Obituary: Garry Davis / 'World citizen' sought peace without borders

July 27, 1921 - July 24, 2013

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On May 25, 1948, a former U.S. Army flier entered the U.S. Embassy in Paris, renounced his American citizenship and, as astonished officials looked on, declared himself a citizen of the world.

In the decades that followed, until the end of his long life last week, he remained by choice a stateless man -- entering, leaving, being regularly expelled from and frequently arrested in a spate of countries, carrying a passport of his own devising, as the international news media chronicled his every move.

His rationale was simple, his aim immense: If there were no nation-states, he believed, there would be no wars.

Garry Davis, a longtime peace advocate, former Broadway song-and-dance man and self-declared World Citizen No. 1, who is widely regarded as the dean of the One World movement, a quest to erase national boundaries that today has nearly 1 million adherents worldwide, died Wednesday in Williston, Vt. He was 91, and though in recent years he had largely ceased his wanderings and settled in South Burlington, Vt., he continued to occupy the singular limbo between citizen and alien that he had cheerfully inhabited for 65 years.

"I am not a man without a country," Mr. Davis told Newsweek in 1978, "merely a man without nationality."

Mr. Davis, who studied theater at what is now Carnegie Mellon University, was not the first person to declare himself a world citizen, but he was inarguably the most visible, most vocal and most indefatigable.

Sixty years ago he established the World Government of World Citizens, a self-proclaimed international governmental body that has issued documents -- passports, identity cards, birth and marriage certificates -- and occasional postage stamps and currency.

He periodically ran for president of the world, always unopposed.

To date, more than 2.5 million World Government documents have been issued, according to the World Service Authority, the group's administrative arm.

Whether Mr. Davis was a visionary utopian or a quixotic naif was long debated by press and public. His supporters argued that the documents he issued had genuine value for refugees and other stateless people.

His detractors countered that by issuing them -- and charging a fee -- Mr. Davis was selling false hope to people who spent what little they had on papers that are legally recognized almost nowhere in the world.

What is beyond dispute is that Mr. Davis' long insistence on the inalienable right of anyone to travel anywhere prefigures the present-day immigration debate by decades. It likewise anticipates the current stateless conditions of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

Mr. Davis, who spoke about the One World movement on college campuses and wrote books on the subject, seemed impervious to his critics. In a voice trained to be heard in the last balcony (he was once a Broadway understudy to Danny Kaye), he would segue with obvious relish into a series of minutely reasoned arguments concerning the need for a world without nationalism.

The quest for a unified earth was an objective on which Mr. Davis had trained his sights very early. It was born of his discomfort with a childhood of great privilege, his grief at the loss of a brother in World War II and his horror at his own wartime experience as a bomber pilot.

Sol Gareth Davis was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, on July 27, 1921, and reared in Philadelphia, a son of Meyer Davis and the former Hilda Emery.

Meyer Davis was a renowned society orchestra leader.

After studying theater at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Garry Davis made his Broadway debut in October 1941 in a small role in "Let's Face It!," the musical comedy. He was also the understudy for its star, Kaye.

In November 1948, six months after renouncing his citizenship in Paris, Mr. Davis stormed a session of the U.N. General Assembly there.

"We, the people, want the peace which only a world government can give," he proclaimed. "The sovereign states you represent divide us and lead us to the abyss of total war."

His act, reported worldwide, earned the support of the intelligentsia, including Albert Camus, and of the French public, so recently racked by war.

In 1949, Davis founded the International Registry of World Citizens and was soon inundated with requests to join from around the globe.

In 1953, he founded the World Government of World Citizens.

More than half a million world passports have been issued, though there are no statistics on the number of people who have successfully crossed borders with them. A half-dozen countries -- Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Mauritania, Tanzania, Togo, Zambia -- have formally recognized the passport. More than 150 others have honored it on occasion, according to the service authority.

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