The Vietnam War was, and remains, a highly controversial conflict. The struggle of the Vietnamese to win independence from the French ended in 1954 with the partition of the country split between the Western-backed South and the Communist North. From that time the North Vietnamese, led by Ho Chi Minh, attempted to complete the unification of Vietnam but both the South Vietnamese and the Americans who did not want communism to spread throughout Southeast Asia, fiercely resisted this.
The US involvement was initially small but as the 1960s progressed the number of American troops in Vietnam heavily increased until it found itself embroiled in a bloody war. Public opinion, both in the USA and across the world, became increasingly opposed to America’s intervention. Vietnam was the first conflict to be fully televised, with many disgusted citizens witnessing the horrors of the war every night in their living rooms.
Consequently the protest movement against the war was unprecedented in its size and influence. It was particularly vocal in the USA where the draft of young men for military service was deeply unpopular. The movement was also influential across the globe. The protesters objected against the continuing presence of the US in a foreign country, the methods used in fighting the war (including napalm bombings and atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre), conscription and the ensuing high loss of life.
Today the protesters are usually seen as distinctly modern, youthful idealists but there were prominent people in the movement of all ages. One of the most distinguished figures was the British philosopher Bertrand Russell who loudly and continually protested against the war throughout the 1960s, despite the fact that he was in his nineties. Vietnam would have the unintended consequence of bringing together the world’s greatest living philosopher and the biggest rock band in history with profound results.
Bertrand Russell was a polymath and moral titan. Born in 1872 he was a philosopher, mathematician, historian, logician and writer who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature amongst many other honours in an illustrious academic career. He had published his first book as far back as 1896. He was also no stranger to antiwar movements and had been one of the few people to actively engage in pacifist activities during the First World War. Russell was dismissed from Trinity College Cambridge in 1916 for his pacifism and even went to prison for six months in 1918 for lecturing against the USA joining the war on the Allied side.
Despite this notoriety, Russell’s moral conviction won him many admirers and he was quickly reinstated. By the 1960’s he was one of the most respected advocates for international peace. Aged 90 he played a public role during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he sent President Kennedy an open telegram stating:
Your action desperate. Threat to human survival. No conceivable justification. Civilized man condemns it. We will not have mass murder. Ultimatums mean war…. End this madness.
When it came to Vietnam, Russell was highly active. In 1963 he wrote an internationally published letter criticising the USA for, “conducting a war of annihilation in Vietnam”, indicting the American government for the use of napalm. In the same year the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation was established which later convened tribunals in 1967 in Stockholm and Copenhagen with the intention of putting the USA on trial for “war crimes”.
Russell also corresponded with both Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam and General Khanh in Saigon to assess the war situation. He used his correspondence with Ho Chi Minh to facilitate the entrance of CBS broadcasting teams to North Vietnam to document what was happening on the ground. On 1 February 1965 Russell cabled Khanh demanding that the execution of demonstrators by firing squad be stopped.
On 4 July 1966 Russell released his “Appeal to the American Conscience” in both text and broadcast formats. He saw the importance of informing the US public about what was happening in Vietnam as vital to securing peace. His Peace Foundation organised displays of photographs showing pictures of bombed schools, churches, hospitals and casings of pineapple and guava bombs.
He also worked to have representatives of North Vietnam to come to Britain to tell their side of the story. This was extraordinary work for a man of his advanced age and it won him many young admirers, particularly from antiwar groups who would send their literature to him. Eventually his work would come to the attention of one of the icons of sixties youth culture: The Beatles.
Today most people associate the Beatles’ famous antiwar stance with John Lennon. However in 2008 Paul McCartney claimed in an interview that it was he who kick-started the Beatles political development. McCartney often used his fame to meet people he admired. He explained:
Just when we getting to be well known someone said to me: “Bertrand Russell is living not far from here in Chelsea, why don’t you go and see him? I figured him as a good speaker, I’d seen him on television, I’d read various bits and pieces and was very impressed by his dignity and the clarity of his thinking. So when I got a chance I went down and met him.
When the Beatle met the philosopher he wasn’t disappointed:
He was fabulous. He told me about the Vietnam War-most of us didn’t know about it-and also that it was a very bad war.
McCartney apparently left the meeting brimming with idealism and went to tell the other Beatles:
I remember going to back to the studio either that evening or the next day and telling the guys, particularly John, about this meeting and saying what a bad war this was”
John would later lead peace protests, but at the time we didn’t really know too much about it, so I credit Bertrand Russell.
McCartney’s revelation surprised many in 2008, as he had never previously been seen as very political. It is uncertain exactly when McCartney met Russell and John Lennon never stated that he had been politicised by McCartney. At the peak of Lennon’s 1970s peace protests, the Beatles had acrimoniously broken up and Lennon was often actively critical of McCartney so it is unlikely he would have given him credit as a political influence.
Nonetheless, from the mid 1960s the Beatles song lyrics became increasingly opinionated with an optimism that was quite Russell-esque. For example Russell once said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge” which is not far removed from, “Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time. It’s easy. All you need is love. Love is all you need” from the Beatles first “message” song “All You Need Is Love”.
Similarly when Russell spoke of war he said, “Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons” and “War does not determine who is right-only who is left.”
His words were similarly advocated in the Beatles most famous antiwar song “Revolution” where the lyrics declared, “You say you want a revolution. Well, we all want to change the world. But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out” Even more pertinently near the end of the song the patriotic cult of personality is slammed with the lines, “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow”.
This might be mere coincidence but most of the Beatles songs were credited as written by “Lennon-McCartney” and although the songwriters often wrote separately their relationship was exceptionally close and they fed off each other in musical competitiveness. It is highly probable that Lennon took to heart much of what McCartney told him about the antiwar movement and flew with it.
Bertrand Russell died in 1970 aged 97, still protesting against the Vietnam War. That same year the Beatles broke up and John Lennon had an immediate stream of solo hit protest songs including, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over).”
In 1971 he had his biggest hit with the ultimate peace song, “Imagine” which included the famous lyrics, “Imagine all the people, living life in peace…You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”
They are sentiments that Bertrand Russell inadvertently influenced and would have heartily approved of.