We Need to Build a Strong Peace Movement. The Anti-Apartheid Movement Can Show Us How.

In 1986, activists convinced Congress to pass sanctions on South Africa over the veto of President Ronald Reagan. Their victory holds six key lessons today.

Zeb Larson

Students protest Harvard University's business ties to South Africa during a demonstration in 1979.

Amid the mass death of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to forget how close we came to war with Iran in 2020. Former President Donald Trump ordered the extrajudicial assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and it was only dumb luck that we avoided a larger conflict. 

President Joe Biden is far less impulsive than his predecessor, but he has manifested many of the worst habits of U.S. foreign policy. He has shown little interest in deescalating with Beijing and has premised much of his domestic and international policy on remaining competitive with China. Biden has even proposed a slight increase in military spending and, in late February, carried out a bombing campaign in Syria that the administration framed as a defensive” response to a series of rocket attacks from Iranian-backed militias. The strike received relatively little media attention.

In 2003, I marched in the February 15 protest against the second Iraq War. The number of people who turned out was staggering, and not only in my home city of Portland. The demonstrations that day were some of the largest in history, with close to 3 million people marching in Rome alone. I thought the size of the turnout would make a difference, yet none of that energy managed to stop a war that was an unmitigated disaster.

Previous anti-war movements fell similarly short. The Vietnam War mobilized hundreds of thousands of protesters, but the conflict dragged on for years and even expanded into Cambodia and Laos. When Chicago police attacked anti-war demonstrators on TV in 1968, 56% of Americans said they approved of how law enforcement handled the crowd. The first Gulf War drew thousands of protesters in Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area, but the war is remembered today as a successful limited” engagement. 

Militarism is so deeply ingrained in U.S. society that, by the time people have taken to the streets, it is already too late; interventions underway, the public has lent their support. Resistance, practically speaking, has been futile. 

As a new cold war looms with China and tensions flare with Iran and Russia, U.S. peace activists would do well to look toward one of the unlikeliest victories for human rights in a generation: the defeat of apartheid South Africa. 

I studied U.S. anti-apartheid activities to write my dissertation on the power the anti-apartheid movement built in the United States. What began as a series of isolated demonstrations in the 1960s evolved into a national U.S. campaign. By 1986, opposition to the government of South African leader P.W. Botha had grown so strong that U.S. activists convinced Congress to pass sanctions on South Africa over the veto of President Ronald Reagan — which meant convincing Republicans to rebel against a popular president in their own party on foreign policy. That almost never happens in any administration, much less one as jingoistic as Reagan’s.

The anti-apartheid movement in the United States did not come together spontaneously. South Africa was a key ally of the United States during the Cold War, and as late as the early 1970s, racial segregation looked like it would endure in some form in South Africa. But opponents of apartheid refused to accept the acquiescence of the foreign policy establishment, and they eventually pressured the United States to withdraw its support.

The U.S. anti-apartheid struggle holds six key lessons for peace activists today.

1: Organize when there is no immediate conflict

Western media began to focus on South Africa’s growing instability in 1984, but the U.S. anti-apartheid movement began long before. Activists worked tirelessly with little to no recognition, and while many of their organizations were short-lived, they continuously morphed into outfits that recruited new members and could organize people quickly when the time came to act.

This work can be slow when compared with direct action — building a mass movement virtually from scratch is a painstaking process — but it is urgent and necessary work. As we’ve seen with the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, once a conflict has arrived, it’s too late to construct the infrastructure to stop it.

2. Make the movement fully national 

Senators and other political leaders in conservative states like Alabama or Indiana are not likely to be swayed by demonstrations in more liberal bastions. The U.S. anti-apartheid movement succeeded precisely because it motivated support in places like Indiana, Nebraska and Kansas, and persisted in goading more conservative representatives into action.

