In 1983, Barack Obama was a senior at Columbia University. He was not well known. He lived off-campus, had a few close friends, and spent a lot of time reading. He went to some meetings of the Black Students Association, but no one remembers seeing him there. He majored in political science, with a concentration in international relations, and classmates and professors say he was an attentive and intelligent student.
But he was not an active participant in student life. He was not a student radical. He did not go on a hunger strike. He did not storm any administration buildings. One friend, in an interview with biographer David Maraniss, likened Obama to the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer: a passive observer.
As graduation approached, Obama took up his pen. Looking for work as a community organizer, he needed something to add to his thin résumé. He was interested in the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, which he was studying in a senior seminar on American diplomacy. “The class analyzed decision-making and the perils of ‘groupthink,’ the ways that disastrous policies, like the escalation of the Vietnam War, develop,” writes biographer David Remnick.
The seminar had just eight students. In class, Obama had a tendency to relate U.S. foreign policy to his upbringing. “He talked about his father being from Kenya so much,” Maraniss writes, “that at least one student assumed Obama himself was from Kenya.” Obama’s final paper for the seminar was on nuclear disarmament. He got an A.
In March 1983, Obama published an article in a student magazine called the Sundial. His piece, titled “Breaking the War Mentality,” drew on the themes of the senior seminar. “Most students at Columbia do not have firsthand knowledge of war,” Obama writes. Though “the most sensitive among us struggle to extrapolate experiences of war from our everyday experience,” it is impossible to know the true costs of war from afar. “Bringing such experiences down into our hearts, and taking continual, tangible steps to prevent war, becomes a difficult task.”
But the task is not impossible. There are goodhearted men and women, Obama writes, volunteers who, despite not knowing what war is really like, “foster awareness and practical action necessary to counter the growing threat of war.” Far-left student groups such as Arms Race Alternatives (ARA) and Students Against Militarism (SAM), Obama says, “are throwing their weight into shifting America off the dead-end track.”
Obama’s sympathies are clear. “The article,” Remnick says, “makes plain Obama’s revulsion at what he saw as Cold War militarism and his positive feelings about the nuclear-freeze movement.” Obama quotes reggae singer and activist Peter Tosh. He recounts a visit to a meeting of Students Against Militarism. “With its solid turnout and enthusiasm,” he writes, “one might be persuaded that the manifestations of our better instincts can at least match the bad ones.”
Obama’s criticism of the antinuke activists is that their focus is too narrow. They aren’t radical enough. “One is forced to wonder whether disarmament or arms control issues, severed from economic and political issues, might be another instance of focusing on the symptoms of a problem instead of the disease itself,” he writes. What “the disease” is, Obama does not say.
In the end, though, Obama says the peace activists have noble motives and worthy aims. “What the members of the ARA and SAM try to do,” he concludes, “is infuse what they have learned about the current situation, bring the words of that formidable roster on the face of Butler Library, names like Thoreau, Jefferson, and Whitman, to bear on the twisted logic of which we are today a part.”
The essay not only reveals Obama’s position on nuclear disarmament. It also offers a glimpse of the milieu in which a president came of age. Most of us form our political identities in young adulthood. Our attitudes, judgments, and preferences are shaped by political circumstances when we are 18 to 25 years old. Obama is no exception. As he reached maturity, the Cold War approached its climax. The most divisive issue in American politics was Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The belief that Reagan was a warmonger was deeply held by many people on the left. Obama was one of them.