VN-E09: David Cortright
Podcast (VN-E09): “I was part of a war that I came to see as unjust, immoral, illegal” – David Cortright
Vietnam Series Podcast, Episode 9:
“Speaking out against [the war], as an active-duty GI, would incur some risks. I might have to pay a price, but I had to do it because business as usual was not an option.”
David Cortright is a Vietnam-era veteran, scholar, and peace activist. He’s currently the director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and chair of the board of the Fourth Freedom Forum.
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
“I’m in basic training, and I’m beginning to have questions about what the commanders are telling us. The kind of propaganda they’re giving us about Vietnam was not making sense. I went to my first duty assignment at Fort Hamilton. More and more, other soldiers in the barracks are starting to question this war. In particular, I remember they were telling us at Fort Hamilton, “Don’t go over to the coffee shop during duty hours, because the guys are coming back from ‘Nam, and we don’t want to have mixing of the new guys with the returning vets.”
“I read a biography of Ho Chi Minh, and I really found myself admiring him and his movement. He seemed like the George Washington of Vietnam. I had this strange feeling. I thought that the Vietnamese were the winning side, that we were on the wrong side of this fight, this war. I was kind of cheering for our supposed enemy. It’s a very strange feeling to have when you’re in the army of the other side.”
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David Cortright: It was an experience like we have when we make a commitment for social justice when we join a movement, we are motivated by a feeling that we can’t accept what’s going on, and maybe at times we feel like well, what’s the matter with me? Why can’t I just go along with this? Especially when you’re talking about military service, right? We’re all conditioned as young men to serve in the military. Our parents or grandparents had served. It’s the manly thing to do, as they would say. And so, to be able to make a decision to resist against that conformity, that normal pattern that’s expected of you, really takes a lot.
For a long time, I was thinking, well, there must be something wrong with me. Why can’t I just accept this and go along? But, as you join a movement and you find others who are feeling the same, you begin to see that the biggest insanity, the problem is not with me, it’s with the system.
Robert Raymond: You’re listening to the Courage to Resist podcast. I’m Robert Raymond. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. For this episode, we’re on the line with Vietnam-era veteran, scholar, and peace activist, David Cortright, who’s currently the director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and chair of the board of the Fourth Freedom Forum.
David, you have a long history of advocacy for the prevention of war. I’d like to start by asking you about the story behind how you gained political consciousness and started on the path of working for justice and peace. Can you outline that story and tell us a little bit about how you first got drafted into the army and how it led you to eventually join the GI anti-war resistance?
David Cortright: It’s ironic that being drafted into the military is what made me into a peace activist, but that’s the reality. I graduated from university in 1968, which was an unfortunate time to be an available young man in America. The military draft was raging. It was at its highest level, and they were taking up everybody. The local draft board in my hometown, by 1968, had already drafted almost all of my friends, my brother. Everybody I knew that I played with as a young boy had already been drafted into the military.
So, I got home from college June of ’68, and on the one hand, it was great because I was like the only guy around and I could date any girl I wanted. Unfortunately, I also got my draft notice a few days later, and within a couple weeks, I was drafted in the army and crawling through the sands of Fort Dix, New Jersey as an enlisted recruit in the army.
Now, as the draft began to come down on me, I quickly began to realize I had a serious problem here. I was not political. I grew up in a very conservative Catholic working-class family. But, I knew that I didn’t really want to go into a war. I knew nothing about this war. I didn’t even know where Vietnam was, frankly. So, faced with the inevitability of being put into the military, I decided to volunteer to avoid the infantry. In those days, when you were drafted, you went straight into the infantry, one-way ticket to Vietnam. Of course, the combat levels were at their highest and most intense in 1968 and ’69.
So, I looked for an easy way out. I had been a musician. I played in the band in high school and in college, so I auditioned for the Army Band and was accepted, and had a one-year assignment at the 26th Army Band in New York at Fort Hamilton, New York. So, I defended my country by playing a trumpet and a baritone horn. But still, you have to go through basic training. Obviously after one year, I could’ve been sent over to Vietnam, because I learned that there were, in fact, army bands in Vietnam, as well.
