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Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book

Volume 5 Number 1-4
March 1994

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Peace Through Law:
John Seiberling's Vision of World Order, Part I

Miriam R. Jackson, Kent, OH

This paper was presented at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax, VA.

The 1970 Congressional election victory of John Seiberling, running on a peace platform against a pro-Viet Nam war incumbent, was both the culmination of long-term peace activism and the beginning of more. Seiberling's desire to end the Viet Nam war was part of a more general interest in building world peace through international law. Seiberling first became interested in the possibilities of world peace through law as a student at Harvard in the late 1930s and early 1940s--he saw world law as the only way to achieve ordered world peace. His emerging vision was reinforced by his combat experience in Europe during World War II. Seiberling was further affected by the physical devastation he saw in Europe, as well as his awareness of the effects and implications of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"I spent four years in the Army in World War II," Seiberling recalled:

It became clear to people who thought about it that if we were to avoid war--a Third World War with nuclear weapons--that something was going to have to be done to eliminate the weaknesses in the political structure of the world... It was quite clear that if we wanted to prevent world war, we needed world law. And we needed institutions to enact and enforce world law, which meant some form of limited world government, with power to enforce the rule of law against war-making and aggression. 1

Rooted in such concepts, World Federalists was launched after World War II, with the active participation of John Seiberling Its vision, however, seemed curiously narrow in its assumption that world law--somehow agreed upon between nations with varying social and economic systems--would or could alone end war without concurrent achievements over hunger, poverty, oppression and underdevelopment. World Federalists appeared to want a United Nations strengthened in its international legal powers as the center of a new international legal system meant to mediate and/or legislate alternatives to war. This desire, or idealism, was vigorously criticized by such current theorists as Reinhold Niebuhr, who held that world government under the UN might be desirable but was both morally and politically unlikely. The only world community was in technology and the proposal of a legal one was a fallacy, he wrote, lacking the "social issue" to bind it and the willingness of nations to give up sovereignty. 2

The principles of the UN, wrote Niebuhr, were not the problem, but those impatient with the UN's limits. Such idealists "pretended that the UN was really a complete global constitutional system," when in fact the UN did what could be expected given its realistic purposes. It existed in the bipolar world tragically created by an implacable enemy (the USSR) and it was quite unrealistic to see it as more than a limited bridge, a noncommunist assembly, and as a hope for avoiding war and fighting communism. 3

Niebuhr was acutely aware of the importance of American example in a postwar world filled with colonial nations heading toward independence in a context of U.S.-Soviet rivalry for influence. "We must exercise our leadership of the free world," he declared, "in the light of tremendous complications in our contest with communism because the Asian and African continents are in ferment." He worried about conspiracies (presumably Soviet) to instigate revolutions there. 4 Yet he was aware that resentment of colonial peoples toward the West had some justice, seeing neither the philosophy of "idealism," nor the position of "realism," the pursuit of war or the attempt to abolish it as relevant contexts or policies through which to counter it. 5 And, while he saw some security against Soviet existence in the atomic balance of terror, he advised against "a too great emphasis on military power alone." The U.S. might neglect its conventional resources and--worse--so build up the military that it would "neglect all the other political, economic and moral factors which give unity, health and strength to the nations of the free world." 6 John Seiberling would undoubtedly have agreed with the latter part of the analysis.

George F. Kennan and Hans J. Morgenthau were writing along the same lines as Niebuhr in the 1950s. Writing as realists, their view of idealism was not, however, similar to the sort of moral, peaceful internationalism of Seiberling and the World Federalists. Idealism, to Kennan, meant those with unrealistic expectations of a world Pax Americana or with notions of "liberating," as opposed to containing, populations under Communist regimes. Liberation was both unrealistic and dangerous unless achieved by the populations themselves, especially since nuclear weapons could only be used as a deterrent, not as an instrument of force or retaliation. 7 Morgenthau agreed, criticizing President Harry Truman's decision to intervene in Korea as an unwise application of the idealist notion of liberating nations from Communism no matter what the possible consequences. (He went on to note Truman's debasement of realism, which produced a necessarily limited military effort insufficient for victory.) 8

Kennan, perhaps mindful of current World Federalist campaigns for disarmament, denied its possibility as long as underlying world problems were not addressed. Though he did not believe the USSR wanted war, he insisted that better relations would not be achieved by more amiable diplomatic behavior--he called that a "silly suggestion." There was a general recognition of the Soviet danger--the argument lay in how to respond. Kennan recommended heightened sensitivity to the role of local social problems in social uprisings (against colonialism), containment as a defense against the Soviets and a more complex response than military to gain influence in "in-between" (nonaligned) countries versus the USSR. Kennan realized that such nations wanted progress without more dependence or coercion and, though generally dubious about the value of world government, agreed that relations with emerging nations should be pursued in a multilateral context. Interestingly enough for that time, Kennan fretted about the neglect by the U.S. of such things as environmental protection. The various facets of urban and social neglect, he observed, looked bad to an outside world presumably looking to the U.S. as a favorable counter-model to the Soviet Union. 9

