“Persistence!”: an interview with Michael Randle
Last year WRI staff member Andrew Metheven interviewed Michael Randle, who was Chairperson of WRI from 1966 to 1973. The interview explored WRI's resistance to the Vietnam War, the organisational culture, and the longer term impact of the organisation.
Andrew Metheven: Could you start by describing your role in War Resisters’ International before and when you were Chairperson?
Michael Randle: I got involved in War Resisters’ International when I became a conscientious objector, I think in 1951. I got in touch with the Peace Pledge Union, and through that War Resisters’ International. Later on I was on the Council, and eventually became Chair. Having decided I was a pacifist, resisting conscription became quite a central thing for me. I was campaigning for alternative service, and I wanted to find out more about the whole history of war resistance. Through that I got involved in the PPU and then attended a WRI conference, I think in Rome in the 1960s.
I felt there had to be an organised opposition to war if we were going to get anywhere, and the PPU and WRI were the obvious options from a pacifist point of view. Then there was the excitement of meeting people from various countries who were resisting. Going to international conferences and meeting some of these people - some of whom I had admired from afar, like AJ Muste and Bayard Rustin. Rustin had a big influence on me, both resisting apartheid and anti-racism. I then got actively involved, and with April Carter and others, formed the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War. Not everyone in that group was a pacifist, but we appealed to American servicemen. One of the campaigns that the Direct Action Committee organised was an international campaign against French nuclear testing in the Sahara. We had good international connections through WRI, and I went out to Ghana for a year and helped to organise an international conference against the war in Vietnam.
What was that like?
Well it was very interesting for me! It was the time of maximum resistance to the Vietnam War. One of the things we did was appeal to people, to think about refusing to fight in Vietnam, and remind service people that the option of conscientious objection existed. So we ran a campaign, with a leaflet printed that appealed to American service men, outlining the option of conscientious objection, and that you could still resist. WRI was issuing leaflets like this at the time. On one occasion, Pat Arrowsmith and I distributed leaflets at an American base - perhaps Menwith Hill - and we actually walked onto the base without challenge! The actual servicemen were very sympathetic, invited us in, and we were talking to them when someone higher up the chain of command came in and was absolutely scandalised! They must have called the police, and the officer was shaking his head and saying we took a great risk by walking onto the base. It was a good time for action, and it was needed.
We’re interested in how the culture was - what were meetings like, how was your relationship with staff, how did you settle political differences?
Culturally, it was the time of the peace movement - Bob Dylan... Joan Bayez attended the Rome meeting - so that whole alternative culture, a certain hippy element! Not all of us were hippies, but that whole movement had an influence, and affected what we saw as up and coming. I think for people involved in that whole hippy culture, nuclear weapons were the big issue, and that affected the whole feel of the movement.
So what was it like being in WRI at the time?
There probably was also an older guard, that didn’t see quite eye-to-eye with the new hippy culture, but I think people - like Bayard Rustin, who were more sensitive to new campaigns like around gay rights [helped to bridge the gap]. I think people like Howard Bing would have represented some of the older generation. They were very open-minded but not quite fully understanding what was happening, at that cultural level. When we wrote the leaflet directed to servicemen, Howard Bing was a bit uneasy about some of the draft content - and he was probably right! So in some ways, Howard Bing was more on the ball than we were.
Sure, Howard Bing played a big role in building that movement and it can be hard to see it change sometime. And Bayard Rustin, who was so involved in the civil rights movement, will have seen the interconnections, and war as a much more structural thing. That’s something we’re still working on.
Could you describe one of the key successes, and one of the key challenges, WRI faced while you were Chair?
I think what came out of it - and it wasn’t just War Resisters’ - was the anti-nuclear movement. That was the thing that really galvanized people, including people who wouldn’t consider themselves a pacifist. They brought some energy and some defiance, and the younger generation at the time identified with that spirit of defiance and challenging things, and alternative music, and all that.