So, I’m in basic training, and I’m beginning to have questions about what the commanders are telling us. The kind of propaganda they’re giving us about Vietnam was not making sense. I went to my first duty assignment at Fort Hamilton. More and more, other soldiers in the barracks are starting to question this war. In particular, I remember they were telling us at Fort Hamilton, “Don’t go over to the coffee shop during duty hours, because the guys are coming back from ‘Nam, and we don’t want to have mixing of the new guys with the returning vets.”
Now, that seemed very strange to me, so of course, I would sneak over to the coffee shop and kind of hang out. Talking to the guys who were coming back, and to see how bitter and angry they were, the stories they had of terrible conditions over there, really began to intensify my questioning.
So, before long, I was really having doubts. I did something that’s actually very subversive for a soldier. I tried to study and learn about the history of the war they were sending us to. And so, I picked up some books on the history of Vietnam. The more I read, the more I became skeptical and deepened my doubts about the whole policy, and realized before long that everything that the politicians were telling us, that our commanders were telling us, was wrong, that this was not a Communist aggression from the North, but the Vietnamese were fighting for their freedom, for their independence against foreign aggression, first from the French, and now from us.
I read a biography of Ho Chi Minh, and I really found myself admiring him and his movement. He seemed like the George Washington of Vietnam. I had this strange feeling. I thought that the Vietnamese were the winning side, that we were on the wrong side of this fight, this war. I was kind of cheering for our supposed enemy. It’s a very strange feeling to have when you’re in the army of the other side.
So, all of this was happening. It’s not just me. We’re talking about this in the barracks with other guys. This was by now fall of ’68. There’s a growing sense within the army among many troops and junior officers that this whole policy is wrong, and we need to end this war. And I felt, especially for me, a real crisis of conscience that I was part of a war that I came to see as unjust, immoral, illegal, and that we had no business being, and yet I was part of the army that was serving and prosecuting this war, and I could be sent over at any time. I felt I couldn’t accept this. I had to speak out, had to do something. So I went through a real period of internal anxiety and anguish. I was angry at others. I’m sure I was not a very pleasant person to be around for a while, as I struggled with this mistake that I had put myself into in being part of this war.
So, I thought about deserting but the idea of just losing all contact with family and all just seemed too much. My mother was kind of frail and working with the priests back in our local parish, and I didn’t want to shatter her social world by just leaving the family. I thought about being a conscientious objector, but I’m not an absolute pacifist. They always ask in those questions, “Would you have fought in World War II against Hitler?” I would’ve wanted to say, “That’s not the right question. This has nothing to do with world aggression. In this case we’re the aggressor.” But of course, they want you to be an absolute pacifist against all war in order to qualify for conscientious objection.
But then I saw an article in a magazine one day about the soldiers at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, who were forming the American Servicemen’s Union, and were speaking out against the war, and that this was spreading to other bases. I thought, wow, now that’s a really interesting idea. Maybe that’s what I could do. Then after further anguish and self-doubt, I finally made a decision that this was something I had to do.
Now, I realized that in speaking out, probably the army is going to come cracking down on us. Commanders don’t like their soldiers giving their opinions about the immorality of the war they’re in. But, I felt that I would have to do this. And probably there would be some punishment coming down on us, but I didn’t have any easy choices. All the choices were difficult. The most unacceptable was to just go along and accept this war and remain silent. And so, it seemed to me, speaking out against it, as an active-duty GI, would incur some risks. I might have to pay a price, but I had to do it because business as usual was not an option.
So, I went to a meeting for the first time. Fort Hamilton’s near New York, where I went to school. I was doing classes in night school at New York University, and I saw a poster for a meeting of anti-war soldiers. That really caught my attention and I decided to go. I remember feeling very nervous and uncertain. But, as soon as I got in the room and met other soldiers from other bases in the New York area, from Fort Dix and Fort Monmouth and other places, and again, to socialize with the other soldiers and with the civilians who were supporting us, I really began to feel at ease. I felt like this tremendous weight that had been bearing down on me, and was on my shoulders, was starting to lift. I was getting a sense that this was the right thing to do.
It was an experience like we have when we make a commitment for social justice when we join a movement, we are motivated by a feeling that we can’t accept what’s going on, and maybe at times we feel like well, what’s the matter with me? Why can’t I just go along with this? Especially when you’re talking about military service, right? We’re all conditioned as young men to serve in the military. Our parents or grandparents had served. It’s the manly thing to do, as they would say. And so, to be able to make a decision to resist against that conformity, that normal pattern that’s expected of you, really takes a lot.
