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Vol. LXIII, No. 20
 
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
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All in a Day’s Work

(Photo by Ellen Gilbert)
“There has to be citizen involvement, or nothing happens.” — The Rev. Robert Moore, Executive Director of the Princeton Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA) since 1981.

Ellen Gilbert

I’m the son of a navy officer. My dad fought in World War II and the Korean War. I was about 12 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I was full of bravado. I thought, “hey, let’s blow ‘em off the face of the earth.” Of course there are millions of human beings living in Cuba; how could you say something so cavalier? But I was twelve years old. I was a hawk on Vietnam as well.

I liked building things, so when I got to college I majored in engineering. My very first semester, I was going to the student center where Dow Chemical was recruiting and of course, they were the makers of napalm. There were protesters outside showing pictures of children who were burned by napalm, and I said, “Wait a minute — this isn’t what the good guys are supposed to be doing.” That really got me thinking, and led me to the journey I’ve been on since I was 18 years old.

Where I went with those moral questions was a natural for me because I’d been raised in the church. I went to the campus minister, and became involved in the peace movement and participated in all sorts of activities. My first experience was with the hunger issue; I organized “hunger hikes” — I think they’re called “crop walks” now. The first one I organized raised about $19,000, which was a lot of money in those days. We had 800 people participate, so obviously, I was gifted in that area. I started to see the connections between injustices; the way that “food for peace” in Vietnam was really being used to support the U.S. war policy, and how violence and injustice are connected at the local, national, and international level, and so, before long, I actually had a paying job working for the campus ministry. That was 1969, so I’ve been in the professional ministry for forty years now.

Religious values definitely inform what I do, and it’s related to the way the Coalition for Peace was created out of the religious community in this area. I wasn’t on the scene, but I met all the players. There was a concern in the late 1970s in the religious community, and one of the first things that happened was that the late George Kennan, the U.S. ambassador, historian, and member of the Institute for Advanced Study, gave a series of talks in 1979 at Trinity Church in which he was basically trying to sound the alarm about the run-away nuclear arms race. This was not a partisan issue. Jimmy Carter was president at that time. I was organizing at the national level, at an organization called Mobilization for Survival, and President Carter signed a Presidential directive that started to make the idea of using nuclear weapons in warfare more thinkable. The warheads were getting more and more accurate, and the idea was that you could miniaturize them, so they could be more precise. It was a totally hare-brained idea; they’re very dangerous. Note that a democrat was at the center of that. We’re equal-opportunity protesters.

George Kennan’s talks led to the first Interfaith Conference for Peace in September of 1980, and they were lucky enough to get some world-class people. Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School preached, and Richard Barnett, Helen Caldicott, and others spoke. They didn’t know what kind of response they would get, but 2,000 people came. The topic was “can we reverse the nuclear arms race?” It had to do with empowerment. Every single speaker at the conference said “yes,” and that the key to doing it was the involvement of average citizens. They called a follow-up meeting a few weeks later, and 400 people came to the Methodist Church, and that was what basically gave birth to this organization.

CFPA existed as an all-volunteer organization at first. A very generous donor who asked to remain anonymous recognized that the group needed a paid coordinator, and I came in the summer of 1981.

There are a lot of peace organizations out there, but many of them aren’t as stable as us, they don’t seem to have the ability to sustain a high level of activity. I think some of it is because they don’t have an institutional base. For better or worse, the faith community consists of mainstream organizations with resources, staff, buildings, and money, and we draw on those resources. So we have a built-in institutional base, aside from the shared values they represent: all the major world religions believe in peace. This area was blessed with visionary leaders who said, “This is a global problem and we’ve got to think globally and act locally, or it’s not going to change.” And they started engaging their congregations. We grew rapidly, and CFPA has evolved into its own agency now. We’re not defined as faith-based, although many of our leaders have come from faith-based institutions.

During Ronald Reagan’s administration, there were people who talked about fighting and winning nuclear wars. It was a scary time. On June 12, 1982 we had to charter a whole train to take us — 1,400 people — to the largest demonstration in U.S. history in New York City — for the nuclear freeze.

It was exciting and empowering, but demonstrations aren’t enough either. I think we have to be careful not to get stuck in one mode. So we tried to use the classic tools of democracy to bring about change, and one of those was, of course, the ballot box. We were able to get a nuclear freeze referendum on the ballot in N.J. Nine other states did it too. The vote was overwhelmingly for the nuclear freeze; 60 percent nationally, and in N.J. even higher, at 66 percent. That gave us legitimacy. A Democrat and a Republican, Governor Byrne and Governor Kean, were the honorary chairs of the nuclear freeze campaign. It was a bipartisan effort.

In 1983 the MX missile was funded and a lot of people got discouraged. The nuclear freeze had passed in the House, but it never passed in the Senate. The answer, though, is persistence: being engaged in the peace movement is not going to get you instant results. Three years after, our pressure succeeded in forcing President Reagan to go back to the negotiating table, and when you talk, you have to put a proposal out there. He came up with the “zero-zero” proposal on medium-range nuclear weapons. At that point, the Soviets already had hundreds of medium-range nuclear weapons; we had zero, so obviously it was an imbalanced proposal, and the Soviets rejected it.

In December of 1983 we started to deploy our new nuclear weapons in Europe, the Cruise and Pershing II. It was another frightening time: we were a hair-trigger away from nuclear war and people started to say that nuclear war was inevitable. That kind of pessimism doesn’t get you anywhere. Then in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, and he had a much more open attitude; he accepted the “zero-zero” proposal. What’s Reagan going to do at that point? He turned around, and I have to say that we were extremely critical of him until he made that turn-around. When he made the turn-around and started to do the right thing, we praised him. I don’t care if it’s an old Cold-Warrior; if he’s doing the right thing, that’s what counts. So by 1987, we had the first nuclear-reduction treaty in history. In fact, it abolished the whole category of medium-range nuclear weapons.

So we were founded in 1980 with the question, “can we reverse the nuclear arms race?” and by 1987 it started to happen. That’s phenomenally fast as far as social movements go. But you have to be persistent, and so a lot of what we do here, day in and day out, is sustain the infrastructure and the grass roots base so that we can be ready when the opportunities arise.

Now we have a new President and a new Congress, and they’re more receptive to our message. While it would be tempting to say, “They’ll just take care of it, and we don’t have to do anything now,” the way I look at it is to say just the opposite: since we have so much opportunity now, we should be redoubling our efforts because we can make tremendous gains.

And just because President Obama is open to our message, doesn’t mean he’s above criticism. We recently held a forum opposing an increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan. And while he’s moving in the right direction with the Iraq question to try to get our troops home and end U.S. involvement there, it’s not fast enough. He said 16 months, but now he’s lengthening it, and talking about leaving 50,000 troops. There’s too much wiggle room. The policy was rotten to the core from the beginning, and we need to remove ourselves.

CFPA’s website is at http://www.peacecoalition.org/.

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