Mourning Donald Sutherland, The Antiwar Activist

It is with great sadness that I note the passing of actor Donald Sutherland. Many will eulogize his roles in M*A*S*H, The Hunger Games, and a variety of other famous movies. My memory of him is much more radical.

When the US invasion and occupation of Viet Nam was raging, Donald Sutherland, the Canadian actor, toured American stateside military bases, performing a dramatic reading of a scene from Johnny Got His Gun, a novel by American novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. I was barely out of prison, having served time for mutiny, and now back doing anti-war GI organizing at Fort Lewis when Sutherland came through. Somebody had rented a large hall, and invited soldiers from the base to come hear Donald Sutherland for free. He was well known among the troops because he had played Hawkeye in M*A*S*H, which garnered him a nomination for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.
About a thousand GIs showed up for what was an indoor anti-war rally. The anti-war GI movement was in full bloom, like fruit trees in spring. The soldiers in the crowd that night had a sense of their movement, and that history was on the side of those who resisted the war. The highlight of the event was when Donald Sutherland took the stage to read from Johnny Got His Gun. The passage is a call for soldiers to turn their guns around on the masters of war.
Imagine the tension, the excitement, the other-worldliness of such an event. American soldiers, crowded together in a hall just off base, hearing this exhortation – in the midst of war, and a war effort that had run up against unprecedented fragging (the killing of one’s own officers). It was 1971. During the US war against Viet Nam, some 900 to 1,100 documented fraggings occurred in the American military in the four years 1968-1971 (Wikipedia says 900, but only counts use of fragmentation grenades, not firearms). And there, in the midst of it all, was Donald Sutherland, reading this passage inciting soldiers to shoot their own officers.
There is very little in literature concerning this sort of rebellion among soldiers. One place you find it is in Charlie Chaplin’s movie, The Great Dictator, where Charlie Chaplin, playing a Jewish barber disguised as Der Fuhrer, has to give a speech to the assembled troops. He can’t bring himself to give a hate speech, but gives a “turn-the-guns-around” speech instead.  Then there’s a poem called “Warriors” by American communist Mike Quinn, first published in People’s World in 1940. Bob Dylan’s great song, “Masters of War” is surely going in that direction. But the only other place where I know this call exists is in an American novel, Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, published in 1939. It won the National Book Award that year. It was from this book that Donald Sutherland gave his readings. At the end of this email, I’ll append the passage from the book, in case you’d like to read it without wading through the rest of the book.
For you film buffs, who saw the movie version of Johnny Got His Gun,” directed by Dalton Trumbo, but never read his book, I have to tell you that you missed the turn-the-guns-around speech. Having witnessed Donald Sutherland give the speech in person back in 1971, I went to see the movie version of “Johnny” at a little arthouse theater in Seattle. It must have been in the early 1980s by then. The small theater was full. I was excited to see the flick, because I had witnessed Donald Sutherland reading the book to GIs. To be honest, the movie is not nearly as compelling as the book. Hard to film a guy’s inner thoughts, for one thing. The flick had come out in 1971, but I was too busy being an activist and raising kids to see it when it was released. I was a bit surprised to see Donald Sutherland playing a small role in the flick (as Jesus). It passed my mind that being in this movie was why he knew to go around reading the book to GIs. I impatiently suffered through the movie, eager for what I felt was the main event, that final turn-the-guns-around speech. The movie got down to the final few seconds, and to my horror, it ended without the speech! It just wasn’t there. So as the credits rolled, I dashed out of the auditorium and into a nearby used book store, where I demanded and bought an old copy of the book. Running back into the theater, where an after-movie discussion was just beginning, I ran right up on the stage, and stopped everything. I explained that the most important part of the book was missing from the movie. I told the crowd the story of how I had heard the speech read by Donald Sutherland down in Tacoma to that crowd of American soldiers, and how it was what made the book worth-while. Then, channeling my best imitation of Donald Sutherland, the accomplished dramatic actor, I read them the speech.
I have no way of knowing why the speech didn’t make the movie. I have my suspicions, though. Dalton Trumbo (Remember him? He was the blacklisted communist screen writer who added the famous “I’m Spartacus” solidarity scene to his screen play for the Spartacus movie.) Dalton Trumbo wrote “Johnny” back in the 1930s, after WW I. The so-called “war to end all wars”, was widely seen as an imperialist war, a fight between slave masters over who got all the slaves. The CPUSA was definitely and completely against imperialist war back then, and Johnny Got His Gun reflected that line. What could be more against imperialist war than a call to the troops to turn their guns around on their masters?
But then the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and the attitude of the Party changed. It was no longer an imperialist war in their minds, but a war to defend the Russian revolution. And then the US entered the war. Trumbo quietly shelved the book and refused to reprint it. Thirty years later, Trumbo wrote the screen play for the movie, based on his book, and went on to direct the movie version. I don’t know if Trumbo ever dropped out of the Communist Party, which of course might explain his decision to leave the critical scene out of the movie. But by then the CPUSA had really pulled in its horns anyway. It had borne up under the repression of the witch hunt days of the late 1940s and 50s. Then, once the excesses of Stalin were revealed in the mid-fifties, the Party suffered a massive loss of membership as droves of the disillusioned fled the CP in horror. By the Viet Nam era, the Communist Party had taken on a “peace” tenor rather than a revolutionary stance, which is one reason the “New Left” arose. So whether it was Trumbo losing his revolutionary edge, or the CPUSA, things had changed to the point where that section – the most important section of the book, in my mind – didn’t make it into the film. Frankly, that leaves the film’s story ending in horror rather than defiance, and leaves the book as the only source for this passage.
Anyway, Donald Sutherland went around reading the passage to American soldiers, and as if that wasn’t enough, he then joined Jane Fonda, along with Holly Near, Country Joe McDonald, Len Chandler, Rita Martinson, and other Hollywood luminaries in touring American military bases in the US and throughout Asia with an anti-war variety show called “FTA.” I was still organizing anti-war GIs in Tacoma when the FTA tour played in the old wrestling arena there. The stars all came to my house before and after the show, so I can honestly say I had a brief personal connection with them. Again, thousands of soldiers turned out to hear Donald Sutherland read his passage, and for Country Joe McDonald to lead them in singing “We love Ho Chi Minh.” Those were unprecedented wartime moments, and give a clear sense of why the US lost that war. Later, a movie, directed by Francine Parker, documents some of the “FTA” performances. I think the film is still available on Netflix, if you want to watch Donald Sutherland do part of his reading.
Donald Sutherland later starred in Bethune: The Making of a Hero, where he plays Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who went to China in support of the Chinese revolution. Bethune was a real person, and having heard Sutherland give his anti-war speech, I was not surprised that he would take on such a role. And it is for these reasons, that I salute his life, and regard him as a fallen hero. While others are remembering him for some of his more famous work, I’ll always remember him for reading the turn-the-guns-around speech.

