World Peace Council: Theory and Practice for a Positive Peace

By Meghna Chandra and Jahanzaib Choudhry.

Authors Note: The Organization for Positive Peace has chosen to study the archives of the World Peace Council for an example of how many nations, prominent intellectuals, community organizations, and peoples’ organizations came together to build a peace movement. We start with this organization because many freedom fighters like W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Ho Chi Minh, and Amilcar Cabral associated themselves with it and believed it to be the most potent vehicle for the advancement of peace based on justice. This organization must be known among the younger generation of people searching for truth and clarity in today’s time. Its history provides us with a towering example of the application of revolutionary theory to the great problems facing humankind, foremost among them freeing people from the twin evils of imperialism and war.

The point of our research is to study the ideas that motivated WPC to work for complete human transformation and how they put them into practice, much as we aspire to do. We expose the academic mystification of the peace movement that would focus solely on “negotiations” or “complexities”. We declare ourselves biased in favor of the struggle for peace against the objective and undeniable suffering caused by war.

The World Peace Council is an international organization that at its height mobilized mass action for worldwide disarmament, the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, and the right of all human beings to peaceful coexistence. At its height, the organization was central to building a world peace movement against the forces of war and empire.

In August, 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in unimaginable and unprecedented human suffering.  In 1949 the Soviet Union tested the atom bomb in defense, resulting in growing tensions between the communist bloc and the Western nations led by the United States. In response, the United States and western nations founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 with the aim of keeping the world socialist movement at bay and assisting empires in maintaining their colonies.  With the foundation of NATO and the dropping of the bombs, the scepter was raised of of complete world annihilation via nuclear weapons.

It was in this backdrop that the World Peace Council was founded as a means for enlightened intellectuals and grassroots organizations to come together around the belief that human life was more sacred than geopolitical games and imperialist ambitions.

Their first action was to issue the Stockholm Appeal in 1950 which WPC activists collected 500 million signatures the world over for a complete ban on weapons capable of mass extermination. Signatories included luminaries and world leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, George Bernard Shaw, Pablo Picasso, Pablo Neruda, Lazaro Cardenas, Charlie Parker, Jacques Chirac, and Maria Wine, as well as members of people’s organizations and trade unions.

As the WPC reflected, “The campaign for the Stockholm Appeal can truly be said to have created a landmark in human history. This was a new movement of people, brought into being to counter a peril greater than any known in the past. Because it was a struggle for life it was as broad as mankind itself.” (5-6)

The World Peace Council campaigned vigorously for detente, or easing of tensions in the interests of peace, between the world’s two nuclear superpowers and supported movements for the decolonization and self-determination of Africa and Asia. They also mobilized against imperialist aggression and destabilization of sovereign governments, stood for the right of all nations to control their own resources, and pursued economic policies to reverse the legacy of colonial underdevelopment.

One of the most prominent leaders and theoreticians of the World Peace Council was Romesh Chandra, who was General Secretary of the World Peace Council in 1953 and became its President in 1977. Before joining the World Peace Council, he was a student leader in India’s freedom struggle against the British Empire and became a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Romesh saw the international peace movement as a logical successor of India’s Freedom Struggle, a movement in which millions of unarmed people fought against the mightiest empire in the world and won their freedom from colonial bondage using the principles of nonviolent resistance. Romesh made it a point to emphasize the association of peace movements with national liberation organizations in Africa and Asia like the African National Congress, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, and the National Liberation Front of Vietnam.

The WPC utilized forums of the United Nations including the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to pass resolutions aimed at reflecting the wishes of the world’s majority in the most prominent global forum in order to expose warmongering forces as a minority. They worked in unity with bodies like the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in recognition of the inseparability of the peace movement from the struggle against colonialism and neocolonialism. They held international conferences on topics of broad interest to progressives in order to build a united front for peace. Examples include the 1952 International Conference in Defense of Children in Vienna, the 1970 Conference Against Fascism, Neo Fascism, and Neo Nazism in Frankfurt, 1978 World Conference for the Eradication of Racism and Racial Discrimination in Basle, and the 1978 Problems of Socio-economic Transformation in the Developing Countries in Aden. They mobilized world opinion through campaigns of political education against the propaganda of warmongering forces.

