Lawrence used his knowledge to mobilize the public and raise awareness about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Instead of preventing wars, these dangerous armaments only worsened the matter as mighty nations threatened to obliterate each other with just one click. Modernization of warfare, characterized by the proliferation of nuclear resources, can only lead to massive destruction.
There was great pressure on the government to cease these explorations, but it would take more than just heated protests from concerned groups. Apparently, we have to create more noise, and that is what Lawrence has set out to do. His incredible books, talks and articles speak about his adamant opposition to the use of nuclear weapons.
Lawrence S. Wittner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 5 May 1941 to an immigrant family; his father is Ukrainian, while his mother is of Polish Jew descent. When Lawrence was five years old, he developed a stutter, which is hard to believe for those who hear him speak so articulately today.
His father worked at the “New York State Commission Against Discrimination.” From his early years, Lawrence’s eyes were open to the realities of prejudice. His father would often talk about his experiences with people who practiced prejudice and how he handled unjust employers.
Those dinner-table discussions had a profound effect on the young Lawrence’s views of justice and international issues. He was also a bright kid, albeit a loner. Lawrence credits two of his schoolteachers as mentors who helped him become more concerned and politically-aware. He had always loved to read; perhaps what inspired him to become an author were the writings of James Wechsler and Murray Kempton, journalists of the New York Post. He also loved the work of Herblock, a cartoonist.
College and Beyond
Lawrence enrolled at Columbia University in 1958, where he studied history. He was prompted to do so by his desire to use what he knew to spark change. Like his father, he wanted to become an agent of justice, and he knew he had to cultivate his knowledge and impart it to others.
In college, he joined the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity and met his first wife, Patty Sheinblatt. There, he saw the larger picture of the peace movement and the threats posed by the use of nuclear weapons. His fight against nuclear warfare began in 1961 when he joined his first demonstration, a mass protest in Washington, D.C.
He explains in his talks that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were true eye-openers to the damage nuclear bombs can cause. According to an article in his blog:
"Sixty-eight years after the U.S. government employed atomic bombs to exterminate the populations of two Japanese cities and it became clear to all but the mentally feeble that nuclear war meant global annihilation, over 17,000 nuclear weapons remain in existence, with 94 percent of them in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russian governments. Despite numerous claims by national leaders that they are committed to building a nuclear weapons-free world, the United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan are currently modernizing their nuclear weapons, with the United States and Russia spending about $75 billion a year between them on this project. Meanwhile, the North Korean government threatens to attack the United States with its small nuclear arsenal, while the Iranian government continues a uranium enrichment process that might enable it to enter the nuclear club. Appropriately enough, the famous “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stands at five minutes to midnight." (SOURCE: ZNet)
Aside from protesting against nuclear use, he also became active in promoting justice, and was one of the founders of Columbia University’s “Congress of Racial Equality.” The following year, he volunteered as a voter registration worker in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He also participated in a civil rights conclave that year in Jackson, Mississippi.
He then went to the University of Wisconsin and completed his Master’s degree in History in 1963. While in graduate school, his thesis focused on the history of nonviolent civil disobedience in America. Upon his return to Columbia University for his Ph.D., he was taken under the wing of William Leuchtenburg. Lawrence expressed his vehement opposition to the war in Vietnam by attending rallies and joining organizations.
His dissertation, which focused on the study of the U.S. peace movement from 1941 to 1960, was completed and defended in 1967. Two years later, his dissertation would be published as “Rebels Against War,” which became his first book.
Before 1967 ended, Lawrence became part of Hampton Institute’s faculty, and stayed there for a year before moving to Vassar College. By then, he had edited one book and even wrote two articles. As a teacher, he was gaining popularity not only among the students, but also his peers. It was his faithfulness to truth and justice, however, which eventually put a stop to his steady rise in the academic world.
When Vassar College agreed to partner with IBM to fund a technology center within the school, Lawrence did not hesitate to protest, even if it meant earning the ire of the school’s president and his colleagues. Lawrence stood by his beliefs, as he was not the type to cower, even if it meant losing his job and falling out with colleagues. He was conveniently sacked and blacklisted from all United States schools.
Writing and teaching abroad became his primary sources of income; under the Fulbright Program, he was able to teach at Japanese universities. He did not teach at universities in the United States until 1974, when he was given a one-year post at SUNY-Albany. That one year stretched into three, and proved to be a roller-coaster ride for Lawrence. Resisting the politics present at the university, he finally secured tenure in 1977.
His family life, like his professional career, was also on the rocks. His marriage to Patty was going nowhere; in 1979, Dorothy Tristman, a former graduate student of his whom then worked as his assistant, became the new love of his life. They fell for each other and he lived with Dorothy and her two “rambunctious” sons only one year after leaving Patty and their daughter, Julia.
