On October 23, 1969—one week after the historic Moratorium March on Washington to end the Vietnam War—46-year-old Kurt Vonnegut took the stage in his small Cape Cod hometown of Barnstable, Massachusetts, to bring the news of the fight against the war home to his neighbors and their children. His breakout novel, Slaughterhouse Five, had come out in March of that year to near-instant, near-universal acclaim. As someone who had witnessed the firebombing of Dresden as a captured soldier, he could speak to the perils of war with authority and humanity, and it seemed like the entire population of Barnstable came out to hear him—800 people filled the high school gymnasium that night. “Let the Killing Stop” is Vonnegut’s earliest recorded speech, and is reprinted for the first time here and in the paperback edition of Vonnegut’s If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? The Graduation Speeches and Other Words to Live By, selected and introduced by Dan Wakefield, released today by Seven Stories Press. “We are here because our leaders have made mistakes which have had ghastly consequences,” he told the audience. And, “Let the killing stop.”
This is no time for a long and glorious speech.
Our message is in the fact of our being here.
Our presence says all there is to say: “Let the killing stop.”
There will be no cheering.
We have nothing to celebrate.
We are here because our leaders have made mistakes which have had ghastly consequences—cripplings and death and corruption. We are here to help our leaders make sure that the tragedy will not go on and on and on and on—and that the final solution will not be genocide or a hydrogen bomb.
We are here to help.
Our President has had the best advice of the honorable military men, who are brave.
Let him hear from honorable civilians, as well. We’re brave, too.
No speaker can lift your hearts tonight, for no speaker can say the only word you want to hear: “There is peace in Vietnam.”
It might be possible to thrill some of you with a speech full of hatred for the brass hats and for the corporations who are making big money out of this war.
But hatred has no place here tonight.
This is a magic night.
Millions of Americans are gathered in meetings like this all over the country—and the mood of this night is love.
The loving thing we are saying by being here is this: “Let the killing stop.”
Those who scorn us for our eminently Christian words say this: “Let the killing go on. You don’t know what the military knows,” they say. Well—we know as much about death as the military does. You don’t have to go to West Point or Fort Benning to learn about death. We’re against it, not for it.
Let the killing stop.
What about the South Vietnamese who will be murdered by the North Vietnamese, if we withdraw?
We’ll help them get out, too.
They can come over here, and have their first taste of freedom.
I do not propose to retell the shabby history of this war. It was a civil war. We weren’t attacked there. We chose sides in the civil war, and we attacked. It was a horrible mistake—resulting in thousands and thousands of deaths for nothing.
We are here to tell our President that we will not be ashamed if he admits it was a mistake. We can stand the resulting embarrassment. What is intolerable to us is that the mistake should go on and on and on. We are here to save lives. We are here to save our honor, too. We are here to prevent a victory through genocide.
Every country makes mistakes. Only profoundly free and honorable nations can admit they make them. Dictatorships never do. In Vietnam we have made a lulu of a mistake. Tonight we are telling the world: “We have made a lulu.”
This will make the communists everywhere gloat. All sorts of things make them gloat. We have a few gloaters on our side, too. Well—tonight let all the gloaters gloat. They can have a perfect orgy of gloating tonight, and I won’t care.
Speaking of Lulus: Hanoi certainly made one when they officially praised this moratorium. Thanks a lot, Hanoi. Well—they’re people too. Everybody makes lulus.
Hanoi. There’s a sinister word. Hanoi does this. Hanoi does that. Hanoi. At other times there have been other sinister words like that: Rome, Berlin, Tokyo. And it wasn’t silly of Americans in other times to speak of these cities with dread. There were many people in them who were turned into maniacs by war. They aren’t maniacs anymore. We didn’t teach them how to act nice. It was simply that the killing stopped. We have a right to shudder now when we speak the word: Hanoi. Ghoulish things have happened to innocent persons in Vietnam—at the instigation of Hanoi. I don’t believe a lot of things our Government says about the war. I do believe that thousands of civilians were massacred at Hue—in keeping with orders from Hanoi. I believe, too, that we bomb blindly, that our Green Berets murdered a citizen of another country in cold blood. I believe that we torture prisoners, and so does Hanoi.
And on and on.
War turns everybody into maniacs.
In other parts of the world, “Washington” is a sinister word, and properly so. So let the killing stop, in order that the maniacs on both sides can become nice human beings again.
I would like to say something about the body counts.
This is how we measure victory, since we have no other way of doing so. We announce each day: “So and so many communists killed.” Perhaps the other side counts the bodies of our young men and announces, so and so many capitalists killed.
The dead soldiers were barely out of childhood.
They’re dead capitalists or communists now.
How ridiculous and untrue—and gruesome.
Let the killing stop. We live in rural communities, and are consequently privileged to see acts of unselfishness and bravery almost every day. I am speaking of our volunteer firemen and our rescue squads. The moment the siren blows, they come! They live in the tradition of the American minute men, and God bless them for that. In the past, Americans have proudly responded almost as quickly to calls of war. This is properly called patriotism. Some Americans believe that this is the ONLY form of patriotism. What does the patriot do? He goes to war.
This is nuts.
There are all kinds of things a patriot can do. We’re here with the patriotic purpose of saving lives. If this is treason, make the most of it.
I hope nobody believes that we are supporting a democratic regime in Vietnam. We are supporting dictators who are supposedly on our team. They don’t call themselves communists, but everything that is vile about communist leaders is vile about them, too. Some team we’ve got.
Well—whatever team you belong to, you fight for, right? We want our team to win. That’s great thinking for high school, particularly if you’re a football coach. At Nauset, at Barnstable, at Provincetown, at Bourne . . . And so much of the fighting talk I hear about Vietnam sounds exactly the way people talk about football games . . .
My God—Vietnam is no football game. It’s a slaughterhouse!
They’re keeping the score with bodies!
It’s turning us all into maniacs!
Mr. President! Let the killing stop!
Word of honor, it’s O.K. if the killing stops!
Let the killing stop.
I now go over the head of every super patriot and ruler on Earth. I quote God Almighty, who said this: Thou shalt not kill.