In a tweet, the official Ben & Jerry’s account called on US president Joe Biden to “de-escalate tensions and work for peace rather than prepare for war.” You cannot, the account insisted, “simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.”
Biden, for his part, met with German chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House on Feb. 7, reportedly telling him the US and Germany are “in lockstep” over Ukraine. And Anthony Blinken, US secretary of state, said there would be “real and profound consequences should Russia choose to continue aggression.”
It was not the message Ben & Jerry’s was hoping for.
The tweet was completely in character for the company. Though Ben & Jerry’has been owned for more than 20 years by Unilever, it was started by two Vermont ice cream makers who were unafraid to be activists. In fact, the Ben & Jerry’s brand has a steady record of advocating that the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) reduce their presence in Europe.
In 1998, when NATO was expanding into Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, Ben & Jerry’s thought it was “crazy.” In an interview with the New York Times, Ben Cohen—one of the brand’s titular founders—tried to find an ice cream industry analogy for NATO pushing toward Russia’s borders:
“Our biggest competitor is Haagen-Dazs. So it would be as if one day Haagen-Dazs announced that after all these years of competing with us, it had decided to go out of the ice cream business and instead would sell only hot dogs. And then one day Haagen-Dazs Hot Dogs comes to Ben & Jerry’s and says, ‘We would like to be partners with you and sell your ice cream in our hot dog shops.’ But we said to them: ‘No, we won’t let you sell our ice cream. We still want to drive Haagen-Dazs out of business, even though you’re not in the ice cream business anymore, because we remember you were once in the ice cream business. And furthermore, we’re going to spend $2 billion to kill your hot dog business to make sure you’ll never sell ice cream again.'”
A nonprofit called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, founded by Cohen, took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times that same year, accusing US defense contractors of lobbying hard for a NATO expansion that was really a “$60 billion boondoggle.” Other ads revealed the ice cream company’s (unintentionally ironic) worry that alienating Russia would start a new Cold War.
Ben & Jerry’s stance against military aggression of any kind first became visible in 1988, when Cohen founded 1% For Peace, a campaign that aimed to divert 1% of the US defense budget into “peace-promoting activities and projects.”
The company built a reputation for other kinds of activism as well, including championing same-sex marriage, pulling out of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and calling for the resignation and impeachment of Donald Trump after the Capitol riot in January 2021.