Despite an early chivalrous ring, World War I was not “the war to end all wars,” it was a harbinger. Western civilization emerged from the ruins of the “Great War” more belligerent than ever before, now for the sake of prognostications by so-called experts or in pursuit of "humanitarian" ends.
The War to End War yet rages on, resolutely bloodless. Soldiers for peace go over the top with an ever-expanding list of data points on failed interventions and human atrocities, working to convince their betters and their untapped legions of cannon fodder that peaceful ends must be achieved through peaceful means. There can be no handsome unfurling of the victor’s flag above more corpses. In place of marching tunes to remind them of love back home or of pride for their motherland, those within these wretched trenches are motivated by principle, by hope for progress, by frank human kindness.
I can think of few better who embody these mainsprings of peace, who stoically shoulder their charge amongst our ranks, than 85-year-old lifelong antiwar activist Joan H. Nicholson.
Joan was raised in a Quaker home in Pennsylvania in the 1930s with deep connections to the Religious Society of Friends; her uncle the first Executive Secretary. Drawing on the rich history of her predecessors, Quakers “provided the background and ongoing inspiration to carry on a witness for peace and justice,” Joan recounts in our written correspondence.
Attending college at Earlham with a Junior year at Edinburgh, Joan took her Friends-infused framework to postwar Europe like family before her. Joan’s father helped rebuild France after WWI while her aunt fed hungry German children during the interwar period. Joan went to a workcamp in Austria where she saw the effects of blood-soaked modernity firsthand.
After college, she joined the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Interns in Industry Project in Atlanta. Joan worked in a bra factory by day and boarded at Morehouse College at night. Factory workers protested their presence for residing at the all-black school over summer break and demanded the interns leave. She did just that; taking a job on offer from Martin Luther King Sr. to teach children with Ebenezer Church.
After living in full-intentional communities in Georgia, Joan went back to Pennsylvania to teach with the Get-Set program for two years. Failing to amend her contract in light of the Vietnam war and the burgeoning war-tax resistance movement, Joan resigned. She refused to participate in the coercive funding of the American empire.
Over several hours on the telephone, Joan offers a firm refrain, spoken in her distinctly convicted, gentle voice, “war is just a thing that shouldn’t be.” She had decided somewhere along the way that her life would fully reflect that belief.
As the war against Vietnam plodded on, peace protests gained new legs. Joan joined a Quaker Action Group for weekly readings of the Vietnam war dead on the Capitol steps. Joan read Vietnamese poems translated for an English audience. “We were arrested each time, but after five weeks, the judge finally ruled that it was unconstitutional to arrest us,” she writes. “That witness continued,” into the Pentagon itself – she laughingly interrupts herself – “can you imagine?” She remembers walking down steps into a common thruway where she and others began memorializing fallen American soldiers. Joan and the others were promptly arrested.
Joan’s antiwar stripes were well earned, but she persisted. Now in the late 1960s with violence in Vietnam reaching new heights, the draft was supplying incredulous holdouts for "service." Joan had other notions of what service meant. Joan pens that she “joined the movement to nonviolently destroy or remove draft files in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia.” The group “surfaced” and was called before a grand jury. The case was dismissed as prosecutors struggled to connect activists to particular locations.
It was again alongside Quakers that Joan captured headlines in Rochester. The Flower City Conspiracy broke into the Federal Selective Services building, the FBI, and the Attorney General’s Office and destroyed draft files. The 8-person crew standing trial represented themselves to use the time before the judge and jury to highlight the criminality and injustice of the war against Vietnam. The Flower City Conspiracy was facing 38 years, but the jury recommended leniency and Joan, the eldest at 36, received 15 months.
Joan’s penchant for protesting injustice ran roots even into her concrete cell block. Joan took part in peaceful agitation for prison reform in solidarity with prisoners in Attica before the riots there. After the smoke and gas had cleared in New York – with dozens left dead – Joan was moved with other women from Alderson to Texas where she spent the remaining 12 months of her sentence. There, she penned a diary and began writing children’s books.
After her release, Joan traveled back to Washington, D.C. Amidst the shouts of the Mayday Tribe, one may have heard Joan’s cadence calling with the crowd, “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” The People’s Blockade, calling themselves the Mayday Collective, attempted to blockade 21 key positions around the U.S. capital. The nation watched as police cracked down on permitted camps and tens of thousands of protesters with their usual tact of tear gas and low-flying helicopters. Political chainsaw surgery for the manifestations of “Vietnam Syndrome.”
One morning Joan and a friend traveled to the White House, with names of the war dead echoing from the Capitol steps. Joan had her blood drawn from a doctor and carried it with a rolled map of Vietnam into the East Room while tourists quietly shuffled between paintings. Beneath the chandeliers with Washington himself watching like all the rest, Joan and her friend unfurled the poster reading “STOP SPILLING BLOOD” and splattered it with Joan’s blood. She recalls that, “A small New York Times article reported that red paint had been used.”
As overt military action in Vietnam ended, Joan went back to Pennsylvania, where she worked as a camp counselor for 12 summers. Throughout the Cold War, with the state’s war apparatus still in the forefront of her mind, Joan remained active.
