As we examine the connection between militarism, capitalism, and white supremacy in American history, specifically the use of the U.S. military to defend interests overseas, we can also learn from the connection between anti-militarism and socialism in American history. In 1923 Jessie Wallace Hughan founded the War Resisters’ League, an organization that continues to fight against imperialism, racism, greed, and militarism. In 1928 Hughan wrote the instructional and philosophical manual, What is Socialism? where she makes the connection between the oppression and lack of agency of working people and the international war machine’s relentless mission. This socialist and anti-militarist tradition is seen throughout the 20th century in both political and poetic writing by women across regions and continents. The voices in this section are clear examples of “Talking Back to Empire.” While Hughan’s whiteness emerges as problematic in her work, the remaining texts are from women of color whose ideas can talk back to Hughan as well. In addition to Hughan’s 1928 book, poetry by Central American women born in the 1950s, reports of resistance to nuclear weapons in Puerto Rico, and the manifesto of an international peace coalition led by women in the 1980s are sources that exemplify lost alternatives and the disruption of inevitabilities.
Jessie Wallace Hughan includes a definition of socialism in her book: “Socialism is the political movement of the working-class which aims to abolish exploitation by means of the collective ownership and democratic management of the basic instruments of production and distribution.”49 However, she does not limit her analysis to economics; she disrupts the dominant narrative by presenting a vision that offers a pathway to alternative economic systems and makes the connection between capitalism, imperialism, and militarism.
First, she aligns Socialists around the world with the movement for pacifism, “In the movement for World Peace, the Socialists of all countries have always taken an active part, agitating for arbitration and disarmament and opposing specific wars as they arose.”50 She questions the dominant narrative that connects safety to war, militarized interventions, and annexations in her description of imperialism and its “menacing proportions.”51 Hughan aligns socialism with pacifism and calls for the abandonment of what Mahan had celebrated a few decades before: “American Socialism is distinctly pacifist. It opposes conscription and compulsory military training; it advocates treaties which shall substitute for war the peaceful settlement of disputes; it favors international disarmament, and, pending disarmament, the abandonment of the program of ‘aggressive militarism and big navy building.”52 This critique of Mahan’s thesis illustrates another counter narrative. Rather than accept aggression and naval power as the best tools for maintaining security, Hughan explains how opposition to the draft and international disarmament are necessary for peace.
When Hughan brings imperialism into her discussion of pacifism, the economic critique becomes even clearer. Her argument bolsters the idea that the primary purpose of the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary is to protect the economic interests of the United States. Even though Hughan decries the treatment of African-American who she describes as “deprived of political rights in defiance of the Constitution,” she uses language rooted in the racist, dominant narrative when describing places controlled by imperialist powers. Hughan describes imperialism as the “process by which the industrial nations of the West have gradually extended their economic control over the undeveloped and backward territories of both hemispheres...Its essential feature, however, is economic exploitation, and its outcome is war, whether a one-sided suppression of protesting natives or a full-fledged conflict with a jealous rival.”53 Her centering of economic exploitation as the essential feature of the process of imperialism, and the ultimate cause of war, disrupts the inevitability of war being used to spread democracy and highlights the more compelling, historically accurate connection between the military, imperialism, and the economic interests of the United States.
To connect this critique of imperialism back to socialism, Hughan explains how imperialism, war, and their relationship to capitalism imperil the American worker. She writes, “This type of imperialism is an immediate loss to the American worker...Even more serious than this, however, is the certainty that American workers will be called on sooner or later to support with men and money the small or great wars which will be waged to protect these investments of capitalism abroad.”54 Her work defines socialism and imperialism, explains why militarism contradicts socialism, and describes how an investment in war and imperialism harms the working class. Hughan’s work can be found in a comprehensive collection of women’s voices, Women on War, edited by Daniela Gioseffi. Hers is one voices amidst many; the remainder of this section will consider additional voices from this pivotal volume.
Michele Najlis was born in 1946 in Nicaragua. She founded the literary-political publication Ventana which celebrates themes of self-determination and contains “prophecies of the future.”55 Her work focuses on the experiences of those oppressed by unjust governments who were supported by imperialist interests. Her poetry responds to the dominant narrative that justifies imperialism and military intervention in the name of democracy and security. In her 1987 poem, “They Followed Us Into the Night,” Najlis describes the imperialist’s tactics while also centering the strength of the resistance: “They followed us into the night, they trapped us, leaving us no defense but our hands united with millions of hands.”56 How does the imagery of unity with millions of hands provide a counter narrative? How does this work disrupt the inevitability of war and imagine another future?
Lillian Jimenez was born in El Salvador in 1950 and imprisoned for her work as a poet and political activist. The loss of population in El Savlador was caused by the “death squads, terrorism, and the poverty” of a military dictatorship sponsored by the United States, primarily under Ronald Reagan. Jimenez’s poem, “To the Soldiers of El Salvador: Who from 1931 to 1980 Have Ruled the Country Through a Military Dictatorship,” exposes the experiences of violence, while also acknowledging war’s erasure of dreams and possibilities. In the fifth stanza of her poem from 1988, she writes:
Even without desiring it,
they will have to see what must be seen.
They will have to pay
for the horrible fate of each victim,
for all the lips they silenced,
for all the dreams they ripped out of our breasts.57
Her attention to perpetrators’ forced reckonings with tomorrow, the fate of victims, and the violence used to attack people’s self-determination and destiny aligns with Kramer’s framework that invites us to disrupt inevitabilities, dig out lost alternatives, and widen horizons of empathy.
