Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 2017 documentary The Vietnam War is a brilliant antiwar film that humanizes the enemy and laments the brutal slaughter of roughly three million soldiers and civilians for absolutely nothing. It is also a ringing indictment of those American presidents who waged the war, consistently lied to the American public about how they were waging it, and sent tens of thousands of young American soldiers to fight knowing it could not be won. As such, it also offers an urgent warning about the nature of the wars we continue to wage.
Yet The Vietnam War has some blind spots. Although the antiwar movement is featured prominently, Burns and Novick do not do justice to its massive public support and substantial role in bringing the war to a swifter end. At the root of this omission is the fact that the film never mentions the interfaith antiwar movement. Burns and Novick feature Martin Luther King Jr.’s courageous speech against the war at Riverside Chapel in Harlem, but it is never connected to the larger interreligious peace movement that had gotten underway several years earlier. In fact, Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist activists were at the forefront of the movement, and their leadership constituted the greatest example of interfaith peace activism in our nation’s history.
In the summer of 1963, almost two years before the United States officially had ground troops in Vietnam and at least a year before there was any recognizable peace movement, Catholic Worker co-founder and peace activist Dorothy Day led the first Vietnam War protests. In 1964, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Tom Cornell, Martin Corbin, and Jim Forest co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship. That November, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, dubbed “the pastor of the peace movement” by Catholic pacifist John Dear, hosted a three-day retreat at his monastery in Kentucky on the spiritual roots of protest. The retreat was attended by people of all faiths and helped in spreading the movement of nonviolent resistance.
In 1965, interfaith peace activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel formed the Clergy and Laity Concerned about the War in Vietnam (CALCAV) with Daniel Berrigan and then-Lutheran theologian Richard Neuhaus. They were soon joined by King, Harvey Cox, William Sloane Coffin, and Reinhold Niebuhr, making CALCAV the largest religious peace group in the country.
Heschel, who claimed to have been jolted out of his academic study by injustice and warfare, was the most powerful and influential Jewish voice in the movement (“To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.”). As early as July 1964, he had traveled to Kentucky to discuss theology and peace strategies with Merton. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh claimed that he too was unable to remain in the meditation halls while villages were being bombed around him. Proclaiming, “If it isn’t engaged Buddhism, it isn’t Buddhism,” Nhat Hanh came to the United States to “teach peace.” He worked closely with Merton and Daniel Berrigan, and, in May 1966, he addressed the monks in Merton’s monastery.