Not peace, but a Sword: The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and the War in Vietnam

A scene from the movie the Deer Hunter

The war in Vietnam became the largest military conflict of the “Cold War” period.  It exceeded all the other wars in the second half of the XX century both by its duration and number of casualties. Undoubtedly, the significance of this war spread  well beyond the bounds of armed conflicts in a small country in South-East Asia. This was a confrontation between the two systems backing each of the conflicting sides.

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia could not but react to such a massive collision, both because on one hand it affected  practically the entire world, and on the other hand because many from its flock were involved directly in combat as citizens of one or the other side.

The number of sources on this issue is rather limited. This is explained by the relatively small size of the ROCOR and, consequently, its few periodical publications. There were two publications of an all-church significance. In the first place, there was the journal “Church Life” [Tserkovnaya Zhizn] , the official publication of the Synod of Archbishops of the ROCOR. The main source for the present article was the journal “Orthodox Russia” [Pravoslavnaya Rus] published twice a month, which was not only disseminated throughout the entire Russian diaspora and reflected the  views and ideology of the ROCOR, but was active in their formation.  A certain amount of information on the subject we are addressing were found in the journal “Word of the Church” [Tserkovnoye  slovo] which is published in Australia, the largest diocese of the ROCOR.  The author was unable to locate any émigré publications devoted to the attitude of the ROCOR to the war in Vietnam. Two books devoted specially to the ROCOR were published in the Soviet Union: Politikany ot religii. Pravda o Russkoy Zarubezhnoy Tserkvi. [Religious politicos: the Truth about the Russian Church Outside Russia] Moscow, Mysl, 1975 and Obrechenny Leningrad [Doomed Leningrad],Lenizdat, 1988.  The authors of both works are professional atheists N.S. Gordienko and P.M. Komarov. They devote several lines to the attitude of the ROCOR to the war in Vietnam. While they are right in principle by equating the position of the ROCOR  with anti-communism, they give the extremely primitive explanation of this as resulting from the desire of the ROCOR to please its Western sponsors.

From the moment of its foundation the ROCOR, as the church of the White emigration, was anti-communist.   Its specificity lies in that it comprised the more right-wing and conservative stratum of the clergy and laity of the Russian emigration. For many emigres, the struggle did not stop with the end of the Civil War; they saw their task as continuing the battle against communism, if not military then ideological. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia was always in the avant-garde of this struggle.  On 26 October 1935 the Synod of Archbishops ruled for the creation of a united front for struggle against godlessness.  In 1943 the Vienna conference of bishops issued a resolution on the  struggle against Bolshevik godlessness and finally – in 1970, the Synod of Archbishops anathematized Lenin and other persecutors of the Christ’s Church.

The position in principle regarding questions of war and peace, in our view, was expressed most clearly in the leading article by archbishop Averky “The action of sycophancy.”    “How many times we hear today about peace – global peace. There are endless “peace conferences” which include even those who speak of peace, but prepare for war.” A true Christian, according to archbishop Averky’s deep conviction, must be an irreconcilable foe of satanic evil and fight against it rather than seeking compromises with it in the cause of some sort of global peace.  On a world-wide scale this evil is definitely communism with its theomachy and  persecution of religion and the Church. Communism was perceived by the conservatives of  the Russian emigration specifically as a global evil (emphasis mine – D.A.) “Any struggle against it, wherever it took place, was for the purpose of the destruction of the global evil – communism. “  It is important to understand this correctly. For the Russian emigration, and its Church, this war was not just a local armed conflict, but an integral part of the global opposition to global communism  and, consequently, global evil.  This idea was expressed clearly in the telegram sent to US President Johnson in December 1966 by the diocesan conference of the East American diocese. It contained a greeting to the “valiant US army in Vietnam, waging a heroic battle against the further expansion of   evil atheistic communism that attempts to use moral decay as a means of subjugating the world.  We pray diligently for the victory of the heroic American army.” On 25 November 1967 a meeting of Russian emigres took place in Boston to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The participants sent US President Johnson a telegram protesting against the felicitations sent in his name to the leadership of the USSR, and also stated that “We welcome the firm resolve of the President to  finally defeat the communist aggression in Vietnam.”  The main publication of the Australian-New Zealand diocese published a laudatory response to the resolution of the executive council of the AFL-CIO calling for the unlimited power of the President to employ any means that the USA is implementing and will implement to prevent the communist seizure of all South-East Asia (emphasis mine – D.A.).In the same year, “Orthodox Russia” published a piece signally entitled “Where is the fate of the world decided?”  Citing the journal “Posev” this piece affirms that Vietnam is just the springboard for the export of communist aggression.  “Retreat by America would mean handing over South-East Asia into communist hands. Only a dream of some kind of new world, in which the difference between communism and freedom would be deleted, can dim this reality. “The Church Outside Russia was in full accord with the activity of cardinal Spellman, who was appointed by the Vatican as the Ordinary of the Archdiocese of the armed forces of the USA.  Around Christmas he visited Vietnam where he addressed US servicemen telling them that they were fulfilling the task of defending , supporting and saving not only their own country, but civilization itself and added that it was impossible to contemplate anything but victory.

