Peace Witness and Relief Efforts during the Vietnam War
Quaker action during the 1954-75 Vietnam War focused on three different areas – peaceful protest against the conduct of the war itself, counselling for American conscientious objectors of all faiths, and humanitarian aid to both North and South Vietnam. The AFSC’s International Relations Division was also involved in many diplomats' conferences aimed at ending the war.
Vietnam suffered badly during WWII and recovery was slow and difficult. By 1954, the country was split between the Chinese-backed North and the French-backed South. When Louis Schneider, later the Executive Secretary of the AFSC, travelled to Vietnam that year, he saw the problems for himself. 65-75k refugees were fleeing their homes, caught between the communist regime in the North and a failing government in the South. It was a vast problem that the AFSC did not have the money or personnel to tackle.
In the ensuing years, Quakers informally resisted the increasing US involvement in the war, but it wasn’t until 1963 – when President Diem of South Vietnam was assassinated and the news of Buddhist self-immolations began hitting the headlines – that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Friends Peace Conference jointly organised the first formal protest – issuing flyers and holding a vigil outside Philadelphia City Hall. Many young Americans were now facing the draft, and AFSC provided counselling for conscientious objectors of all faiths. Canadian Friends such as Nancy Pocock helped conscientious objectors who had fled to Canada.
In 1966, as US involvement in the war continued to escalate, the AFSC sponsored David and Mary Stickney to run a medical clinic in Quang Ngai Province, which by then was flooded with over 100k refugees. The clinic specialised in making prosthetic limbs, eventually dealing with as many as 65 cases a month. Throughout the war, the Stickneys refused to accept any military protection for the clinic.
In the autumn of 1966, aware that the need for humanitarian aid was even greater in North Vietnam than in the South, the AFSC applied for permission to send $6k of aid to North Vietnam. The US government refused on grounds that the North Vietnamese would not allow independent observers to ensure the aid reached civilians only.
The AFSC knew that to proceed would put them in violation of the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, and backed down. In response, a new, more radical group called ‘A Quaker Action Group (AQAG)’ formed and took charge of the operation for North Vietnam.
Money began to be funnelled through the Canadian Friends Service Committee. The US Treasury department asked the Royal Bank of Canada to stop cheques being paid to CFSC. When that request was refused, they wrote to US banks asking them not to honour the cheques.
An ad hoc Quaker underground then came into effect. The personal bank accounts of Canadian Friends were used to channel money to the CFSC. American Friends drove over the border carrying bundles of cash, while others walked over the Peace Bridge from Buffalo NY to Niagara, Ontario carrying medical supplies.
In February 1967, AQAG chartered a sailing vessel loaded with medical supplies, particularly penicillin, and sailed it into Haiphong harbour in North Vietnam. While there, they were able to create contacts between the North Vietnamese and other peace organisations, such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. On their return to the US, all the crew had their passports confiscated.
AQAG’s acts of civil disobedience were deeply controversial among American Quakers. Nevertheless, in 1968, the AFSC followed suit. Once again they asked for permission to send aid to North Vietnam and once again it was denied. This time, they purchased $25k of medical supplies including a type of penicillin used to treat secondary infections (and which was therefore less likely to be used to treat soldiers on the battlefield). Each syringe was printed with the red and black Quaker star. They sent off the shipment and simultaneously released a statement explaining what they had done. It included the words:
“Sometimes our service has been among those other men call enemies, sometimes with those others call friends. They are all Children of God.”
In June 1969, veteran peace builder Joseph Elder travelled to Hanoi in North Vietnam to assess priorities for medical aid. He was surprised when the requests included equipment for open heart surgery. An endemic problem in Vietnam was rheumatic fever, for which heart surgery was the only remedy. The equipment was provided.
In the final years of the war, the AFSC’s International Relations Division was involved in many diplomats' conferences aimed at ending the war.