Robert Pickus 1923 – 2016

Robert Pickus, who devoted his life to developing non-violent alternatives to war, died on Friday in St. Helena, Ca. He was 92.

War, he argued, could come about by building arms, and by not building arms. The task, therefore, was to build legal and political alternatives to war. “In the shadow of Hiroshima,” he wrote in his 1968 preface to a reprint of Albert Camus’ Neither Victims Nor Executioners, “we had in America a clear goal and a moral commitment to sustain it. The goal was to end war. The moral commitment was the refusal to legitimize murder.”

“The problem of a pacifist,” he told an anti-Vietnam war rally in 1965, “is not just to condemn violence, but to work out a way to counter the other side’s violence.” While criticizing military escalation, he held anti-war activists responsible for focusing exclusively on America’s faults. “I believe if those of us in this room were to stand before a mirror, we would see an obstacle to disarmament,” he told a gathering of NGO leaders in 1978.

From 1951 to 2016, as the head of Acts for Peace, Turn Toward Peace and the World Without War Council, Pickus organized a series of peace initiatives and served as a consultant to groups ranging from the National Endowment for Democracy and the National Association of Evangelicals to the National Catholic Education Association and the National Council on Philanthropy. In 1985, he launched the James Madison Foundation, under the leadership of his colleague, the Catholic theologian George Weigel.

Pickus entered the University of Chicago in 1941 and studied under Hans Morgenthau and served as a research assistant to Mortimer Adler. During the war he served in the Office of Strategic Services in Sweden and Great Britain. In 1950, he undertook Fulbright study at the London School of Economics and hitch-hiked through the Middle East and India.

Following graduate study, Pickus first worked to link the co-operative movement and the labor unions, a reflection of his experience in Sweden during the war. During a visit to Walter Reuther, the head of the UAW in Detroit, he met Sara Greenberg, whom he would later marry.

In the 1950s, Pickus called for a pacifist statement that became Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence (1955). He wrote a summary for the Progressive magazine, which also published an exchange with Reinhold Niebuhr, George Kennan, Dwight MacDonald and Norman Thomas.

He later focused on arms control and initiatives to build democratic civil society in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and, with Bayard Rustin, in South Africa.

He is survived by his wife, Sara, his sons Joshua and Noah, and his grand-children Linkon, Micah, Reed and Mira.