Staughton Lynd Gave Voice to a Forgotten History of American Radicalism

Staughton Lynd, who died earlier this month, played a prominent role in the antiwar movement and documented the radicalism of the 20th-century working class. His work should be read by anyone interested in understanding the history of the Left.

Staughton Lynd (C) was splashed with red paint at a peace March in Washington, 1965. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

In April 2010, I traveled from Toronto to Washington, DC, to meet and talk with Staughton Lynd, the eminent historian of American radicalism and labor lawyer, as a young historian looking for direction and purpose in life. Lynd was speaking at a memorial for his comrade and fellow radical Howard Zinn, who passed away earlier that January. Lynd spoke movingly about his late friend and ridiculed attempts to attack the value of Zinn’s historical writings. As the event came to a close we stood up, held hands, and sang “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” the civil rights anthem which helped many get through some of the darkest days of the African American freedom movement.

What stuck with me the most about this event was when Lynd passed around an invitation to fellow historians and scholars to consider organizing teach-ins in their communities against the latest buildup to the war on Afghanistan. The callout stated that we should partner “with anti-war veterans’ organizations in staging these teach-in events.” It added: “The partnering of academic speakers with anti-war veterans, who have first-hand experience based on their deployment in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, will strengthen the presentations and increase understanding of the current U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and the Middle East.” This firsthand experience by soldiers, Lynd and Zinn both firmly believed, would add an important layer to our understanding of war and conflict that is seldom heard or listened to by the public, let alone in the hallowed halls of academia.

We Won’t Go

The idea of allowing war resisters to tell their stories to a broader audience was not an invention of Staughton or Alice Lynd, an activist in the antiwar movement as well as Staughton’s long-term collaborator and wife. In October 1965, Lynd sat alongside David Mitchell at a debate on the draft at Yale University, where he was then an assistant professor of history. Mitchell was the first non-pacifist, noncooperator with the Selective Service System to argue that he would refuse induction on the basis not only of his conscience, but domestic and international law embodied by the US Constitution, the Nuremberg principles of 1950, and the Charter of the United Nations.

On June 30, 1966, Lynd likewise sat alongside the first active-duty soldiers at the Community Church of New York City when they stated they would refuse orders to fight in Vietnam. The Fort Hood Three – Dennis Mora, James Johnson, and David Samas — explicitly argued the war in Vietnam was “immoral, illegal, and unjust” and that they would not participate in war crimes or crimes against humanity.

In both cases, Mitchell and the Fort Hood Three would be sentenced to jail for their refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. Lynd stood alongside them in solidarity, knowing full well he could potentially face five years in jail and/or a $10,000 fine for aiding and abetting their resistance.

Beginning in late August 1965, Alice Lynd began counseling draft resisters and conscientious objectors in the Lynds’ apartment on Court Street in New Haven, just blocks from Yale University. Alice was looking for a way to participate in the movement that was consistent with the fact that she was a nursery school teacher and a mother. In October 1966, she began in earnest collecting the stories of conscientious objectors, non-pacifist noncooperators, draft dodgers to Canada, and military resisters like the Fort Hood Three for an edited collection entitled We Won’t Go: Personal Accounts of War Objectors, which would be published in September 1968.

The impetus behind the book was to demonstrate to other young people facing the draft that they were not alone in facing the life-and-death decision of being drafted and potentially fighting in Vietnam. Moreover, Alice hoped the book would provide help to the parents of these youthful resisters in trying to understand what their children were doing.

Later, when the Lynds moved to Chicago in the summer of 1967, the draft resistance movement was in full bloom. Thousands of young Americans were openly defying the draft and the war. When riots broke out in Chicago — first in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968 and then at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968 — Lynd could be heard and seen talking to Illinois National Guardsmen with their gas masks around their necks, holding their rifles and bayonets.

He believed it was important to reach out to the troops and encourage the antiwar movement to do the same. With parts of Chicago burning in the aftermath of King’s assassination, on April 6, Lynd was recorded by WIN magazine as saying to the guardsmen:

We want to talk to you. […] Think what this means … a group of peaceful citizens come to talk to you and you meet them with tear gas and bayonets. […] We don’t want to hurt you. We want to talk to you. […] Repression won’t solve this problem.

In calmer moments, a new way of relating to the nascent draft resistance movement emerged. Alice began to reimagine her role as a draft counsellor as one in which she and the counselee met at the table as “two experts.” Alice would later describe the fact she was an expert in the Selective Service law and conscientious objection while the counselee was an expert in their own life and their reasons for questioning the war or the draft.

