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Legendary Historian, Attorney & Peace Activist Staughton Lynd on War Resisters, the Peace Movement and the 1993 Lucasville Prison Uprising

StoryOctober 20, 2006
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For the past fifty years Staughton Lynd has dedicated his life to activism and social change as a historian, lawyer, labor activist and Quaker pacifist. He has been called a saint of the modern American Left. He joins us today in Democracy Now’s firehouse studio. [includes rush transcript]

In the early 1960s he taught history at Spelman College in Georgia alongside Howard Zinn. One of his star students was Alice Walker.

He helped direct the Mississippi Freedom Schools.

In April 1965 he spoke at the first march on Washington against the Vietnam War and became an early leader of the anti-war movement. Later that year he traveled to Hanoi with Tom Hayden on a fact-finding mission in defiance of U.S. law. At the time he was a professor at Yale University, but he was denied tenure because of the trip.

In the 1970s Lynd went to law school and then spent years focusing on labor and prison issues. In 2004 he wrote the definitive history of the 1993 Ohio prison uprising at Lucasville — the country’s bloodiest prison riot since Attica.

Last year he sued the Pentagon over its stop-loss program that has been used to involuntarily extend the terms of enlistment for soldiers in Iraq.

On Thursday night, here in New York, Lynd gave the first Annual Dave Dellinger Lecture on Nonviolence sponsored by the War Resisters League. The speech was titled “Resistance to War in a Volunteer Army.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd joins us now in our studios at Democracy Now! Welcome to Democracy Now!

STAUGHTON LYND: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “Resistance to War in a Volunteer Army”?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, the concept of conscientious objection in American law and in the regulations of all the military services is that you must fulfill two requirements: you must be opposed to war in any form — that is, to all wars — and you must do so on the basis of religious training and belief. But a moment’s thought will suggest that there are not going to be too many objectors to all wars in a volunteer army.

So what does Camilo Mejia or what does Kevin Benderman do, if they are in Iraq and they see around them what they can only consider war crimes? How are they to find a way to resist? And my point is that there is available to such persons our own Nuremberg precedent. We hanged German and Japanese leaders, because they engaged in war crimes in a particular war. We said that orders from a superior are no excuse. Well, the logic of those precedents is that a soldier in Iraq, or like Lieutenant Ehren Watada, under orders to be deployed to Iraq, can say, “I consider this to be a war crime. Even if my superiors tell me something different, I am obliged to use my own judgment, my own conscience. And so I say no.” So my plea is that we recognize the legitimacy of objection to a particular war on the basis of a good faith belief that war crimes are being committed.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the lawsuit that you brought over stop-loss and explain exactly what it means and who you represented?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, in that particular lawsuit, there were a number of persons in the military who had signed up for what they understood to be a definite length of time. And our lead plaintiff was a man named Qualls, who had gone in under a program entitled Try One. And Try One said, “Well, try it out for a year. See how you like it, and then you can decide.” And so, he went in, and as the year drew to a close they said, “Oh, no, you can’t leave. We’re going to extend your service.”

And this was the concept of stop-loss, that no matter what the condition of the contract, the contract terms under which a particular service person had voluntarily enlisted entered into this contract with our government — tough. If we, the United States authorities, decide that you’re going to serve longer, that’s all there is to it. So that was the theory of that lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, the same judge that I heard washed his hands of the fate of this gentleman in Iraq —

AMY GOODMAN: Munaf, who is facing the death penalty in Iraq.

