Thursday, 23 July 2015

SF Vietnam War Petition

I recently read this interesting article about SF and the Vietnam War on the writer Nat Tilander’s website. After purchasing a box of old SF magazines, he describes finding the following two-page advertisement in a 1968 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction; on the right, a list of SF writers who opposed the war in Vietnam, on the left a list of those who supported it:

In total, 154 writers made public their position on the war, a controversial move, and one that would seem somewhat at odds with the usually subtle narrative tactics of SF. Of course, though, their views were also reflected in their stories. Figures such as Poul Anderson had written scathing parodies of the Vietnam opposition movement, for example, the ‘World Militants for Peace’ group in The Star Fox (1965) and Robert Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers (1959) and Glory Road (1963), also supported US military intervention. Meanwhile, writers like Ursula K. Le Guin explored questions of colonisation and resistance, notably in The Word for World is Forest (1972), which made her anti-war stance clear. Isaac Asimov would later recall the signing of the petition:

When a statement was handed around at a science fiction convention urging immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, I signed it at once. That statement with a number of names of science fiction personalities attached, was published in a science fiction magazine. But there are conservatives among us, too, and prominent on that list is Poul Anderson. When he heard of the dove statement, he prepared a hawk statement in which signers urged the government to remain in Vietnam until its aims were achieved. The competing statement was also published.

Consciously or not, Galaxy Science Fiction was echoing The Left Review which, during the Spanish Civil War over thirty years before, had famously asked ‘the writers and poets of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales’ to ‘Take Sides on the Spanish War’. The responses of the correspondents, the vast majority of whom declared their support for the democratically elected Republican Government in its fight against the mutinous Nationalist generals, were subsequently published in pamphlet form. Notable supporters of the Republican cause included W. H. Auden, Sylvia Pankhurst, Aldous Huxley, Ford Madox Ford and Samuel Beckett, who replied simply ‘¡Up the Republic!’ T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and H. G. Wells all came under the heading of ‘Neutral?’, which may have been overly generous in Pound’s case. The most notable pro-Francoist featured was Evelyn Waugh.

George Orwell’s unpublished response, beginning ‘will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish’, was nasty and homophobic, but suggestive at the same time of his rather more complicated perspective on the war, garnered from his experiences of Spain’s revolution and counter-revolution, recounted in Homage to Catalonia (1938). The decision of The Left Review to ask their respondents to explain their reasoning allowed some anti-fascists, such as C.L.R. James and Ethil Mannin, to offer more qualified support. Orwell, convalescing with a bullet hole in his neck, was less inclined to be reasonable. Since Galaxy Science Fiction only published the lists of names, it is unknown whether any SF writers expressed similar misgivings but Le Guin’s thoughts on Vietnam are elaborated in her introduction to The Word for World is Forest, available here.

Co-authored with Danny.