‘American original’ Robert Pickus spoke truth to power


Robert Pickus, who devoted his life to developing non-violent alternatives to war, died on Friday in St. Helena, Ca. He was 92, The New York Times reports:

War, he argued, could come about by building arms, and by not building arms. The task, therefore, was to build legal and political alternatives to war. “In the shadow of Hiroshima,” he wrote in his 1968 preface to a reprint of Albert Camus’ Neither Victims Nor Executioners, “we had in America a clear goal and a moral commitment to sustain it. The goal was to end war. The moral commitment was the refusal to legitimize murder.”

“The problem of a pacifist,” he told an anti-Vietnam war rally in 1965, “is not just to condemn violence, but to work out a way to counter the other side’s violence.” While criticizing military escalation, he held anti-war activists responsible for focusing exclusively on America’s faults. “I believe if those of us in this room were to stand before a mirror, we would see an obstacle to disarmament,” he told a gathering of NGO leaders in 1978.

From 1951 to 2016, as the head of Acts for Peace, Turn Toward Peace and the World Without War Council, Pickus organized a series of peace initiatives and served as a consultant to groups ranging from the National Endowment for Democracy [the Washington-based democracy assistance group] and the National Association of Evangelicals to the National Catholic Education Association and the National Council on Philanthropy. In 1985, he launched the James Madison Foundation, under the leadership of his colleague, the Catholic theologian George Weigel…

Pickus was an American original, notes Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies

To the end, he believed in building what he often called an “American peace effort worthy of the name”, he writes for the National Review:

……one that firmly rejected all forms of tyranny, especially the Communist variety; one that cherished American democracy and saw American political, economic, and, yes, military power as essential in moving the world toward a greater measure of political community; one that understood that this is an imperfect world, in which utopian politics too often turns into a tacit acquiescence in evil – or evil itself; one that honored the rule of law and wasn’t seduced by leftist revolutionary violence; one that acknowledged the present competencies and corruptions of international organizations while working to reform them.

In the 1950s, Pickus called for a pacifist statement that became Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence (1955), The Times adds:

He wrote a summary for the Progressive magazine, which also published an exchange with Reinhold Niebuhr, George Kennan, Dwight MacDonald and Norman Thomas. He later focused on arms control and initiatives to build democratic civil society in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and, with Bayard Rustin [above], in South Africa.

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