The week she spent in Washington as a delegate to the 9th Conference on the Cause and Cure of War in 1934 was one of the highlights of my Grandmother Athalia (Ogden) Barker's long life. Just 23, an elementary school teacher and recent graduate of Smith College, her experience had a profound impact and one which she delighted in recounting in later years. The lessons she drew from it, however, irrevocably changed after her personal experience of war in WWII, and in hindsight she saw her prior peace work refracted though that prism.
One of the hardest gulfs to cross as an historian is the chasm between attempts to confront evil while avoiding war and the lessons drawn from those wars that follow nonetheless. There is never enough historical distance for ideals like "an end to all wars" to seem anything but hopelessly naive as wars remains with us, despite all efforts - some even arguably successful - to prevent them. Neville Chamberlain's name will remain a watchword for the failure of appeasement to contain fascism, his declaration of "peace in our time" proven so swiftly, tragically false. It is very easy for history to dismiss him and those like him as anything from misguided to craven, and more than 65 years later I and undoubtedly the vast majority of you are convinced that nothing short of war could have stopped Hitler and Imperial Japan. Still, it is a very flat perspective. The material in our family archive and grandmother's story put some contextual flesh and bones on the peace movement of the 1930s.
The National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (NCCCW) was the brainchild of Carrie Chapman Catt, a giant of the Women Suffrage Movement and the foremost American feminist of her day. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment left the women's movement with a powerful new voice at the ballot but the need for new direction. Catt believed that the tremendous mobilizing capacity of various women's organizations could be brought to bear on what many felt in the wake of the Great War was the most pressing issue of the day: greater understanding among nations and peoples of the cause and cure of war.
Europe was reeling with millions of war dead and devastated economies. The League of Nations, without US ratification, still tried to establish a means for nations to address their differences without coming to blows. The challenge was great. The Soviet Union had replaced the Kaiser as the greatest threat to Europe and its new, strong overseas ally the United States. Nationalism was on the rise and new communication technologies - notably radio and soon after "talkie" cinema- had like our modern-day Internet the potential to link people and nations together but also to reinforce divisive propaganda.
Catt saw a paramount need for education, for a clearinghouse of information of goodwill and understanding that offered alternatives to militarism. The alliance she forged in 1924 ultimately included the American Association of University Women, Council of Women for Home Missions, Federation of Woman's Boards for Foreign Missions of North America, General Federation of Women's Clubs, National Board of the Young Women's Christian Associations, National Council of Jewish Women, National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, National League of Women Voters, National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, National Women's Trade Union League, and the National Women's Conference of American Ethical Union. These groups represented 5,000,000 members, and in a nation of fewer than 120,000,000 constituted a formidable alliance.
Still, the NCCCW was not a radical group. Although its members included Jane Addams and other progressive reformers, it took pains to stress that it was not a pacifist organization. Time Magazine reported:
"Care was exercised in excluding professional peace societies and organizations of "pink" tendencies. This was to be a conference of "normal" women to undertake a common-sense study of the problem of preventing war, with a view of arriving at some common plank on which all could stand..."
The Swarthmore College Peace Collection Archive notes:
"The NCCCW emphasized education. Besides its annual conferences, probably its most significant program was its "Marathon Round Tables," which represented a network of guided local study groups. Its stated goals were 1) "to learn how to discuss"; 2) "to find the best way for public opinion to function"; and 3) "to search for a bolder and faster moving program for the abolition of war." Each year a new set of questions on peace and international relations was posited and information for study on the questions was provided. The program was active from 1927 to 1939."
These were reasonable people, committed to the ideal that humanity could uplift itself through commitment and dedication. They were also pragmatists. They believed that the root causes of war were above all economic but that they were also entrenched in racial, social, religious and national divisions and hatreds. At the 9th Conference on the Cause and Cure of War in 1934, my grandmother heard Eleanor Roosevelt address the hard facts of peace:
"We do not like to sit down and face the causes that bring about war, but we have got to begin there. We have got to face the fact that there are economic causes which bring about war. We are learning in this country to face facts about economic causes, and many people, many groups of people, are learning that they have to change their ideals, they will have to change their ways of living, perhaps, they will have to change their values. In the same way we must know the economic questions arising between nations more realistically than before.
We can have a League of Nations, a World Court, a Disarmament Conference and, unless we are willing to tell each other the truth, and to face the real causes which make nations jealous of each other, greedy of each other, hate each other, we shall get nowhere. All these instruments are methods which can be used if the spirit is right, if the people really want it to succeed."
1934 was a watershed year for the NCCCW. The nation was struggling to survive the Great Depression and economic considerations were paramount. Totalitarianism was a clear and present threat to all that democracy, and the NCCCW, stood for. The proceedings of the 9th Conference took full notice of the tide of nationalism and the threats to peace. Japan had left the League of Nations over its occupation of Manchuria, while Hitler had come to power in Germany calling for "the disarmament of the principle powers and, failing that, the rearmament of Germany; the restoration, in part, of the German colonies; the revision of the Versailles Treaty; and the solution of the problem of the Polish Corridor."
