Waging Peace in Friends Journal

Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist

By Robert Dockhorn
Friends Journal
April 2015

When David Hartsough was seven years old and living in Gilman, Iowa, he was set upon by a band of older boys wielding ice balls fortified with stones. He had recently heard his father preach a sermon on Jesus’s command to “love your enemies.” Awed by this message, he mustered up the courage to tell the boys that he wanted to become their friends. Eventually they lost interest in picking on a boy who wouldn’t fight back, and they wandered off. Later, David gave a prized possession to the band’s leader, and a friendship ensued. For David, this reinforced his courage and initiated a lifetime of practicing nonviolence.

In Waging Peace, Hartsough recounts how he received early instruction from others in various tools of nonviolence, resulting in his organizing his first vigil at age 15 at a Nike missile site not far his family home in Tanguy Homesteads, a cooperative community near Philadelphia, Pa. By 1960, while he was a student at Howard University, he had advanced to taking part in a sit-in to desegregate a People’s Drug Store lunch counter in Arlington, Va., an experience that tested his capacity to endure abuse.

Suspicious of how the U.S. media were portraying “enemies,” Hartsough chose to learn for himself by traveling to Central and Eastern Europe, studying on both sides of the divided city of Berlin and taking a camping trip into the USSR, where he entered into dialogue with people all along his path.

He served as a conscientious objector with Friends Committee on National Legislation, and there he had the opportunity to take part as a youthful member of a distinguished delegation of Quakers to meet with President John F. Kennedy in 1962. During the meeting, Hartsough had the presence of mind to suggest to Kennedy that he engage in a “peace race” with the Soviets. Kennedy seemed impressed by this meeting, and it may have stimulated the president to reconsider his commitment to the politics of confrontation, a change of course that many noticed in the remaining time before his assassination.

In the following decades, Hartsough, with other activists, became involved in confrontations of the U.S. military, including a canoe “blockade” of warships on their way to Vietnam, and protests and attempts to obstruct the nuclear power and weapons industries. He traveled to Central America, where he witnessed the brutality that was being supported by American arms, and he participated in the accompaniment of threatened individuals. Back home, he organized the blocking of trains delivering weapons to Central America. He was at the side of Brian Willson who, on September 1, 1987, was run over and severely injured while blocking a munitions train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California.

In Hartsough’s nonviolent activity he was jailed numerous times, and he occasionally was called upon to demonstrate a willingness to put his own life at risk. While leaving no doubt about his views, he also knew the importance of acknowledging the humanity of those he opposed, which won respect and sometimes won people over to his views. He was often sought out as a resource, and in the late 1990s became involved in the nonviolent struggle in Kosovo. There he was disappointed by the failure of NATO to support the peaceful forces there, instead intervening with bombs. This was very much on his mind during a gathering of peace activists in the Hague—on the 100th anniversary of the 1899 Hague Peace Conference—and there he proposed an “international nonviolent peace army.” Mel Duncan, in the audience, had the same idea, and the two teamed up to found the Nonviolent Peaceforce. They envisioned it as offering an alternative to military forces that would be rigorous enough to intervene in areas of serious conflict. The NVPF now exists. It has grown, and it has played a role in international conflicts from Sri Lanka and the Philippines to South Sudan and elsewhere.

Now the executive director of Peaceworkers, a community of activists based in San Francisco, Calif., Hartsough continues his activities, which have included a presence in Gaza and travel to Iran.

Waging Peace is a major contribution to understanding the inspiration and dynamics of the nonviolence movement in the years since the 1950s. I hope other leaders in this movement over these years will record their life stories as carefully as Hartsough has done. This book includes resources for study and action, as well as an extensive bibliography with a list of websites. I hope future editions will include an index, to help guide the reader through the many individuals, organizations, and events that Hartsough cites. Additional treats are the foreword by John Dear, the introduction by George Lakey, and the afterword by Ken Butigan, all of which bring valuable insights.

Back to David Hartsough’s Author Page