numbers of people, a million people marching in New York City last year in support of the nuclear freeze, but I don't get a feeling that a candidate for Congress today has to be reminded, or is reminded at all that there may be some people in his district who are opposed to the war, who are opposed to militarism, who want to support the freeze. I don't get the sense that there's an active movement saying to congressional candidates or people running for the U.S. Senate that this ought to be a part of your agenda. They may get an occasional question at a forum, but I really don't get the sense that there's an organized body of people saying, listen to us, pay attention to us, we represent a sizable number of people in the community. And for that reason, I just don't think today's peace movement has the political sophistication or the aggressiveness.
Whiteley: You've indicated that there is a relatively short timeline remaining to work effectively on behalf of peace. What would you have people learn from the experiences of the Vietnam era that would be effective in creating the kind of political climate in which it's possible to wage a more effective peace?
Bond: There has got to be agitation, there's got to be propaganda, there's got to be organization, and all of this has got to have some political end. That's to say, it's got to result in the election to congress of people who share the aims of the freeze movement, who want the U.S. out of Central America, who want a diminution of the U.S. role in the Middle East. It's got to have a political end; it's got to be able to say we represent 20,000 voters in this district, 50,000 in this one.
Whiteley: The issue in your view is to make peace a political issue.
Bond: Exactly. Not a Democratic or Republican issue, not at all a partisan issue, but a political issue. Which of the candidates for President of the United States today feels most strongly about peace and will do the most for it.
Whiteley: You will get away from the cliches of being strong or tough, or somehow it's weak to be in favor of working toward some kind of long-term disarmament.
Bond: Which candidate has a peace program? And if that candidate can't win, which candidate has the next best peace program? How can you defeat the war candidate and elect the peace candidate? That ought to be the issue, not Democrats versus Republicans, or liberals versus conservatives for that matter, although I'm sure that because we are humans and not peace people or civil rights people or in any handy category, but it's which is for peace and which is not.
Whiteley: You've indicated that being human is one part of an equation that one must think about in working toward peace. What role do you see basic human nature playing in the situation we're in now, where as a society we've killed more people in the 20th Century than in all the previous wars, and at present have the capacity to in essence destroy civilization as we have known it, to destroy the environment in which we live, and to make it impossible to reconstitute either one.
Bond: I think it is part of our nature to be aggressive, and by aggressive I don't mean violent, but to reach out, to grasp, to try to get there before the other guy does. Now this becomes, in many of us, violence; it becomes murderous, it becomes the impulse that builds the better machine-gun and from that to the better rocket and the better Howitzer, the better bomb, and now the nuclear bomb. But I don't think at base it is that. I think it's simply a sort of competitiveness that human beings feel to be stronger than the next fellow. Not so you can be superior to the next fellow, but just so you can demonstrate your own skill and your own abilities. That impulse on its evil side is the war impulse, the murderous impulse. And its better side one might say is found in the Olympics or in an athletic contest, but I think it's our nature to be competitive, our nature to be aggressive in the best sense of the word.
Whiteley: One of the challenges, then, for our civilization is to take people's insights about the human nature and channel that into how they go about responding with the basic institutions of society in creating an environment in which peace can flourish.
Bond: Exactly. If we are, as I believe, by nature an aggressive people and if we see a potential clash with, let us say the Soviet Union, because they are by nature an aggressive people in the same way, how can we channel our aggressiveness, and encourage them to channel theirs, to the betterment of our individual and common societies, as opposed to our mutual destruction?
Whiteley: What role do you see organized religion playing in channeling the thinking of society toward assessments of how to achieve peace?
Bond: Sadly, not a great deal. I have the feeling that twenty years ago at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, at the height of the anti-war movement, the anti-Vietnam movement, really, that organized religion and the various churches were important moral barometers instructing us how good a people we could be; what heights we could achieve morally and spiritually.
Whiteley: Would you give some examples of that.
Bond: Well, in the Civil Rights Movement, its leadership came from the clergy for a variety of reasons, but one of them was that these were the people who were accustomed to instructing the community in the moral path to follow. And by moral path one didn't simply mean chastity and honesty and sobriety; not just those virtues, as important as they are, but the virtues the society as a whole ought to pursue. So it was natural that in this great human clash between good and evil that the religious community came to the fore, adopted a leadership role, similarly in the anti-war movement. Here's a question: Ought this massive nation dominate this tiny, tiny nation miles and miles away with our enormous technology and firepower and our military superiority? Ought we tell them how they ought to live, and again it was the church, the religious leadership of the country. Not all of them by any means, and surely not a majority of them by any means that said no; this is a moral question not a political question. This is not communism versus capitalism, or good versus evil, and that's in the Jerry Falwell sense. This is evil nature against better nature, and our better natures ought prevail.
Whiteley: What would you have religious leaders do differently?