For a long time, I was thinking, well, there must be something wrong with me. Why can’t I just accept this and go along? But, as you join a movement and you find others who are feeling the same, you begin to see that the biggest insanity, the problem is not with me, it’s with the system. It’s with the policy. It’s what the military itself is doing, and what it’s ordering us to do, that that’s the problem. And you’re able to focus on that and to join a community and have a sense of solidarity with colleagues who are feeling the same, and get strength from the others who are making a similar sacrifice, taking a similar risk to speak out while in uniform, against the war that we’re being asked to fight.
Robert Raymond: Yeah.
David Cortright: So, that was a very powerful and liberating kind of experience that gradually developed for me. By early part of 1969, I was actively involved with this committee of other GIs from the New York area, and from our own base, who were planning to organize a GI contingent that would be part of an anti-war rally that was scheduled in New York that spring of 1969.
Robert Raymond: Wow. I’m wondering what was the reaction from the commanders at the time? How did you end up responding to that?
David Cortright: Right. That initial participation in the demonstration, my first political act, if you will, led to many others. I was feeling more and more empowered. Most of the other soldiers at Fort Hamilton agreed with us in opposing the war. Not many would stick their necks out and go to a rally in downtown New York and be identified in that rally as GIs for Peace. We weren’t in uniform, but we did have these caps on that said, “GIs for Peace.” We were asked to march at the front of the rally, to be at the front of the march, as a sign from the Civilian Peace Movement that they respected and supported GIs and veterans who were speaking out against the war.
So I was doing that. I also posed for a poster that was produced by the Student Mobilization Committee that later became rather famous. The photograph was taken by the great artist Richard Avedon, and then it was colorized and turned into a very attractive and striking poster with a soldier standing with a dove on his wrist, and with the slogan, “Who has a better right to oppose the war?” I was the soldier who was posing for that poster.
And then there came a time when we heard about a petition that was being circulated by the Student Mob and by other peace groups, that was to appear in the New York Times the Sunday before the big moratorium mobilization rally in Washington in November of 1969. So we received it at Fort Hamilton. I circulated it in the barracks and at our apartments with the other GIs. We had about 35 of us from Fort Hamilton who signed that petition. It circulated at many other bases around the country and in the world. Eventually 1,365 active-duty service members signed this petition that appeared as a full-page ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times on November 9, 1969, which was just a few days before the big march on that following Saturday.
When that went public, the commanders at Fort Hamilton kind of flipped their lids. Very soon thereafter, we were all ordered to a so-called command information session. So, there’s a big auditorium. There’s a couple thousand soldiers there. The commanders are up there basically saying, “You’re all entitled to your opinions, but do not speak out in public. If there are any more of these petitions, there’s going to be trouble.” Basically, they were trying to threaten us and telling us that any more of speaking out in public would be unacceptable.
We were all ticked off at this, and we weren’t going to accept this kind of intimidation. We had no intention of stopping our anti-war activities. So, with our group at Fort Hamilton and with other GIs, we continued to go to anti-war events, and another petition came along, so we signed that petition, as well. Unfortunately, our commanders got wind of it before we were finished, so there was a series of meetings in our unit at Fort Hamilton where the commanders really heavily intimidated and threatened our group to withdraw our names.
It’s a long story, but we ended up having actually a meeting in the barracks to talk about this. Even though a majority of the troops in the unit wanted to submit our names to the petition to have it published, a slight majority agreed with one soldier said, “While I agree that we should speak out against the war, I don’t want to sign this petition because if we do we’re going to face punishments.” So, we had to withdraw our names, because we agreed to respect the opinion of the majority.
This was going on, and then the final straw, if you will, that forced the command to take action against us came in a very unusual and unintentional way. Being in the Army Band, part of your job is to play all of these right-wing events all around the New York area, parades, events by the American Legion, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or military glorification events when they have their ceremonies. So, it was really a drag to have that kind of a job, but it was better than the infantry, I guess.
