MAPA Voices: “A letter to my fellow peace activists…” by Hoffman the Organizer

Image: Aaron Burden via Wikimedia Commons

June 7, 2024

A letter to my fellow peace activists, and the left more broadly,

This past week saw the crossing of a dramatic danger line in global conflict: for the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb, the US has authorized the use of US weapons against the territory of Russia.  It is worth remembering that neither the US nor the USSR allowed the dropping of even a hand grenade on each other’s territory throughout the entire Cold War.  Now, missiles have already flown into targets across the Russian border.  We are the closest to nuclear war we have ever been.

Since the election of Joe Biden, we have sunk deep into the throes of a Second Cold War.  All the ingredients for this Cold War Redux have been in the making for some time. Presidents from Bill Clinton to George Bush and Donald Trump, and even, if to a lesser degree, Barack Obama, have contributed to its buildup.  But Joe Biden, following in the footsteps of Harry Truman, has thrown American foreign policy into full Manichean mode on a global level.  

In three short years we have gone from a Cold Peace (post USSR) – although one with its tensions and flashpoints to be sure – to a three-front war footing in the South China Sea, Israel, and Ukraine. The latter two are now full-fledged proxy wars.  The only precedent for such a shift is the one in 1947 from FDR’s plans for a post-World-War-Two peace based on Charter (UN) internationalism and cooperation to Truman’s worldwide anti-Communist crusade.

These two dramatic shifts by Truman and Biden to global military confrontation as the basis of American foreign policy have further disconcerting features in common.  Both are led by purportedly liberal Democrats, both won a majority of strong adherents across much of the political left, and both succeeded in isolating pro-peace internationalists to a marginal and embattled position in our society.

In other words, at the last stage of a career in progressive activism, I find myself in the same position my parents found themselves in, well before I was born.  From the exaltation they felt about the future as young adults in the “revolutionary year” of 1946 — rooting for multi-racial union organizing in the South, and basking in the defeat of fascism — they soon found themselves proscribed for being on the left at all.

Like then, we’ve been boxed into an untenable corner by powers much greater than ourselves.  Crucial among these is the concerted campaign by the media and popular culture to paint Russia as supremely depraved and evil.  As the late historian Stephen Cohen said for years, we started demonizing Russia after the Cold War about as much as we had during it.  When Putin, who had previously been in fairly cordial relations with the West, started to assert Russian security concerns after the declarations in 2008 of NATO’s intentions of expanding into Ukraine and Georgia, that demonization greatly intensified.  Popular TV series like “Homeland” or the French “Le Bureau” shifted their focus from the War on Terror (which they had handled with surprising nuance) to the threat of Russia (which reverted to pure “good guys vs. bad guys” formula).

As a result, we are experiencing what my parents experienced as “The Haunted Fifties” (I.F. Stone’s coinage), something most of us were spared coming to political consciousness post-1960 or even later.  We had Reagan’s bellicosity and the Neo-Con War on Terror to live through, but since the majority of left-liberal people agreed in their critiques of them, the continuity of the anti-war movement since Vietnam seemed intact.  Now, we have a Democrat (“the most progressive and consequential president in recent decades” as letter writers to the Times like to trumpet) pursuing a bellicose great powers foreign policy that doesn’t even respect the limits imposed by the realism of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that Presidents after Truman learned to abide by.

Our isolation from the majority of the liberal-left climate of opinion makes our work to educate and mobilize our friends and colleagues and the broader public seem almost completely ineffectual.  It is the greatest sense of loss of agency I could have imagined.  Except, that is, to return to the time before I was born and recall the experience of “the haunted 50’s.” In the 1960s, my parents felt like they’d been released from a cage into the light of freedom; in other words, they regained a feeling of agency. During the 50s they had kept their heads down.

Now, with nuclear disaster – on top of already spiraling climate disaster — facing us as never before, we are afraid of seeming “alarmist” — and with good reason, since the more urgent we sound (and are), the less our voice resonates.

So, we find ourselves again at the grim birth of a global military standoff.  But do we have a decade to wait for our agency to return?


Yours in Solidarity,

Hoffmann the Organizer