Communities in rural America tend to bear the burden of U.S. militarism, serving in the armed forces in disproportionate numbers. This is a potential leverage point for would-be peace activists as veterans are often the ones who have the best understanding of the costs of perpetual war, both in terms of direct costs (their own service) and the indirect costs we collectively pay to fund the wars. 

It is crucial we build a peace movement in the particular states that most feed the war machine.

3. Fold several issues into one

While apartheid was rooted in white supremacy, it was not opposed on the grounds of racism alone. U.S. activists appealed to different segments of American society to oppose the oppressive regime. South Africa was a rogue nuclear power with its own militaristic ambitions, the United States was investing in South African companies as it was laying off workers at home, and deindustrialization hit labor hard during the 1980s. Activists broadened their alliance by joining forces with U.S. steelworkers, for example, who were being hurt by South African imports.

Opponents of the forever wars in the United States can use similar tactics. The environmental consequences of an ever-expanding war machine can’t be overstated; the U.S. military’s greenhouse gas emissions were equal to 14 million cars in 2018. Even the military’s leadership acknowledges that global warming poses an existential threat. 

Massive military budgets also mean we spend less money for social services at home — a reality that the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare. In short, activists should make clear that militarism isn’t just immoral, it makes life in the United States demonstrably worse (to say nothing of the countries we’re bombing).

4. Find sympathetic institutions and win them over

Churches were among the most reliable allies that U.S. anti-apartheid activists had. Without this support, national groups and many local ones wouldn’t have had the financing they needed. Some of these churches did have contingents who believed U.S. investment in South Africa was a force for good, and they needed to be debated, persuaded and outvoted. 

To do its work, an American peace movement must make similar appeals to civic institutions, such as sympathetic churches, unions and universities — even if the institutions seem inclined to avoid choosing sides.

5. Accept that peace is a long-term project 

The first anti-apartheid groups in the United States began in the 1950s. A. Philip Randolph, the labor organizer and civil rights activist, noted that even in the 1960s, the movement remained in a nascent stage of development. Educating the public was vitally important, but it was also slow and difficult. Early victories tended to be small. Getting the city council of Madison, Wis., to vote for divestment against companies investing in South Africa was a win in 1976, even if it was not a huge blow to apartheid.

Peace” should be thought of in the same terms. The United States is a profoundly militaristic society — one that venerates its armed forces while shielding the public from the barbarism of its imperial project. Just because a 2020 war with Iran was averted, for example, does not mean the United States is at peace. Reorienting the country away from militarism is going to be slow and difficult, and peaceniks will likely have to embrace symbolic victories at first. There are upward of 800 U.S. military bases across the globe; forcing the closure of even a few should be considered an accomplishment. 

6. Understand violence more broadly

The apartheid government was incredibly violent. Massacres at Sharpeville and Soweto, for example, made clear how little the South African police and military valued Black lives. But in the United States and elsewhere, anti-apartheid activists framed the violence in a broad sense and did not focus solely on executions or police abuse. Crushing poverty, housing discrimination, lack of access to medical care and malnutrition all constituted their own forms of brutality, and arrests over pass laws, which required Black South Africans to carry an domestic passport at all times, numbered in the millions. 

An American peace movement must not only consider the atrocities committed by U.S. troops but the more systemic forms of violence our government perpetuates across the globe. Arms shipments lead to the destruction of entire communities, while economic sanctions overwhelmingly impact the receiving society’s most vulnerable populations. By the same measure, coerced participation in an international drug war destabilizes countries and worsens the crime that law enforcement agencies are purportedly fighting.

During the chaos of the Trump administration, it was all but impossible to get the American public to focus on U.S. crimes abroad. But Biden has not broken with the U.S. legacy of militarism. If anything, the Biden administration evokes a disturbing nostalgia for the order of the Cold War. Now is the best opportunity we’ve had in years to revitalize the peace movement and forestall a new era of U.S. wars of aggression — before it’s too late.

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Zeb Larson is a writer and historian in Columbus, Ohio. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University in 2019, studying the anti-apartheid movement and divestment in the United States.

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