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The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the co-beneficiary of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, was established in Philadelphia by individuals from the Religious Society of Friends (i.e., the Quakers) in Spring 1917. The link between AFSC and the Religious Society of Friends was always tenuous as the activism of the organization was something universal that many non-Quakers around the world could celebrate, while the actual tenets of Quakerism were not nearly as popular as the peace movement that the Religious Society of Friends took part in. Initially, the goals of the committee were limited; however, over the 20th century, AFSC epitomized the pacifist convictions and social-change driving forces of Philadelphia’s Quaker-led world-class fight for peace (Ingle, 2016). The AFSC essentially helped to support and come to the aid of the victims of war, whether they were Jewish, Russian, European, African, etc. (Frost, 1992). This paper will discuss the background of the organization, why the Nobel Committee awarded them the Peace Prize and what that means today.
The AFSC is a global social justice association with a mission that has its foundation in the moral philosophy of the Quaker religion. Established in 1917, after the United States entered World War I, the AFSC at first acted as principled conscientious objectors to war. Their peace activism was based on their religious beliefs, which had been manifested in their public life since the founding of Pennsylvania as a Quaker state by William Penn. To help support alleviation and recreation activities that served poor networks and war-torn nations, the Quakers created the AFSC. In the late 1930s, before the beginning of World War II, the AFSC helped to nurse and support casualties of the war even before the US officially entered the conflict. A strong and continuous promoter of peacefulness in the face of war, the AFSC was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 (Franklin, 2020).
The efforts of the AFSC did not end with WWII, however. The start of the Cold War saw the beginning of an important period for the AFSC. As hostility towards Communism increased during the Red Scare, the AFSC increased its own political activism and communicated its issues to the United States government regarding the latter’s containment policy. The AFSC called for a de-escalation of tension between the US and the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, considering the hysteria of the time (i.e., McCarthyism), the AFSC was monitored and suspected of being a Communist sympathizer as a result of its call for cooler heads to prevail (Franklin, 2020). The AFSC did not back down, however, and continued to push for peace in myriad ways for the rest of the century.
Circumstances, Methods and Consequences of the Committee’s Promotion of Peace
The AFSC, the co-beneficiary of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, was established in Philadelphia by individuals from the Religious Society of Friends in 1917. At the start of the U.S.’s entrance into the First World War, American Quakers urged the AFSC to facilitate elective help for youthful Quaker men who honestly believed they could not conscientiously serve in the military in the wake of being drafted under the Selective Service Act. These efforts ended up helping more than 600 Quakers and other radical volunteers (Ingles, 1992). The AFSC also did more than that however: the group provided lodging for dislodged people along the Western Front in France under the sponsorship of the American Red Cross. And during World War II, the organization worked with delegates of the other religious groups such as the Mennonites and Brethren to manage the governmentally settled Civilian Public Service (CPS) arrangement of work camps for faithful dissenters (Ingles, 1992). The AFSC resettled European outcasts in the United States, and by building up a regional office in San Francisco the organization also opposed the US government’s Japanese-American internment policy and moved more than 4,000 Japanese-American understudies from the internment camps (Ingles, 1992). In 1947, after another round of taking care of war victims in Germany and based on the quality of the organization’s prewar help programs in Russia and Spain during those nations’ separate wars, the AFSC was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in the interest of peace and to the acclaim of Quakers around the world (Ingles, 1992).
Why the Nobel Committee Awarded the Peace Prize to the Committee
The AFSC was the second organization to receive the Peace Prize in 1947. This committee came into being in 1917 when the United States was facing World War I. Alike the British co-religionists, the Quakers started working for man by doing good deeds and seeking God's love. Having engaged the Government to be permitted to embrace compassionate work as a choice to war administration, they were allowed the chance to aid in the rebuilding of France. The Quakers were very active in providing aid to the sick and pregnant. They helped people in setting up provisional houses, managed to provide livestock and seed corn. They arranged impressive aid projects in areas in Germany and the Soviet Union where suffering prevailed after the war (The Nobel Prize, 2020).
The Nobel Committee thus wanted to recognize the efforts of the AFSC because of the tremendous charity the group showed and also because it looked past the war and the sides involved in the fighting to see human beings in need. It sought ways to help those human beings in the most basic and humane ways possible—by providing them shelter, food, and relief. The fact that the Nobel Committee chose to honor the organization with this award shows that the work did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. The Nobel Committee also cited the fact that AFSC worked hard to help Jews during the 1930s, which suggests that the Nobel Committee appreciated this outreach. However, the fact that the Zionist organization in Germany at the time was actually working with the Third Reich to relocate Jews to Palestine suggests that the Nobel Committee might have been politicizing an event with this focus on the work of the AFSC. After all the Nobel Committee is known to have done this before, particularly when it awarded the Peace Prize to President Obama shortly after his election without even waiting to see whether the President would continue his predecessor’s campaign of indiscriminate bombing. The Nobel Committee was trying to influence the President with the award, but failed because President Obama did continue the Bush Administration bombing policy without missing a beat. Thus, the politicization of the AFSC’s work by the Nobel Committee can be seen here.
Still, the AFSC was always a competent organization and fully aware of what it was up against in terms of promoting peace in a war-torn century where war hawks and the drums of war were constantly beating. For instance, the AFSC used convincing and effective rhetoric during the 1950s to advocate for peace at a time when the US was very much on guard against encroaching threats in the form of Communism. The use of language that the AFSC made to achieve its objective of promoting peace in the post-War and Cold War era showed that the organization was aware of the challenges of the era but was dedicated to addressing them head on and was not going to act as though they did not exist—and its 1955 pamphlet Speak Truth to Power shows as much (Mechling & Mechling, 1992). In short, the AFSC was culturally competent and understood how to promote the idea of peace at a time when the American culture was still operating under a war mentality.
Thus what distinguishes this group as a peacemaker is its constancy in terms of commitment to the peace movement and its actions, which were deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. It showed heart, compassion and commitment to the cause at a time when all other nations were doing their best to destroy one another. There are many other ways in which the AFSC showed its worthiness of the Peace Prize as well. For instance, at the start of the U.S. association in the First World War,
The AFSC served the peace movement all throughout the 20th century, beginning with WWI. The activities of the AFSC are mainly a testament to the organization’s commitment to helping the oppressed and the victims of war, whether they are Jew, African, American, Slav or other. The organization has moved on, however, from being a specifically Quaker organization, though it does still profess Quaker values. It is much more pluralistic in terms of who runs it and how it operates. The work of the AFSC shows that for all the struggles it has seen, what with constant war throughout the century, the message of the organization prevails in the example it puts forward through its deeds.
Franklin, S. (2020). American Friends Service Committee. Retrieved from https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1167/american-friends-service-committee
Frost, J. W. (1992). " Our Deeds Carry Our Message": The Early History of the American Friends Service Committee. Quaker History, 81(1), 1-51.
Ingle, H.L., (2016). "Truly Radical, Non-violent, Friendly Approaches": Challenges to the American Friends Service Committee. Quaker History 105(1), 1-21. DOI:10.1353/qkh.2016.0004.
Mechling, E. W., & Mechling, J. (1992). Hot pacifism and cold war: The American friends service committee's witness for peace in 1950s America. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 78(2), 173-196.
The Nobel Prize. (2020). American Friends Service Committee. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1947/friends-committee/facts/
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