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‘A patriotic act’ What Russia’s anti-war activists can learn from Americans who resisted the Vietnam War

Source: Meduza

David Cortright is an American anti-war activist who spoke out against the Vietnam War while serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army from 1968–1971. After the war came to an end, Cortright researched peacekeeping processes, advised the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and wrote several research papers on the use of multilateral sanctions. Meduza spoke to Cortright about how America’s anti-war movement developed throughout the course of the Vietnam War and what Russian anti-war activists can learn from their American counterparts.

David Cortright

David Cortright was conscripted into the U.S. Army in 1968 — at the height of the Vietnam War. He volunteered for stateside duty, which allowed him to avoid fighting in Vietnam. Once he started to learn about the horrors of the war and the history of the conflict, he began speaking out against it, along with many others who had been drafted to fight. “I realized that I was part of an army fighting an unjust war in Vietnam. I felt ashamed and angry with myself,” he told Meduza. “I could not continue with business as usual, so I decided to speak out publicly against the war.” In 1970, Cortright filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army, defending the right to dissent against the war.

Supporting those who fled abroad

Americans who refused to fight in Vietnam would often flee abroad, where they received support from local anti-war groups in the form of legal counseling, cultural adjustment, and coverage of housing and living expenses. Cortright said he believes Russian war resisters should receive the same support. “We should welcome and support those who flee Putin’s illegal war,” he told Meduza. “When Russians refuse to serve in the war or protest against it, they are supporting the cause of peace. They are allies of all of us who want to see this war end. We should do everything we can to encourage and support those fleeing to Europe and other countries to avoid the war.”

Cortright also said he views it as “counterproductive” for European states to set up barriers for those fleeing Russia. While he recognizes that European states have legitimate security concerns, he said, measures like providing customs control with additional resources could help address this issue.

In addition to the importance of helping people who flee abroad, Cortright emphasized the need to provide legal counsel to people still in Russia who are faced with conscription orders.

Jan Rose Kasmir resists the U.S. National Guard at the Pentagon during an anti-war march on October 21, 1967.
Marc Riboud / Fonds Marc Riboud / MNAAG / Magnum Photos

War crimes

Asked about war crimes committed by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War and if they can help inform our understanding of Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, Cortright explained:

War crimes inevitably occur in an imperialist war. The invaders delude themselves in thinking that the local population will welcome them, but instead they face armed resistance. People do not want to be invaded by hostile powers, and they will fight to defend their homeland. Faced with such pervasive resistance, the invading forces resort to illegal violence against civilians. In each case, the invading forces attacked civilians and bombed cities and towns indiscriminately.

Both wars [Vietnam and Ukraine] are crimes in the larger sense of violating the Article 2 (4) of the U.N. Charter, which prohibits the use of force against other states. Both states [the U.S. and Russia] are guilty of the crime of military aggression, which is considered the supreme crime of international law, that which contains within it the evil of the whole.

He noted, however, that the U.S. government and the population still do not acknowledge that they committed war crimes in Vietnam. No government agency, he said, has yet taken responsibility for the massacres and indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations there.

Comparing imperialist wars

When justifying its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government often refers to America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq, arguing that the country wasn’t made a pariah or sanctioned in response to either conflict. Cortright suggested that Russia making such a comparison “calls attention to [the Kremlin’s] own illegal action of waging war against a sovereign nation in violation of the U.N. Charter.”

At the same time, he argued that the U.S. was indeed made into a pariah after starting the war in Iraq. The U.N. Security Council twice rejected U.S. requests for approval for use of force and few states other than the U.K. supported America’s “coalition of the willing.” This is mirrored in the lack of support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, as the majority of U.N. member states have voted in favor of condemning the war.

Cortright said he agreed that America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq were “blatant examples of military aggression in violation of the U.N. Charter, which prohibits states from using force against another state except in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council.” But even so, he told Meduza, this is no justification for Russia’s actions in Ukraine. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” said Cortright.

The role of targeted sanctions

Cortright expressed his support for employing targeted sanctions against Russia, arguing that they help “signal international opposition to Russia’s war” and “constrain Russia’s warmaking capability.” At the same time, he said, exemptions should be made for civilians and civil society groups working toward peace.

In Cortright’s view, sanctions against Russia should be used as “bargaining leverage.” To this end, it should be publicly stated that “such sanctions will be lifted once Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine.”

The offer of sanctions relief has been used in other settings as an inducement for concessions from the targeted regime and [has] helped to achieve diplomatic agreements.