STAUGHTON LYND: Exactly. That same judge told us, “Well, didn’t you read the small print on the backside of the page? Didn’t you understand the general context, that anyone in the military is obligated to do whatever he or she is ordered to do?” And so, he dismissed the claim. But I think, like so many similar efforts, it served the purpose of publicizing the dilemma of a lot of folks, especially Guardsmen, reserve people who are torn out of their family situations for a distinct period of time and then told that that’s going to become indefinite.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the situation in Iraq right now?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, I think it’s Vietnam in spades. That is to say, illegitimate and corrupt as every South Vietnamese government was, I don’t think they hold a candle to what we’ve created in Iraq, where before the government of Iraq can blow its nose, it has to seek permission from the United States military. And I think that it’s clear — I’m not saying anything new — that the majority of Iraqis, the great majority of Iraqis, and the majority of United States servicemen at the moment feel the same thing. Whatever problems might are arise from the withdrawal of United States troops, whatever conflicts there may be within Iraq, they are less, they are more manageable, than the conflicts that we create by our presence. So, we should leave immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was your reaction to President Bush in talking to ABC News, comparing Iraq to Vietnam, to the Tet Offensive?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, isn’t it interesting that they’ve finally come around to that, after saying that it wasn’t an insurgency, it wasn’t a civil war? Now they have finally conceded that they were wrong when they forever denied the parallel to Vietnam. It’s the same thing. Anyone who passed through those experiences of the ’60s has to be mortified, just covered with shame and distress by the inability of the people who run this country to learn anything from their experience.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you apply for conscientious objector status?

STAUGHTON LYND: In, I suppose it would have been, 1952. And the particular status I applied for was to be an unarmed medic within the military. I didn’t fancy myself planting pine trees, while someone else my age who didn’t know about the possibility of conscientious objection was getting his behind shot off, so I chose an option where I wouldn’t have to carry a gun or shoot anyone, where the rate of casualties was as high or higher as among infantrymen. And there was a way to do that within Selective Service law at that time, and that’s what I did.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you do?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, I just completed basic training as a medic, and then I was thrown out. What happened was that Senator McCarthy — that’s not Eugene, that’s Joe — discovered, I believe, a major at Fort Dix, whom he claimed was a member of the United States Communist Party. And the Army panicked. And so, they reached out to several dozen of us, I think between 75 and 100, and on the basis of information, all of which they had at the time of our induction, they gave us undesirable discharges. One of the allegations against myself was: it is said that your mother is a Hypermodern educator. And one of our group took it to the United States Supreme Court, and the Army told the Supreme Court, “Yeah, it was wrong, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” which is always a bad thing to say to a judge. And so, the next thing I knew, we all had honorable discharges. I had GI bill. I was able to become a historian.

AMY GOODMAN: You lost tenureship at Yale?


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened.

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, the system then, and I think the system now, is to hire more junior professors than they intend ultimately to promote and to set these folks in competition, one with another. But informally it was said to me that I was a golden boy, I didn’t have to worry, they wouldn’t have invited me unless they expected me to have tenure. Then I went to Hanoi. Then I was told, “Ah, Staughton, there’s a financial problem. We’re not going to be able to create any more tenured professors during a period which — yeah, you’re right — is just a year longer than the period in which you have to make tenure. So I waited. I asked them six months later, “Is that still the case?” They said yes. I looked for a job elsewhere. I moved to Chicago, and soon after I moved, the financial problem disappeared.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you do when you went to Hanoi with Tom Hayden?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, we didn’t speak French, so as in your conversation with the Venezuelan ambassador, we had to speak through an interpreter. But there are two conversations that stand out in my memory, and one was in Moscow, before we got there. We spoke with a very elderly gentleman, a very frail man, who was the representative in the Soviet Union of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. And he somehow perceived through the translation that my attitude was that the mighty United States could blow these little brown people to bits. And he looked at me, and he said, “No, Professor, you’re wrong. We’re going to win.” He said that in December 1965. He said, “With every American soldier that lands in my country, one more person will come to the National Liberation Front.”