Morgenthau, attempting to make a realist definition of an American national interest in 1952, agreed that both realists and "utopians" wished to back their country and fight Communism but differed on "philosophies and standards of thought." Utopians wished to believe that people were basically good, that America had always done things for moral and humanitarian reasons and that it could and should pursue in its foreign policy the "absolute good." Realists saw that policy was conducted by precedent, the "lesser evil," that human beings were imperfect, and that the balance of power had more to do with American history than ideas, with a national interest "defined in terms of power--political, military and economic--not some humanitarian "coordinate state." Morgenthau cited approvingly a similar thesis advanced by Woodrow Wilson in 1901; claims to the contrary were dangerous escapist fantasies in the postwar world motivated by an "emotional urge to justify American foreign policy in humanitarian, pacifist terms." 10

Both utopians and realists, Morgenthau wrote, could support the current doctrine of "collective security" for their own reasons: as aid to victims of aggression or as in the American national interest. Both could wish the liberation of "captive nations;" realists would weigh interests while utopians fed their moral outrage. There were moral choices to be made, Morgenthau wrote, in determining the national interest in foreign policy. But one needed to distinguish between moral sympathies and political interests. Abraham Lincoln had, after all, done just that in his response to the problem of slavery; Morgenthau recommended following his example. 11

The world of power and contending interests in which morality had little place, as described by Kennan and Morgenthau (and to some extend Niebuhr) must have looked much different to such peaceful internationalists as John Seiberling and the World Federalists. Certainly it did to critics of the "realist" view of appropriate current U.S. foreign policy. Robert W. Tucker, responding to an earlier and very similar argument by Morgenthau, expressed great unhappiness with power as the ultimate question. Where did morality come in, he inquired. More, Morgenthau's means to objective judgments sounded as physically objective as the "laws of gravitation." If the objective facts of national interest were so clear, why weren't they self-evident to leaders? Morgenthau made evaluations of incompatible philosophies, but denied (wrongly, asserted Tucker) that he did so on moral grounds. He speculated that Morgenthau might be using morality to justify his political ends, a rather amoral "moral" mixing with what was really " political expediency." Tucker ended by suggesting that Morgenthau was really interested in making the world over in the U.S. image and then justifying it on the grounds of "national interest." 12

Thomas I. Cook and Malcolm Moos, writing three months later, expressed distaste for firm arguments on either the idealist or realist side. Should power politics be the core of policy decisions? Could they solve all problems? The U.S. needed to "create situations in which effective power at once discourages aggression by, and stimulates transformation in Russia" (an ironic and perhaps unintended echo of 'realist' Kennan). Yet they went on to postulate the need to "probe behind the evils" of the Soviet regime and the need to see the "justified realities of its economic and cultural national interests and aspirations." Further, they pointed to a need to see the relevance of Marxism to the Russian Revolution and the relevance of "ethical Marxism" in emerging countries. American theories of its classless society, they remarked, were not so far from Marx's insights and vision. American interests, they concluded, should be based on pragmatic methods--rooted in turn in "Christian ethics." That, they suggested, was the best of the two worlds: realistic idealism." 13

There certainly appears to have been a postwar anticommunist consensus: the Soviet Union and its influence/subversion must be fought--somehow. No one questioned the inherent moral or political superiority of the United States or the inherent evil of "Communism." Those "realists" supporting the current, cautious policy of containment were opposed mainly by "idealists" of the right with a wish to "liberate" the "captive nations" with a "rollback" policy (there are hints of this in Niebuhr's writing, but John Foster Dulles was a more obvious exponent) but occasionally by idealists of the left, like (by his own account, if not definition), the young John Seiberling. He and his fellow World Federalists shared the idealism and moral fervor of the mainstream "utopians," but their idealism and fervor were concentrated in the belief not in rolling back "Communism" but in working toward a more peaceful world through negotiated order. They shared the caution of the realists in their acceptance of the reality of "Communism" and in their distaste for military solutions to conflicts.

World Federalists grew in the postwar years and John Seiberling grew with it. The son of an Akron, Ohio rubber company magnate, he joined a student chapter of World Federalists during his postwar law school days at Columbia. Following five years of legal work in New York (when he was active in the New York chapter of World Federalists), Seiberling returned to Akron. There, by the 1960s, he became particularly active in the Akron Bar Association's World Peace Through Law committee.

For several reasons consistent with his World Federalist vision, Seiberling became an early opponent of the Viet Nam war. "After the 1964 elections," he later recalled, "it became increasingly clear that our military involvement in Viet Nam was a mistake, that we should cease participating there in a military sense, and that we could not effectively resolve a country's internal problems through the use of force." Resolving to approach the matter anew through electoral channels--as well as through SANE and his World Federalist activities--Seiberling supported candidates in 1966 and 1968 clearly (or at least privately) in opposition to the war's continuation. Both ran in the general election against pro-war GOP incumbent William Ayres and lost. Meanwhile, the war intensified, and Seiberling's concerns rose with American troop levels.

