When Master’s Theses Go Bad: Thoughts on Mennonite Exceptionalism and Self-Revisionism

A few years back, when I was a young PhD student, I went to one of my professors for advice. How could I turn some of my languishing seminar papers into publications? Particularly papers on Mennonites? My professor, himself a well-known historian of immigration and Jewish life, gave me this advice: when dealing with ethnic groups or subcultures you can emphasize difference from mainstream society or you can place them in the larger American story. He preferred the latter approach.

This advice percolated in my brain for a few years. It eventually helped me re-examine an earlier master’s thesis on Mennonite involvement in the antiwar movement during Vietnam. I had gone the route of emphasizing difference, rather than a story within a story, and in doing so I had missed something important– both about Mennonites and about the antiwar movement.

The thesis title, “Doves of a Different Feather: Mennonites and the Antiwar Movement During Vietnam,” symbolizes my approach. To quote from the thesis intro (italics not in the original):

The church issues in the 1960s were complex. There was debate on the issues of war, peace, and church-state relationships, a debate that would surround those Mennonites who engaged in antiwar activities. These Mennonites did share characteristics of the larger antiwar movement but, at heart, they cannot be described as a microcosm of that group. Instead, they are best understood within the context of their specific religious community.

Mennonites were a part of the national antiwar movement but they were also a part of a specific ethno-religious community. Some embraced this community, some challenged it, but overall, Mennonite activists engaged with it. Their opposition to the war, therefore, was a form of speaking to the United States government but also to their own community.1

Part of this thesis is fine. Mennonites who protested the Vietnam War did speak to both government and their own community. But this does not mean that Mennonites are best understood apart from the rest of the antiwar movement.

My thesis had focused on Eastern Mennonite College (now University) and Goshen College antiwar activity. I found examples of antiwar students who were hesitant to identify too closely with the larger antiwar movement. One EMC student wrote about attending a 1969 peace march in Washington, D.C. and explained that he felt “out of place” until the EMC group found other Mennonites at the rally. They linked arms, “mainly to let those who saw us know we had a unique reason for marching.”2 Others showed similar sentiment discussing draft resistance. Some antiwar students supported those who refused to cooperate with the Selective Service System but hesitated about secular draft resisters and a praised Mennonite draft resisters as different. A Goshen College student compared draft resisters to a “tornado” while claiming conscientious objectors had “stable, religious grounds” for their refusal to participate in war. Another Goshen student also criticized non-Mennonite draft resisters, calling them “starry-eyed” and vague. However, he agreed with them on the “terrible injustice of war.”3

Comments like these lead me to the conclusion that many Mennonites who protested the war saw themselves as doves of a different feather—in, but not of, the antiwar movement. But I was too quick to take the students at their own word. More than a decade later, much more fully immersed in the history of the antiwar movement, I see things differently (for more on my work on the 1960s—unrelated to Mennonite history—see here).

Considering the antiwar movement in all its diversity, Mennonite students appear more typical than not of peace activists. In the words of historian Charles DeBenedetti, the antiwar movement was “local and ephemeral.”4 Although images of student radicalism and confrontation dominated news coverage, recent scholarship has stressed the diversity of antiwar activists. Whether they acted as mothers, religious figures, or members of ethnic groups, activists nationwide often filtered their antiwar activism through local concerns or specific group identities. This is precisely what gave the movement its broad power—and its struggles with strategy and unity.5 The movement was filled with doves of different feathers. Mennonite activists were not so exceptional in this. Furthermore, some activists’ suspicions about the broader movement reflect key ways in which Mennonites were not unique from their non-Mennonite neighbors.

Sociologist Todd Gitlin has demonstrated that media coverage of antiwar protest was deeply problematic. Reporters depicted the movement as potentially subversive or, paradoxically, ineffective and trivial. Journalists privileged stories with conflict and violence, often focusing on action above ideas and issues. Gitlin argues this encouraged activists to plan ever more dramatic protests and meant that protests that did not involve confrontation failed to reach the eyes of many Americans.6 Gitlin does not blame media coverage for the antiwar movement’s image problems. The movement, he argues, made several of its own mistakes. However, he illustrates some of the very real limitations set up by this coverage.7

The Mennonite student activists who were wary of the larger movement show how much impact media could have, even on those critical of the war. These students defined themselves apart from the movement, perhaps because they did not recognize their own preferred methods of nonviolence and moderation as truly belonging to the movement. And yet, Mennonite students were hardly alone in their preference for a firmly nonviolent movement over the highly visible, but not universally embraced, turn to confrontation that came at the end of the 1960s.8

