Asserting that “all war is a crime against humanity,” the War Resisters League (WRL) was founded in 1923 by the socialist suffragette Jessie Wallace Hughan and others who believed that “if enough people stood in total opposition to war, governments would hesitate to go to war.” According to The War Called Peace: The Soviet Peace Offensive, WRL supported conscientious objectors whose pacifism was of a secular or political nature, “which primarily meant supporting anarchists, Marxists and Communists who object[ed] to participating in ‘imperialist’ war, but who did not object to class war.”
Committed today to “building a broad-based movement against war in all its multiple forms,” WRL’s philosophy of “revolutionary nonviolence” demands “change at the very roots of our society” and the creation of “a world based on equality and justice.” WRL identifies its major “political influences” as the Indian nationalist Mohandas Gandhi, civil-rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., pacifist-feminist Barbara Deming, labor organizer Cesar Chavez, and peace agitators A.J. Muste and Dave Dellinger.
Since its inception, WRL has opposed every war in which the U.S. has been involved. During World War II, for instance, hundreds of League members were arrested for refusing to serve in the American military. And WRL claims to have been the first major peace group to call for an end to U.S. military intervention in Vietnam.
In 1968, one of WRL’s most recognizable leaders, David McReynolds, ran for Congress on the ticket of the Peace and Freedom Party, which at that time was headed by Black Panther Party “information minister” Eldridge Cleaver. In a 1980s nationwide tour, McReynolds opposed the South African Army’s forced conscription policy. But when he was asked if he would also speak out against the forced conscription policy of Nicaragua’s Marxist Sandinistas — who routinely kidnapped young boys and forced them into military service, McReynolds refused to do so — lest he be seen as siding with the anti-Communist policies of President Ronald Reagan.
Karl Bissinger, a prominent WRL fundraiser who crusaded for nuclear disarmament during the Cold War era, was a great admirer of Prairie Fire, the 1976 political screed of the Weather Underground terrorist organization, most notably Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers. From time to time, Bissinger was entrusted with babysitting Chesa Boudin, the infant son of left-wing terrorists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, when the parents were incarcerated for their role in the deadly Nyack Brinks robbery of 1981.
In the early 1980s, WRL activists collaborated with Moscow-line Communists in the “June 12 Disarmament Coalition,” whose purpose was to pressure the Reagan administration for disarmament concessions. During that same period, WRL’s primer on alternative political structures featured articles supporting Marxism and “social anarchism … socialism without centralism, without a party, and without a government.”
WRL was among the first antiwar organizations to blame America for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. On that very day, the League issued a statement lamenting that “these profound tragedies [of 9/11] remind us of the impact U.S. policies have had on other civilians in other lands”—i.e., “the policies of militarism” that had “resulted in millions of deaths” overseas and thus had caused an anti-American backlash. Explaining that similar attacks against U.S. interests were likely to continue until “a more just distribution of the world’s resources” could be achieved, WRL exhorted the American people to avoid engaging in retaliatory “bigotry” and “reflexive hostility” against people of Arab descent living in the United States.
Following America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, WRL repeatedly denounced the war as “an ongoing crime against humanity,” replete with “violations of human rights on a massive scale.” “The U.S. and its allies commit daily atrocities to enforce an illusory security and keep a fictitious peace,” said WRL.
In the fall of 2006, WRL joined forces with several other anti-war organizations (including Veterans For Peace) to co-sponsor “Stop the Merchants of Death,” an event designed to provide “nonviolent direct-action training” for activists seeking to “expose and stop corporations’ war making and war profiteering.” Among the guest speakers were such notables as Medea Benjamin, Winona LaDuke, and Howard Zinn.
Throughout its history, WRL has actively organized anti-war demonstrations, worked collaboratively with other “peace and justice” groups, published literature about “revolutionary nonviolence,” and helped activists “organize in their own communities, where real change begins.” The League’s major projects today include the following:
• The Counter-Recruitment project seeks to provide young people with the resources and training necessary “to agitate against military recruitment in their schools and communities.” Toward this end, the League offers workshops and seminars for students, activists, and educators on a regular basis.
• The War Tax Resistance campaign encourages Americans to “refus[e] to pay some or all of those federal taxes that contribute to military spending.”
• The Courage to Resist initiative supports American troops “who refuse to fight” in an “illegal war and occupation” by going AWOL, seeking conscientious-objector status, seeking discharge, or publicly disobeying orders.
• The GI Rights & Resistance program is likewise committed to supporting conscientious objectors and troops who refuse to fight. To help such individuals, WRL has set up a “GI Rights” telephone hotline. The League has also published Civilian Ally, a manual for peace activists “working with service members and veterans within the context of the growing GI Resistance movement.” Further, WRL co-published What Every Girl Needs To Know About the U.S. Military, a pamphlet designed to “demystify the lies told by military recruiters” to young women.
• A major WRL project since 1966 has been WIN magazine, the League’s quarterly publication that “covers resistance to war abroad as well as resistance to violence and militarism within the United States.” Over the years, WIN has supported such groups as the West German Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Weather Underground.
WRL today has chapters and affiliates in 26 U.S. states. It also has strong international ties through its active membership in War Resisters’ International, an organization with affiliates in more than 80 countries.
For many years, WRL was a tenant in the so-called “Peace Pentagon,” a three-story Manhattan office building owned by the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute (AJMMI), which serves as WRL’s fiscal sponsor. Among the other likeminded organizations that rented space in this building were: Deep Dish TV; the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization; the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York; Not In Our Name; Paper Tiger TV; the War Resisters League; and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (Metro NY Chapter). (In 2016, however, AJMMI sold the building to developer Aby Rosen for $20.75 million, and all of the organizations with offices therein had to relocate.)