US Catholic Faith in Real Life

An early call to get out

By Meinrad Scherer-Emunds | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Justice
In 1967 U.S. Catholic editors call for a swift end to the Vietnam War.

"It is our contention that the war in Vietnam is wrong, is unjust, is immoral," the editors of U.S. Catholic wrote in their December 1967 editorial-one of the few instances in its history in which the magazine took an official editorial position.

The editors had come to the conclusion "that the war in Vietnam must be ended before it does irreparable harm to our nation. We believe that it is immoral and that the American people, imploring the grace and mercy of Almighty God, must insist that it be concluded without delay."

More than two years after the United States had committed ground troops, and with public opinion in the country becoming more divided, the editors could no longer "shut out the sounds of the bitter, dirty struggle that is tearing our country apart."

And as the Catholic peace movement-including Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker, the Berrigan brothers, Thomas Merton, and the Catholic Peace Fellowship-was growing more vocal in its protests, Catholic journalists also began to question the morality of the war.

After the New York-based, independent liberal journal Commonweal, U.S. Catholic became only the second Catholic publication to condemn the Vietnam War. It took the U.S. Catholic bishops until 1971 to finally speak out against it.

The editors insist they are no pacifists: "While we sympathize with the pacifist argument, we do not espouse it here." But they have come to see "that some of the means we are using in Vietnam are hard or impossible to justify." In particular they object to the use of napalm because it "cruelly injures and permanently scars the unfortunate people it falls on" and can be used "only indiscriminately, afflicting both combatants and non-combatants alike."

In addition, they cite "three terrible consequences of the war": its brutalizing effect both on soldiers and on those at home; the growing bitterness and hostility between proponents and opponents; and the enormous loss of life and deadly drain of resources.

The editorial goes out of its way to say that "we in no way impugn the sincerity or good will of those who believe that the war is just, moral, even righteous." By contrast, few of the letters to the editor opposing the editorial return that same courtesy. More than a few are "unprintable," the editors later report, and the staff received several threatening phone calls.

In one of the printable responses a reader calls the editorial "an insult to decent Americans," while another denounces "such dribble and comfort to the devil." "Has your magazine gone Communist?" asks a reader from Kentucky, and another letter writer expresses her "hope that the pope reprimands all of you, and if he doesn't, I'm sure God will."

The overwhelming sentiment in subsequent "You may be right" sections, however, is one of gratitude. Thomas Merton thanks the editors "for taking a clear, courageous stand on the immorality and stupidity of the Vietnam War."

It is probably safe to say that the editorial generated the largest number of letters to the editor in the magazine's 75-year history; it certainly received the most attention from prominent opinion leaders in both the church and the larger American society.

Kudos come from such luminaries as Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith ("one of the most effective things I have ever seen written on Vietnam"), Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Bishop Paul Schmitt of Metz, France. U.S. Senators Mark Hatfield and George McGovern applaud it, as do feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether, U.N. Secretary General U Thant, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and peace scholars Gordon Zahn and Richard McSorley, S.J.

Almost forty-three years later, one can't help but wonder how much misery could have been averted if government leaders had heeded the call of that 1967 editorial. Instead, the bloody war would go on for another seven years, leading to the deaths of 3 to 4 million Vietnamese, 1.5 to 2 million Laotians and Cambodians, and 58,159 U.S. soldiers. Wrong, unjust, and immoral, indeed.

This article is the seventh in a series to celebrate the 75th anniversary of U.S. Catholic, appearing in the July 2010 issue (Vol. 75, No. 7, page 51).