Thursday, June 02, 2011

Peace intellectuals under pressure

In the aftermath of World War II, German intellectuals were pilloried for lack of backbone in standing up to the nazis. Intellectuals everywhere tried to demonstrate better behavior to show the world that academics can also be courageous. They frequently became involved in peace and disarmament movements.

Yes, there were the intelligentsia who seemed almost a logical extension of the German academics in service to Hitler. Herman Kahn, Edward Teller, and many who devoted their intellectual talents to aggrandizing American power could be found doing the work of the elites. But there were also many who courageously resisted.

Intellectuals were first challenged by the McCarthy witch hunts. Some folded and testified, gave names, joined the rat system and sprouted sudden rightwing ideology. Some, like Paul Robeson, stood against the House Un-American Activities Committee and some stood defiant of McCarthy on the Senate side. Some just raised questions and countervailing opinions and analysis even in that general stultifying political atmosphere of red-baiting response to critical thinking.

Public peace intellectuals like Linus Pauling and his wife Ava Helen Pauling were key to achieving the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, and were strong through many campaigns before that. Linus was a chemistry professor and was asked by Robert Oppenheimer to lead that aspect of the Manhattan Project, which Pauling refused to do as a pacifist. Oppenheimer would later learn about the loyalty of the elites to their intelligentsia, when his security clearance was stripped during the McCarthy period of hysteria. Ava Helen Pauling was Linus's conscience and prompter toward his battles. She led him to their anti-internment activities during World War II, another stance by a public intellectual that defied the zeitgeist.

The times of peace and prosperity without conflict and enemies are the times when intellectuals are more active, but the times of hot conflict, security paranoia, xenophobia and jingoism are when intellectuals really earn their stripes.

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