Bond: I would have them, first of all, take chances. I think they've lost their ability to want to take chances, to take the different point-of-view, not necessarily the right or wrong point-of-view, but the different point-of-view. One gets the feeling - I get the feeling that this entire community, Protestants, Catholics, all of them, are a little cowed, a little beaten down, perhaps as a result - a 60s hangover they've not been able to overcome yet. So first I'd have them become risk takers once again. Secondly, I'd have them begin to raise the moral issue once again. This is an issue for - let's say for Christians. I don't see anyone in the Christian community saying this is right or this is wrong. You see instances like the Catholic Bishops' statement against nuclear destruction, but one doesn't see the individual minister in the individual church, or the individual priest or the individual rabbi, saying these sort of things. Perhaps they say them and it escapes me.
Whiteley: In your view an essential way to define the issue of achieving peace is to view it as a moral issue.
Bond: We are talking here about the possibility of the destruction of life as we have come to know it; the destruction of the world as we have come to know it, so that not only we with our skyscrapers and buildings and expressways will be gone, but thousands of miles from here the African living in his humble hut will be gone as well, too. We're not going to be reduced to his level; we're going to equally be wiped away, and if nothing else that's a moral issue. And one wants the moral arbiters of the community, the clergy, the religious figures to have a position on this, to express a point-of-view, to draw from their teachings of their faith, to instruct the rest of us, and I don't see them doing it.
Whiteley: In indicating the role for government in achieving peace, you've indicated that a current problem is that those people who see an active role for government in problem-solving have lost much of their effectiveness to people who see very little role for government in problem-solving. What do you mean?
Bond: In a political sense the conservatives have taken the high ground. They have seized the initiative from the liberals. They have become the opinion makers and the deciders partially because people on the right, I think, have realized their failings, analyzed the reasons for their lack of success, and done something about it, have become clever at publicity, have become clever at packaging themselves, and have become clever at seizing the attention of the population, explaining things to the population in an understandable way, if an incorrect way, but an understandable way nonetheless. People on the left haven't done that, have said gee, that we ought to do it because it's right, and although I've been arguing in favor of more people saying that, that isn't sufficient.
Whiteley: In your view what are the most effective ways for influencing our government today?
Bond: Oh, I think there are a variety of ways, but one is by letting the policy maker know, whether the policy maker is an elected or an appointed official, that there is a sizable constituency, and it doesn't have to be a majority - a sizable constituency that holds a particular point-of-view - the peace point-of-view, let's say. Now this is done in a variety of ways. It's done through actual elections in which candidates of peace views and war views, if we can simplify, oppose each other and by counting the votes they get. Then we can tell how many peace people and how many war people there are. But it's also done through what I call 'propaganda', which is probably a bad word - leafleting, telephoning, letter writing, creating a larger and larger and larger and larger constituency until what was a minority point-of-view becomes in fact a majority point-of-view.
That's the way opposition to the war in Vietnam began, with small groups of people concerned about what this might become, and as it became that the group itself grew larger and larger and larger, and the physical and political manifestation of their feeling became more evident to everyone. So even the non-involved person couldn't help but see that this force was there, that the people were sincere, that their feelings were heartfelt, that they came from a moral point-of-view, not a Democratic or Republican or liberal or right - although most of these people were liberals and were Democrats. But that was not the label they wore, and that gave them greater authority to speak. It gave them a moral presence which became translated into a political presence, and that's something you don't see today, at least I don't see it today.
Whiteley: Do you see a role for state government in the quest for peace?
Bond: Oh, surely. Sometimes it's tangential, and sometimes it's immediate. It's tangential when this enormous debate goes on in my state legislature - I'm a state legislator - over whether or not we ought to assist the Georgia Power Company in completing this nuclear power plant which practically terrifies large numbers of people in my state, that this technology has gotten beyond our ability to control it, or to make it work for us; that it can only work against us. And that may seem a trifle removed from what we're talking about but it's part, I think, of the same process of educating the citizenry, and that's what the elected official, whether he's a president or a senator or a congressman or assemblyman or a supervisor - that's what the person in a leadership position has to do. To take the knowledge he or she may have, to spread that among his or her constituents, to create in them a climate, a desire for a different way of doing things, and then to use their impulses and his power to make sure that way is accomplished.
Whiteley: What specific actions would you like to see Congressmen and Senators take in their quest for peace?
Bond: I'd like to see a real examination of the defense budget. You know, we're talking now, and have been talking for years and years in terms of percentage increases. Not in terms of what these moneys are suppose to buy for us. We talk about it as if we're shopping in a department store, and for $15 you can buy "X", but for $30 you can buy "Y." What we almost never discuss is whether "X" or "Y" is sufficient or necessary or needed or vital. More recently one has seen some of this kind of discussion, but it's generally not put in this vein. It's more, less, more, less - not what more or what less - but just more or less. So the discussion has got to change and that's something that Congress can do. An earlier Congress did it in Vietnam and this Congress can do it with these larger, I think more frightening issues that we're discussing today. There needs to be more of the kind of leadership one use to see associated with people like Fulbright and Wayne Morris who raised the hard question, who dared to stand up and say no, who were willing to risk. And despite the fact that in today's Congress there are advocates for peace, I don't think there's anyone of the stature of those two men; no one at all of their stature in Congress today.
