The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
From A.J. Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (ed. by Susannah Heschel; Farrar Straus & Giroux), pp. 224-6.

The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement

For many years I lived by the conviction that my destiny is to serve in the realm of privacy, to be concerned with the ultimate issues and involved in attempting to clarify them in thought and in word. Loneliness was both a burden and a blessing, and above all indispensable for achieving a kind of stillness in which perplexities could be faced without fear.

Three events changed my attitude. One was the countless onslaughts upon my inner life, depriving me of the ability to sustain inner stillness. The second event was the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. Even the high worth of reflection in the cultivation of inner truth cannot justify remaining calm in the face of cruelties that make the hope of effectiveness of pure intellectual endeavors seem grotesque. Isolationisim is frequently all unconscious pretext for carelessness, whether among statesmen or among scholars.

The most wicked men must be regarded as great teachers, for they often set forth precisely an example of that which is unqualifiedly evil. Cain's question "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9) and his implied negative response must be regarded among the great fundamental evil maxims of the world.

The third event that changed my attitude was my study of the prophets of ancient Israel, a study on which I worked for several years until its publication in 1962. From them I learned the niggardliness of our moral comprehension, the incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures. It became quite clear to me that while our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience.

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. It also became clear to me that in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible. I did not feel guilty as an individual American for the bloodshed in Vietnam, but I felt deeply responsible. "Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:15). This is not a recommendation but an imperative, a supreme commandment. And so I decided to change my mode of living and to become active in the cause of peace in Vietnam.(1)

The more carefully I studied the situation in Vietnam, the more obvious it became to me that the root problem there was not the conflict between North and South Vietnam but the misery and corruption and despair of the population in South Vietnam, which to a large degree was brought about by colonial exploitation. The answer to that misery was not in killing the rebels but in seeking a just solution to the economic and political issues of that land.

To my dismay I discovered that the people in this country who made decisions on waging the war in Vietnam thought almost exclusively in terms of generalizations — for example, Communism was seen as the devil and the only source of evil in the world. These decision-makers also had an exceedingly superficial knowledge of the economic, cultural, and psychological conditions of that country. Americans who went to Vietnam to take over the running of affairs there were not even able to speak the Vietnamese language, and as a result could not communicate except through interpreters who were often biased, self-seeking, and even corrupt. Devoid of understanding, burdened with prejudice and pride, mighty America sank into the quagmire of this most obscure and complex conflict.

When I concluded in 1965 that waging war in Vietnam was an evil act, I was also convinced that immediate and complete withdrawal from Vietnam would be the wisest act. Realizing the hopelessness that such a proposal would ever be accepted by the then-current administration, I formulated my thought by saying: True, it is very difficult to withdraw from Vietnam today, but it will be even more difficult to withdraw from Vietnam tomorrow. Above all, it was a war that couldn't be morally justified, for war under all circumstances is a supreme atrocity and is justified only when there is a necessity to defend one's own survival. It is politically illogical, I thought, to assume that Communism in South Vietnam would be a greater threat to the security of the United States than Communism in Hungary or Czechoslovakia.

As much as I abhor many of the principles of Communism, I also abhor Fascism and the use of violence in suppressing those who fight against oppression by greedy or corrupt overlords. In addition, the war in Vietnam by its very nature was a war that could not be waged according to the international law to which America is committed, which protects civilians from being killed by military forces. I very early discovered that large numbers of innocent civilians were being killed by the indiscriminate bombing and shooting of our own military forces, that numerous war crimes were being committed, that the very fabric of Vietnamese society was being destroyed, traditions desecrated, and honored ways of living defiled. Such discoveries revealed the war as being exceedingly unjust. As a result, my concern to stop the war became a central religious concern.

Although Jewish tradition enjoins our people to obey scrupulously the decrees issued by the government of the land, whenever a decree is unambiguously immoral, one nevertheless has a duty to disobey it.

When President Johnson expressed to veterans his consternation at the fact that so many citizens protested against his decisions in Vietnam, in spite of his authority as President and the vast amount of information at his disposal, I responded, at the request of John Cogley of The New York Times, that when the Lord was considering destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham did not hesitate to challenge the Lord's judgment and to carry on all argument with Him whether His decision was just. Can it be that the judge of the entire universe would fail to act justly? For all the majesty of the office of the President of the United States, he cannot claim greater majesty than God Himself.


(1)"Clergy Concerned About Vietnam." The assembly elected three co?chairmen Daniel Berrigan, Richard Neuhaus, and the writer of this essay. One of the results of this meeting was Daniel Berrigan's involvement in the movement for peace in Vietnam (see the essay "The Priest Who Stayed Out in the Cold," The New York Times, June 28, 1970

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