MCC and the anti-Vietnam War movement

[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Many MCC constituents in the United States in the early 1960s were still quite distinct from society, thanks both to the theological principle of separation from the world and to a history of cultural isolation. If not for some of their sons and daughters living and working in Vietnam as MCC workers, and some of their sons resisting cooperation with military conscription, these factors may have prevented any significant engagement
with the anti-Vietnam War movement on the part of Anabaptists in the U.S. The work and witness of these young men and women committed to living out Christ’s way of peace, even in a world at war, pushed Anabaptist churches in the U.S. to greater engagement with public policy issues, including decisions of war and peace. This article will examine how during the Vietnam War MCC slowly learned to address public policy issues raised by the war.

As MCC workers in Vietnam gained a first-hand view of the war and the suffering it caused, their reports began to have a profound impact on the churches that had sent them. An MCC letter to the White House in November 1967 reflected the concerns that arose among MCC workers carrying out relief efforts in a context of war: “we cannot serve the victims of war in Vietnam without seriously questioning those activities of the United States which cause the suffering we seek to alleviate. Our consciences protest against providing clothing and food and medical care for refugees while remaining silent about a policy which generates new refugees each day.”

MCC staff sent numerous letters and delegations to the White House during the course of the war. MCC Executive Secretary William Snyder sent a letter to President Lyndon Johnson dated June 2, 1965, expressing “deep concern over the enlarging of the war in Vietnam with its consequent toll of human suffering.” MCC sent every member of congress special issues of The Mennonite and The Gospel Herald from January 1966 that presented the perspective of Mennonite workers in Vietnam. In 1972, MCC coordinated a delegation of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ leaders to the White House. The leaders’ prepared statement implored the U.S. government to cease all military aid to Vietnam and urged the government to “Repent! Turn about, make a fresh start!” MCC’s Washington Office coordinated this and other visits by MCC workers and denominational leaders to address public policy concerns arising from the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

This type of public policy advocacy was new territory for MCC’s engagement with government, as the focus began to shift from speaking on behalf of conscientious objectors from constituent churches to speaking on behalf of friends and partners halfway around the world who were suffering from our government’s policies. Some members of MCC’s supporting churches viewed this kind of advocacy as inappropriate for a church agency. MCC organized a major consultation with Anabaptist church leaders in December 1966 to discuss concerns about the church’s peace witness in the public arena and MCC’s role in that witness. In the aftermath of the consultation, MCC continued to engage in active resistance to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War through public policy advocacy, even as many of its Mennonite and Brethren in Christ supporters continued to view such advocacy incompatible or at least in tension with traditional nonresistant commitments and practices.

Meanwhile, dozens of young men from Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in the U.S. protested the war by resisting the draft. Society’s deep divisions about the war played out in a Mennonite landscape of theological concerns about allegiance, discipleship and civil disobedience. MCC Peace Section staff member Walton Hackman provided counseling and resources to many young draft resisters. The Mennonite Church
affirmed resistance to the draft as a valid application of its teaching about peace and nonresistance at its national convention in 1969.

MCC workers from Vietnam who returned to the U.S. were widely sought after for speaking engagements in churches, schools and civic organizations. Atlee Beechy estimates that he spoke to 150 different groups in his first year back from MCC service in Vietnam. As people with intimate knowledge about the war in Vietnam, former MCC workers participated in anti-war mobilizations back in the U.S. Following his MCC
Vietnam service, Doug Hostetter worked for the People’s Peace Treaty project and traveled to both South and North Vietnam with the U.S. National Student Association.

The Vietnam War awakened the conscience of many regarding the payment of taxes for war. Delton Franz, the MCC Washington Office’s first director, and his wife Marian joined others in promoting the nation’s first peace tax legislation, known as the World Peace Tax Fund, introduced by Ron Dellums in 1972. MCC created a Taxes for Peace Fund in 1972 in response to the desire of its Anabaptist supporters to send their withheld war tax dollars to support MCC’s peace work.

MCC workers in Vietnam also engaged in behind-the-scenes work that resulted in significant contributions to the anti-war effort in the U.S. In 1973, MCC worker Pat Hostetter Martin introduced a journalist to several persons, including a young Vietnamese woman handcuffed to her hospital bed. This woman, a political prisoner, had been beaten and sexually assaulted by South Vietnamese soldiers. These connections facilitated by Hostetter Martin resulted in a four-part series on political prisoners in the
New York Times highly critical of the war.

MCC did not, to be sure, fully engage with the leaders and tactics of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States. Yet, through support of conscientious objectors to the war, its growing advocacy work, its support for war tax resistance and its on-the-ground witness to the atrocities of the war, MCC developed its own parallel witness against the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War, a witness in keeping with its theological understandings, its relationships and work in Vietnam and a church support base still cautious about advocacy to government.

Titus Peachey worked with MCC for more than thirty years, most recently as peace education coordinator for MCC U.S. He currently serves on the board of Legacies of War, the leading U.S.-based educational and advocacy organization working to address the impact of conflict in Laos during the Vietnam War-era, including removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO).

Learn More

Legacies of War website: legaciesofwar.org

Bush, Perry. “The Political Education of Vietnam Christian Service, 1954-1975.” Peace and Change. 27/2 (April 2002): 198-224.

King, Martin Luther. “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence: Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam.” Sermon delivered at Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967. Available at http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/.

MCC opened its office in Washington, D.C. in 1968 to focus Anabaptist advocacy efforts about conscription and against the Vietnam War. Today, the MCC Washington Office calls on  the U.S. government to assume responsibility for the deadly legacies of Agent Orange/Dioxin. To learn more about the Washington Office’s work, visit washington.mcc.org.

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