It is not surprising that the war in Vietnam was perceived by some as a prelude to World War Three. To a certain degree, this was a point of view shared by the ROCOR. In connection with this it is characteristic that “Orthodox Russia” cited an article by David Lawrence in the “US News and World Report” under the title “The Path to the Third World War” in which the author draws a parallel between the desire for the speediest possible end to the conflict in Vietnam and the encouragement  of Germany by Western powers before the Second World War.  An American withdrawal from South-East Asia and its seizure by communists would pose a threat to the Philippines, Japan, Korea and Australia and possibly precipitate a Third World War.

The fact that the Vietcong were backed by the Soviet Union was an extremely significant issue for the Russian emigration.  The extensive aid rendered to Vietnam by the Soviet Union is an established fact. The active contribution of the USSR to the war in Vietnam was continually pointed out in émigré secular and religious press.

The image of the enemy was perceived very negatively, its cruelty and bloodthirstiness was stressed by all means. Therefore “Orthodox Russia” published a short piece on the horrors suffered by air force lieutenant Dengler and his fellow prisoners in a Laotian prison (Laos being an ally of North Vietnam).  Citing a report by the leader of the association “Young Americans for Freedom” D. Keany that the communists are prepared to go to any lengths of merciless terrorism to destroy an entire population that does not share their views. The leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, is described as one of the worst representatives of global communism, whose hands had more blood on them than practically anyone throughout history and whose evildoing could be likened only to Stalin’s crimes.

It is important to note that the ROCOR was hostile to communism, not to the Vietnamese people.  This is clear from the pastoral letter of the Council of Archbishops to the President of the USA dated 17 May 1967. “We pray to God that He shall grant victory to the valiant forces of the American army over godless communism in Vietnam and bless this country with peace and wellbeing” (emphasis mine – D.A.). Citing the journal “US News and World Report”, “Orthodox Russia” writes about the great upsurge of religious life in South Vietnam under the American occupation. The publication of the Australia-New Zealand diocese of the ROCOR quotes an extract from the statement of the Catholic clergy in Saigon which claims that millions of Vietnamese approve the presence of American forces, and would be desolated should they be withdrawn. Citing the communique issued by of the ministers of foreign affairs of Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Thailand and South Vietnam dated 23 April 1971, “Orthodox Russia” notes with satisfaction that that as a result of the aid rendered to South Vietnam, order and security has been established in that country. Archbishop Nathaniel (Lvov) writes sympathetically about the plight of Vietnamese refugees in an article entitled “A Brief Overview of the History and Ethnography of Vietnam.” He notes that “millions of refugees from North Vietnam have fled to the south, which is still free of communism. Some three million of such refuges have crossed through impenetrable jungles and mountains along tiny trails and have risked their lives crossing the turbulent Southern Sea and rivers in fragile boats and rafts. Thousands perished, but nobody who had the slightest chance of fleeing the inhuman regime, hesitated to do so. We, Russian emigres, have also fled communism twice, and more than any others can understand the desperate tragedy of the Vietnamese people, more than anyone else we can sympathise deeply with Vietnamese refugees.”

In accordance with the views concerning the purpose and nature of the war, there was the image of a heroic American soldier who was prepared to protect freedom and civilization from the terrors of communism.   “Orthodox Russia” published an article headed “The Selflessness of the American Soldier”, recounting the story of 19-year-old sailor R. Marks, who died heroically on a mine. A similar article was published in No.15 of the journal in 1967. It describes the heroic feat of a certain soldier called York. No.13 for the same year writes how an American airman was saved by his comrades when his aircraft was shot down.  However, it would be wrong to think that the press of the Church abroad wrote about the American forces in Vietnam in nothing but glowing terms. The problems of the US forces were discussed on its pages, the most important of which was the spread of drug use. Quoting the “New York Times”, “Orthodox Russia” noted that all the measures employed to counter the delivery of drugs to US servicemen proved unsuccessful and made no difference to the overall situation.