For example, in a pamphlet in support of the New Stockholm Appeal of 1976, the World Peace Council exposed how the the arms industry caused mass unemployment by blocking global economic cooperation, how the arms race drains resources from global poverty reduction and facilitates imperialist destabilization of independent governments, and how arms industries might be converted into peace industries that serve the interests of humankind. They pointed out how industries for biological and chemical warfare could be converted into industries that create high yield varieties of staple food, communicable disease control, toxicological research, and cancer research.

Principled Unity for Peace

We contend that the World Peace Council was at its height an organization that fought for positive peace. Martin Luther King defined positive peace as not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. Its immediate aim was to end imperialist aggression and to defend the right of all nations to determine their own futures, but it also stood for a world order in which each human being could develop their potential, flourish and move humanity forward. The WPC organized world-wide coordinated campaigns against imperialist war and military buildup, a feat of clarity, organization, and coordination which is difficult even for people of our social media generation to fathom.

The World Peace Council, in its own words, is “an international body, consisting of representatives of national organizations and movements from more than 120 countries. The national movements in turn represent peace, trade union, religious, political, youth, women, and social organizations–a vast cross-section of organized public opinion throughout the world.”

In other words, WPC sought to mobilize the power of public opinion and people’s democracy to force world leaders to see the absolute necessity of peace to human survival and development. It had a profound faith in the power of unarmed citizens to determine the course of world history, and it worked tirelessly to unite and mobilize the forces for peace all around the world to this end.

The World Peace Council was organized around principles of self-determination, anti-imperialism, non-aggression, equitable economic cooperation, and peaceful coexistence. WPC listed as their principles in a 1975 pamphlet “What is the World Peace Council”:

  • Prohibition of all weapons of mass destruction and ending of the arms drive; abolition of foreign military bases; general, simultaneous controlled and complete disarmament;
  • Elimination of all forms of colonialism and racial discrimination
  • Respect for the right of the peoples to sovereignty and independence, essential for the establishment of peace;
  • Respect for the territorial integrity of states
  • Non-interference in the internal affairs of nations;
  • Establishment of mutually beneficial trade and cultural relations based on friendship and mutual respect; peaceful coexistence between states with different social systems;
  • Replacement of the policy of force by that of negotiations for the settlement of differences between nations

These principles provide a framework for how the WPC responded to and put out a vision for geopolitical developments throughout the second half of the 20th century, including the War in Vietnam, the decolonization of Asia and Africa, and the Cold War buildup of nuclear weapons.

Enemies and Friends of the World Peace Movement

The United States’ primary goal was to guard overseas investments and super-profits at the cost of uncountable human lives. Their imperial strategy hinged on controlling domestic public opinion to obscure their own role as, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world”. More than anything, they feared the development of a principled peace movement in the United States linking up with forces of peace around the world and undermining their war agenda.

The forces of war led by the United States government attacked and smeared the World Peace Council because they saw it as a dangerous enemy. The United States attacked the World Peace Council and the peace movement as a mere puppet of the Soviet Union, and suggested that the WPC was a part of a Soviet Plot to undermine the United States and promote Soviet ambitions for world domination. Americans who were principled fighters for the survival and progress of their own people and people around the world were smeared as traitors and anti-American. The United States government persecuted and tried to erase the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, and Martin Luther King because they  drew the connection between the struggle of the poor and oppressed in America to the struggle of people all over the world for a positive peace.

In a document that was declassified in 2010 from the CIA records, The Nathan Hale Institute said the organization was formed as a “Soviet Active Measure” which, like the CIA’s covert actions, used propagandistic methods to manipulate member organizations into supporting Soviet Foreign policy. They charged the World Peace Council of supporting “terrorism” through their support for national liberation struggles.

