To the Editors:
The Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal has opened a preliminary investigation of the problem of individual responsibility for war crimes in Indochina. We enclose an exchange of correspondence with Vladimir Dedijer, President of the Sessions of the Tribunal, on this subject. The two letters were transmitted to The New York Times on April 4, but The New York Times did not choose to publish them. Though the news of this decision of the Tribunal has appeared in some European newspapers, it has not appeared in the United States. We send you this correspondence in the hope you might care to publish it.
Dear Mr. Dedijer:
We are writing to you as President of the Sessions of the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal and ask that you transmit this letter to the Tribunal.
The Russell Tribunal in its 1966 and 1967 sessions found the United States guilty of extensive war crimes in Vietnam. It did not, however, take up the question of individual responsibility. This question has been made urgent by the conviction today of Lieutenant William Calley.
Superior responsibility (i.e., the doctrine that while an individual is fully accountable for any war crime he commits, and cannot plead superior orders for defense, an equal or greater guilt lies with those “responsible,” his superiors in the hierarchy of command) is an established principle of international and US military law. The late court martial concentrated on the actions of Calley alone, and ignored “the criminal doctrines and orders which were pressed on him from above.” It is clear that the army, in this case, has sought to evade, not vindicate, the law; to obscure, not elucidate, the facts.
By making Calley a scapegoat, by portraying My Lai as an isolated incident, the army hopes to conceal the abominations of his superiors, up to the very highest levels.
We therefore have no recourse but to ask that the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal resume its sessions, in order to take up the question of individual responsibility and to examine the process of decision making in the Indochina war by the American political and military leadership, with particular reference to the My Lai massacre and other war crimes.
All decent Americans would have preferred to see this stable cleaned by Americans. It is without joy that we request this intervention by an international tribunal, and we do so now only because the American authorities have left those who care for justice no other choice.
We have written this letter as two obscure private citizens but it expresses the hopes of many of our friends and acquaintances, including some former combat officers of the US army, who are outraged at the disgrace the conduct of this war has brought to the uniform they once wore, with honor, at the risk of their lives.
Dear Mr. Truesdell and Mrs. Johnson,
I have transmitted your letter to M. Jean-Paul Sartre, the Executive President of the Tribunal, and to Professor Laurent Schwartz, the Vice Chairman, and to all its members. The Tribunal will consider your request.
In order to facilitate their deliberations and decision a brief will be prepared with the assistance of Tribunal’s experts on the following issues:
- What are the provisions of International and US domestic law on the individual culpability of civilian and military authorities for war crimes?
- What is the process of decision making by the US political authorities (both executive and legislative) and their advisers as regards the planning, the initiation of acts of war and the conduct and direction of hostilities in Indochina; what is the relationship between political and military authorities in this process in view of the fact that the President of the US is at the same time the Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces; what is the responsibility of the executive branch of the government in general and its civilian advisers, drawn away from many areas of American life, in particular, and what is the comparative responsibility as between the troops and their leaders in the war zones?
What prima facie evidence exists of war crimes committed since the verdict of the Tribunal in December, 1967, particularly in view of the extension of the war to Cambodia and Laos, the increased bombing and forced evacuation of civilian population, obliteration of the peasant society, destruction of the indigenous culture, etc., etc., and what is the individual culpability for these acts?
The possibilities of a retrial of Lt. William Calley, especially in view of the superior (military and political) responsibility.
According to the Aims and Objectives of the Tribunal, the brief should examine all the evidence that may be placed before it by any source or party; no evidence relevant to the purposes of the Tribunal will be refused attention; and no witnesses competent to testify about the events with which the inquiry is concerned will be denied a hearing.
The government of the US will also be invited to present evidence or cause it to be presented, and to instruct its officials or representatives to appear and state their case.
I can assure you that the purpose of the brief is to establish, without fear or favor, the full truth about the above mentioned issues.
Chairman and President of Sessions of the International War Crimes Tribunal
July 1, 1971