It sounds like you’re describing a sort of melting pot - and that’s still what WRI is - so many different types of people who sit around a table together. On one level they have a big shared understanding, but also have a lot of different perspectives. Sustaining that isn’t necessarily easy, could you say something about how WRI managed to hold those tensions?
A sound bureaucracy! However negative the term may seem, the bureaucracy was maintained and the continuity was there through having an organisation, with systems. Some of us mavericks wanted to kick it all over, and sometimes that came up in the conferences - we can do it all anarchistically and spontaneously! - but actually it does need organisation, and rules. And this may be me as an old man talking now, but I think that was important. So people like Harold Bing did play an important role, and so did the whole secretariat. They were and are important, as is the spontaneous and rebellious aspects.
So that was the successes - what were the challenges?
Probably, when conscription ended in Britain… conscription was, as in my case, a trigger for people looking for alternatives and alternative organisations. As conscription disappeared in various countries - I suppose it needed a rebellious, alternative culture to feed into organisations like WRI. I think when there was conscription it was clear how war impacted people directly adandn they would go and look for an organisation that would support them. I think the anti-nuclear campaign and the resistance to the Vietnam war were very important for bringing young people into the movement. I think the emphasis on nonviolent direct action appealed to a younger generation as well. As conscription disappeared the campaign against the Vietnam war remained important. Here the whole Gandhian movement was very important. The whole idea of nonviolent forms of resistance.
For me, the opposition to weapons of mass destruction was key. I was brought up a Catholic, and the idea of a “Just War” was important. It wasn’t just the cause that had to be just, but the way war was waged had to be discriminate, so weapons of mass destruction were completely against this. This brought people who weren’t 100% pacifist into the movement.
I’m interested in what you said as how conscription brought people into the movement. It’s really interesting, and something we “lack” now - but I don’t want it back! But it does make sense that that was drawing people into the movement.
Once conscription ended in the UK there had to be other things. Fortunately - or unfortunately - there was the Vietnam war, and there was nuclear weapons, which all helped us gather strength and drew people into looking for alternatives. The Gandhian alternative, of nonviolent action, was one path.
Maybe a difference between now and then is that conscription immediately brings war and militarism into your life, but now for us in the UK, we have the privilege of not being exposed to war so explicitly. So to get involved in our movements now your motivation has to be a political or moral choice. Whereas when facing conscription your initial motivation can be personal.
I think there are still the moral and political questions, but one is forced to face them in a personal way because you are going to get drawn into this militarist organisation. So you couldn’t avoid it!
So that became a challenge for WRI?
Britain got rid of conscription before all of the other countries in Europe, so our movements in Britain faced that challenge - of making war personal - a bit earlier. But I think the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that was such a moral and political question, that drew people in.
How much interaction in that period, when you were Chair, did you have with antimilitarists and pacifists outside Europe? What was WRI like in these terms?
The Council met once a year and the exec met three times a year. So I met people at these meetings and conferences, and I got to know a lot of people from European countries, and people from America would come to the triennial conferences. I would have said that WRI had a strong basis in Europe and the United States, and to some extent in India because of the Gandhian campaign. But we had less of a relationship with Africa and parts of Asia.
It's hard for younger activists to imagine running an organisation like WRI without the internet! How did communication work? How did WRI work?
Meetings and letters! And telephone of course..! I think when I was around WRI, Harold Bing was Chair, and the secretariat, for many years was Devi Prasad. They were involved in the day to day running of the organisation. Devi had a big role, and then the people who were on the Council and executive certainly contributed.
If you had one piece of advice for our movements now, what would it be?
First of all - persistence! Because its easy to drift. And the other is to be open-minded to new ideas, and new methods of struggle and consciousness raising. The whole issue of racism and sexism - when the word “sexism” first entered our vocabulary, some people didn’t understand the term! So to be open-minded and aware of new developments and ideas is very important.