Confronting the Grim Truths of War

By all rights, I should have grown up well versed in the work of seminal anti-war activist Staughton Lynd. At my Quaker high school in the East in 1969, the awareness that the war in Vietnam was a moral calamity was unremarkable. That autumn, my mother and I drove down to Washington, D.C., for the October 15 moratorium to protest the war. A decade and a half later, I began reporting on what has been my primary interest as a journalist ever since: work and the labor movement.

At any of these points, I easily might have found myself encountering the writing of Staughton Lynd, one of the foremost thinkers of the 1960s anti-war movement, whose journey—thanks in part to a promising academic career being cut off after just a year at Yale University—took him from the practice of history and public advocacy against racism, war, and most U.S. foreign policy to local advocacy for workers as a practicing labor lawyer.

More’s the pity that it hasn’t happened until now—especially as I read My Country Is the World, a collection of Lynd’s writing and speeches in opposition to the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968, edited by Luke Stewart.

A Harvard-educated historian, Lynd, who died at ninety-two in November 2022, also was a theorist of American radicalism who “distilled the various traditions of peace activism and nonviolence in U.S. history,” from the early Quakers through the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement, Stewart writes. Lynd remained firmly committed to participatory democracy and nonviolence even as both lost favor with the New Left of the late 1960s.

Like many, Lynd came to the anti-war movement through the civil rights struggle. A professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Lynd coordinated the Freedom Schools program that was part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration campaign. Three days after the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—were recovered in 1964, Freedom Summer director Bob Moses presided over an informal memorial service and brought up the newly enacted Tonkin Gulf Resolution and a news headline that began, “LBJ Says Shoot to Kill.” Moses said: “This is what we’re trying to do away with—the idea that whoever disagrees with us must be killed.”

In the years that followed, Lynd became an outspoken leader of the anti-war movement, writing, giving speeches, and confronting the administration of Yale University, where he began a tenure-track position that fall. His wife, Alice, became a draft counselor, publishing a book of the personal accounts of some of those who refused induction in 1968.

It was not just Lynd’s opposition to the war, but also his advocacy of war tax resistance, his support for active duty soldiers who refused orders to deploy to Vietnam, and most significantly, his decision to travel to North Vietnam with Tom Hayden in 1966, that cost him tenure and eventually his post at Yale. It also earned him a de facto blacklisting from academia.

Lynd was more than just a spokesperson, Stewart writes,“not content with observing and documenting what he viewed as an illegal, immoral, and unjust war in Vietnam; he was one of the leading proponents and practitioners of nonviolent revolution and war resistance in the United States.”

Lynd took seriously his sense of self as a citizen of the world, yet he also retained a distinctively American identity, celebrating a connection with perhaps the most iconoclastic of the nation’s first generation, Tom Paine: “Alone among the Founding Fathers, he consistently opposed enslavement of African Americans,” Lynd wrote in the foreword to this collection. “When he was made an honorary member of the revolutionary legislature in France, he spoke out against executing the king and as a result was almost executed himself.”

The three years during which these writings were produced was a period when the American descent into Vietnam was deepening and the prospect of an end looked far away indeed. It was a grim time, and Lynd was among the foremost advocates who confronted the nation with grim truths, whether the nation was listening or not.

Yet his mastery of the withering summation cannot help but kindle a certain kind of joy.

In a 1965 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, Lynd responded to a political science professor who defended U.S. policy in Vietnam but backed out of taking part in the teach-in there. The professor had labeled the event “unbalanced.”

“Look at the American Secretaries of State in the twentieth century and I think you will find that almost without exception they were former corporation lawyers,” Lynd said. “They were what the president of Yale calls ‘public entrepreneurs,’ that is corporation lawyers who spend part of their time in Wall Street defending the interests of their private clients, and part of the time in Washington defending the general interests of their class. I think you need to say to your teachers, as I need to say to my colleagues, that annihilation in a Brooks Brothers suit is still murder.”

The Vietnam War left its indelible stamp on Lynd’s life, and he, in turn, left his equally indelible stamp on the anti-war movement that grew out of that war. Those were all more than a half-century in the past, yet they are no less immediate, and for that reason alone, his writings then are as poignant and pointed for the times today.

In the foreword, Lynd looks back on another war from which the United States made its belated exit in August 2021: “Meantime, disintegration of the American presence in Afghanistan proceeded in a manner uncannily similar to the end of United States authority in Vietnam,” he writes. “As Pete Seeger asked in song, ‘When will they ever learn?’ ”