BOOK REVIEW: ‘Working for Peace and Justice’: Lawrence Wittner, Distinguished Scholar on Nuclear Disarmament, Social Justice Recounts His Battles in Academia, Progressive Groups

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Working for Peace and Justice': Lawrence Wittner, Distinguished Scholar on Nuclear Disarmament, Social Justice Recounts His Battles in Academia, Progressive Groups

Lawrence S. Wittner is the author of scholarly works on the peace movement and nuclear disarmament but, as he recounts in his memoir “Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual” (University of Tennessee Press, 288 pages, $29.95) he was denied tenure at Vassar University in the 1960s because of his activism. There could have been other reasons, including anti-Semitism toward a secular Jew from Brooklyn at a school that educated a goodly portion of the nation’s WASP American princesses.

In a lively departure from his scholarly works, Wittner tells the story of a man who combined teaching and activism — an often toxic combination in the eyes of university administrators. I first became aware of Wittner when my friend and fellow Midwesterner Tom Hastings of the PeaceVoice program at Portland State University, Portland, OR, sent me commentaries by Wittner. I was delighted to edit these op-eds and see them through publication in www.huntingtonnews.net. While I don’t always agree with Wittner’s views — I don’t think it’s the job of an editor to always agree with contributors — I sensed that his contributions enriched our news magazine site.

A middle class kid from Brooklyn and later Long Island, Wittner rejected his mother’s advice to attend nearby Brooklyn College. Instead, he opted for the prestigious Ivy League Columbia College in Manhattan, the alma mater (when it was called Kings College) of Alexander Hamilton, where he switched his major from English to history. Despite a lifelong stammering problem, he blossomed at Columbia, making friends that lasted a lifetime and learning that he was destined for a life in academia.

Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence S. Wittner

After graduating from Columbia, he earned his master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which brought him into contact with an even wider variety of peope, and Columbia University, where he received his Ph.D. in History. His first academic post was in Hampton, VA, where he taught at the historically black Hampton Institute, which broadened his education even more and reinforced his views on civil rights. The Vassar College appointment pleased his first wife, Patty, who was an upwardly mobile Jew from Baltimore. Despite being one of the most published teachers at Vassar and possessing a doctorate from Columbia, he was denied tenure. He and his wife moved to Europe, traveling and broadening their horizons even more. This was followed by teaching under the Fulbright program at Japanese universities, and searching for an academic position. In 1974, he began teaching at the State University of New York/Albany (SUNY-Albany), where he rose to the rank of Professor of History before his retirement in 2010.

Reading this memoir I marveled at his energy and diverse participation in progressive causes. He was also a member of a folk-singing group called the Solidarity Singers, on vocals and banjo, and traveled around the country with his Columbia buddy, Mike Weinberg, whom he met in 1958 as a freshman at Columbia. The Adventures of Larry and Mike provide some of the most delightful reading in this very readable book. Regardless of your political views, a thorough reading of Wittner’s memoir will give you a first-hand look at academic life and progressive activism of the 1960s — and continuing to the present day. 

 

Wittner is the author or editor of a dozen books and the writer of more than 250 published articles and book reviews, mostly on issues of peace, war, and international relations. He is also a former editor of Peace & Change, a journal of peace research. His scholarship was honored with prizes from the Peace History Society and from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. In addition, he has received the New York State/United University Professions Excellence Award for scholarship, teaching, and service and the Peace History Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Wittner has given lectures in seventeen nations, including talks at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, at the United Nations, and on dozens of college and university campuses. In addition, he is interviewed occasionally on radio and television programs. He also has written numerous Op-Ed pieces that have appeared in newspapers and online publications, including www.huntingtonnews.net. Wittner was an early civil rights and anti-apartheid activist and has served for decades as an elected leader of United University Professions (the SUNY faculty-professional staff union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers). Numerous organizations have presented awards to him for his activism. Currently, he is a national board member of Peace Action and the executive secretary of the Albany County Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

About the author

Lawrence S. Wittner, born in 1941, is an award-winning American historian, writer, and activist for peace and social justice.
He attended Columbia College, earning his B.A. in 1962; , the University of Wisconsin; and Columbia University, where he received his Ph.D. in History. He is the author or editor of a dozen books and the writer of over 250 published articles and book reviews, mostly on issues of peace, war, and international relations. He is also a former editor of Peace & Change, a journal of peace research. His scholarship was honored with prizes from the Peace History Society and from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. In addition, he has received the New York State/United University Professions Excellence Award for scholarship, teaching, and service and the Peace History Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

A sought-after speaker, Wittner has given lectures in seventeen nations, including talks at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, at the United Nations, and on dozens of college and university campuses. In addition, he is interviewed occasionally on radio and television programs. He also has written numerous Op-Ed pieces that have appeared in newspapers and on-line publications.

wittner’s web site: http://www.lawrenceswittner.com/

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