So anyway, we were assigned to be playing a Fourth of July parade for an American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars event in Staten Island in the New York area. If you know New York, that part of Staten Island, western Staten Island, is very conservative. So we’re all depressed about doing another parade, but we’re getting ready to go. The day before, I got word from my girlfriend at the time, my fiancee, that there was a plan by the wives and girlfriends of some of the band members to have a anti-war protest at our performance, at the band parade. I didn’t think it was such a great idea, but the gals were planning this, and so they went ahead.
On the day of the parade, we all show up in uniform and doing our duty to play this parade, and along comes five, I think, of the gals, our wives and girlfriends, marching along with GI Wives for Peace signs, and shouting, “Nix on war,” and, “Fund peace not war.” So, all hell broke loose, basically. The people in the crowd were booing them and throwing things at them. And the guys in the band were staying in formation but we were making it clear to the command that we weren’t going to proceed if our girlfriends are being attacked by all these right-wingers in the crowd. So there was kind of like a negotiation went on. Eventually, the parade started and the wives did actually march right next to our band. It was a big scene. It got in all the newspapers. So, as you can imagine, the military really flipped their lid on this one, as well.
The next day, when we went back to duty on Monday, the commander came in and he was very angry, and said, “Everything is going to change now. We’re going to stop a lot of the military music and performance work that you do, and we’re just going to do spit and polish work.” lso several of the “troublemakers” received punitive assignments, including me. That was a very depressing day and everybody was angry because, as I mentioned, like half the guys had agreed to withdraw their names from the petition in order to avoid being punished, and then the crack-down came anyway.
Robert Raymond: Right.
David Cortright: Again, we decided, well, we’re not going to take this crap sitting down. We’ve got to figure out a way to fight back, but we didn’t know what to do. We felt like we had been very careful to follow army regulations. We protested off-duty, out of uniform, and we were simply exercising our first amendment rights to speak out against the war. We still did our army duty. We played in these army parades and things, but off duty, and when we had free time, we were speaking out against the war, and doing so consciously, as active-duty soldiers.
We felt that the army was suppressing our first amendment rights, but we didn’t know anything about the law, so we went to see the JAG attorney, the Judge Advocate General at Fort Hamilton. We didn’t know who this person was. We heard that he was kind of cool. So we walked in and he was very friendly. He immediately said, “What took you guys so long? I’ve been waiting for you.” Because of course the word about all of this was spreading around the base. And we said, “Isn’t this a violation of our first amendment rights? Can we sue the army?” He said, “I think you might be able to.” Basically, he laid out the whole legal strategy of how one could try to bring a case against the army over first amendment rights.
So, we filled out an Article 138 complaint, which is part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It’s a mechanism for redress of grievances. It’s almost never accepted by the military, but nonetheless, you have to go through these administrative procedures before you can have standing to go to federal court. So we did that, and then we filed for an emergency injunction to prevent myself and seven or eight of the other guys from being transferred out. So, we went to federal district court for our petition. This was in July of 1970.
Now, we were not granted our petition to stay the army’s action, but the court did agree to hold the case and to look at it pending the disposition of our Article 138 complaint, so it was a partial victory. But I went on transfer … I was transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas. Here’s one of the ironies of all of this. I was punitively transferred out of Fort Hamilton because I was identified as a troublemaker and a ringleader and organizer of the anti-war GIs on the base, and they sent me to Fort Bliss, which is a place that already had a very active GI movement group called GIs for Peace. They had an underground newspaper called the Gigline. When I got to Fort Bliss, I connected with the soldiers who were part of that group, GIs for Peace, and they told me that they were really welcoming having new blood, a new organizer to come in, me, because their three top organizers from before had just been punitively transferred out. So the army punitively transferred me from Fort Hamilton to another base where the GI organizers had been punitively transferred out. It was crazy.
Robert Raymond: So they ended up just kind of moving the organizers around.
David Cortright: Exactly. And because the movement was so widespread, they’d just transfer us to another place. It’s like, I mean, a different assignment as an organizer.
So, I continued all of the organizing work that I had been doing at Fort Hamilton down at Fort Bliss, and we had a much bigger group. We had more members. We had our own coffeehouse downtown and our own printing press. Meanwhile, the court case that we filed did continue, and we actually had a hearing federal court in December of 1970 before Judge Jack Weinstein, who was at that time, a young federal court judge, and later went on to have a distinguished career and a reputation as one of the great jurists of the American courts over the last several decades. He was very innovative and progressive. Weinstein heard the case and he ruled in our favor in, I think it was February of 1971, saying that the army had violated our constitutional rights by transferring us out and that I should be returned from Fort Bliss back to Fort Hamilton.
