My Commitment to Peace

Paper presented at the American Orthopsychiatric Association 43rd Annual Meeting, April 13-16, 1966, San Francisco, Symposium on “Commitment to Peace: Evolvement of Involvement.”

I was born in a small town in the Ukraine. Although I was only 14 three years old in 1941, my recollections of that time are vivid. Out­standing among them is my father’s disappearance. I was taught to say that “papa was at the front,” but actually he was living illegally in the Caucasus, avoiding the draft. (The czarist government was slow in ex­tending general mobilization to areas inhabited by minorities who had cultural ties with Turkey.) Mother and I (an only child) moved in with my grandparents. The eldest son of that family was a prisoner of war in Austria. Grandmother sent a package of cookies every month and shed Jewish tears over the monthly post card from the plien (captivity).

Once I made a cannon from chairs and broomsticks and fired a shell toward the west, where I was told the war was. The shell was to end the war, I said; but it would take two years to reach the front. Once some one rushed in with a newspaper announcing the death of Emperor Franz Joseph. I asked grandpa whether that meant that the war was over, but grandpa only laughed.

Life, as I recall it then, was waiting for the war to end, and for papa and uncle Misha to come home.

I learned about the February Revolution from the country girl who helped in the kitchen. I had come to her to complain against grandpa after a collision of wills. “Tell grandpa he can’t pick on you any more,” she said. “Everybody has got svoboda now.”

I did not know what svoboda meant (it means liberty) and went to ask grandpa whether the war was over. He laughed again (he was easily moved to laughter); but then he started to explain that the czar was no longer czar, until grandma put a stop to the political discussion.

Nothing was said about the war ending, but other topics gradually dis­placed it from conversation. My father came home and was soon immersed in local politics. On the First of May, 1917, mother helped me dress in my best, pinned a red ribbon on my embroidered shirt, and said we were going to a “meeting.”

“If any one asks you what you are,” mother said, “say ‘I am a Social-Democrat Bolshevik.'”

Naturally I did not wait to be asked, and announced my political af­filiation to every one, attracting attention and eliciting laughter from adults. But my friends on the block did not laugh. Some responded with enthusiasm and some with derision. I soon learned that there were also Social-Democrat Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries (who were also called the S.R.’s) and Cadets, and many other kinds of people, some very good, some pretty good, some bad, and some awful. We, the Social-Democrat Bolsheviks were the best, because we were the only ones who said “Down with war!”

The meeting was a large open air rally. When mother lifted me I could see the “tribune” bedecked with red cloth and the orator shouting on top of it. Father was among the orators. The speeches alternated with a brass band, and I could recognize the tunes, which I had learned to strum on the piano – the Marseillaise and the Funeral March. The latter was in memory of the 1905 victims. I knew about 1905. Another uncle of mine had a crippled hand, the result of beatings. At intervals people shouted hurrah, and so did I from my mother’s shoulder: “Long live the First of May! Down with war!”

The only thing I remember about the October Revolution was the ortho­graphy reform, which I heartily endorsed. In the winter we moved to the Crimea to escape the Germans, but the Germans occupied the Crimea, too. The summer of 1918 under German occupation was quiet and devoid of politics.

In the late fall the Germans vanished, and we went back to our home town only to be caught in the vicious civil war. Father was the mayor of our town. He organized a short-lived Committee for Self-Defense, a militia entrusted with protecting the civilian population from the marauding bands who went in to rape and loot when the “major” armies retreated. Father was no longer a Bolshevik. He had broken away (as I learned later) during the Red Terror of 1918, following the attempt on Lenin’s life. The Committee was to hold power only in the interim periods when the town changed hands, and was to surrender to any “responsible authority.” It thus declared itself “neutral” in the civil war. However, Petlura, the Ukranian nationalist, took a dim view of the “Jewish” committee, and father had to flee for his life.

The last year of the civil war found us reunited in Crimea, which had become the last stronghold of the White Guard. We were again living quietly and apolitically, waiting for the Bolsheviks to come; for their coming would mean the end of the civil war.

