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Hope in Hard Times by Paul Rogat Loeb (Heath: $24.95, hardcover; $10.95, paperback; 322 pp.) : The Dissenters: VOICES FROM CONTEMPORARY AMERICA by John Langston Gwaltney (Random House: $19.95; 321 pp.)

January 25, 1987|Adam Hochschild | Hochschild writes for Mother Jones magazine and is the author of "Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son" (Viking). and

Several years ago, after I had written a few articles on nuclear disarmament, a student peace group asked me to make a speaking tour of half a dozen Midwestern campuses. I knew far too little about throw-weights and deterrence and counterforce and so on, so I studied anxiously beforehand. I was sure there would be hostile questions. I practiced answering them: What about the conventional forces gap? Don't the Russians have more submarines than we do? What about Afghanistan? And so forth.

Over a snowy January week, during which I gave eight talks, there wasn't a single hostile question.

I was first relieved, but then disturbed: I'm preaching to the converted. And that, in a way, is the central problem of the American peace movement today. It is still heavily centered among campuses, upper-middle-class churches, intellectuals. We talk mainly to each other.

Paul Rogat Loeb's new book on the peace movement, "Hope in Hard Times" is well-written and comprehensive. But it doesn't really confront this central problem. The book mainly consists of upbeat profiles of peace activists of various sorts. Some are colorful and unexpected, like Erica Bouza, who keeps getting arrested for various anti-war protests in Minneapolis, where her husband is chief of police. Some, like the Berrigan brothers and their followers, who face jail terms of many years for acting on their convictions, are very brave indeed. All are admirable. Loeb paints their portraits well. But his tone of relentless optimism is at odds with reality: The peace movement has actually lost ground since its high point in the huge nuclear freeze demonstrations in 1982. And a large majority of the American people supported President Reagan's dangerous hang-tough act at the Iceland summit. Any writing that fails to grapple with that grim reality is avoiding the main issue.

It is sometimes hard to be both journalist and partisan. I share that dilemma myself. For Loeb, the problem is that his earnest and inspirational tone is a hard one to sustain in a book of this length. There are too many quotes and allusions that we've heard before: Einstein on how the atomic bomb has changed everything except our way of thinking, Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil, Jonathan Schell on the fate of the Earth. In more than 300 pages, you expect something from behind the scenes about the deep conflicts within the peace movement. But that's not really here. And that's a pity, for there are plenty of significant battles: between multilateral and unilateral freeze advocates, for example, and between people who lobby in Washington and those who organize locally; there is a continuing argument about what attitude to take toward the Soviet Union.

You get the impression from "Hope in Hard Times" that the movement is just all one big family. But, in fact, that family is often bitterly divided. The divisions themselves are one reason the movement has not done better. Talking more about the issues behind those divisions might also be a way of looking at why no one has yet come up with the right strategy for cracking the national shell of indifference, ignorance, and a sense of helplessness. Within that shell, most people in this country still accept the kind of lunatic arithmetic that claims that 30,000 warheads will make us "safer" than 20,000.

John Langston Gwaltney's "The Dissenters: Voices From Contemporary America" is a series of profiles of a different sort. Gwaltney, a black anthropologist who is blind, has traveled around the country with a tape recorder, taking oral histories of various rebels and iconoclasts. His subjects range from dissident nuns to Arab- and Japanese-American activists to a feisty school bus driver who drove her busload of marijuana-smoking students to the police station instead of to school.

Gwaltney's book is in the style pioneered so well by Studs Terkel: Each person gets a few paragraphs of introduction, and then speaks in his own words. Unlike Terkel, unfortunately, Gwaltney seems to have done little editing. Terkel never hesitates to cut several hours with a long-winded interview subject down to a few paragraphs (I know because he once did this to me). But Gwaltney lets almost everybody ramble on for 10 to 20 pages apiece. Some are fascinating, but others--such as a probation officer whose only dissent seems to be that he lost his job for undisclosed reasons--are not. One subject uses part of his space to plug a relative's book.

Gwaltney's introductions to the interviews are stilted and eccentric: He has a curious habit of describing in great detail what food and drink each person gave him when they talked: "Our conversation proceeded to the welcome accompaniment of freshly baked bailies, potato salad, prosciutto, tuna salad, artichoke hearts, milk, juice, beer, and wine." Or: "We ate good Scandinavian cheese, beef, veal and pork sausage, and drank dark beer and ale from Norway, New Castle, Hamburg, Tsingtao and San Francisco."

Of the various stories told over these groaning boards, the ones that seemed to me by far the strongest were those from several Vietnam veterans. One, Joe Bangert, tells a particularly poignant tale of his progression from childhood in a Catholic orphanage to being a gung-ho Marine in Vietnam to becoming an activist today on behalf of veterans poisoned by dioxin. Another disabled vet's story in the book, and one from a woman at the Veterans Administration who courageously took up their cause, are equally moving.

These are people whose anti-war convictions come from a kind of personal pain and experience that the rest of us in the peace movement lack. Have we allowed them as full a part in the movement as possible? Or have barriers of class and race and style gotten in the way? This question may pose one answer to the large one of why we have yet to effectively take our concerns to the American people.

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