Most pressing was the now-forgotten reconstruction of Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1991 Joan spent three weeks with International Peace Works reaching out to Vietnamese and Cambodian communities in violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act that still wracked a Southeast Asia in recovery. Desperate medical facilities were strangled for supplies as the IMF and World Bank were prohibited from making loans. This economic warfare 16 years after the Fall of Saigon stymied progress as "legacy ordinance" continued savaging a helpless people. “Our hosts were concerned about what might occur on the trip, because war wounds are so deep and pervasive, and we would be the first US citizens seen by some of the Vietnamese since the war. Incredibly, we were warmly welcomed by most of the people we met. We were deeply moved and challenged by their forgiveness, courage and persistent hope for peace,” she remembers in a Friends Journal piece.
At the end of her trip to Southeast Asia, Joan traveled to Hiroshima, Japan. She wanted to personally bear the image, some fifty years later, of those who died beneath the uniquely American mushroom-cloud-shaped olive branch.
With over 40 years of peacemaking behind her, the road ahead became altogether different in 2001. The once dichotomous Cold War model of supposed good versus evil transformed into a totalitarian nightmare of political-military global hegemony backed by corporate war-profiteers. The justification for endless American military intervention struck New York City’s Twin Towers, and the Global War on Terror began. In a few short years, as the laundry list of countries to be liberated grew, Joan hatched a plan.
Thanks to the generosity of “an old Friends Meetinghouse” owner, Joan began planting signs on the lawn facing Highway 1 in Pennsylvania. Every morning – and every afternoon until recently – while weather permits, Joan stands outside quietly decrying the US imperialism of the day. Ever the slight, silent sentinel, Joan jealously guards her values in the face of thousands of community passersby.
“STOP US SUPPORT FOR KIEV.”
“FREE MANNING, ASSANGE.”
“ABOLISH US NUCLEAR WEAPONS.”
“STOP US WARS FOR PROFIT AND PLUNDER.”
Traveling with CodePink, Joan flew to Pakistan to meet with families and support victims of the US drone program while they buzzed overhead. She heard stories from families who lost innocent loved ones to so-called "precision-guided" armaments. She flew to Nicaragua and Haiti on mission trips supporting the impoverished and meeting with community action groups.
As she’s grown older, Joan travels less, needing help coordinating transportation and a friendly bed to rely on. In a letter to a friend, she recalls a more recent trip to Washington. Joan writes, “Christians and people of other religious faiths were gathered in the Hart Senate Building to pray for peace, for an end to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Through prayer and stillness, word and song, we sought to reach out to the heart and minds of those who have voted for the madness of the invasions and occupation which destroyed the lives and welfare of untold millions of people and caused suffering that will endure for generations.”
In another visit to DC, from the gallery of the House of Representatives, Joan watched as strident non-interventionist Representative Kucinich (D-OH) hosted a debate on ending the US GWOT wars. During the proceedings, a fellow member of the house repeatedly yelled, “al-Qaeda are global terrorists.” Joan couldn’t stand the hypocrisy and shouted down from the gallery, “The US is the global terrorist!” She was arrested and banned from the capital for nine months.
In 2011, on the 8th Anniversary of the Iraq invasion, Veterans for Peace organized a demonstration outside the White House to protest the illegal war and the treatment of Chelsea Manning. Joan and the VFP members in attendance were arrested. Everyone arrested, save Joan, was offered a $35 fee to forfeit. Joan was told she would face the charges because of “previous cases.” Several of her fellow protesters from VFP refused to the offer and stood trial. She writes, “As it turned out, I was thankful to be with the others on trial.”
In her testimony, Joan criticizes the drone program and the tactics of the GWOT under the pretense of protection. In her testimony’s closing remarks, Joan’s resolve reflected bluntly, “These unspeakable crimes against humanity were by themselves enough to compel me to join the veterans and others in front of the White House on March 19th… Peaceful efforts to effect change often seem to be futile gestures, but I believe we must never give up hope that our nation’s war policy can be radically transformed.”
That hope has ordered nearly every step Joan’s taken since she came into adulthood. Contemptuous of an unjust ruling class and the “corporate media” she blames for perpetuating their lies, Joan manifests that dismay with kindness. Though, there are no stars in the eyes that have seen so much.
I asked if she was at all optimistic; if she thought "our side" had a chance of making real headway or effecting policy. Stillness.
In time, Joan hesitantly chuckled. “My heavens,” she reflexively answered as she had so many times before.
I sensed there’d been too much needless blood split for her to say; too many entrenched interests, too much money and power on the other side of no-mans land. Joan’s already connected countless weathered-by-war faces to the receiving end of the US foreign policy establishment to muster the strength to lecture on change from her retirement home in Pennsylvania.
Instead, she incessantly pointed to those she considered more worthy of admiration than herself. In each of our conversations, Joan downplayed her efforts for peace in place of those she’d come to respect throughout her years. Joan saw my writing as a chance to highlight the work of others – earnestly agitating for peace in their times – rather than herself.
It’s precisely that deference that makes Joan’s life so admirable.
In the era of unceasing expansion of "American exceptionalism" at the barrel of a gun, Joan built her life into an obstacle; not for the sake of obstinance, but for principle. Joan’s footprints are woven through some of the most pressing moments of 20th century America and the world beyond.
Joan’s not finished yet. At the end of her letter to me, she writes that, “The situation in the world makes me want to continue witnessing for peace and justice as long as I can.” So tomorrow you can find her on Kennett Square’s Highway 1 – amidst her handwritten signs with a wispy peace sign – calling you to take these wretched trenches next.