Again teaching in the United States, Lawrence adamantly opposed Ronald Reagan’s Cold War throughout the 1980s. In addition to challenging the government for their stand on the ongoing conflict, he was also active in the apartheid movement. In 1985, he was incarcerated after participating in a peaceful protest against racial discrimination.
Back in SUNY, he remained busy inciting change. He helped set up the United University Professions’ local chapter, for instance, to unite the workforce in opposing injustice and promoting equal rights. He also became involved with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and founded its Albany chapter.
Publishing “The struggle Against the Bomb”
For a time, his work as an activist made it impossible for him to focus on writing, so he did not release any books between 1980 and 1985. The “Struggle Against the Bomb" trilogy was not made available by Stanford University Press until 1993, 1997 and 2003, respectively. He currently serves on “Peace Action,” the United States’ largest peace organization, as a national board member.
Lawrence went through a difficult time in 1992 when his sister took her own life. Fifteen years later, Lawrence was diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but he recovered after a series of chemotherapy treatments. His life with Dorothy was not a bed of roses, either. It took years before her sons accepted him as part of the family.
In a nutshell, Lawrence has had his fair share of difficulties, yet they failed to hinder him in his fight against destructive nuclear power. It makes us wonder how much better this world would be if we only took the time to care, even amidst our own miseries.
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Council on Peace Research in History (now the Peace History Society)
- Peace History Commission of the International Peace Research Association
- American Council of Learned Societies
- Aspen Institute
- John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
- National Endowment for the Humanities
- United States Institute of Peace
- United University Professions
- Peace Action (Board Member)
- Albany County Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO (Executive Secretary)
- Solidarity Singers
- Alpha Phi Omega
Awards and Achievements
- 1969: “Rebels Against War,” a revised version of his dissertation, was published by Columbia University Press
- 1974: Began teaching at the State University of New York/Albany
- 1984 – 1987: Worked as editor of “Peace & Change”
- 1989: His article "Peace Movements and Foreign Policy" won the “Charles DeBenedetti Award” of the Conference on Peace Research in History
- 1990: Received the “New York State/United University Professions Excellence Award” for scholarship, teaching, and service
- 1995: His article “One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953” received the “Warren Kuehl Book Prize” of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations
- 2011: Received the “Peace History Society's Lifetime Achievement Award”
- Authored nine books
- Edited/co-edited four books
- Published over 250 articles and book reviews
- Helped found a campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality
- Taught at Hampton Institute, Vassar College and Japanese universities under the Fulbright program
- Chaired the Peace History Commission of the International Peace Research Association
- Received major fellowships/grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Aspen Institute, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the United States Institute of Peace
- Given talks in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland
- Delivered guest lectures on dozens of college and university campuses
- Served for decades as an elected leader of United University Professions
- Spoke at the United Nations and at the Norwegian Nobel Institute
- “Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. Paperback edition, 1970. Revised, expanded edition published as: Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933-1983. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984. Paperback edition, 1984.
- (Editor) “MacArthur.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Paperback edition, 1971.
- “Cold War America: From Hiroshima to Watergate.” New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974. Paperback edition, 1974. Revised, expanded edition: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1978.
- “American Intervention in Greece, 1943-1949.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
- (Associate Editor) “Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders.” Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1985.
- “One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953.” (Vol. 1 of The Struggle Against the Bomb.) Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993. Paperback edition, 1995.
- (Editor, with five others) “Peace/Mir: An Anthology of Historic Alternatives to War.” Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994. Paperback edition, 1994. Russian language edition: Mir/Peace. “Al'ternativy voine ot Antichnosti do knotsa mirovoi voiny. Antologiia.” Moscow: Nauka Press, 1993.
- “Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970.” (Vol. 2 of “The Struggle Against the Bomb”). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997. Paperback edition, 1997.
- “Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present.” (Vol. 3 of “The Struggle Against the Bomb”.) Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003. Paperback edition, 2003.
- (Co-editor, with Glen H. Stassen) “Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future.” Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007. Paperback edition, 2007.
- “Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement.” Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. Paperback edition, 2009.
- “Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual.” Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2012. Paperback edition, 2012.
- “What's Going On at UAardvark?” Albany, NY: Solidarity Press, 2013. Paperback edition, 2013. [SOURCE: Wikipedia (Lawrence S. Wittner)]
UFV.ca (Lawrence S. Wittner: Working for Peace and Justice)
Wikipedia (Lawrence S. Wittner)
LawrenceSWittner.com (Profile of Lawrence S. Wittner)
ZNet (Clinging to Mass Violence)
The Cap Times (Lawrence S. Wittner: At universities too, the rich get richer)
Austin Informer (Still Preparing for Nuclear War)
History News Network (What Has Prevented Nuclear War?)
The Cap Times (Lawrence Wittner: Are tax-free havens on campus a good idea?)
The Huffington Post (Eliminating Nuclear Weapons Is Just as Important as Eliminating Chemical Weapons)