Then the army filed a motion to stay that action and to go to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The case went to the Second Circuit, and when they heard it, the judges ruled two to one against us, and they overturned the district court decision. But by then, my enlistment was up, I think right before the final decision was made, I got out in August of ’71.
So the court case was an interesting legal battle, but it was also a way to generate publicity. We got a lot of press about it. In a way, we were looked up to by a lot of fellow soldiers for suing the army and trying to stand up for the first amendment rights of other soldiers. But I was still then at Fort Bliss at that time, of course, and we continued to organize against the war. We had many actions by the soldiers there, protests, petitions.
In May of 1971, we had this action that was called Armed Farces Day, which we christened on the day of what is normally celebrated as so-called Armed Forces Day. Each May, there’s this celebration of the military. We figured out, well, we’ll do a celebration of the anti-war part of the military. So, we had a big festival, rally, at a park right near Fort Bliss, and we had about 1,000 people there, about half of whom were active-duty soldiers speaking out against the war and listening to music. It was just one of a number of actions that we organized among the soldiers there to express our opposition to the war.
Robert Raymond: So you mentioned that your fiancee … and it sounds like a few other people were quite supportive of your resistance, but there were also the folks like, you mentioned at Staten Island, for example, who weren’t. I’m wondering with your family, and just sort of, what was your broader sense of … Did you feel that most people you interacted with were supportive, or hostile? What would you say was the general reaction that you got?
David Cortright: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, among fellow soldiers, as I mentioned, most of us by 1969, certainly almost everybody by ’70, were opposed to the war. You could hardly find anybody in the barracks or among junior officers who had a good word to say about the war. The lifers and the officers still kept peddling the official line, but one got the sense that they didn’t believe in it either. Not that many were willing to speak out publicly, but many were supportive.
I remember at Fort Bliss, just to give another story, we had, as I mentioned, this underground newspaper, the Gigline, it was called. We would publish it so that it would be ready by pay day. Fort Bliss, as you may know, is in El Paso, right on the border with Juarez, Mexico, and traditionally on pay day, about half the base would go from the buses down to the downtown part of El Paso and then walk across the bridges to go party in Juarez. So we would publish our paper, have it out just a day or so before, and then all of us, the members of GIs for Peace would get there early to the bridges and we’d deploy ourselves on the walking bridges across. In those days, you could just walk across and there were like four or five of them as I recall.
So we’d have two or three of us on each bridge, and we’d be peddling the paper and asking for contributions. Of course, there’d be this flood of guys going across with money in their wallets to party over in Juarez, but we would talk to them about GIs for Peace and the war. Many of them would be totally supportive and they’d give us a buck or two for the paper and look at it, and just on those Friday nights, we would get our entire budget for the month. We’d get a few hundred dollars in donations. We’d distribute more than 1,000 copies of the newspaper, and really, it was a great way to socialize and connect with the other troops at the base. As I say, we would never get a hassle from anyone, like, “Why are you guys against the war?” Or, “You’re Commies, or traitors, or whatever.” It really was very strong support. And I think that was true, in general, in the culture by that time, by ’69 and ’70.
And there’s this myth that’s out there that civilians were hostile towards soldiers, and the troops were spit upon when they came back from Vietnam. To me, that’s a bunch of crap because almost all the civilians that I interacted with were very supportive of us, and especially those of us who were anti-war. So there was a strong sense that the soldiers were as much, or maybe more, against the war than the civilians. There is actually a pretty good case that could be made that if you look at the overall anti-war movement, it was very strong in the student sector in ’67, ’68, ’69, but by ’69 and ’70, it’s also very active in the military. Maybe the anti-war movement among civilians might have declined a bit as the draft calls began to diminish, but in the military, it increased and became very widespread.
In terms of my own family and the reception that I got, my mom, as I mentioned, she was working for the priests back in our parish. She was kind of frail and not in great health. Both her sons were in the army. My brother, Dick, was over in Vietnam, and I was in the States. She always said, “I don’t understand what this war is about. I don’t understand why my two sons are being called to this war.” So, she was not political, but she was certainly skeptical. I don’t think she quite understood what I was trying to do with all this public anti-war activity, but she was very tolerant and supportive.