Mennonites were also not unique in a desire to relate antiwar activism to one’s home community. Historian Lorena Oropeza has described the way Mexican-Americans’ antiwar views became intertwined with the growing Chicano movement. Chicano antiwar leaders valued having their own organizations, separate from the rest of the antiwar movement. They worked with the broader movement but they also wanted space where the concerns and voices of their own community could flourish.9 Likewise, African Americans critiqued the war, arguing that African American men were more likely to be drafted and arguing that they should not have to fight abroad for a nation that denied them equal rights at home. Historian Simon Hall has noted a paradox: that African Americans were the group in America most critical of the war and yet largely absent from the antiwar movement, at least at a grassroots level.10

Many African Americans feared that joining forces with the peace movement would blunt their analysis of the way racial issues at home related to the war abroad. Some African Americans called for a black-led antiwar organization, as a way to take part in the movement without fear of being engulfed by it, but this never materialized. African Americans may not have joined antiwar organizations or events but they continued to address the war from within civil rights and black power groups. They were a part of the movement, but highly conscious of retaining a distinct identity within it.11

Beyond the experiences of racial and ethnic groups, Women Strike for Peace, one of the most active antiwar groups, couched their activism in what historian Amy Swerdlow has termed “maternalist” terms. They emphasized acting as women, “in service of others”—their sons at risk of the draft and the children injured in Vietnam. In doing so, they encouraged a more mainstream image of antiwar work, hoping to appeal to any American woman.12

In the American South, antiwar students tried to use southern identity to galvanize others. They encouraged southerners to “secede” from America over the war, hoping to capitalize on positive associations with a rebel image to inspire antiwar work. This tactic did not necessarily work—indeed it alienated many African Americans—but it was yet another attempt to draw on a specific group identity in protesting the war, as well as an example of seeking to transform a cultural value.13

Vietnam veterans would also form an important bloc of protesters, organizing in groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). They, too, felt they had a unique perspective and reason for protesting. VVAW became yet another group that was distinct within the movement, yet integral to the cause, providing some of the most compelling testimony against the war.14

Mennonites shared another feature of the antiwar movement: intra-generational conflict. While the stereotype of the 1960s is that campuses were alight with protest this was not always the case. Antiwar student activism often involved a band of dedicated few, facing hostilities from other students and drawing on antiwar faculty for support.15 This was the case for Mennonite campuses where faculty members were often more supportive of student protest than other students. Goshen College professors like J. R. Burkholder, Dan Hess, Dan Leatherman, and Atlee Beechy were integral to antiwar work.16 Professors at EMC also defended students involved in peace vigils, cautioning in the campus newspaper that the Mennonite mentality of “die Stillen im Lande,” or being “the quiet in the land” could lead to terrible atrocities, citing the example of Nazi Germany as a situation when being quiet made ordinary people complicit in government violence.17 These faculty were part of a new interpretation of the peace position, one that questioned obedience to the state and looked for ways to make pacifism active.18 In the meantime, many students still interpreted Mennonite pacifism to preclude protest. In the words of an EMC student, critical of draft card burning in 1965, “. . . Let’s give Uncle Sam his due place in our society…While our citizenship is not in this world, we must serve our nation.”19

In the 1960s Mennonites were reconfiguring pacifism and this does make their story during the Vietnam years unique in some ways. But the ways Mennonites were not unique also matter. When I first took Mennonite expressions of exceptionalism at face value I contributed to two problems: over-simplification of the antiwar movement and romanticization of Mennonite sub-culture.

The story of the 1960s has too often been told as one of movements for social justice that started with the highest ideals, only to come crashing down in a haze of hedonism, violence, and excess by the end of the decade. Historians have been reassessing this narrative for a long time. Moving the spotlight away from students at elite universities, 1960s activism appears more complex, involving many types of people, often lasting well into the 1970s and having a constructive impact on communities. The antiwar movement was more flexible, broad, and diverse than memory has it. Acknowledging this makes the Mennonite story less unique.

Reframing my observations also avoids romanticizing Mennonite sub-culture. American Mennonites are, after all, Americans. In the 1960s they shared many characteristics with other Americans, including support for a war against communism, distrust of the antiwar movement, and susceptibility to negative news media framing of the antiwar movement. There are times to emphasize what is unique about Mennonites, but that should not distract from the ways that Mennonites are shaped by being American.

History is a process of constant revision. Usually this means scholars revise the interpretations of other scholars. But sometimes we need to revise ourselves—and speak more openly about how and why our own interpretations shift.

