War Resisters League

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

War Resisters League

The War Resisters League, (WRL), founded in 1923 to support non-religious conscientious objectors, has served for over 50 years to unite political, humanitarian, and philosophical objectors to war. The League helped to move pacifism from its traditional emphasis on individual resistance to war towards an organized and active revolutionary movement against the complex causes of war. After the second World War, the War Resisters League took the lead in advocating fundamental political, economic, and social change by nonviolent means and was of major importance in the peace, civil rights, student and personal liberation movements of the Sixties and Seventies.

The League began largely through the efforts of Jessie Wallace Hughan, Tracy Mygatt, and Frances Witherspoon and with the help of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Evelyn Hughan and Abraham Kaufman worked in the early years to establish the League as a national organization and Dr. Evan Thomas and Rev. John Haynes Holmes were also important figures in the movement. During its first decade, the League lobbied for peace and secured signatures to its pledge: “War is a crime against humanity. We therefore are determined not to support any kind of war and to strive for the removal of all causes of war.” By the mid-Thirties, over 12,000 Americans, pendent radicals, had signed the War Resisters League pledge.

The League soon outgrew its role as a register of COs and became deeply involved in anti-war education in the Thirties, still particularly emphasizing individual resistance to war. Activities included parades and demonstrations on particular issues, street meetings and lectures, testimony before Congressional committees, annual conferences and dinners, and attempts to influence others through letter writing, literature, and petitions.

During the second World War, the League centered its work around maintaining the morale of Cos and helping them through the intricacies of draft board and court procedures. Field Secretary Frank Olmstead personally visited 18 prisons and some 100 caps and CPS units, lending support and encouragement to war resisters, reporting ill treatment, and helping with hardship cases. The League published the monthly paper The Conscientious Objector and actively supported those COs who went to prison rather than cooperate with the war-making government.

After the war, resisters like Dave Dellinger, Jim Peck, Ralph DiGia, Igal Roodenko, Bayard Rustin, George Houser, and Roy Finch brought a new militancy to the League. Together with militant pacifists like A.J. Muste, Roy Kepler, and George Reeves, they began to organize projects through the League which reached out to treat the root causes of the war. WRL organized a number of street demonstrations to protest nuclear bomb tests, to urge a general amnesty for war objectors, and to oppose universal conscription. They organized mass demonstrations against Civil Defense drills and protested the official actions of the American, and many foreign, governments. League members also participated in the civil rights movement from the first Freedom Ride in 1947, during which all three of the men who were jailed were WRL members, to the voter registration drives and anti-poverty campaigns of the Sixties and Seventies. The League was instrumental in founding Liberation magazine, the Committee for Nonviolent Action, and the Student Peace Union in the Fifties.

With the advent of the Vietnam war, the WRL grew in size and influence. It co-sponsored the first nationwide anti-war demonstration in 1964 and continued in the forefront of coalition protests and national and local demonstrations throughout the war years. The major thrust of its program was at the grass roots: by 1973, the membership had grown from 3,000 to 15,000 with some thirty local and four regional offices. The League has also been affiliated, since its early days, with the War Resisters International, formerly headquartered in London and now in Belgium, which includes sections in 23 countries and maintains contacts in at least 40 others.

The League was especially active in promoting draft resistance during the war in Vietnam. It co-sponsored the first draft card burning to protest the war and in 1967 initiated a campaign of noncooperation that led thousands of young men to risk felony indictments by returning their draft cards to the government. That same year, the League sponsored a Stop the Draft Week in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area which received substantial national publicity when hundreds were arrested for the their nonviolent obstruction of induction centers. In 1971, WRL produced the tactical manual for, and was the only national organization endorsing, the week-long Mayday demonstrations.

WRL helped publish WIN Magazine, an outgrowth of the New York Workshop in Nonviolence, and continued to promote war tax resistance, amnesty, and disarmament after the end of the war. A founder of the Coalition on the Economic Crisis, WRL also initiated the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice during the United States’ bicentennial year.

Robert Cooney and Helen Michalowski, reprinted with permission, from The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States.  Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
fuga mobilya