My dad, on the other hand, he was basically a typical redneck. He was a working-class guy. He was a plumber. He worked in construction, as well. He never really understood or accepted what I was doing. We didn’t talk much in those days. We did not have a great relationship to begin with, and my being an anti-war activist probably made it worse for him. It’s unfortunate, but that’s part of the reality that we had to live in those days. We make those decisions to speak out, knowing you’re going to pay a price in different ways that you can’t always anticipate. I certainly didn’t expect or want to kind of lose touch with my dad, but that’s reality. That’s what happened.
Robert Raymond: So maybe, just in a nutshell, can you give listeners a little bit of context of what you’re up to now? Could you maybe talk a little bit about the work you’re currently doing as the executive director of the Committee for SANE Nuclear Policy, and the work that you’re doing around non-violent social change at the Kroc Institute?
David Cortright: Sure. It’s interesting that the experience of organizing against the war, inside the army, made me a peace activist and made me very interested in the problem of war. I studied more broadly, not just Vietnam, but in general. I read many books about this. I had a chance to go to the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, which was a center of creative anti-war progressive thinking then, and still today. They were organizing a PhD program at that time, and I was asked to participate and enroll in that program. I was asked to write a history of the soldiers anti-war movement that I had experienced, so I did that. That became the book Soldiers in Revolt, which was published initially in ’75, and then was republished in ’05 by Haymarket Books. That’s still available.
Through that, I met a lot of the movers and shakers in the Washington progressive community at the Institute for Policy Studies. After I finished the book, I went to work for one of the think tanks. And then some of the members of the board of directors of SANE, the Committee for SANE Nuclear Policy, were looking for a new executive director, and they heard that I was a pretty good organizer and came to talk to me. They asked me about it. I said, “Well, that looks like an interesting option,” because I recognized increasingly that it’s not just Vietnam. It’s the whole war system. It’s the system of militarism in American and the military-industrial complex that is driving not just the war in Vietnam, but the whole insanity of the military budget, and the greatest insanity of nuclear weapons and the continuing build-up of these weapons all through the decades.
So the opportunity to work against nuclear weapons as sort of the tip of the sword, if you will, of the whole military threat against human civilization, excited me as an opportunity. So I took that job and organized within SANE for the next decade from ’78 through ’88, as executive director. That was the time when the nuclear freeze movement emerged in response to the accelerating and worsening threat of nuclear weapons from the US and Soviet Union in those days. This is when Reagan came into office, especially.
So, I was in an organization that actually had diminished and was barely alive, actually when I went into it, to a group that grew very rapidly, all during the early ’80s. By the mid ’80s, we had more than 150,000 members at SANE, and then we merged with the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign to form SANE/FREEZE. And then we became the organization that still exists today, Peace Action, as a network of people across the country in chapters and as individual members, working to reverse the arms race and to resist militarism in America. So I was happy to do that.
But then I saw that there was a peace studies program at Notre Dame. This is where I went as an undergraduate. I came back one year to go to a football game actually, and I saw that they had a peace studies center and I went and talked to the people, and they were interested in having me come as a visiting fellow and write a book about the freeze movement, which I had just been part of. So I did that. That became the book called Peace Works: The Citizen’s Role In Ending The Cold War. And then I stayed basically at Notre Dame all during those years then and helped to build the peace studies center here, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
And I focused over the years on a number of issues. The centerpiece of my work is methods of non-violent social action, how to use the non-violent means that Gandhi and King and some of the other pioneers of social resistance developed and refined, as a tool for fighting against militarism, against racial injustice, for the environment, for women’s rights. And I developed a course, that I’m still teaching, that initially I called it Non-violent Social Change. Now I call it How to Change the World. But it’s quite popular with the undergraduates. I love it. Usually the students who come to this class are the ones who are already interested in activism. What I basically do is tell stories and help them understand what works or does not work in trying to organize for social resistance, drawing from ideas and lessons of Gandhi and King and so many others, but also telling the stories of the movements that I’ve been part of and that others have done so the students can not only be motivated in terms of their values, but also have the skills and the techniques for how one can be an effective organizer. So, I enjoy that, and at the same time, I’ve been managing a number of research projects here at the university.