Alenka Bermudez was born in Chile around 1950 and moved to Guatemala, working there and in Nicaragua. Like Najlis and Jimenez, she wrote about people enduring in the face of poverty and oppression. Her own son died in the decades long war in Guatemala that resulted in the genocide of indigenous Mayans and became known as the “Silent Holocaust.” In her poem, “Guatamala, Your Blood,” Bermudez creates two worlds; one where suffering is real yet unexplainable and the other where the conflict is the semantics of how to name the suffering. She begins her 1987 poem with the following stanza:
Where is the word that will fill in for hunger
and what name can you give to this daily wanting
how to describe the empty table the abysmal eyes
Little bellies swollen forheads deformed
by weights the endless burden of centuries
horizons of smoke burned-up mattresses
no frying pan
scarcity in the stew that’s left over because of scarcity
what substantive to use
how to name a finger cut off to get the insurance
what adjective for the holocaust
in what tense do you conjugate the verb to kill
what predicate what future what pluperfect58
Students will be ready to find the parallel between Bermudez’s poem and the debates of the summer of 2019 about what to call the present-day migrant detention camps near the United States-Mexico border.59 Who will accept that misnaming an atrocity lessens the harm and violence perpetrated? Bermudez’s last two lines also explore the concept of time. However, this poem offers a more chilling prospect, wondering if killing has ever or will ever stop, while asking what kind of future awaits.
Women and their families in Central America endured military invasions, violence, and chaos in the 1980s, and women in other parts of the world wondered about the impact of nuclear weapons on humanity and other life on planet Earth. This collective fear turned into resistance and galvanized women to act as Gioseppi showcases in Women on War.
Yolanda Sanchez describes the anti-nuclear protests that took place in Puerto Rico in 1984. The protests were a response to a decision by the United States to break the terms of a 1967 treaty intended to create a nuclear free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the article “Fifty Thousand Puerto Rican People Demonstrate Against U.S. Nuclear Proliferation” Sanchez writes, “A review of the official documents under the Freedom of Information Act proves conclusively that installations are in place on the island, making it a nerve center for United States nuclear policy and response in Central America and the Caribbean.” Her strength is not only in organizing and protesting, but also in her access to information via the Freedom of Information Act. She makes a case for direct action by connecting the proliferation of nuclear weapons with the lack of services for people in the U.S. and on the island. She explains, “The issue has suddenly and dramatically become a very real and concrete one. A recent demonstration drew fifty thousand people into the streets. Here, as there, it is a matter of public and community education. The issue is here; the threat is real. Our call to action in the Puerto Rican communities will be based on connecting the lack of needed services to the proliferation of arms.”60 Just as Hughan questioned the dominant narrative that war is necessary to maintain security, Sanchez reminds us that human beings’ needs are not met when governments invest in war. She also reminds us of the failure of the United States to abide by international treaties. This is an example of another alternative narrative many assume that it is the United States’ responsibility to enforce treaties. Rarely do we see evidence of the United States’ failure to comply. This hypocrisy brings us back an essential questions where students wrestle with the relevance of a world’s policeman.
Also related to this threat of nuclear war and women’s collective response, Gioseffi includes a statement from Women for a Meaningful Summit. This group of women, that included Coretta Scott King and Maxine Waters, directed their statement to the organizers of the 1985 Geneva Summit where U.S. President Reagan and U.S.S.R. General Secretary Gorbachev met to discuss nuclear arms reduction. The statement exemplifies the art and power of imagining alternatives to the dominant narrative of nation states amassing nuclear weapons in the name of security. These women breathed life into the radical possibility of world peace: “At this moment in history human beings have the distinct opportunity to create a world at peace with justice, nuclear-free and nonviolent, one in which we live without fear of each other. We seek to reach the most lofty and moral plane that humans are capable of.” They continue to challenge the assumption that war is inevitable, weapons keep us safe, and nations must be enemies of other nations. They declare that, “War is obsolete; the existence of nuclear and conventional weapons is not a source of security; we are not enemies of one another-our real enemies are hunger, disease, racism, poverty, inequality, injustice and violence.”61
This document offers real solutions about how to disrupt the inevitability of war. Rather than working within a war-based system, Women for a Meaningful Summit believe that “systems of war must be dismantled and replaced with systems of peace and justice which can be done only by nonviolent means.” They artfully recognize that the siloing and lionizing of war culture comes at a cost. They offer alternatives to build a society that abandons war for something better. They also believe that “no nation has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations; creative, independent initiatives by citizens are of great significance to the peace process; and peace and justice education should be an integral part of all school systems and mass media communication.”62 Students analyzing this source will have an opportunity to consider individual and collective contributions to the peace process, what peace and justice education should look like, and how it could be implemented in their own classroom.
Lastly, the Women for a Meaningful Summit connect their anti-military stance to socialist principles continuing the tradition examined in Hughan’s treatise What is Socialism? In their statement, the women confirm that there isn’t a lack of funds “to meet human needs and nurture the health of the planet which we together call our home.” Rather, they challenge policy makers who support the status quo to convert the “vast funds and resources spent on the arms race.”63 They articulate a counter narrative explaining that a lack of resources has never been the problem; but decisions about how to spend these vast resources demand investigation and change. Students will also benefit from studying resources provided by the National Priorities Project which overview how the U.S. spends the majority of its discretionary funding on the military and how U.S. military spending compares to the rest of the world.64