After the Tribunal

Russell's Writing on Vietnam, My Lai and War Crimes edited by Ken Coates

Heartened by the Tribunal, a group of American deserters in Stockholm wrote to Bertrand Russell in early 1968, asking for his support. This was the message he sent them (20 May 1968):

Deserters from the armed forces of the United States of America deserve the heartfelt and practical support of everyone who is appalled by the cruelty of the war in Vietnam. I hope that the Deserters' Committee in Sweden will continue to be augmented by ex-servicemen who courageously refuse to have anything further to do with this ugly aggression. All of us in Western Europe who oppose American war aims have a duty to support those who are helping to bring this barbarism to an end. I send my warmest good wishes for the growth of the Committee.

During the whole of the year after the conclusion of the second session of the Tribunal, Russell tried to draw the attention of the European left to the need to campaign for a break with the North Atlantic Treaty, as a practical measure to express the growing revulsion against American policy. He appealed to the German Socialist Students, the Vietnam Protest Rally, and the CND Easter march in very similar terms. This is the text of his appeal to CND (10 April 1968):

When we in the West talk about the danger of the war in Vietnam becoming a wider conflagration, too often what we mean is that it may come to threaten us personally. For the Vietnamese, however, this has been total war for years, and it is for them that our immediate efforts should be directed. It is ludicrous to suggest that in this David-and-Goliath contest we should fail to distinguish between the imperial power and its victim. If we ignore the essential justice of the third world's rejection of imperialism, we shall never be able to propose or {379} support a just peace. Unless the Vietnamese are granted the justice so long denied to them, this brutal war will continue or recommence at an early stage.
     The most useful contribution that we could make to educating world opinion about the evil of America's military adventures would be to promote a serious campaign to force our own leaders to abandon their alliances with the USA. Bodies such as NATO serve only to associate us with injustice.

The beginning of the Paris talks produced this response from Russell, in his message to an international conference on Vietnam, held in Sweden late in 1968:

