Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual by Lawrence S. Wittner

Publisher:  University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN

Publication Date: February 2012, 288 pages

Paperback Price: $29.95

Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual is a must read for all who are interested and involved in the search for peace, racial equality, and other aspects of social justice.  The book is a very well written autobiography by Lawrence S. Wittner, emeritus professor of history at the State University of New York-Albany.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York,  Wittner graduated from Columbia College (B.A., 1962), the University of Wisconsin (M.A., 1963), and Columbia University (Ph.D. in history, 1967).  His teaching assignments were at Hampton Institute, Vassar College, the University of Toyko, and finally, SUNY/Albany from which he retired as a full professor in 2010.  His scholarship included authorship of eight books and the editing or co-editing of another four, plus the writing of over 250 published articles and book reviews.  His most challenging scholarly effort was the completion of a three book series The Struggle Against the Bomb on the history of the nuclear disarmament movement.  The books were:  One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970;  and Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present.  An abbreviated version of the entire trilogy is also available as Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement. Additionally, his Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933-1983 is a widely acclaimed, comprehensive account of the missing link between the mass peace and justice movements of the 1930s and their rebirth in the 1960s with emphasis on civil rights, non-violent resistance and the prevention of World War III.

During the course of his research, Wittner delved into the records and periodicals of many peace organizations like the War Resisters League, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and SANE (now Peace Action). Among the prominent peace activists whom he interviewed for his publications were A.J. Muste, Norman Thomas, Dave Dellinger, and Mercedes  Randall.  During his research for the Struggle Against the Bomb series, he interviewed such well known peace movement leaders as Randy Forsberg, Sandy Gottlieb, Helen Caldicott, John Isaacs, Randy Kehler, Jeremy Stone, Bernard Lown, Bob Musil and Frank von Hippel.

In addition to his research and teaching roles, Wittner was a tireless agitator and social activist.  A paragraph in the Preface of the book describes those activities:

” Over the course of my life, I … have been tear-gassed, threatened by police with drawn guns, charged by soldiers with fixed bayonets, spied upon by U.S. government intelligence agencies, and purged from my job for political reasons.  Although, in my opinion, I did nothing that merited this kind of treatment, it is certainly true that much of my behavior was quite unconventional.  Indeed throughout most of my life I worked diligently as a peace agitator, civil rights activist, socialist organizer, labor union militant, and subversive songwriter. My experiences ranged from challenging racism in the South, to building alliances with maquiladora workers in Mexico, to leading the annual antinuclear parade through the streets of Hiroshima.  Like Wendell Phillilps, the great abolitionist leader, I have been a consistent thorn in the side of complacency – at least I hope so.”

Clearly Wittner paid a price for his agitation and activism.  While he had a very enviable and successful academic career, his road to success was not easy.  Most major U.S. universities require three primary duties of their tenured professors and those who are seeking tenure.  Those duties are research, teaching, and community service.  If there ever was a university professor who excelled in all three of those functions, it was Lawrence Wittner.  That fact, notwithstanding, he had a VERY rough road to promotion and success because of ultra conservative presidents, deans, departmental chairs, and dead-wood academic colleagues.  Several of those individuals threw sand into the gears of his work as researcher, teacher, and community service provider.  Inane university politics delayed his achievement of tenure,  and ensured that his pay was not usually commensurate with his voluminous work output.   Lesser individuals would have succumbed to such outlandish obstacles.  This was not the case with Lawrence Wittner.  His life was, and is, a life of caring, persistence and dedication to the cause of peace, social justice and human survival.  It is important that his life’s contributions and achievements be passed on to young and old alike.  Working for Peace and Justice is an excellent book for general audiences, peace activists, ethicists, students of peace studies, students of history, and social activists of every stripe.