Peace is the Only Shelter: a brief history of WILPF Disarmament.
Almost immediately WILPF women had to focus on what they were against as well as what they were for. The second WILPF Congress in Zurich during 1919 coincided with the Versailles Treaty talks in France. WILPF was the first organization to condemn the terms of the Treaty, which imposed such harsh conditions that German suffering and anger led to WWII. While WILPF had strongly advocated the founding of the League of Nations, it found itself having to criticize the League's weaknesses and lack of openness to citizen participation.
In 1926, U.S. WILPF collected more than 10,000 signatures supporting the upcoming League of Nations Disarmament Commission. In 1932, worldwide WILPF delivered 6 million signatures demanding universal disarmament to the World Disarmament Conference. In the 1930s the worsening political situation not only reduced the impact of WILPF calls for peace and disarmament, but also led to major disagreements between WILPF members and sections.
Baltimore WILPF member Minnie Hoch, who turned 90 last year, remembers picketers at Union Station in Washington, D.C., saying, "Don't send our boys to war." But Europeans, even WILPF members, felt there was no option but war to resist fascism and Hitler. WILPF members made plans for after the war, including a WILPF Congress while the formal peace talks went on (just like after WWI) and strong support for the formation of the United Nations.
In the early 1950s WILPF objected to the Bikini Island nuclear weapons tests, and urged a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Korea. WILPF initiated a World Disarmament and World Development series in 1953, calling for disarmament and reallocation of the resources saved to address poverty and disease.
In 1957, U.S. WILPF delivered 10,000 signatures to the White House opposing nuclear testing. Anger at fallout from nuclear testing and fear of Cold War tensions caused a groundswell which became Women Strike for Peace (WSP) as hundreds of thousands of U.S. women left work or home and hit the streets on November 1, 1961 to demand a test ban. In subsequent years WILPF and WSP groups worked closely together or even merged. Sadly, though the 1961 strike was huge, its success was only partial, with an atmospheric test ban in August 1963--but still no comprehensive ban.
Portland, OR, branch member Carol Urner remembers another fruit of WILPF/WSP work: "Young WSP mothers, realizing they needed a more stable structure for the long haul, resurrected a long-dormant Portland WILPF. The media continued to give publicity as they organized to defy civil defense as useless against nuclear war ... Every month, when the air raid sirens blew, they stood under Public Shelter signs with their umbrellas reading 'Peace is the Only Shelter' and passed out leaflets calling for steps to peace. They helped get civil defense on the ballot. After Portlanders voted it down three times, both city and state abandoned the program and it gradually crumbled nationwide. Portland WILPF survived and, 40 years later, still works actively to abolish nuclear weapons."
Vietnam dominated activist agendas later in the 1960s. In 1966, WILPF coordinated a worldwide appeal to women to help stop the Vietnam War. It reached 80 countries and over 100 prominent U.S. women. Jeannette Rankin, by then quite elderly, found herself leading a brigade of 5,000 women marching on Washington in January 1968 to demand that the war end and the military industrial complex be stopped. The former Montana Congress member, who voted against both World Wars, had commented that if as many women marched as U.S. soldiers had died, perhaps the war would end.
In 1968 a nuclear nonproliferation treaty got through the United Nations, but it was so much weaker than the initial WILPF draft that the U.S. Section actually opposed it as signed. In 1969, WILPF's International Conference on Chemical and Biological Warfare in London supported U.N. Secretary General's U Thant's push for compliance of the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol, and in 1971 the United Nations passed a Convention banning bacteriological weapons.
In 1978, the First U.N. Special Session on Disarmament (SSD 1) replaced what WILPF had hoped would be a U.N. World Disarmament Conference. After much pressure, U.S. WILPF President Kay Camp was installed as special adviser on disarmament to the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations. "Kay Camp did the hard work on disarmament," said Minnie Hoch.
"The threatened placing of Pershing and Cruise missiles in Germany and the elections of Reagan and Thatcher in the United States and Britain frightened people and the masses gathered. During the SSD 2 in New York in 1982 a million people gathered to protest, including Camp and many other WILPF members. They surrounded the United Nations for weeks, demanding an end to the nuclear arms race. In 1983, 10,000 women (organized by German WILPF member Irene Eckert) marched in Brussels on International Women's Day demanding that governments "Stop The Arms Race!" (STAR). But the missiles went in anyway, and that same month Reagan talked about a "space-based shield." Star Wars was born.
In the early 1990's, U.S. Section Executive Director Jane Midgley compiled the Women's Budget, which called for halving the Pentagon budget and spending the savings on human needs. Many other women's groups used the document, and it still gets asked about in the Legislative Office and on Capitol Hill.
Today, Hoch said she is depressed by her years of work with, apparently, little to show for it. But another way to look at it is that WILPF, and a few other long-lived groups like the War Resisters League, have kept the struggle alive when the crowds were thin. And the crowds are not as thin as they used to be. As U.S. Section Executive Director Mildred Scott Olmsted said in an interview at the end of her long career (she served for an amazing 43 years) "... the world is outgrowing armaments ... and WILPF is no longer the only one to see."
Who knows what might have happened without our faithful resistance. I am sometimes amazed that nuclear or other horrendous weapons have been used so seldom, given the fact that there are so many of them. The work continues, and today's Disarm: Dismantling the War Economy Campaign is directly related to earlier work against weapons and war.
UPCOMING EVENTS AND RESOURCES
WILPF's long working relationship in consultative status with the United Nations continues as WILPF leads NGOs planning for yet another Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory meeting, April 26 - May 7 at the United Nations. The issues remain so similar, as yet another belligerent U.S. president threatens to enlarge the U.S. nuclear arsenal instead of eliminating it as he is obliged by the NPT treaty to do, while demanding that other countries give up or never obtain what he thinks is so important. WILPF hopes to once again bring the largest contingent of members to the NPT Prep Com. We hope many members will attend. Two WILPF panels and a strategy meeting are planned. Check the calendar at www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/npt.
The ongoing Star Wars missile defense plan (which is unlikely to work and will waste large amounts of money) and the U.S. avoidance of meeting Chemical and Biological Treaty obligations continue to draw our energy. This work is the "abolition" part of our DISARM! Campaign. The Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space will hold their yearly conference in Maine (April 23-25) and we would like to send more representatives. WILPF will also once again participate in "Keep Space for Peace Week" this fall; this year we are cosponsoring the event. Go to www.space4peace.org for both topics.
The MilCorp ConneXion manual is being updated with information related to challenging the entire corporate system, as well as the life-threatening pollution and weapons produced by arms manufacturers. The updated manual will soon be on the WILPF website, or available in hard copy from the national office.
Action alerts to keep your legislators in line are available from Eye on Congress; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the list. DISARM! members will also attend the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability's spring lobby event in Washington during March 28-31. (See www.anuclear.org for more information.) The DISARM! Listening Project also needs listening trainees and sites for trainings. Contact: email@example.com.
Ellen Barfield is a WILPF Board member and a member of the DISARM! Campaign.