The war in Vietnam has now reached a crucial stage which it is important for the anti-war movement throughout the world to recognize and interpret with understanding. The rulers of the United States of America have at last recognized that, despite all their technological superiority, they cannot defeat the Vietnamese people and they have utterly failed to buy the allegiance of any substantial section of the people in South Vietnam. As is usual in such colonial wars, the United States is now trying to find some political and diplomatic means to achieve what it has failed to win on the battlefield. Within this strategy, we may expect to see in the coming months the representatives of the National Liberation Front and of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam subjected to the most extraordinary pressures to abandon those demands which are legitimately theirs, the failure to satisfy which will inevitably involve years of protracted warfare.
     All those, therefore, who recognize the justice of the Vietnamese demands for an ending to the fiendish war crimes committed against them in the course of counter-revolution must now re-double their efforts to require the expulsion of every single foreign soldier and military base from Vietnam. If we devote ourselves in 1969 to such work, we shall be making a small contribution to the struggle which the people of Vietnam have fought and endured for so many years with such heroism. Surely this is the least that we can do.
Immediately after the news of the My Lai massacre broke into the headlines in the United States and Great Britain, Mr George Brown gave an interview, on the BBC's The World at One, in which, as a former Foreign Secretary, he defended the Americans and urged them to `finish the job' in Vietnam.
     Bertrand Russell wrote the following article in reply. It was {380} featured as a front page story in Tribune on 28 November 1969:
Perhaps Mr George Brown should be given the benefit of the doubt, and we should treat seriously his outburst on Vietnam last week on the BBC. I know that many Labour Party members share the view of Mr William Hamilton, the Party Vice-Chairman, that Mr Brown's utterances are no longer paid any attention, but so long as he is Deputy Leader of the Party his enthusiasm for the American cause in Vietnam cannot be ignored so easily.
     Mr Brown revealed all too clearly his attitude to the war:
     1. The United States should continue its war effort and finish the job. (With Goldwater, Mr Brown asks: `Why not victory?') Any interruption of this task is described as American `weeping' and must be stopped.
     2. A US defeat in Vietnam would be a threat to freedom'. Mr Brown wants a `free South Vietnam; free, I mean, to choose its own decisions'. How grotesque! The Saigon generals, ruling over a sea of napalm with CIA cash and dreading the day the people will be permitted `to choose its own decisions', are the guardians of Mr Brown's freedom.
     3. The Labour Party should devote itself to contemplating the threat to freedom instead of `just looking for the atrocities that may be committed by the Americans'.
     4. We should `think about the atrocities that are committed by the other side and the terrible damage to freedom if the other side were to win'. (What does he think Fleet Street has been doing all these years?)
     5. Any American atrocities which may have been committed are justified by atrocities similarly committed in the past by other colonial powers such as Britain.
     Mr Brown's outburst comes at a particularly unfortunate time. Just as the American public serves notice on President Nixon that his period of grace is over, Mr Brown identifies himself with the discredited far Right of the Republican Party.
     But the most dangerous aspect of Mr Brown's utterances is that they bore every sign of reflecting faithfully deeply ingrained ways of thought: America equals freedom. Nobody hearing him for the first time would guess that he is a prominent spokesman for a political party with a long anti-imperial tradition. According to him, the atrocities committed by Britain in India, Kenya and Malaya are all the justification America needs today. It is not only Keir Hardie and George Lansbury who must turn in their graves. Until very recently such statements would have been intolerable to the Labour movement. {381} Today, after years of slaughter of the Vietnamese and five years of a Labour Government which has always taken pains to face several ways at once, our moral sense is so blunted that we are tempted to regard this as merely a George Brown extravaganza. A long tradition of instinctive sympathy with oppressed peasants has been virtually wiped out by the present government with its servility to bankers and Washington, its sale of weapons to barbarous regimes, its `responsible' anti-communism and its NATO-dominated view of Britain's place in the world.
     Inadvertently, Mr Brown poses the crucial question for every British socialist in 1970: how in an election year can socialism be made the relevant issue when the most powerful figures in the Labour Party and Government are determined to repudiate and ridicule it? This is the discussion I should like to see preoccupy the Left, in the hope that we shall build something worthy of the founders of the movement. We can be confident that we shall not build much with the bricks dropped by Mr Brown.
The American radical movement was keenly interested in Russell's views on the My Lai massacre. This is an article he wrote for Ramparts magazine, in December 1969:
Violence is not new to America. White men of European stock seized the lands of indigenous Indians with a ferocity which endured until our own times. The institution of slavery shaped the character of the nation and leaves its mark everywhere today. Countless `local' wars were mounted throughout the twentieth century to protect commercial interests abroad. Finally, the United States emerged at Hiroshima as the arbiter of world affairs and self-appointed policeman of the globe.
     What is new in 1969 is that for the first time many affluent Americans are learning a very little of this disconcerting picture.
     The revelations of atrocities by US servicemen in Vietnam illustrate not isolated acts inadvertently committed by disciplined troops, but the general pattern of the war, for its character is genocidal. It has been fought from the air with napalm and fragmentation bombs, helicopter gunships and pellet bombs, the spraying of poisons on thousands of acres of crops and the use of enormous high-explosive weapons. Civilian areas have been declared `free fire zones' and the policy has been one of mechanical slaughter. On the ground, `search and destroy' missions have used gas in lethal quantities, the killing of prisoners and systematic interrogation under electrical and other tortures.
     Senator Kennedy has released figures given to him as chairman of {382} the Senate Refugees Subcommittee. He says that there have been one million civilian casualties in South Vietnam alone since 1965, of which 300,000 have been killed. In the London Times of 3 December its Washington correspondent, Louis Heren, compares such slaughter to the Nazi record in Eastern Europe: `These are terrible figures, proportionally perhaps comparable to the losses suffered by the Soviet Union in the Second World War.' Two days earlier, the same newspaper's correspondent in Saigon, Fred Emery, reported: `What begins as a "firefight" in a hamlet continues compulsively long after opposing fire has been suppressed. With such appalling fire discipline among all units in Vietnam, it is only exhaustion of ammunition that brings engagements to an end.'
     This is precisely the picture which emerged from the sessions of the International War Crimes Tribunal in Scandinavia in 1967. The Tribunal heard from former US servicemen of the dropping of Vietnamese prisoners from helicopters, the killing of prisoners under torture and the shooting on orders of those trying to be accepted as prisoners. All this and much more was known years ago to anyone concerned to learn the truth. It was certainly known to tens of thousands of troops in Vietnam. The London Times's Saigon correspondent, describing the reactions to the recent revelations of Americans in Vietnam, commented: `There is a strong undercurrent of knowledge and fear that "there, but for the grace of God, go I".'
     This is why the prosecution of isolated junior officers is quite inadequate. They are to be made scapegoats. The more wicked war criminals are the highest ranking military and civilian leaders, the architects of the whole genocidal policy. Have we so soon forgotten the regular White House breakfasts at which, Johnson boasted openly, he and McNamara and their closest colleagues selected the targets for the coming week?
     This in turn is why it is ludicrous to suggest that an inquiry should be mounted by anyone associated with the Government or Armed Forces. The whole establishment stands condemned, including those more moderate politicians whose every utterances are still dictated by caution and petty ambition. Goldberg's call for a commission of `concerned patriotic Americans' would be a sublime irrelevance were it not the very means whereby the full horror would be hidden. Only a Pentagon inquiry could do worse. Because I doubt whether any inquiry in the United States would be free from the most severe harassment, I have invited some fifteen heads of state around the world to press the UN Secretary General to establish an inquiry into war crimes in Vietnam.
     Several American newspapers have observed that reaction to the {383} massacre revelations has been much more rapid and sharp in Western Europe than in the United States. This is highly alarming. The entire American people are now on trial. If there is not a massive moral revulsion at what is being done in their names to the people of Vietnam, there may be little hope for the future of America. Having lost the will to continue the slaughter is not enough; the people of Am erica must now repudiate their civil and military leaders.
Russell's last message to his old friend U Thant was the following open letter, which was also referred to numerous heads of state in neutral nations. Replies were still coming in to his home in Merionethshire at the time he died:

Dear U Thant,
I am sending you this open letter at a time when the peoples of the western world are learning at last something of the barbarous character of the war against the people of Vietnam. Former members of the US forces in Vietnam are coming forward daily with new evidence of torture and genocide. It is clear that we have heard only the beginning of these reports. When they were investigated by the International War Crimes Tribunal in 1967, they were greeted with considerable ridicule or indifference, but the record of the Tribunal's proceedings is today vindicated. Now the magnitude of the horror is unfolding, and a new duty presents itself.
     It has been reported widely that the Pentagon is considering the establishment, with the support of the White House, of its own War Crimes Commission. The result of this would be a foregone conclusion. Scapegoats would be found whilst the greatest culprits, the architects of the policy, and the true scale of the crimes would be ignored. A narrow definition of war crimes would be adopted which overlooked the indiscriminate use of napalm and fragmentation bombs.
     I am asking you, therefore, to use the full authority of your high office to propose the creation of an International War Crimes Commission to hear all the relevant evidence and to pronounce solemnly upon it. It is within your power to help stamp out war crimes, and I earnestly beg you to seize this opportunity on behalf of all mankind.
Yours very sincerely,

Bertrand Russell {384}

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