  1.  Holly Scott, “Doves of a Different Feather: Mennonites and the Antiwar Movement During Vietnam,” (MA thesis, Penn State Harrisburg, 2006). 
  2.  Mel Lehman, “The March, The Ball, The Man,” Weather Vane, January 24, 1969, p. 1 
  3. “The Draft. . .” >The Record, February 23, 1968, p. 4. 
  4. Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 1-2. 
  5. DeBenedetti argues that because the movement was so broad it was able to penetrate almost all aspects of American life, making it a very impactful movement culturally. However, he notes this loose coalition also made it difficult to strategize or clearly assess political gains made. 
  6. Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media and the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Edward Morgan, What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010), makes similar arguments. 
  7. Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching
  8. See Kenneth Heineman Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (New York: New York University Press, 1993) for an examination of the diversity within the movement. See also Robert Cohen, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (New York: University Press, 2009), and Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), particularly at 388-415. Gitlin notes the large number of student activists who felt no affinity with increasing radicalization and turn to violence at the end of the decade; indeed he faults the turn to violence in groups like SDS with destroying the antiwar movement. Most members did not want to be part of this turn and thus, losing their institutional home, were cast adrift. 
  9. Lorena Oropeza, ¡Raza Si! Guerra No! Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 
  10. Simon Hall, Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). 
  11. Hall, 1-12, 70-71, 128-129. 
  12. Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). 
  13. See Jeffrey Turner, Sitting In and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South 1960-1970 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). Even the student power approach to antiwar work can be seen as part of the trend to organize from within a set identity. See Robbie Lieberman, ed. Prairie Power: Voices of 1960s Midwestern Student Protest (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004). The oral histories she collected demonstrate how antiwar activists at conservative campuses were able to make common cause with students around issues they all agreed on—the need for more student rights. This created what were sometimes strange bedfellows, as activists made alliances with fraternities in working on student rights issues. They hoped sharing an identity as students could help to bring these other students into the larger movement. 
  14.  Richard Stacewicz, ed. Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997). See also Jerry Lembck, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998). 
  15. An excellent treatment of this topic is Heineman, Campus Wars. A similar portrait of campus protest can be found in Lieberman, Prairie Power: Voices of 1960s Midwestern Student Protest and Rebecca Klatch, A Generation Divided: the New Left, the New Right and the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Klatch’s work details the way the baby boom generation is significant not only for shaping the New Left but also for providing many of the leaders of a New Right, thus placing intra-generational conflict at the heart of the story of the 1960s. 
  16. Doug Baker, interview by author, October 7, 2006 and Matthew Lind, interview by author, October 2, 2006. Sam Steiner, email to author, December 13, 2006 and J.R. Burkholder, interview by author, September 22, 2006. 
  17. Quote in “Reverberations,” Weather Vane, February 24, 1967, p. 3. See also Grant Stoltzfus, March 4, 1968, Opinion Board 1967-68 and posting by Gerald Brunk, November 2, 1970, Opinion Board 1970-71. These professors voiced support for protest and warned that excessive fears of communism or charges that protest was a threat to law and order at home were misguided at best, potentially dangerous for democracy, at worst. Professor John Lapp also contributed to the discussion, challenging the campus to see student protesters as authentically embodying the Anabaptist nonconformity to the world. See “The Ironies of Change at EMC,” John A. Lapp, posted April 17, 1967, Opinion Board file 1966-67 and “Beyond Irony or Living with Irony?” John A. Lapp, April 19, 1967, Opinion Board 1966-67. All Opinion Board files come from the archives of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  18. For an examination of changing Mennonite peace theology see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) and Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994). 
  19. “The Draft: Our Worry?” Weather Vane, October 29, 1965, p. 2. 

Call For Papers: What Young Historians Are Thinking

What Young Historians Are Thinking Symposium

June 5, 2017

The Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, in partnership with the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College and with the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, welcomes paper proposals for its event “What Young Historians Are Thinking.”

Invited to participate are undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students, those who have just started careers in history, and those who are “young” in scholarly study of historical topics (no matter what their age). All must be engaged in original research using chiefly primary sources (written and/or oral). All should be a part of an Historic Peace Church (Amish, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, Religious Society of Friends/Quaker, etc.) or focusing on one or more of these traditions.

Those interested should submit a 250-word proposal for a 20-minute paper to be given at the symposium, along with a brief autobiographical sketch and full contact information. Send these to Joel Nofziger at Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 2215 Millstream Road, Lancaster, PA 17602, or at younghistorians@lmhs.org. A limited number of travel scholarships are available. Please note in the proposal whether this will be needed. The symposium will take place at Ridgeview Mennonite Church in Gordonville, Pennsylvania, at 7:00 p.m.

Symposium Planning Committee: Jeff Bach, Simone Horst, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, Joel Nofziger, and Anne Yoder.

Proposals are due April 14, 2017