On February 10, 2016, Peace Action--the largest peace organization in the United States--announced its endorsement of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for President.
Peace Action is the descendant of two other mass U.S. peace organizations: the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (the Freeze). SANE was founded in 1957 with the goal of ending nuclear weapons testing. Soon, though, it broadened its agenda to include opposing the Vietnam War and other overseas military intervention, reducing military spending, and backing nuclear disarmament treaties, as well as supporting economic conversion from military to civilian production. Among SANE's early supporters were Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Reuther, and Dr. Benjamin Spock. The Freeze, initiated by Randy Forsberg, appeared in the late 1970s and reached a peak in the first half of the 1980s, when it led a widespread campaign to halt the Reagan administration's dramatic nuclear weapons buildup and the dangerous slide toward nuclear war. With much in common, SANE and the Freeze merged in 1987 to form Peace Action. Like its predecessors, Peace Action devoted its efforts to building a more peaceful world.
Although the three peace organizations rarely endorsed Presidential candidates, they did so on occasion. Appalled by the Vietnam War, SANE backed the peace campaigns of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. In 1984, challenging the Reagan administration's bellicose approach to international affairs, SANE and the Freeze endorsed Walter Mondale. Then, in 1992, fed up with twelve years of Republican hawkishness, the newly-combined peace organization threw its support behind Bill Clinton.
In its statement endorsing Bernie Sanders, Peace Action praised his opposition to both Iraq wars, support of legislation to reduce spending on nuclear weapons, strong backing of the Iran agreement, votes to curb military spending, and championing of diplomacy over war. According to Kevin Martin, the executive director of the peace organization, Sanders "best represents the values that Peace Action and its 200,000 supporters have espoused." And, in fact, before Peace Action's board of directors voted overwhelmingly to have the organization's Peace PAC back the Sanders campaign, an online poll of Peace Action's members revealed support for endorsement by 85 percent of the respondents.
This enthusiasm for Sanders among peace activists reflects other aspects of his record, as well. The U.S. Senator from Vermont has opposed NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, favored normalization of relations with Iran, and decried the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2014 as "disproportionate" and "completely unacceptable." When it comes to the war in Syria, he has opposed the establishment of a "no-fly zone" and the use of American ground troops. In a July 2015 interview, Sanders explained that, although he is not a pacifist, he believes that "war is the very, very, very last option."
Sanders' depiction as a peace candidate has inspired some grumbling. During the Presidential race, he has shied away from foreign and military policy issues, and this has disappointed some peace activists. Hard-line leftists, already irked by his benign brand of socialism, have been particularly critical. A writer in the Socialist Worker denounced Sanders' "backing of U.S. imperialism," while another, in Jacobin, charged that he was "willfully blind to the hand-in-glove relationship between capitalism and militarism."
Even so, when it comes to mainstream electoral politics, Sanders is a logical choice for peace activists. Although it's true that he has focused his campaign on economic inequality within the United States, he has not hesitated to assail the "military-industrial complex," as well as the "regime change" policies of past U.S. administrations. Also, the attacks upon him by leftwing purists are often divorced from reality. Driven by a sectarian mindset and a fierce hatred of the Democratic Party, these firebrands distort or ignore much of his peace-oriented record. Furthermore, they overlook the unpleasant alternatives to a Sanders presidency: a hawkish Hillary Clinton or a rabidly militaristic Republican in the White House.
A more serious question is whether American voters, in 2016, will respond positively to a peace candidate. Although the answer remains unclear, there are some indications that they will. Opinion polls reveal that most Americans do not support increasing the U.S. military budget, are wary of sending U.S. ground troops into another Mideast war, and back recent agreements that ease tensions with "enemy" nations like Iran and Cuba. Therefore, campaigning as a peace candidate might end up producing benefits for Bernie Sanders at the ballot box.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner (www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What's Going On at UAardvark?