Phone consultations with conscripts at an American Deserters Committee office in Toronto. August 1967.
Laura Jones / Wikimedia Commons

Resistance to mobilization

Resistance to mobilization in September 2022 was the Russian anti-war movement’s “greatest success,” according to Cortright. “This was quite unprecedented in the history of anti-war movements, larger than any wave of draft resistance during the Vietnam anti-war movement in the U.S,” and it created a “significant challenge to the war-making machine,” he said.

Responding to criticism of Russian dissenters who haven’t openly spoken out against the war, Cortright said such condemnations don’t take into account the country’s “repressive climate.”

When the legal penalties for open anti-war dissent are as great as they are in Russia, soldiers who have grievances will not usually frame their concerns as anti-war or anti-military. Regardless of how they are explained, dissent actions are objectively contrary to the military mission, and they should be understood as an important reflection of a weakened will to fight within the army.

Collaboration between anti-war movements

While collaborating with anti-war movements from other countries can be important, Cortright argued that Russia’s anti-war movement should do this carefully to maintain domestic legitimacy. “The anti-war movement must be perceived as nationally rooted and patriotic in its character,” he explained.

Opinion polls in Russia indicate that there is considerable support for negotiations to end the war. Noting this, Cortright suggested that it would be particularly helpful for movements in Russia to coordinate with other countries to maintain the same messaging regarding demands for negotiations that can put an end to the war. This, however, should be clearly distinguished from the Kremlin’s position, which “disingenuously calls for a ceasefire without linking it to other conditions or mentioning the need for third party monitoring, and while ignoring the demand for the withdrawal of Russian troops.”

What the Russian anti-war movement should be working toward, Cortright argued, is a peace process “rigorously monitored by third party forces” and linked to “a political process for the withdrawal of troops and negotiations for resolving territorial issues at the root of the conflict.” This may not happen quickly, he said, but it’s nonetheless important to apply ongoing political pressure towards a negotiated end to the war.

Banner reading “Vietnam Veterans Against War” at an anti-war demonstration in May 1971.
Stuart Lutz / Gado / Getty Images

Advice for Russia’s anti-war movement

When the Vietnam War first started, public opinion in the U.S. largely supported the war effort. As Cortright noted, American anti-war activists were called “unpatriotic,” “subversives,” “communists,” and “agents of Moscow” by the U.S. government. But as the war dragged on, opposition among the population grew steadily. “The key factors driving anti-war sentiment were the rising toll of casualties among U.S. troops, the economic and social costs of the war in U.S. society, and the increasing sense of futility and recognition that there could be no military victory in Vietnam,” he explained.

This experience can be applied to Russia’s anti-war movement, Cortright said. In his view, it’s especially important to emphasize the war’s human toll, specifically “the numbers of soldiers who are dying needlessly,” and the “many others who are maimed in battle,” as well as the “hardships all of this has inflicted on their families and loved ones.”

The media is another crucial tool for conveying “the honest story of the soldiers and those who refuse to participate in an illegal war,” Cortright told Meduza. Coverage of resisters and anti-war activists helps counter Kremlin propaganda and communicate the idea that working to stop an unjust war is itself “a patriotic act.”

Just as the U.S. anti-war movement gained respect as time went on, so likely will Russia’s, he speculated. As people in Russia begin to acknowledge the realities of a weakened economy, international isolation, high human costs, and “humiliation for the once mighty Russian army,” Kremlin propaganda will find it impossible to succeed:

As people begin to acknowledge these realities, they will also come to respect those who tried to warn against the danger. Hopefully people will recognize that the advocates for peace are the real heroes in this setting and deserve the gratitude and support of a grateful nation for trying to save Russia from ruin.

While most Americans agree that the war was a “disaster and never should have been fought,” veterans of the Vietnam War are still honored and respected in the U.S., Cortright pointed out. Criticism for the conflict is usually directed at the politicians and military leaders directly responsible for starting the conflict. “We condemn imperialist foreign policies, not the soldiers who are forced to serve in such unjust missions,” he said.

As for the civilians affected by war, many American anti-war activists helped people in Vietnam in order to show goodwill, demonstrate that “not all Americans were aggressors,” and “build positive friendly relations between the U.S. and Vietnam after the war.” He recommended that Russian anti-war activists engage in these types of activities “to overcome the hatreds and harms caused by war” and to help “prevent renewed war in the future.”

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Interview by Alexander Finiarel

Summary by Sasha Slobodov

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