Defining Pacifism in Literary History: An Examination of Vietnam War Era Poetry As It Relates to Pacifist Philosophies

“Come on fathers, don't hesitate,
Send 'em off before it's too late.
Be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a box.”

So sang a group of hippies1) on the brink of the Vietnam War in 1965, and again at Woodstock at the height of the war’s tensions. The post-WWII atmosphere in America was one of troubling circumstances. Not only was the country healing from the worst war in written history, but a devastating nuclear bomb threatened to obliterate the home front at any moment. And before our country had gotten over the war in Korea, our government was committing troops by the thousands in Vietnam to fight for a cause they did not understand and to face an enemy that they could not match. To reflect this national distress, many prominent poets and songwriters of the times wrote works of horrifying imagery, of genocide, of all of the disquieting facets of war. James Tate writes of the Great War: 2)

“Your face did not rot like the others — the co-pilot, for example, I saw him yesterday. His face is corn-mush: his wife and daughter, the poor ignorant people, stare as if he will compose soon.”

Rarely in the past had war invoked such graphic and striking words of the suffering and grief that it caused; for thousands of years, war, and the cultivation of one’s nation was viewed as glorifying and honorable. However, as America plunged into Vietnam, society, writers and poets included, began shifting away from these notions of both realism and glorification of war and towards a movement of pacifism. Though the undeniable horrors of war could not be omitted in literature, an emphasis began to be placed rather on the prospects of peace. More than that, many writers and poets began to embrace the ideals of pacifism beyond the simple idea of peace such as peaceful demonstration, civil disobedience, and decentralization of government.

Society began to support the pacifist ideas preached so long ago by philosophies like Confucianism after being bombarded by notions of conquest and self-serving patriotism for thousands of years. Confucian ideals hold that humans must strive to live in a just, harmonious society. Further, the Confucian favors prudence to mere courage or glory; to sacrifice one’s life in an untimely fashion would not befit a wise man. More than that, to glorify war and to partake in the conquest of other nations is not fit for a ruling nation. In accordance, Lao Tsu satisfies many pacifist principles in the Tao Te Ching:3)

“To find glory in victory
is to savor killing people,
and if you savor killing people
you’ll never guide all beneath heaven.” 

Lao Tsu seems to assert here that nations of conquest, though they may prosper at some point in history, are not fit to function as a world power. Furthermore, one could interpret this passage to mean that nations which violate pacifist ideals and place assertiveness and self-importance above the general wellbeing will eventually falter. Lao Tsu goes on to write, “When so many people are being killed / It should be done with tears and mourning. / And victory too should be conducted like a funeral.” 4) The point here is fairly clear: Although nations may temporarily prosper from these self-serving notions of glory and conquest, human life and the common good must be placed above any form of patriotism or arrogance. The Tao Te Ching harmonizes with many pacifist ideals that began to emerge as a result of the war in Vietnam.

But why has pacifism emerged from the war in Vietnam and not from World War II, when so many lives were lost? The answer lies in the motivation and circumstances behind each war. In WWII, millions of lives were at stake, and a tyrannous nation threatened the world; many would argue that our government had no choice but to enter the war. However, Vietnam is a different case entirely. Our government placed us there by choice, committing our sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters, by the thousands to die for some unknown cause — to fight some communist menace on the other side of the world.

Society had the right, and for some, the duty to demonstrate against the war; not only was the cause itself questionable, but the stacks were laid so high against the Americans that victory by any practical definition was impossible. Naturally, the people began to embrace and promote ideals that preached peace and reform of this military machine that had consumed the government. The people were not only arguing for peace now, but also for a reform of a government that had made its citizens walking war stories.

The implications of pacifism on the American political system can easily be overlooked but are crucial when assessing its place in history. Pacifism calls for a decentralization of the national government. Pacifists hold the belief that for a true adherence to democratic institutions, government hierarchies must be broken down into local systems. It is no coincidence that the pacifist movement overlapped with several other social developments — the anti-government movement in particular. The young members of these landmarks of social progress were among the first in America to incorporate peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience, principle ideologies of pacifism, on a large scale. In “Winter Soldiers,” Donas John writes of demonstrators in the early ‘70s:5)

“I have seen human hands
make peace signs
out of small windows
in a police van,
on their way to an unknown place,
The future was unknown
but themselves they knew
the present they owned.”