Whiteley: And in your view, people can make a difference.
Bond: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I've seen it in my legislature on the most mundane matters, the most - matters far removed from our topic, and I've seen it on matters of vital importance. People can make a difference, but first people have to believe they can make a difference, and have to get over the notion that they can leave it to someone else, leave it to a leadership figure, leave it to a member of Congress. It's fine to have such figures, to have effective spokespersons, leadership figures, but there can be no leadership unless there is first a followship, unless there is a move created and a movement created on which that leadership can rest, from which that leadership can speak. Unless there's a human platform created, there will be no single or individual or personified leadership.
Whiteley: And that's the importance of individual action in our society at the grassroots level.
Bond: Individual action, coordinated action, action that makes a little bump here, and a little bump there, and soon raises the whole level of the discussion to a new plane and a new plateau. But it's got to begin with little bumps, little groups of people - one - two - ten - fifteen - twenty - here, there, elsewhere. It cannot - there will be no mass spontaneous uprising of the American people, I don't think, but instead, in a slow way gathering steam, more and more people - one - two - ten - twenty at a time. That's the way change occurs in this country.
Whiteley: What role do you see business currently playing in the peace issue?
Bond: Not much of a role at all. One sees the individual business person whose thought this issue through, and who has gone beyond the sort of simplistic rhetoric one associates with having a big defense budget or being ready to nuke the other people. Occasionally one sees the individual business person who has gone beyond that, but as a group, as a class, I don't see the American business community making much of a contribution to this subject at all. If anything, I think they tend to be a negative influence on this discussion, and not at all positive.
Whiteley: You've indicated that business has become much more sophisticated and effective as a political force, and certainly as a much more money force in the current national political equation. How would you hope that business would apply this increased sophistication and economic power on behalf of the peace issue?
Bond: They are sophisticated in both good and bad ways. They have learned that it's sometimes easier to move from Connecticut to South Carolina to escape unionism than it is simply to beat the union organizer up at the door to the plant. So in that sense they've become more sophisticated. But they've become more sophisticated in a benign sense as well. In the Civil Rights Movement, to try to construct a parallel, some business people began to see that racial strife is bad for business. Well, some business people are going to see that nuclear annihilation is bad for business too, and they're going to take steps to do something about it. So perhaps this new sophistication will lead to them. I don't see it happening now, or not happening with many people in this general field, but it happened with another great issue, the issue of civil rights, and it can happen with this issue. But again, people have to be made to see, have to be shown the facts, have to be exposed to the argument, and my sense is that a great many business people aren't.
Whiteley: The responsibility for helping people learn to think about issues is, in our society, assigned to the institutions of education. What role do you see education playing at this time on the peace issue?
Bond: Almost none at all. You know, about - in the early 1980s there was the beginning of a - the renaissance of a movement - the "teach in" on the American college campus where a variety of people addressed a topic and tried to spread - shed some light, to bring some knowledge on a subject that hitherto had not been well exposed, but you just don't see that. I grew up in an academia - my father was a college professor and president, and I used to believe that the college campus was the place where people argued out the issues that were later adopted by the society as a whole, and now one gets the sense that the college campus is a vocational school. People go there to learn how to operate computers, and having learned how to operate them, go out and work in businesses where they run computers; but I don't see them debating or arguing or learning much about the larger, the bigger issues of the day. I don't see that. It's sad, too, not to see it. One wants to see it there.
Whiteley: What specifically would you want differently for education on the peace issue?
Bond: I would want first a return to a more general kind of liberal arts education where people learned how to learn instead of learning a trade, because I think the development of the inquiring mind is probably one of the best defenses against war, and against our common and mutual destruction. I'd want the university to become an advocate once again, both in terms of what it taught its students, and in terms of how it related to the community outside the ivy-covered walls, an advocate of the peace position. The university can do this, and can do this without losing its independence, without losing its objectivity, but I just don't see it doing it; not at all.
Whiteley: The family is one of our most basic institutions in society. What would you want parents to be doing to create in children a climate in which peace can flourish?
Bond: I think we - that we, a society, we've got to try to nurture the family and make it as healthy as we can while realizing that what we think of as the family - mom, dad, and 2.3 children is far from the norm. Most people don't live like that in America today, and increasingly most people around the world will not live like that in years to come, that this institution we call the family has shifted from what it was 300 years ago to what it will be 300 years hence. As it adjusts and changes, then our expectations of it adjust and change too, but it must always be at base, at least for the first few years of anyone's life, the place where he or she learns how to love and to care for someone else, and to be loved, and to be cared for. I think the family has probably always been that, and needs to be encouraged to continue to be that.
Whiteley: And that for you is a way to make the family an effective force for love in our society, and a bulwark against violence.
Bond: People who grow up learning to love, and who are themselves loved and nurtured, are not likely to push that button that results in our common destruction.
Whiteley: Senator Bond, thank you very much for sharing with us today your insights into ways to achieve a more peaceful world.