As Romesh Chandra said in 1970:

“It was not a surprise that the state department and the CIA sought to make out that the great events and demonstrations [against the War in Vietnam] in the USA on 15 October and 15 November, 1969, were part of a “conspiracy” hatched outside by “foreigners”.  And, of course it was not accidental also that this slanderous attack suggested that the entire new mobilization had been “planned” and worked out by the “Machiavellian” and totally “un-American” World Peace Council!”

Though the United States government utilized anti-communist hysteria to paint the WPC as run by cynical KGB assets or dogmatic “useful idiots” of the USSR, the organization was committed to organizing world assemblies and congresses of peace involving ideologically and politically diverse peace forces.  The WPC itself consisted of membership from over 125 countries.  The criteria for cooperation was not complete single-mindedness between all peace forces but a shared fundamental commitment to peace and a willingness to take action on areas of agreement.  The WPC worked alongside clergy, trade unionists, politicians, and journalists from a spectrum of political beliefs but who agreed on the urgency of working towards world peace. For example, in 1975 Rev. Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Council served as the WPC President of Honor, members of the US Congress such as Ron Dellums and John Conyers hosted the WPC on Capitol Hill, and the mayors of cities such as Seattle, Detroit, and South Bend issued proclamations in honor of visiting WPC delegations.  The WPC served as a model of how to participate in building a broad-based world movement across ideological differences.

The Struggle for a Positive Peace

The WPC did not advocate a negative peace, which would mean surrender to the forces of injustice and imperialist domination. They understood peace as a positive peace as the presence of justice, specifically the transformation of human productive capabilities from destruction to peaceful progress and human uplift.

A large part of achieving positive peace involved fighting for the New International Economic Order in which developing nations would have the right to control the activities of multinational corporations, the right to demand fair prices for raw materials, the right to implement tariffs favorable to the development of national economies, the right to the transfer of technology, and the right to nationalize resources. Declaring that “peace and hunger cannot go marching hand in hand” the WPC saw to it that peace spoke to the lives of the world’s poor.  

In a 1974 Pamphlet “People’s Sovereignty over Raw Materials is the Essence of Development” the World Peace Council stated its unequivocal support for both political and economic independence of formerly colonized countries, declaring “Political detente cannot be made irreversible unless there is at the same time what we may call ‘economic detente’ — the ending of the violent exploitation by developed capitalist countries and their multinational corporations of the economic resources and wealth of the developing countries.” They understood that violence and war also had an important economic dimension of keeping resources in the third world under the control of imperialist powers. The WPC understood that the struggle for peace included defending the rights of formerly colonized countries to control their resources as a way to reverse the legacy of colonialism.

At the 1972 Seminar on Oil and Developing Countries in Baghdad, Romesh spoke in support of the right of Iraq and other formerly colonized nations to nationalize their oil reserves. He declared, “Oil in the hands of the people of the soil which is producing this oil, is peace.  Peace is oil in the hands of the people of the soil, from which the oil comes.”

The World Peace Council brought to the world’s attention both the cost of war and the possibilities for human development offered by peace. As Romesh would argue many times, the role of the WPC was not just to defend peace against war but also to build up a new peaceful order. “We seek to bring down the cost of living and to raise high the price of life— so that one day bread can be free and life so precious that no man shall ever buy another man’s life.”

The World Peace Council’s fight for peace was the fight for life itself–the fight not just for humanity to live, but to flourish beyond our wildest imagination. Upon reading the optimistic declarations and aims of the organization, we may feel that history has failed to live up to its promises with the collapse of the world communist movement and the return of neocolonialism to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. However, the forces of war will only have won if we forget this history and our moral responsibility to continue the struggle they started.

Peace will require immense imagination, immense effort, immense study, and above all immense courage.

Image Credits: Swarthmore College Peace Collection, World Peace Council Archives

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