These “winter soldiers” can be interpreted as demonstrators, reformers — obviously pacifists. There they were: tossed into captivity with no idea in the world what may have lied in store for them. Yet this overwhelming feeling that what they were doing was right — that they could overcome these chains, just as they could overcome the social barriers to pass their message of peace and reform — led them to know that it was their time; the militarists’ days were almost through, and a new generation was paving a way to a new America and a new world.

Allen Ginsberg, a member of this radical generation, takes a more abstract view of the significance of pacifism on mankind to point out the faults in our attitudes regarding war as well as to challenge society to dispute the “amnesia” and “television language” of the corporate media and the general direction of our government. A powerful point that Ginsberg makes regarding pacifism is its natural rooting in the religions of the world:6)

“Sacred Heart my Christ acceptable
Allah the Compassionate One
Jahweh Righteous One
all Knowledge-Princes of Earth-man, all
ancient Seraphim of heavenly Desire, Devas, yogis
& holymen I chant to —
Come to my lone presence
into this Vortex named Kansas,
I lift my voice aloud,
make Mantra of American language now,
I here declare the end of the War!”

Ginsberg names countless religious gods and prophets and proclaims in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” that if any of them were given a chance to speak their will to the world, they would end the horrible war in Vietnam (or figuratively, any form of war) immediately. True enough, most religions, from Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and ironically enough, Christian teachings, have always been anti-militaristic in nature; war should be regarded as nothing more than overcoming evil.

The point Ginsberg makes here highlights the blaring moral inconsistencies of those running off to war despite holding a faith that condemns it. How can we call ourselves Christians and Muslims when we deny that faith which is so heavily rooted in pacifism? All religions, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism — they all teach similar ethical principles. They all preach for followers to cultivate humanity, not break it down, and to place human life above self-importance. It is unfortunate that in a world so overflowing with religious beliefs so many fail to respect some of the most important principles of all.

Clearly there was an emerging movement within literature of the Vietnam Era. Pacifism was explored either directly or indirectly in much of said literature during and after the war. It could be said that nearly all poems dealing explicitly about Vietnam point away from the war itself; to do so would be to diverge from the typical style of graphic realism that emerged following World War I. Many Vietnam era poems instead seem to point toward matters of common apprehension as analogous for the war. Bruce Weigl, in his contemporary work, “A Romance,” describes a man — a conquistador, one with warrior virtues. He knows only one way to catch the eye of a woman:7)

“It is always like this with me in bars, 
wanting women I know
I’ll have to get my face 
punched bloody to love.”

It is always like this, he tells us. He will not deal politely with those he interprets as enemies; there will be no metaphorical buying of a drink for anyone. There is only one way to go about taking what he wants; that is to take and to conquer; naturally afterwards he tells tales of his prowess:8)

“I don’t sleep anyway so I go to bars
and tell my giant lies to women
who have heard them from me,
from the thousands of me
out on the town with our impossible strategies
for no good reason but ourselves
who are holy.”

In every bar, there is he is, the American, the thwarted hero, applying his “impossible strategies,” too far gone in his parody of romantic aspiration to remember whether it was worth his pains. In fact, the parody of a warrior ideal, the narrator’s obsession with one last brawl or one great lie to affirm his own sense of “holiness,” his sullied romance after some all-but-forgotten idea of heroism — this seems to be the spirit which put us in Vietnam in the first place. However, it is Weigl’s emphasis on the narrator’s motivations behind bar fights and lies that seems most intriguing. The Encyclopedia of Pacifism declares that the pacifist must strive to “return good for evil, to cultivate humanity, to refrain from assertiveness and self-importance.” 9)

Remember from the Tao Te Ching that to find glory in victory is to condemn one self to eventual inferiority. The nation of conquest is not fit to rule. If the narrator goes from bar to bar, fighting man after man, spreading lie after lie merely for his own sense of sanctity, Weigl, as well as the pacifist, would have you believe that he would eventually falter; whether from lost romance or lost bar fights, he will never achieve his aspirations, just as the nation of conquest will never “guide all beneath heaven.” 10)