The ROCOR paid special attention to Russian Orthodox people fighting in Vietnam. In that far-off Asian country they were fighting not only the Vietcong guerrillas, but the spread of  communism that had subjugated their motherland.  “Orthodox Russia” describes the feat of US air force captain A.A. Semenov, who did not peel away from his squadron but continued to fight even though his plane had suffered direct hits, for which he was subsequently rewarded. Even the funerals of Russian heroes who lost their lives in battle result not just in sorrow, but also spiritual uplift. It was this spirit that prevailed among the Russian community of San Francisco at the funeral of the young Cossack Boris Zborovsky, who was a volunteer in the US forces and who died a selfless hero’s death against communism.  The newspaper “Rossiya” [Russia] published an article about this in its issue dated 19 May 1967, under the heading “A Hero’s Funeral.” This article describes the funeral service for young army volunteer  Vladimir Zubar  in the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael in the city of Paterson in New Jersey. Although it was a weekday, the church was full of mourners of all ages. Vladimir was buried with military honours. In her eulogy, the head of the Association of Saint George, Madame Lermolo, reminded the Russian people that the Russian diaspora from all parts of Russia must be proud of the sacrifice of the young warrior.  Writing in the newspaper “Novoye  Russkoye  Slovo” [New Russian Word], 18-year-old volunteer Alexei Gavrilov set out his view on the war in Vietnam. Gavrilov, serving in the ranks of the American forces, nonetheless retains his Russian soul and while fighting for America and her ideals, he knows at the same time that he is fighting the enemies of his historic motherland – communism. He prays to God that “He will help us, in faraway Vietnam, to throw off the shackles of the devil that first wants to subjugate all Asia and then all of humanity, including America, the land of my birth.  Let us bow our heads and beg The Lord for His aid.”  It is not surprising that this found mention in “Orthodox Russia” alongside the enthusiastic exclamation of the editor: “This is a Russian voice, a voice of the Russian soul!”  Russian soldiers were protected by God. A similar event was noted by Fr Herman (Podmoshensky) in the Chronicle devoted to Archbishop John (Maximovich). The pious young man Ivan Holts, whose family revered Archbishop John, was drafted to fight in Vietnam. Throughout his entire tour of duty he always carried an image of Archbishop John close to his heart, one that had been blessed on Archbishop John’s tomb. As evidenced by his mother, and numerous letters sent by Ivan from the front, Archbishop John’s intercession kept him safe even in times of dire peril.

This unswerving anti-communism did have a negative side. Depicting the world only in black and white and the sharp division into friends and foes frequently hinders objective analysis of processes and events, resulting into extreme bias. In the case of the Vietnam War this was seen clearly in the reaction of the Russian church press abroad in the case of Lieutenant Calley. “All over the world there is a great deal of noise over anything that could serve to vilify America, although most of it is grossly exaggerated and frequently quite false;  at the same time, efforts are made to minimize as much as possible the much worse deeds perpetrated by the other side, so skilfully that public opinion is turned against the USA, and all kinds of demonstrations take place throughout the free world.” The court case against Lieutenant Calley who, a year earlier, was in command of an operation that resulted in the mass extermination of several Vietnamese villages housing around 500 peaceful civilians, began in 1959. From the end of 1959 until 1971, “Orthodox Russia” periodically referred to the progress of the trial. It is fulll of sympathy for the lieutenant and a desire to justify him before readers. “The trial of Lieutenant Calley and Sergeant Mitchell concerns the alleged (emphasis mine – D.A.) unjustified killing of innocent civilians. However local South Vietnamese authorities categorically deny that any “mass murders” were committed, noting that the village in question was the centre from which guerrilla leaders had issued orders throughout the entire province. “The next report stated that Lieutenant Calley had found support in the person of George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, who stated that instead of  trying those who had fought for America, the government should direct its energies to fighting the internal enemies of the country.  “The disgraceful trial regarding the actions of certain American army officers in Vietnam has been resumed.”  The editor of “Orthodox Russia” mentioned the sympathetic piece in the December issue of “Newsweek”, which points to the popularity gained by Lieutenant Calley in the course of the trial. “The trial of First Lieutenant William Calley, which has been longer than any other in US history, may be nearing its end. It may be thought that the reason for such indecisiveness is caused, on one hand, by the fact that his guilt is undeniable, and on the other hand that he is the victim of circumstances that are not his sole responsibility, but that of many other persons of higher rank.” When Lieutenant Calley was sentenced by the military court, the church press reported the numerous expressions of support for Calley, making him the hero of the day and voicing the hope that President Nixon would exercise his power to decide the lieutenant’s fate by an admission of the overall common guilt. In fairness it should be noted that the ROCOR was not alone in its sympathy for Calley. Thousands of telegrams were sent to the White House in support of Calley. The legislatures of a number of states adopted resolutions calling for leniency for Calley.