Robert Raymond: Wow. I wish there was a course like that available when I was an undergraduate.
David Cortright: Yeah.
Robert Raymond: So maybe just to close out then, I’m wondering what are your thoughts on sort of the broader anti-war movement these days? Can you give us a bit of a temperature check on where things are at now from your perspective?
David Cortright: Well, today, I think we live in a very wonderful and exciting time in the sense of very widespread social mobilization and social resistance. You just think about the women’s march after Trump was elected, 4 million people or more nationwide showing up. And the March for our Lives being led by the students, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement. We’ve got a wide, very massive level of social resistance underway in many different sectors right now.
Now, the mobilization around specific war and peace issues is very limited, although even there, we’ve seen some important success. The recent vote in Congress to cut off US support for the Saudi war in Yemen is quite significant, in that it was an actual application of the War Powers Act that was adopted after the Vietnam debacle, and is a sign that there is a pretty strong sense among many people that these wars in the Middle East have been a complete catastrophe and that we need to pull back and cut back on militarism.
Unfortunately, the White House is going in the opposite direction of course with the huge military budget increase, and the rebuilding of the entire nuclear weapons complex. So it’s a very dangerous time. And we don’t see a movement at all equivalent to either the nuclear freeze campaign of the 1980s, or the Vietnam anti-war movement. On the other hand, we see this much larger, mobilization around a range of progressive issues and for social resistance.
So I think it means that today we’re in the age of intersectionality, which is so much talked about these days. What that means is there’s really one broad movement of people resisting corporate oppression, militarism, bigotry, and misogyny that is so prevalent in the ruling establishment in this country and elsewhere. And we float from one kind of cause to another, you know. Sure, like many, I was part of the women’s march. I was also part of the March for our Lives. We’ve done women’s actions here in Northern Indiana, and climate marches here. But we also go to vigils around the Yemen issue, and about the military budget issues.
So I think our role as progressives is to be part of that broader social resistance. Now we’re moving into a political season where it’s important to find a candidate for president and for all the candidates in Congress who are going to resist Trumpism and end this nightmare that we’re living through now. That’s the overriding objective and challenge of our times. If it’s four more years of this administration, I don’t even want to think of what that’s going to be like and what horrors will unfold from that. And so, everyone, I think, has to unite around an agenda to get rid of this administration and find an alternative.
And then from there, we would have the opportunity to begin to build again, to build for women’s equity, to build for addressing the climate challenges and the environment, and to begin to reduce the militarization that’s undermining so much of the hope for a better society here at home.
So, it’s a more complex setting. I think single movements, obviously they exist, but I think we, as soldiers and veterans who have spoken out, and anti-war people, need to see ourselves as part of this broader movement, and to really live and commit ourselves to intersectionality in the fullest sense of the term.
Robert Raymond: Well, I think that’s a great note to end on. Thanks so much for your time today and all the great work that you’ve been doing for the last several decades.
David Cortright: Thank you.
Robert Raymond: That was Vietnam-era veteran, scholar, and peace activist David Cortright. You’re listening to the Courage to Resist podcast, and I’m Robert Raymond. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance in and out of uniform for many involved with this campaign, to speak truth to power and keep alive the anti-war perspective on the US war in Vietnam. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support. Thank you to Jeff Paterson, our executive producer.
When I got drafted and sent to Fr. Leonard Wood, Missouri, in October 1967, I really never thought much about the morality of the Vietnam war, although I heard about it constantly. I was really only interested in staying out of the army, war or not. I don’t know if around Ft. Leonard Wood in 1967 there were any organized anti-war groups among the soldiers, but I know that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about it. It wasn’t long before I got my orders to go to Vietnam in April 1968, just 6 months after I got drafted.. I remember the day I left Ft. Leonard Wood on my 20-day leave before going to Vietnam, in May 1968. An MP got on the Greyhound bus I was on to take me to Chicago for my 20 day leave before going to Nam. That was unusual because Greyhound buses at Ft. Leonard Wood were rarely checked – only local bus lines. This was different – Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, and my orders said right at the top of the page ‘ No one under the rank of a full Colonel can leave this fort without General orders.” I often wonder what was worse – the Vietnam war or the racist war in my own country.