Still, the delegates resolved to work for alternatives to war, and to strengthen their own democracy as an alternative to totalitarianism and dictatorship.
There were many illuminating presentations throughout the conference. A round table discussion on "Some Basic Obstacles to Peace" addressed topics are ranging as "the urge for territorial expansion" and "protecting national living standards as drivers behind an ultimate casus belli. One panelist opined:
"The basic problem is due to the unequal distribution throughout the world of raw materials important for the new economy - a monopoly not in land but in capital. One country controls 50% of the world's petroleum; another country is chief supplier of rubber for the whole world; one continent controls the greatest power resources of the world; such raw materials as cotton, sugar and wheat are not produced in such ratios as to make possible a political equilibrium among the nations of the world. This makes for an inevitable friction."
The enormity of unequal distribution among nations was very much on the minds of participants and speakers alike. So, too, was the power of centralizing nationalism to inflame prejudices and foster support for war. To combat these forces, the delegates favored education and reason, greater international cooperation and understanding, but still there remained Mrs. Roosevelt's caution that "All these instruments are methods which can be used if the spirit is right" and useless otherwise.
And there, I think, lies the rub. Needs-based negotiation works if all parties to the dispute adopt it. But what if you are dealing not with centralized, nations but with transnational ideologies? There are no straight paths. Still, someone ultimately has to take a de-escalating step to reduce the likelihood of worsening conflict, to demonstrate another path. Gorbachev did that, and de Klerk, though neither out of altruism and only after tremendous external pressure and the loss of support at home.
A highlight of the conference for my Grandmother as well as her fellow delegates was a formal tea at the White House with President and Mrs. Roosevelt. She had never met Eleanor Roosevelt before, but her Aunt Het (at right, and also at the Conference) had worked with her as fellow members of the NCCCW. There was also a distant kinship. Gran and Eleanor Roosevelt were 2nd cousins through marriage, having a great uncle in common - James King Gracie. Theodore Roosevelt, a nephew and 1st cousin to Het and Gran through the same marriage relationship, had sent roses from the White House to my great grandparents on their wedding day.
Of the White House tea, Gran's diary briefly records:
"Mrs. R. is so gracious and lovely, the President inspires so much hope, and I was so close to both I noticed every line in their faces. He addressed us shortly on peace - & our non-interference policy [in Latin America]."
The story she told afterward gave far more significance to the meeting. Gran said that she, along with many at the conference, came to Washington feeling that our armament policy was wasteful and wrong-headed. As a school teacher committed to education, she took to heart that there were hundreds of thousands of children educated in shacks and one room schoolhouses while "one small cruiser costs more than the annual appropriation for the Department of State." Someone at the tea - Gran sometimes spoke as if it had even been her - addressed the question to the President directly. My Grandmother took great relish in recounting his response. As she remembered it, FDR listened graciously to the case for disarmament and reinvestment in education at home, and then quietly replied; "We may well need those destroyers." The President's wisdom was confirmed for my Grandmother with "lend lease" in which these ships were invaluable, and she always ended her tales about the Conference on this knowing note.
In any case, she did not prove "a confirmed Democrat" as her diary gushingly records after speeches by Mrs. Catt and Eleanor Roosevelt at that evening's banquet, but rather a hawkish Republican. C'est la guerre, but to her credit she did not smirk at her former misplaced idealism. She was young and empowered and with people she admired and a noble cause that appealed to "the better angels of our nature" and still, despite clear threats, seemed possible. Perhaps that is what was behind Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler: a good man mismatched against a ruthless adversary.
"We went through many small villages in England, Scotland and Wales, and in every village there was a central monument with more names on each of these monuments than it seemed there could possibly be people in the village. They were the names of the boys and men who had died in the Great War. Then we went to France and one day one of my boys said to me, 'There is a funny thing about motoring over here; you see only old men or very young ones coming out of the fields.' 'Yes,' I said, 'there are old men and very young ones, there are some a bit older whom you saw playing at war over the same fields where the war had just come to an end and where the generation just older than they had been completely wiped out."...Then we passed through acres and acres and acres of white crosses, representing all the nations of Europe. If that is not waste, I do not know what is. It is a waste of people, not for a short time but for a long time. Out of all that waste has come what we have been through in these past years, not only in this country but in every country."
This was the frame of reference for those seeking an end to war in 1934. How bitterly their hopes were dashed just a few years later in a war even more wasteful and destructive than the one that had gone before. The NCCCW continued to meet and hold its conferences until 1939, when World War II put an effective end to the organization. Yet they were no fringe movement and are not so lightly dismissed, however subsequent events may have proved their methods inadequate to the task of beating the Axis Powers. Even my grandmother, who through the crucible of war ruefully recalled her prior support of schools over ships, felt that she had been part of something of import, of worth, and it confirmed for her the value of actively participating in debate and democracy. Her aunts had won her the vote, but it was up to her to engage her mind, to question, and finally to use it wisely. That was the true worth of her experience, and no small legacy.