The Red Army came in November, 1920. At that time the three of us lived in a large single room. Five Red Army men were billeted with us. They were Siberian Tartars. Their behavior was meticulously correct. They shared their rations with us and were constantly apologizing for their presence. Soon we became friends, and there were lively and uninhibited discussions about the future of Russia and of mankind. I recall also that the Red Army men played the piano, using only the black keys. (Apparently their music was based on the pentatonic scale.)

Our guests did not stay long. Their partisan division was replaced by a regular one from central Russia, and the atmosphere changed abruptly. In particular, several thousand White Guard officers (who could not escape to Turkey and had donned civilian clothes) were rounded up and shot in mass ex­ecutions. Food disappeared. Carloads of wheat, barley, and potatoes went to central Russia to relieve the starvation there. The Revolutionary Committee announced that Crimea had to pay for having been the last “nest” of the counter­revolutionaries.

Father went to work for the city board of education. We lived on the pound and a quarter of bread per day which was his only salary. There were occasional supplements, such as four potatoes, one egg, one hundred grams of salt fish, etc. Eventually living became unbearable. When pressure was put on father to join the Party (in the form of a congratulatory announcement that he was ac­cepted as a “candidate” as a reward for “outstanding work on the pedagogical front”), he yielded to mother’s entreaties to attempt an escape. The escape plan, designed by mother, was elaborate and dangerous, but it succeeded; so that after sixteen months of flight and hiding, we finally came to Chicago, where we joined father’s family, who had emigrated before 1905.

I relate these matters in order to reveal the background of my early attitudes toward war, revolution, communism, and violence. These attitudes were ambivalent in the extreme. On the one hand, communism became associated in my mind with the primitive and romantic ideals of social justice. I identi­fied the ideals with those of the prophets, about whom father used to tell me, and those of Jesus Christ about whom I read in Tolstoy’s adaptation of the New Testament for children. I still thought of the communist revolution as a revolt of the hurt and the oppressed against the callous and the powerful, a revolt which was supposed to have established universal brotherhood and peace. On the other hand, the communists turned out to be ruthless, cynical, and cruel. They shot people on the slightest provocation. They shot several good people we knew. They insisted that whoever was not with them was against them. In their eyes father was a deserter.

It was very difficult to live with this ambivalence. I was eleven years old when we came to the United States. In school, a teacher suggested that I write a piece for the school yearbook on “How and Why I Came to America.” My English was still weak, so I was to tell the teacher what happened, and the teacher would help me write the story. These sessions caused me considerable embarrassment. The teacher kept pushing so as to make it appear that we had lived a happy, carefree life, which the revolution disrupted; that we were forced to flee from the murderous, godless Bolsheviks, and that we now wanted only to forget all about the “Old Country” and to become good Americans. I felt it was not quite so; but, of course, I could not explain it to the teacher. I found particularly offensive her insistence that I say something about being at last free to worship God. I told her that we never worshiped God anyway, but there was no way of getting through to her. At home I was told to let the teacher have her way. So, she wrote my story, and I felt humiliated when the principal of the school singled it out for special praise.

No less painful was the cultural barrier which separated me from my playmates. They worshiped Jack Dempsey; I insisted that fighting was for hooligans. My hero was Chaliapin. They said the United States never lost a war; I said no country ever won a war. In 1922 the boys still talked about becoming millionaires. I said John D. Rockefeller was a greedy old man. They played baseball; I played the piano. They were “regular;” I was a sissy.

In my teens, I joined the Y.P.S.L., campaigned for Norman Thomas, and debated amid cheers and jeers in teen-club basements against my opposite numbers in the Young Workers’ Communist League. It became impossible for me, however, to hang on to the faith in parliamentary democracy and pacifism in the Age of Hitler. The need to hate was overwhelming, and fascism was an ideal target.

For a while, the Popular Fronts, the Spanish Civil War, and Litvinov’s eloquence offered some hope that the split of the Left could be healed, and that a unified resistance could be organized against militant fascism. Stalin’s blood purges and his pact with Hitler made a mockery of that hope. The hope was re-kindled in 1941 and burned brightly in 1945, only to be extinguished by the Cold War and by the last spasms of Stalinist obscurantism.