These two experts could come together in a way that contemporary draft counseling memos and training sessions were not able to meaningfully convey. By the summer of 1969, Alice would become coordinator of the entire Chicago-area draft counseling services for the American Friends Service Committee and initiate a series of experimental clinics which would help newly trained draft counsellors.

In many respects, the Lynds’ apartment in New Haven and their home in the South Side of Chicago were unofficial headquarters of the resistance movement to Vietnam. Piles of correspondence from draft and military resisters, some of them in prison, filled the Lynds’ living space. These letters were organized alongside drafts of speeches, articles, and book chapters. Newsletters and bulletins were filed alongside pamphlets and other movement ephemera. Countless meetings were held in their Court Street apartment and South Bennet Avenue home with attendees sitting on the Lynds’ hardwood floors.

As draft resistance groups began to wane in 1969, Staughton encouraged groups across the country to send him their organization’s papers or deposit them in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

Following in the footsteps of Alice, Staughton and Michael Ferber, an indicted coconspirator in the Boston Five draft resistance trial, cooperated in the writing of one of the most important books on the anti-draft movement, The Resistance.

On the afternoon of February 16, 1969, the Lynds hosted members of the Chicago Area Draft Resisters (CADRE) to sit around in a circle in their home and tell the story of how they became involved in the draft resistance movement and the origins of their group. As the reel-to-reel tape begins to spin and crackle, Staughton’s voice can be heard, along with the joyous sounds of a young toddler crawling around the floor (perhaps their daughter Martha Lynd, then just two years old). As Lynd introduces the idea for the book, which would become The Resistance published in 1971, he insists that the seemingly detached work of history has real value: he feels “passionately, that the very process of trying to do what we’re about to do this afternoon can be useful to people.”

This remarkable recording is perhaps one of the first instances of Lynd defining what he would later that year call “guerrilla history” or “oral history from below.” While Staughton and Alice Lynd are famous for doing oral history with rank-and-file workers from the 1930s and the publication of their seminal Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers in 1973, the Lynds began doing oral history first with draft resisters.

At the very moment Lynd was blacklisted from the academy for his opposition to the war in Vietnam, unable to find full-time work in the university as a historian, when his influential Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism was published the year before, he was experimenting and expanding what it meant to do history from below. For Lynd, it was essential to bring those engaging in the movement together to talk about their experiences, successes, and failures. This was doing history, whether the historian was there or not to record it, and it was high time that professional historians recognized that ordinary people made history too.

As Lynd explained in December 1969, lifting up and recording the voices of those resisting the war in Vietnam, “by writing history of opposition, one can, in a small way, step out in front of the chariot of power.”

When the Bush administration illegally invaded and occupied Iraq in March 2003, Lynd was there, one more time, holding his hand out to those all-volunteer soldiers who said like many before them: I am not going to participate in this stinking war. This time, he was there as a lawyer and a historian, and he offered his services to those facing Goliath in the courts, attempting to justify their resistance on the basis of domestic and international law. He filed several friend of the court briefs and represented one soldier whose contract with the military was stop-lossed (extended beyond the period of service).

Alice and Staughton Lynd in Youngstown, Ohio, on July 6, 2009. (Diana Ludwig / Flickr)

As a historian, Lynd joined the newly formed Historians Against the War and participated in its oral history working group. Just like in April 2010, he encouraged his fellow historians to organize events with antiwar veterans. Lynd participated in many of these events during the global “war on terror,” such as when he was a jurist at the Citizen’s Hearing on the Legality of US Actions in Iraq: The Case of Lt Ehren Watada in Tacoma, Washington, from January 20–21, 2007. At this hearing, it was the testimony of the veterans of the Iraq War which had the most impact on him.

In Lynd’s final book, written with Alice, entitled Moral Injury and Nonviolent Resistance: Breaking the Cycle of Violence in the Military and Behind Bars, the Lynds grappled with the concept of “moral injury” or the act someone doing, seeing, or failing “to prevent something that deeply offends their sense of right and wrong.” In this innovative analysis, the Lynds argued that soldiers, veterans, and prisoners were equally capable of experiencing moral injury. When it came to the question of soldiers and war resistance, the Lynds concluded that “for the foreseeable future individuals and small groups of service men and women who are confronted with orders perceived to be unlawful and immoral may have to step forward in the knowledge that they may be punished if they say No but with faith in the possibility of a better future.” They asked “whether anything other than rejection of warfare and taking action in affirmation of life can truly bring about healing.”

After a lifetime commitment to peace and justice, and stepping in front of the chariot of power, Staughton and Alice Lynd offer us an exemplary model to emulate, even if their shoes seem too large to fill. Ultimately, Moral Injury and Nonviolent Resistance is a crowning achievement on a lifetime of service to the United States and the world in opposing war and militarism.