John Lennon: the power of art and peace

June 29, 2009

Forty years ago, between April and May 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono began an international cultural struggle against the Vietnam War using their fame and notoriety to draw attention to their peace message.

Now, it is almost impossible to comprehend how capitalist states rallied against the pair, but Lennon's Beatles fame and increasingly radical politics caused officials throughout Europe to hound him. Eventually, when he moved to the United States, President Richard Nixon personally ordered the FBI to target him.

In early 1969, the war in Vietnam was entering its final, bloody stage. The previous year, Vietnamese liberation fighters had driven the US to the negotiating table and talks were set to begin in Paris.

The US manoeuvred for political space as its 543,400 ground forces were rapidly demoralised and youth around the world moved into open revolt.

Nixon spoke of "Vietnamisation" to pull US troops out of the front line, while unleashing terror bombing on North Vietnam and secret bombing of Cambodia. On April 9, 1969, 300 anti-war students at Harvard University seized the administration building, threw out eight deans and locked themselves in. The US public was stunned when police heavy-handedly ejected them.

This was the tumultuous background against which Lennon and Ono set out first to get married and then speak against the war.

Denied the right to marry in Britain by reactionary officials, they began a highly publicised cross-European flight looking for a country that would allow it. Finally they succeeded in holding the ceremony in Gibraltar. The Beatles' hit "The Ballad of John and Yoko" was one product of this escapade.

Between March 25 and 31, capitalising on the press frenzy, they spent their honeymoon in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel inviting reporters into their room every day between 9 am and 9 pm. They confounded the press by receiving them in their pajamas, sitting in bed, and talking about world peace.

A second bed-in was planned for New York, but Lennon was refused a visa because of a marijuana conviction. So on May 26 Lennon and Ono started a one-week stay in Montreal.

Just days before, the infamous battle of Hamburger Hill had been fought near Hue in central Vietnam. In what became a symbol of the war's futility, this 10-day, gruesome battle cost the lives of an unknown number of Vietnamese freedom fighters and 46 US soldiers.

After capturing the hill, the US forces were ordered to withdraw, whereupon the Vietnamese seized it unopposed.

In Montreal, the press interviewed Lennon and Ono in bed and broadcasted their anti-war sentiments. They recorded the song "Give Peace a Chance" with a gang of friends including radical poet Allen Ginsberg and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary.

Lennon was a personally complex, extremely intelligent and artistically outstanding individual. Born in WWII Britain, he was abandoned by his father and barely noticed by his mother.

When Lennon was five years old his seafarer father returned and announced that he wanted to move to New Zealand. He demanding John choose between staying with his mother or leaving with him.

The horror of that moment haunted Lennon for the rest of his life and inspired the fractured, questing nature of his songs, as opposed to Paul McCartney's more restful lyrics and melodies.

As an adult, Lennon had contact with two revolutionary groups in Britain, the International Marxist Group and the Workers Revolutionary Party. To the latter he donated money and his hand-written lyrics of "Working Class Hero".

Lennon had the courage to work through his demons in public, turn his pain into art and try to articulate a vision of human liberation.

His nemesis, Richard Nixon, a paranoid alcoholic, hid his demons behind the mask of power, causing untold death and misery before being driven from power.

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