This article originally appeared at thenewyorktimes.com.By Cody J. Foster.
On Dec. 1, 1967, the last day of the International War Crimes Tribunal’s second session, antiwar activists from around the world gathered in Roskilde, Denmark. The panel, also known as the Russell Tribunal after its founder, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, had spent a year investigating America’s intervention in Southeast Asia and was now ready to announce its findings. Tribunal members unanimously found the United States “guilty on all charges, including genocide, the use of forbidden weapons, maltreatment and killing of prisoners, violence and forceful movement of prisoners” in Vietnam and its neighbors Laos and Cambodia.
Russell often stated that he was inspired by the Nuremberg trials. But the Russell Tribunal was not a government body or treaty organization; it had neither the legal authority nor the means to carry out justice after its findings. The tribunal’s mission was to raise awareness about the impact of the war on Vietnamese civilians. “The Nuremberg Tribunal asked for and secured the punishment of individuals,” Russell stated during the sessions. “The International War Crimes Tribunal is asking the peoples of the world, the masses, to take action to stop the crimes.”
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre presided over the tribunal and helped to recruit 23 other internationally recognized academics, scientists, lawyers, former heads of state and peace activists whose self-professed moral consciousness persuaded them to accept the tribunal’s invitation. Across two separate sessions, between May 2 and May 10, 1967, in Stockholm, and between Nov. 20 and Dec. 1, 1967 in Roskilde, the members weighed the evidence that each had found during several fact-finding trips to Vietnam between the two sessions.
These missions allowed tribunal members to assess the damage the war had wrought on civilians and verify firsthand the claims heard during the tribunal’s first session. One such mission, which included the labor activist Lawrence Daly, the journalist Tariq Ali and the writer Carol Brightman, returned with indisputable proof that the United States Air Force had deliberately bombed civilian facilities and infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, churches and villages.
Other members who scouted the countryside encountered civilians who agreed to travel to Denmark and speak before the tribunal’s second session. The first witness, a 37-year old Vietnamese farmer, exposed his charred body before the tribunal and explained through an interpreter than an American plane had dropped phosphorus bombs on his family farm in Quang Nam province in South Vietnam while he plowed the field.
He wasn’t alone. Victim after victim described how American interrogators swept through villages, looking for the enemy and torturing civilians for information. One former American interrogator, Peter Martinsen, confirmed with the tribunal that the Army Intelligence School taught interrogation strategies that violated the Geneva Conventions. “Interrogators participated in actual torture,” he said, before commenting on how those methods occasionally resulted in the death of Vietnamese prisoners of war. Later, in 1970, additional interrogators and Vietnamese people confirmed that they had been waterboarded, shocked and burned. A few even shared how they were sexually assaulted through the insertion of snakes and sticks into their bodies. “It’s so horrifying to recall an interrogation where you beat the fellow to get an effect, and then you beat him out of anger, and then you beat him out of pleasure,” Martinsen added.
Such testimony also revealed that the United States had forcefully relocated civilians to better isolate the enemy. The strategic hamlet program, for example, forced large populations of people into sanctioned districts in order to pacify rural villages and halt the communist infiltration into the countryside. Witnesses testified that American soldiers murdered resisters and burned villages as they relocated Vietnamese civilians. American bombers and artillery would then subject the reportedly empty village to bombs and artillery fire before covering the area with chemical defoliants. Such tactics eradicated countless livelihoods; most survivors had little choice but to abandon hope and move their families into the prepared hamlets.
Tribunal members were equally worried about the military’s use of advanced weaponry in areas populated by civilians. One particular bomb gave them pause because its design seemed intent only on inflicting mass casualties. A weapons expert, Jean-Pierre Vigier of the University of Paris, testified before the tribunal that the so-called guava bomb — a type of cluster bomb — could send 300 iron balls of shrapnel in every direction upon explosion. The bomb did little damage to concrete and steel, he said; instead, it appeared as if it were created to tear through the flesh of human bodies. “I don’t see any conclusion except that bombing the civilians is a deliberate policy of the Pentagon, presumably in hopes of inducing them to bring pressure on their government to surrender,” Daly concluded upon hearing the testimony.
If only for a moment, the tribunal’s findings helped invigorate the global antiwar movement to increase pressure on the Johnson administration to bring the Vietnam War to a close. Influenced by what they had already witnessed in Vietnam between the two sessions, two tribunal members, the antiwar activist Dave Dellinger and the writer Carl Oglesby, worked with antiwar activists to plan a peaceful protest to occur around the world in October 1967. That month tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators faced off against troops outside the Pentagon and in front of American embassies across Western Europe, in Central and South America, and throughout Asia. Russell’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the British Council for Peace in Vietnam organized demonstrations in Washington and outside 10 Downing Street in London. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, yet another organization sponsored by Russell, collaborated with Tariq Ali to stage a march in Trafalgar Square in addition to picketing outside the Australian, New Zealand and American embassies.
The tribunal and the marches did not bring the war to a close, but they helped energize international opposition to colonialism and imperialism: Puerto Rican nationalists who sought to liberate their country from American imperialism, for example, saw the Vietnamese as spiritual allies, even as Puerto Ricans were drafted to fight on behalf of the United States in Vietnam.
The tribunal resonated in the United States, too. Stokely Carmichael, a member of the tribunal, and other young black leaders joined hands with these revolutionaries as they came to see American war crimes in Vietnam as another product of the racially oppressive nature of American imperialism. They argued that the African-American community existed as an internal colony dominated by racial hatred and violence.
War crimes uncovered by the tribunal and, later, the My Lai massacre poisoned American credibility abroad and sparked a domestic national identity crisis. Such revelations forced American citizens to come to terms with the military’s “kill anything that moves” approach to the war. And yet that reckoning didn’t last; the reality of America’s crimes in Vietnam has been blanketed over by presidents, politicians and other leaders looking to heal the country — even if that meant ignoring history — to promote a new patriotic nationalism. Government-backed corporate slogans such as “The Pride Is Back” campaign in the 1980s manipulated collective memory by overlooking the war crimes and human rights violations that the tribunal helped to expose.
The tribunal’s most significant legacy was the appearance of “people’s tribunals” long after the Vietnam War ended. People’s courts, called “Russell Tribunals,” have investigated Third World dictatorships, the 1973 Chilean coup, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in East Ukraine. Most recently, the World Tribunal on Iraq opened in 2003 to charge the United States with war crimes and violating the Geneva Conventions. Once again the tribunal forced the world to listen to new narratives of civilian bombing and new torture tactics adopted by American armed forces.
Russell’s hope was that his tribunals would build momentum toward a people-driven, international peace movement that did more than protest. In his mind, the people — properly organized and motivated — could hold governments in check. It was an urgent idea in 1967; it remains one today.