And if I have a moment more, let me describe a second conversation. When we were in Hanoi, we went to a factory. And I was quite excited, because there were photographs of a demonstration in Berkeley that I had been part of. And then we went to a little room adjacent to the factory floor to meet with the manager of the factory. There was a table with a white tablecloth and little dishes of hard candies. And I figured this was the 6000th welcoming speech, so I kind of fiddled with the candy and didn’t pay too much attention. And I heard the manager say, “You know, we are a great admirer of your country, of your Declaration of Independence, written by Abraham Lincoln.” And I had a momentary thought: “What a jerk!” And then I thought, no, he knows more about my country than I do about his. And he went on to say, “But just now, we find the word 'American' difficult to say.” And there was this pause. And I’m fiddling with the candy, and finally I look up, and he’s weeping. And that’s when my notions about “inscrutable Orientals” went out the window.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Staughton Lynd, legendary peace activist, longtime social justice advocate, helped direct the Mississippi Freedom Schools, went to Hanoi with Tom Hayden, lost his, well, tenure at Yale and wrote the definitive history of the 1993 Ohio prison uprising in Lucasville. Can you summarize that for people?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, there were three big prison rebellions between 1970 and 1995: Attica, 1971; Santa Fe, tragic situation where prisoners slaughtered one another; and then, finally, in 1993, Lucasville, Ohio. It lasted eleven days. Nine prisoners and a hostage officer were killed. A surrender was negotiated. And no sooner was the surrender negotiated with various prisoner spokespersons than the state of Ohio turned around and began to build death penalty cases against those very leaders and spokespersons. They didn’t care who had really done things. They wanted to nail the leaders so that no prisoner would ever have this idea again.

And we’re still deep in the process of resisting those executions. Three of the five leaders who were sentenced to death are now in federal court. The person closest to execution is a man named Siddique Abdullah Hasan, who was the imam, the prayer leader of the Muslim prisoners. I’ve just filed a friend of the court brief for the ACLU, pointing out that 14 prisoners have stated under oath that it was not Hasan who was responsible for the death of the officer. And, you know, you hope and pray that if there can be — as with Mumia — if there can be enough concern outside the courtroom, sooner or later the folks inside will get the message.

AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t this an unusual situation where you had different sectors of the prison together?

STAUGHTON LYND: It was. And I’ll never forget the moment when my wife, who was reading transcripts, came running to me, and she said, “Staughton, read this. Read this.” And it was the testimony of the chief investigator for the state, a man named Sergeant Hudson. And the question was, well, “What did you find when you went into the occupied cellblock after the surrender?” And he said, “Well, there were all kinds of graffiti on the walls and in the gymnasium.” “Well, what did the graffiti say?” The graffiti said, “Black and white together,” “convict unity” and, my favorite, “convict race.” Some people may think we’re black and white. No, no, we’re all convicts. We are a convict race.

And I was very moved. I hadn’t seen anything quite like that since the South, 30 years before. And the extraordinary thing is that those five men, the five men sentenced to death — three black, two white, one of the whites a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood — have maintained their solidarity just like this for the last thirteen years.

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, as we wrap up this conversation, what gives you hope today?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, it’s funny. I suppose as you get older, people ask you that question: why are you still plugging away? I guess what gives me hope is the kind of thing that I’ve just described or what we see going on in Latin America today, of which your earlier guest was a spokesperson. I mean, can you imagine people taking factories over in Argentina, a woman who used to be a house servant becoming the Minister of Justice in Bolivia, the teachers in Oaxaca going on strike and demanding shoes for their children? I mean, how can you not have hope when things like this are happening in the world?

AMY GOODMAN: And the way you’d compare the peace movement in Vietnam with the peace movement today?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, one of the important differences is that the labor movement reacted much more quickly this time around. And it was a mystery to me — there was a Teamsters local in Chicago who voted unanimously to condemn the war in Iraq, and they convened the first meeting of labor against the war, not too long after the war began.

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

STAUGHTON LYND: And it was the Vietnam vets in the local who did it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you think it’s the Iraq vets today?

STAUGHTON LYND: I beg your pardon?

AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying that it was the vets.

STAUGHTON LYND: The vets from Vietnam told people they had seen this movie already.

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, I want to thank you very much for being with us, joining us on Democracy Now! today.

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