Did America Commit War Crimes in Vietnam?

tags: war crimes, Vietnam War, war, Russell Tribunal

Cody J. Foster is a doctoral candidate in history and a presidential fellow at the University of Kentucky.

On Dec. 1, 1967, the last day of the International War Crimes Tribunal’s second session, antiwar activists from around the world gathered in Roskilde, Denmark. The panel, also known as the Russell Tribunal after its founder, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, had spent a year investigating America’s intervention in Southeast Asia and was now ready to announce its findings. Tribunal members unanimously found the United States “guilty on all charges, including genocide, the use of forbidden weapons, maltreatment and killing of prisoners, violence and forceful movement of prisoners” in Vietnam and its neighbors Laos and Cambodia.

Russell often stated that he was inspired by the Nuremberg trials. But the Russell Tribunal was not a government body or treaty organization; it had neither the legal authority nor the means to carry out justice after its findings. The tribunal’s mission was to raise awareness about the impact of the war on Vietnamese civilians. “The Nuremberg Tribunal asked for and secured the punishment of individuals,” Russell stated during the sessions. “The International War Crimes Tribunal is asking the peoples of the world, the masses, to take action to stop the crimes.”

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre presided over the tribunal and helped to recruit 23 other internationally recognized academics, scientists, lawyers, former heads of state and peace activists whose self-professed moral consciousness persuaded them to accept the tribunal’s invitation. Across two separate sessions, between May 2 and May 10, 1967, in Stockholm, and between Nov. 20 and Dec. 1, 1967 in Roskilde, the members weighed the evidence that each had found during several fact-finding trips to Vietnam between the two sessions.

These missions allowed tribunal members to assess the damage the war had wrought on civilians and verify firsthand the claims heard during the tribunal’s first session. One such mission, which included the labor activist Lawrence Daly, the journalist Tariq Ali and the writer Carol Brightman, returned with indisputable proof that the United States Air Force had deliberately bombed civilian facilities and infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, churches and villages.

Other members who scouted the countryside encountered civilians who agreed to travel to Denmark and speak before the tribunal’s second session. The first witness, a 37-year old Vietnamese farmer, exposed his charred body before the tribunal and explained through an interpreter than an American plane had dropped phosphorus bombs on his family farm in Quang Nam province in South Vietnam while he plowed the field. ...

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