In harmony with the notions of prudence and humanity, nonviolence has always been a pillar of the pacifist philosophy and is a principle that has surely lingered within contemporary poetry. As we saw in Donas John’s “Winter Soldiers,” non-violence does not mean doing nothing. Rather, it means putting forth the overwhelming effort required to overcome evil with good. It relies not on muscles or armaments but on moral courage and self-control. After all:11)

“If violence is answered by violence, the result is a physical struggle...And when at last victory comes to one or the other parties, this final outcome of physical struggle bears no relation to the rights or wrongs of the case; nor, in most instances, does it provide any lasting settlement to the dispute at issue.”

Therefore, pacifists — poets, demonstrators, and great thinkers alike — write against the war, march against the war; they do anything and everything peaceful in order to stop the endless physical struggle — the inevitable cycle of one war begetting another. Millen Brand, marching against war at Moji Station in Japan, writes of an elderly man he met awaiting new demonstrators:12)

“For fifty-five years
I have been walking around Japan
Writing haiku.”
“What kind?” I ask him.
“All kinds. Country scenes,
nature, the seasons, but mainly
in the last twenty years
haiku against war.”
“And now you’re marching with us.”
“Every year I’ve marched against war.
I march and I write.
I’ve written thousands of haiku.” 
Seventeen syllables,
each a breath
against death.”

Brand, like his new Japanese friend, had dedicated his life to spreading the wisdom and love of pacifism. “Each a breath against death” — this powerful close to the poem praises the painstaking, sacrificial nature of pacifists; like Donas John’s “Winter Soldiers,” the Japanese man had made countless sacrifices in his life to spend it marching and writing day after day, all because of the overwhelming feeling that what he was doing was right. With every breath he takes against the evils of the world, and with every step his fellow demonstrators take against war, “they knew the present they owned.” 13)

Critics of pacifism often make the argument that the pacifist can achieve no real victory; as strongly as they stand against aggression, and as peacefully as they pursue their goals, there is no tangible triumph. However, as the Tao Te Ching and Encyclopedia of Pacifism point out, words such as “victory” can seldom be used in any practical sense when regarding war. In a long, savage physical struggle, reparation on the part of the victor is impossible; there will undoubtedly remain a lingering resentment for the nation of conquest; as history dictates, bloodshed will inevitably break out again between the warring nations. It is for these reasons that the pacifist insists on applying principles of non-violence before the outbreak of physical conflict, and it is for these reasons that pacifism as a societal and literary movement emerged as a result of the Vietnam War. A relative minority of great thinkers showed the world that in a war of hopeless circumstances, people must return good for evil; they must fight war with peace.


Barry, Jan, ed. Peace is Our Profession: Poems and Passages of War Protest. New Jersey: River Anthology, 1981. 176, 243.

Brand, Millen. “July 23. Moji Station.” Peace March. Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 1980. 143.

Country Joe and the Fish. “I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag.” American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Ed. Philip Beidler. Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1982. 82.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” 11/28/95. University of Buffalo. 4/26/06. <>

Huxley, Aldous. Encyclopedia of Pacifism. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937.

Tate, James. “The Lost Pilot.” The Oxford Book of War Poetry. Ed. Jon Stallworthy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. 312.

Tsu, Lao. Lau, D. C., trans. Tao Te Ching. New York: Penguin, 1963. 31.

Weigl, Bruce. “A Romance.” American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Ed. Philip Beidler. Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1982. 185-186.

Literary Analysis | History

Country Joe and the Fish, “I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag,” 82
Tate, James. “The Lost Pilot,” 312
3) , 4) , 10)
Tsu, Lao. Tao Te Ching, 31
5) , 13)
John, Donas. “Winter Soldiers,” 176
Ginsberg, Allen. “Wichita Vortex Sutra”
7) , 8)
Weigl, Bruce. “A Romance,” 185
Huxley, Aldous. Encyclopedia of Pacifism, 14
Huxley, Aldous. Encyclopedia of Pacifism, 64
Brand, Millen. “July 23. Moji Station,” 143

QR Code
QR Code defining_pacifism_in_literary_history (generated for current page)