If you want to read the speech below, which I painstakingly typed from Johnny Got His Gun, here it is. The “he” is the soldier Johnny, wounded beyond all despair, after his request to be put on display as an anti-war object lesson is refused by the authorities.


And then suddenly he saw. He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ, as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields, saying to people “As I am, so shall you be.” For he had seen the future. He had tasted it and now, he was living it. He had seen the airplanes flying in the sky. He had seen the skies of the future, filled with them – black with them – and now, he saw the horror beneath. He saw a world of lovers, forever parted; of dreams never consummated; of plans that never turned into reality. He saw a world of dead fathers and crippled brothers, and crazy screaming sons. He saw a world of armless mothers clasping headless babies to their breasts, trying to scream out their grief from throats that were cancerous with gas. He saw starved cities, black and cold and motionless, and the only thing in this whole dead terrible world that made a move or a sound were the airplanes that blackened the sky and far off, against the horizon, the thunder of the big guns and the puffs that rose from barren, tortured earth when their shells exploded.


That was it. He had it. He understood it now. He had told them his secret, and in denying him, they had told him theirs.


He was the future. He was a perfect picture of the future, and they were afraid to let anyone see what the future was like. Already they were looking ahead. they were figuring the future and somewhere in the future they saw war. To fight that war, they would need to send men, and if men saw the future, they wouldn’t fight. So they were masking the future, they were keeping the future a soft, quiet, deadly secret. They knew that if all the little people, all the little guys saw the future, they would begin to ask questions. They would ask questions and they would find answers and they would say to the guys who wanted them to fight – they would say, “You lying thieving sons-of-bitches, we won’t fight. We won’t be dead. We will live! We are the world. We are the future and we will NOT let you butcher us, no matter what you say, no matter what speeches you make, no matter what slogans you write. Remember it well; we, we, WE are the world. WE are what makes it go round. WE make the bread and cloth and guns. WE are the hub of the wheel, and the spokes–and the wheel itself. Without us you would be hungry, naked worms, and WE will not die. WE are immortal. WE are the sources of life. WE are the lowly, despicable, ugly people. WE are the great wonderful, beautiful people of the world, and we are SICK of it. We are utterly weary. We are done with it forever and ever, because WE are the living, and WE will not be destroyed.


If you make a war, if there are guns to be aimed, if there are bullets to be fired, if there are men to be killed, they will not be us. They will not be us, the guys who grow wheat and turn it into food, the guys who make clothes and paper, and houses, and tiles – the guys who build dams, and power plants, and string the long moaning high tension wires. The guys who crack crude oil down into a dozen different parts, who make light globes and sewing machines and shovels and automobiles and tanks and guns – oh, no! It will not be US who die. It will be YOU.


It will be YOU – you who urge us on to battle. YOU, who incite us against ourselves. YOU, who would have one cobbler kill another cobbler. YOU, who would have one man who works kill another man who works. YOU, who would have one human being, who wants only to live, kill another human being who wants only to live. Remember this. Remember this well, you people who plan for war. Remember this, you patriots, you fierce ones, you spawners of hate, you inventors of slogans. Remember this, as you have never remembered anything else in your lives.


We are men of peace. We are men who work and we want no quarrel. But if you destroy our peace, if you take away our work, if you try to range us one against the other, we will know what to do. If you tell us to make the world safe for democracy, we will take you seriously, and – by god and by Christ – we will make it so. We will use the guns you force upon us. We will use them to defend our very lives – and the menace to our lives does not lie on the other side of a no-man’s-land that was set apart without our consent. It lies within our own boundaries, here and now. We have seen it, and we know it.


Put the guns into our hands, and we will use them. Give us the slogans, and we will turn them into realities. Sing the battle hymns and we will take them up where you left off. Not one, not ten, not ten thousand, not a million, not ten millions, not a hundred million, but a billion, two billions of us – all the people of the world. We will have the slogans and we will have the hymns, and we will have the guns and we will use them and we will live. Make no mistake of it, we will live. We will be alive, and we will walk and talk and eat and sing and laugh and feel and love and bear our children in tranquillity, in security, in decency, in peace. You plan the wars, you masters of men. Plan the wars and point the way, and we will point the gun.


Vietnam-era GI organizer Randy Rowland, a member of Veterans For Peace in Seattle.