Records of National Council for Prevention of War, DG 023, Series M: Reference Files, Swarthmore College Peace Collection

Records, 1921-1975
©Swarthmore College Peace Collection
500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, PA 19050


Historical Introduction

[originally written by Gladys K.G. Mackenzie and edited by Mary Mangelsdorf and Jean Soderlund; updated by Anne Yoder in Sept. 2005]
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In Sept. 1921, representatives of seventeen national organizations met in Washington, D.C. to organize the National Council for Limitation of Armaments. Their purpose was to promote the soon to be held Washington Conference on Limitation of Armaments, and to make an effort to curb the race to build ships for the U.S. Navy. The Council had no individual memberships but was a clearinghouse for national peace organizations, and a way of helping them to work together. The Council aimed for the substitution of law for war as a method of settling international differences. Through its member organizations the Council represented the overwhelming sentiment of the people of the United States in favor of reducing armaments.

In Oct. 1921, Frederick J. Libby (FJL) was appointed Executive Secretary of this newly formed organization. Libby was born in Maine, the son of a country doctor. He graduated from Bowdoin College at age twenty and taught school for a few years before furthering his studies at the universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, Marburg and Oxford. Libby went on to earn his B.D. at Andover Theological Seminary. He then served seven years as a Congregational minister in Magnolia, MA and seven more as a teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy. During World War I, Libby, already a convinced pacifist, traveled overseas for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) as a relief and reconstruction worker. He later became the American Commissioner for the AFSC in Europe. Libby's experience with the aftermath of war convinced him to became a Quaker in 1921, and he spent the rest of his life trying to prevent wars.

With a staff of two, Frederick Libby set up an office for the National Council for Limitation of Armaments in the parlor of the Eye Street Friends Meeting House, in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1921. A few weeks later the office was moved to a large historic house at 532 17th Street, N.W. When the Washington Conference convened that Nov., Libby and his staff arranged International Forums, at which eminent persons attending the Washington Conference were invited to speak. In Jan. 1922, the name of the organization was changed to the National Council for the Reduction of Armaments. The following Fall, when it was decided that the organization would operate permanently, the name National Council for Prevention of War (NCPW) was chosen. In 1931, the NCPW incorporated under the laws of the District of Columbia. From limitation of armaments, its purpose crystallized into a three-fold program: progressive world organization; worldwide reduction of armaments by international agreement; and, worldwide education for peace.

Under Libby's direction, the NCPW extended its scope and influence into every state in the U.S., and was a center for the distribution of peace information to the thirty-two national organizations affiliated with it. Branch offices were established in San Francisco, CA, Louisville, KY, Portland, OR, Springfield, MA, and Des Moines, IA. The Washington, D.C. office grew rapidly as new departments were added: Education and a Speakers Bureau in 1921; Legislative in 1922; National Student Forums in 1925; a Farm Department in 1929; Youth Movement for World Recovery in 1930; and Labor, Press, and Moving Picture Departments in 1934-1935. Herbert Wilton Stanley wrote in the American Mercury in 1936: "It is no exaggeration to describe the Council as the most effective peace agency in America today." This was the NCPW's peak year with sixty-one full-time workers; Peace Action, the NCPW's major periodical, had a circulation of 25,000; there were nearly 2,500 speeches delivered; and, over one-and-one-half million pieces of peace literature of all sorts were distributed.

Beginning in Dec. 1921, when the call went out "to make this a great peace Christmas," campaign followed campaign. NCPW first tried to obtain ratification of the treaties resulting from the Washington Conference on Limitation of Armaments. The organization next tackled the "No More War" campaign of 1922; "Law - Not War" Days in 1923-1925; and "America First," in 1924. The successful "To Chicago" Plan, organized by Jeannette Rankin, the NCPW's first lobbyist, and Florence Boeckel, its Education Director, took carloads of peace workers from all over the country to both Republican and Democratic national party conventions. The NCPW played an important part in preventing war with Mexico in 1927. It urged the ratification of the Kellogg-Briand Pact and membership for the United States in the League of Nations and the World Court, lobbied against the "Big Navy" and in favor of disarmament proposals, and aided the investigation of munitions manufacturers in 1934-1935.

As World War II approached, the NCPW supported neutrality legislation, a war referendum, and the Keep America Out of War campaign. During the war years, and directly afterwards, although working with a greatly reduced staff and funds, the NCPW was active in favor of aid to displaced persons, for sanity and justice in the War Crimes Trials, and in opposition to the dismantling of German peacetime industry and the confiscation of German and Japanese private property in the U.S. In all of these campaigns, the NCPW cooperated with other organizations in the peace movement, such as the Committee on Militarism in Education, Foreign Policy Association, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Fellowship of Reconciliation, National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War, National Peace Conference, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Emergency Peace Campaign, League of Nations Association, and the National Council Against Conscription, to list only the national groups. State and local peace councils and peace action committees were of great assistance to all the national organizations during the 1920s-1930s, distributing literature, setting up local conferences, arranging speaking engagements, and cooperating in political campaigns.

As head of the NCPW, Frederick Libby continually traveled all over the United States. As he was a deft organizer and a convincing speaker, he had invitations from groups of all kinds both in the U.S. and in Europe. Libby remarked many times that he felt that the NCPW was a middle-of-the-road organization "for that is what the people are." As time went on, Libby became the NCPW in the minds of many Americans. During the period of the NCPW's active life, he raised over two million dollars and had the reputation of being the best fundraiser in the peace movement. The story of the NCPW's strongest period is told in the book To End War, which Libby wrote during his last years. The book was published by Fellowship Publications in 1969, six months before Libby died at age ninety-five. He was survived by his widow, Faith Ward Libby, who remained an active supporter of the NCPW and the peace movement. The NCPW kept its corporate existence until 1971, though it had ceased its programmatic activities when Frederick Libby retired in 1954.


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