Protests against the armed US presence in Vietnam aroused rejection and condemnation of the ROCOR. In a lengthy article entitled “Is There Still a Free World?” the editor of “Orthodox Russia”, archimandrite Constantine (Zaitsev), sees a direct link between the anti-war movement in the USA with the general apostasy that has swept the Western world. “Looked at it from this angle, one sees the obsession that has gripped the American public with regard to the war in Vietnam. The fact that rejection of the Vietnam War hangs in the air as a kind of delirium is incontrovertible. In Fr Constantine’s opinion, all this is a sign of the capitulation of the West before the face of evil and the degradation of Western society. “In essence, the so-called Free World can only be called free conditionally, insofar as it does not set itself in opposition to Satanocracy (i.e. communism – D.A.) but on the contrary, stands in principle on the platform of uniting with it. Attitudes to the Vietnam War are like litmus tests, which determine unerringly whether Americans still perceive themselves to be free, or have already capitulated in the face of the Evil of the Antichrist.”

It stands to reason that anti-war manifestations and their participants are described in the most negative terms.  In his Christmas Message in 1966, Bishop Savva (Sarachevich) lists the numerous enemies consuming society from within. Who are they? Communists, pacifists and Beatniks. In issue 16-jv in the same year there was a report on the disturbances that arose in the course of the work of the committee examining the activities of opponents of the Vietnam War. In an attempt to restore order the Texan senator heading the committee had to resort to decisive measures including ordering the noisiest hecklers from the premises with the aid of the police. “With exemplary calm and dignity, the worthy representative of democracy restored the disturbed order.”

The approval of the church press resulted in the failure of anti-war draft laws to be passed by the Senate. In the opinion of the ROCOR, popular anti-war demonstrations were characterized by mass possession, and were reminiscent of the events of February 1917 in Russia. One such demonstration ended tragically. A young man and woman committed public suicide (which is a mortal sin) as a sign of their protest against the war. The growth of anti-war attitudes was particularly noted among young people. Many preferred imprisonment to participation in the war.

Pacifist leanings among young people were exploited for protests even on religious feast days, descending into downright hooliganism. Young people fled abroad to evade conscription, mainly to Canada, where some 60 thousand of them accumulated. Many went into hiding in Scandinavia. Sympathy for deserters was so strong among the American public, that there were unconcealed and official actions carried out in rendering them assistance.

While reporting first of all on religious events, “Orthodox Russia” directed special attention to the attitude of religious organizations toward the war and various Christian demonstrations. An unambiguously anti-war position was adopted by the ecumenists. The USA National Council of Churches expressed trust only in those representatives of the authorities that were categorically opposed to the policies of President Johnson. Ecumenical publications such as “The Christian Century” reported satisfaction about anti-war demonstrations. An anti-war position was adopted also by Pope Paul VI. The émigré religious press stressed that the Pope’s address to the UN condemning the war was approved by American communists and enemies of US policies in Vietnam.  The Catholic episcopate in the USA endorsed the papal policy, and at its assembly in Washington in 1971 adopted unanimously a resolution calling for the immediate end of the war in Indochina.   Even the neutral position of the Catholic weekly “Our Sunday Visitor”, which gave equal place on its pages to both proponents and opponents of the Vietnam War, was pointed out to the public as a clear example of the decay of not just Catholicism, but national consciousness as well.   In the view of the editors of “Orthodox Russia”, opposition to the Vietnam War began to resemble an obsession. As an illustration, it describes the disgraceful behaviour of the Catholic priest Philip Berrigan who, with three companions, received access to their documents in an official storage place, seized other documents regarding conscription, and demonstratively poured blood over them. Berrigan was arrested shortly thereafter, and sentenced to 6 years’ imprisonment. Another case in point concerns an incident with Cardinal Spellman. “Before us we see the infernal horror of what masquerades as the new “universality” of the Church in its rejection of all that is grounded on any ideals and realities that do not coincide with the task of unifying the universe in its current state, including communism. There are no more higher values, no absolutes in the new world. There is not Christ Himself. There is only one objective: PEACE, which reduces to one all that there is in the world.”

In conclusion it may be said that the war in Vietnam was viewed by the ROCOR from the position of global resistance to global communism, which had enslaved Russia and was now attempting to establish its supremacy over the whole world. The approach of the Church to world events, including wars, should be determined primarily by its teachings and the ensuing comprehension of good and evil. The Church supports the actions of the government if it coincides with the Church’s conception of resisting evil and protecting good, and is not based on transient conjunctural perceptions. Throughout the war in Vietnam the ROCOR supported the government of the USA because in that war it was the avant-garde in the struggle against communism, and not because it was the government of the country housing its Senior Hierarch and Synod of Archbishops.

Source: Translated by Alyona Kojevnikova in an abriged form from Vestnik Sviato Tikhonovskogo Gumanitarnogo Universiteta, 3 (2015): 88-100

1 thought on “Not peace, but a Sword: The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and the War in Vietnam”

  1. I found this article to be a scholarly explanation of the Russian peoples’ viewpoint of the Vietnam war. It was edifying to me.

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