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books Staughton Lynd: The Perils of Sainthood

Staughton Lynd seemed like a personal force almost more than a person within the antiwar movement of the 1960s. My Country Is the World largely and usefully recounts the controversies that came with his rise in the peace movement of the middle 1960s

Staughton Lynd was spattered with paint during an antiwar protest in Washington in 1965. He was among the first of about 350 people arrested during the demonstration.,New York Times photo

Anyone who followed the discussions about the burgeoning war protests would place him in the midst of a controversy that transcended the usual lines of the Left or the very structure of how protest had happened since at least the 1930s. A half-generation older than most of the campus antiwar activists of the day, he offered his words and his personal courage as an example to emulate. He also articulated the urgency of peace in ways banned or forgotten during the Cold War era.       


At close range, Lynd reinforced the persona, in the most modest ways imaginable. There was something about the way he spoke and held himself. Staughton actually picked me up at the Army Pre-Induction Center in New Haven, and drove me out to meet and stay on a chicken farm of older generation progressives. He talked with me about the rising draft resistance movement in New England, but also about the exciting but chaotic history of the American Left that he and others had begun to discover. His own heart, historically speaking, was with the Industrial Workers of the World, and with their long-ago invention of the sitdown strike, that magnificent peaceful refusal to go along with what the powerful had in mind. Ordinary people with the requisite courage could make that decision, collectively and effectively.  

My Country is the World: Staughton Lynd’s Writing, Speeches and Statements Against the Vietnam War
Staughton Lynd; Edited by Luke Stewart
Haymarket Books;  386 pages
Paperback:  $29.95;  E-book:  $9.99 (On Sale from publisher - 30% off)
March 7, 2023
ISBN: 9781642598476

Haymarket Books

My Country Is the World largely and usefully recounts the controversies that came with his rise in the peace movement of the middle 1960s and in important ways, actually shaped the strategies of the movement. Editor Luke Stewart has arranged the documentation of controversy and Lynd’s crucial role, creating the text with extensive, helpful introductions to the documents.


Lynd, the young, widely admired history professor at Yale who spent the previous summer as Director of the Mississippi Freedom Schools, was asked in Fall, 1965, to join a handful of prestigious academics, civil rights activists and occasional liberal politicians in debates and discussions about the War.  For Lynd,  this engagement with intellectuals turned swifty into a seemingly endless addresses to growing audiences, on the campuses and off, for what to do about the machinations of the powerful.


Liberation magazine, with an influence far exceeding its modest circulation of 10,000 or so, had a well-established reputation for returning the ideas and strategies of pacifism from political obscurity to wide attention. Young people, in larger numbers, were listening, and not only to pacifists. At a moment viewed as a high point of post-New Deal American, actual opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s gung-ho war policy was considered heretical,  not only because opposition to any war sounded like sympathy for Communism, but  because any criticism of Johnson seemingly threatened liberal momentum at large.

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The rage directed at Lynd escalated when he joined with SDS activist Tom Hayden and Communist functionary Herbert Aptheker in visiting Vietnam in December, 1965, without permission of the US government. Arthur Schlesinger,  Jr., a close advisor in the Kennedy administration, condemned this as a kind of disloyalty, and the prospect of the US actually being compelled to “lose” a war to the other side, as unthinkable. Actual efforts by the Vietnamese to negotiate before the vast escalation of US troop presence had meanwhile been quietly scuttled. US leaders might, and did strategically “pause” the bombings of Vietnamese cities while building up US military occupation of Vietnam, because they believed the other side would weaken into acceptance of a Korean-style solution. This could all be managed—with the carefully-managed support of the US public.


One of the high points of the book include a transcript of Lynd’s television appearance on William Buckley’s “Firing Line” show in May, 1966. There, Lynd brilliantly brushes aside the Cold War cliches shared by liberals and conservative like Buckley: that the Vietnam war was a “conspiracy” rather than recognize that support for Communist movements in the global South had arisen across the world, among millions of ordinary people, to face the criminal practices of colonialism and neocolonialism. Lynd explains the decisions of the Nuremburg Trials of Nazi leaders after the Second World War, and the current-day existential cruelty in the killing fields of Vietnam and the segregationist bastions of the American South. Buckley sputters, then curses: he has never seen a “guest” like this, evidently a dupe or an agent.


Lynd’s leading role in the “Peace Offensive” in 1966, with wonderful speeches and testimony reprinted here, would cost him tenure at Yale, and poison his hopes for a college teaching job anywhere. In a public address at Yale, in January, 1966, he intuited all this: he declined to resign, even in the face of rightwing demonization, knowing that the high-flown academics had already set themselves to get rid of him. By the Fall of that year, Lynd was in the midst of a student movement declaring “We Won’t Go” to the War.  Step by step, argument by argument, Lynd explains the perfect legitimacy, moral and political, of refusing service. 


By the following year, Lynd was among those spearheading “protest to resistance” against the war and the draft.  J. Edgar Hoover assigns dozens of agents to follow Lynd, to make sure he will not be hired for another permanent teaching job, and presumably prepare the way for his arrest and prosecution. History stands in the way. A New York Times columnist notes in 1967 that one of every four male undergraduates will simply but absolutely refuse service, exactly as I did, with Lynd’s advice, only a year earlier.    


Space does not allow the quotation of Lynd’s incredibly articulate and emotive arguments and appeals. But in January, 1968, joining his support to the new movement group Resist, we can hear Lynd’s voice at a press conference. He begins, “There is an old tradition that when a friend is jailed or shot, you go to where it happened and take his place. The Wobblies won their free speech fights by filling the jails until it became more burdensome for the authorities to feed them than to let them talk on street corners…Repression is frightening. Many of us may be in jail soon. Some may be killed. But repression is also an opportunity.” (p.291). He suggests a page or so later that “those old days of singing, and holding hands, and talking about love are [not] out of date,” and that  militancy demands both courage and grace under fire.        


Leading liberals and even liberal-socialists lambasted Lynd because, I think, he infuriated them but also because they literally could not understand him. He came from a different place—but very much the same place as millions of young people. 


[Paul Buhle was declared I-Y by Selective Service in 1966 and went on, a few months later, to found the magazine Radical America.]