What specifically was this hope, which I and so many of my generation have tried to keep alive? It clearly was a hope that revolutionary practice could somehow be brought into harmony with revolutionary ideals. To this day I do not know whether there was ever any justification for cherishing such a hope. We have had a sequence of chilling historical lessons on how revolutionary regimes degenerate into paranoia-ridden tyrannies. The clearest revolutionary gains have all been negative gains, embodied in the destruction of flagrant evils. The French Revolution destroyed forever the privileges of hereditary aristo­cracy. The Russian Revolution eradicated landlordism; and soon we shall see the last vestiges of that system rooted out, mainly by revolutions, everywhere in the world. The positive gains of revolutions, on the other hand, are not so easy to discern, because we do not yet know what sort of viable societies our age will spawn. If Stalinism had become entrenched as a new, virulent, and stable autocracy (as had been prophesied by Orwell), the net gain of the Russian Revolution might have been zero. If the post-war trends of American society continue, the “pursuit of happiness” ideal of our Founding Fathers will turn into a lewd farce. Indeed, the entire scientific revolution, which supposedly ushered in the manhood of humanity, will be revealed as a prelude to utter degradation of our species, unless some way is found to curb the high priests of the cult of genocide.

Now, I believe I have stated the content of my concern and have attempt­ed to trace its roots. I believe, as probably many in this audience do, that one’s ethos, that is, one’s deep-seated standards of right and wrong, on the basis of which one judges men, life, and events, derives to a large extent from childhood experience. I would not go so far as some in attributing a determin­ing role to these experiences. Rather, I believe the childhood experiences serve as an impetus which sensitizes the developing individual to certain kinds of subsequent experiences. If the reinforcements are predominantly in one direction, a firm world view is likely to emerge.

My earliest impressions of war, as it affected me and the people close to me, led me to believe that wars were instigated and conducted by people with whom we had nothing to do and to whom we owed no loyalty, people whose main attributes were greed, arrogance, and pugnacity. Needless to say, I do not subscribe to this primitive personalistic view any more; but the fact remains that the attitude engendered by it has remained. One does not get rid of deeply entrenched attitudes by absorbing information, nor by acquir­ing a more sophisticated view of history.

Similarly, my earliest gut feeling about revolutions has remained with me. Whatever I now know about the dynamics of revolutions, the early belief that revolutions are primarily attempts to establish social justice (and not, say, simply conspiracies to seize power) is at the base of my conception of revolution. Therefore, I constantly tend to feel that the gravest crimes against humanity are performed by those who cling to the privileges and power against which the revolutions are directed, and also by those who mis­use revolutions and become the heirs of defunct tyrannies. I have lived in an era when these feelings, engendered in my childhood, were strongly reinforced by events and so gelled into a firm world view.

At present, I find myself a citizen of a super-power, which has embarked upon a career of international mischief, judging not only from the perspective which I have described, but also according to the explicit definition of international crime in the United Nations Charter. By both words and deeds, we have proclaimed war to be the principle instrument of our foreign policy, and the suppression of revolutions its principle aim.

All this is happening at a time when the revolutionary ideas of our century are beginning to mature. Communist orthodoxy has been shattered. A number of regimes have arisen in which communist programs have been tempered with a predominantly Western cultural outlook. In Russia, the age-old longing for cultural acceptance by the West became a force which has finally challenged the xenophobic fixations of the bureaucracy. The present United States foreign policy seems to have been specifically designed to smother all these beginnings, and to prove once and for all the correct­ness of the primitive communist dogma: bourgeois democracy is a sham; no ruling class will ever willingly give up its privileges; co-existence is impossible; deviation is treason; neutrality is immoral. The two views of the world which come closest to each other in our day seem to be those of the United States and of Communist China.

If I could achieve detachment, I could console myself with the knowledge that this, too, will pass, and that the Pentagon will eventually, possibly quite soon, share the ignominious fate of all the previous foci of naked power. But I cannot achieve detachment. I do not have much hope for the human race, since I do not believe we can develop an adaptation (quickly enough) to our cultural secretions. But I cannot resign from the species. I have children, and I do not want them to writhe in agony or to turn into automata or to repeat the atrocious lies amid which they live. Therefore, I am engaged in a struggle, which I often feel to be a hopeless one, but which I have no choice but to wage.

Ann Arbor, Michigan

The University of Michigan

February 15, 1966

Leave a Reply