I also felt that we should get out because not only was the Vietnam war taking a terrible toll on our people, as well as the people of Viet Nam, and costing many billions of dollars, but was distracting us from the cause of peace through law--and from strengthening the UN and making it a more effective institution for that purpose. 14

By 1969, Seiberling had seen too much suffering and draining of resources to maintain the activity of a private citizen. The Great Society was dying: the nation was polarized. Seiberling's vision was being lost in a maze of division, violence and war. To bring these messages home, Seiberling chaired a conference that fall in Akron, on

military spending and local priorities, which brought out the price that was being paid by the people of Summit County for supporting excessive military programs, including the Viet Nam war. It also brought out how many unmet social and education and other needs in Summit County we could not satisfy because we lacked the funds. 15

Seiberling became convinced that a "New Priorities" approach to reversing the arms race might work in Washington. With the encouragement of friends, he ultimately decided to run for Congress in 1970. He emerged victorious from a crowded primary field on May 5--the day after the killings at nearby Kent State--and went on to win election to the House in November, upsetting ten-term incumbent Ayres.

John Seiberling had won the chance to take his commitment and his vision of world peace, disarmament and order through law to Washington, "to see if I could make a difference." And if he needed reminders of the circumstances in which he had won election as a peace candidate, he had only to listen to the local and national repercussions of Kent State. "This was a shattering experience," Seiberling later recalled, "for young people all over the country, and made me even more concerned about the implications of the continued presence of the United States and the military intervention in Vietnam." 16

In January, 1971, Seiberling began his first term as a Congressman. He soon joined a group of Members at work on legislative means by which the United States could extricate itself from Viet Nam. Meanwhile, the House Democratic Caucus took several votes on whether relevant committees should be directed to report out end-the-war resolutions. One, Seiberling recalls, passed by only one vote. "And I thought, 'well, my presence here made a difference--I'm glad I ran.'" In the middle of 1973, Congress finally passed an amendment which ended funding for military operations in Viet Nam as of mid-September. For Viet Nam--and for many in the United States--it was the beginning of the end of a long nightmare. Given that U.S. participation ended by Congressional mandate, as well as by peace negotiations, one could certainly characterize this settlement as at least in part a triumph of Seiberling's vision of peace through law. And yet, Seiberling did not mention law when he recalled the focus of his floor speech during that amendment's debate: the moral necessity of ending the war immediately, rather than waiting a month as a typical legislative compromise. "If we agree that the killing is wrong," he had argued, "why should we allow it to go on for one more day?" 17

Attempting to tackle the Cold War and the arms race proved even more difficult than Viet Nam. Indeed, prospects for detente, given the ratification of the SALT I/ABM treaty in the early 1970s, must have seemed better at the beginning of Seiberling's House career than they did by the end. Some argued that the SALT process was inherently flawed in its concentration on the controlled increase in nuclear arsenals rather than on their reduction. On the other hand, the two agreements were a great improvement over past periods of wide-open arms production.

There was a certain ambivalence to John Seiberling's views about all this. He earnestly wished to end the arms race, both to save the world from extinction and to maintain the democratic system he so valued in the U.S. Declining to view the Soviets as an unyielding incarnation of evil, he shared the views of Niebuhr and Kennan of the Soviets as a closed society—hoping simply to “democratize” their system through friendly persuasion. Seiberling shared the bipartisan postwar consensus about the need to “struggle against Communism.” What bothered him about some of Communism’s more fervent American opponents was the cavalier manner in which they discarded appropriate “legal niceties”—federal law and the Constitution—in pursuit of their goal.

Seiberling saw the Nixon administration as a prime example of this kind of mindset—not in its policy toward the USSR or China, but in its frantic push to remain in Viet Nam and stay in power in the United States. This behavior, of course, produced the downfall of Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.

And so we had the Nixon White House ignoring the Constitution and the laws and now we have the Reagan administration doing the same thing—the Reagan White House, at least. They don’t seem to understand that, in doing so, you become more and more like the society you abhor; you become more and more like the vision of The Enemy that’s in your mind.18

One could hear the hurt and outrage of the believer in international law and institutions as Seiberling recalled his reaction, almost a decade later, to the Reagan administration’s announced position on the subject of the World Court’s jurisdiction over questions of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.

It seemed to me unbelievable that an Administration would come into office saying, “We don’t care about world law. We’re not only not going to try to promote it—we’re going to withdraw from the institutions—such as they are—that make any kind of world rule of law possible....” I feel that that is part and parcel of the disease that we need to face up to—the disease being the lack of any rule of law in the world.19

The Reagan administration, he asserted, “violated our own laws and international law in mining the ports of Nicaragua. They then, instead of facing up to it when Nicaragua brought a suit in the World Court, proceeded to say, ‘Oh, well, we’ll withdraw from the World Court.’”20

Continue to Part II

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Updated Friday, January 29, 1999

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