Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a Veteran For Peace
Clockwise from left: Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside City Lights Bookstore, with a 'Banned Books' window display many decades ago, and with fellow Veteran for Peace William Reid (at right) at the organization's founding in 1962.

Many have been the obituaries and tributes to radical poet and civil libertarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti, including this one from City Lights Booksellers and Publishers. Ferlinghetti died on February 22 at 101 in his home in North Beach, the literary heart of San Francisco.

Many readers may be unfamiliar with another facet of the writer’s life. In 1962 a group of San Francisco veterans of World War II and Korea, seeing that a new Viet Nam war was looming, marched unofficially at the end of the annual Veterans Day Parade under the banner of “Veterans For Peace.” The principal organizer of that contingent was world-renowned poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The turning point in Ferlinghetti’s life came in late September 1945 as he walked the streets of Nagasaki, Japan, six weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped there by his country. He was a 26-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, having already seen combat in the invasion of Normandy the year before. Among the 40,000 Japanese who were incinerated in Nagasaki on August 9th was one who was drinking a cup of tea. Ferlinghetti picked up that teacup. It had flesh and bone fused into it. That cup sat on the mantelpiece of his home for over 75 years.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti recounted these stories in many of the countless newspaper, TV, and radio interviews, poems, essays, and books by him, plus at least two documentary films. The 1962 group was not formally established at that time, but in 1985 the national organization of Veterans For Peace was created by American veterans of the Viet Nam War. VFP now has over 100 chapters nationally and internationally, Ferlinghetti being an Honorary Member of San Francisco Chapter 69.

A true Renaissance man, he co-established City Lights Book Store in 1953, which grew to be a major publishing house of so-called “Beat” literature, but also so much more. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a lifelong poet, publisher, author and activist, who eventually found his love of painting. In all his prodigious creative works, he never missed the opportunity to rail against the absurdity of materialism, the obscenity of war, and the soullessness of profit-driven destruction.

Here is Ferlinghetti’s timeless poem “Pity the Nation” (after Khalil Gibran):

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
And whose shepherds mislead them
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
Whose sages are silenced
And whose bigots haunt the airwaves
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
Except to praise conquerors
And acclaim the bully as hero
And aims to rule the world
By force and by torture
Pity the nation that knows
No other language but its own
And no other culture but its own
Pity the nation whose breath is money
And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed
Pity the nation oh pity the people
who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!


Nadya Williams
Nadya Williams

Nadya Williams is an active Associate Member of Veterans For Peace since 2003; on the board of the Viet Nam Chapter 160 of VFP and Director of Communication for the San Francisco Chapter 69; a freelance journalist.