Ralph Schoenman: Unsung Hero of Progressive Thought and Action (RIP)
OBITUARIES, 2 Oct 2023
30 Sep 2023 –Remarks at a memorial for Ralph Schoenman (1935-2023) arranged by Mya Shone, Ralph’s devoted life partner. A publication of the proceedings is being arranged by herself, a notable documentary filmmaker. Also, the event featured many progressive activists who had worked with Ralph at various stages during his lifetime, and featured Joan Mellen his former wife who remained his lifetime friend. Ralph became known to me in connection with the Vietnam war crimes tribunal conceived and organized while he served as Personal Secretary to Lord Bertrand Russell and General Secretary of the Russell Foundation in the UK.
It was this innovative initiative, controversial and revolutionary in the mid-1960s. It not only remains the most comprehensive documentation of war crimes attributable to the U.S. during the early phases of the Vietnam War, that is, up to the mid-1960s, but it remains the most durable aspects of Ralph’s legacy centered on the idea of citizen jurisprudence and peoples tribunals. has become a permanent policy instrument of civil society. I have been active in these initiatives explicitly inspired by the Russell Tribunal, especially those similar undertaking organized by the progressive Italian lawyer, Lelio Basso, and his Basso Foundation, known to the world as the Permanent Peoples Tribunal with headquarters in Rome.
Ralph Schoenman was a lifelong dedicated socialist author, activist, adventurer whose death was inexplicably ignored in the public media. While still in his twenties Ralph supported the Cuban Revolution and Castro’s leadership, and wrote about colonial exploits in Africa. He wrote a devastating critique of Zionism [The Hidden History of Zionism, 1988], and was an unwavering supporter of Palestinian struggle from its beginning. He and Mya were among the first to enter the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinians confined in Beirut refugee camps to record and report on the events to the world. Ralph also found himself as the center of some high profile controversies, with Bertrand Russell and his entourage and reportedly with Fidel Castro over the latter’s failure to make a sufficient effort to save Che Guevara’s life from a CIA assassination operation.
In my opinion Ralph Schoenman is a member of a trinity of forgotten heroes of US progressive politics, airbrushed from collective memory by mainstream media and even infrequently notice by online, independent publications. The other two are Tony Russo, confederate of Daniel Ellsberg in the publication of the Pentagon Papers and David Ray Griffin, distinguished Whitehead scholar, co-founder of the Claremont School of Theology’s ‘process theology,’ and notable, international renowned academic critic of the official version of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. I happened to be longtime friends of these three courageous figures who made selfless commitments to their sense of a better future for the US and for all of humanity. I strongly suspect that there are other forgotten American heroes. surely among native North Americans and African Americans, who deserve for our sake, theirs’, to be remembered. I encourage others to follow my example of bringing such persons into the light.
In Memoriam: Ralph Schoenman (1935 – 2023)
Dear Friends, Good Evening from Turkey. I feel privileged to take part in this memorial gathering to remember and celebrate the extraordinarily courageous and dedicated life of Ralph Schoenman, with whom I felt fortunate to have a close friendship over a period of many years. I am so glad that Mya Shone and Joan Mellen are both participating in this memorializing event. They were the two most important women in Ralph’s adult life and affirmed and engaged in their own lives with a similar set of commitments to peace and justice.
I want to make just one additional preliminary remark. A memorial service of remembrance is particularly important in Ralph’s case in view of the inexcusable failure of mainstream media to review his life and contribution. By this private initiative planned by Mya, the person closest to Ralph in recent years, that gap has begun to be closed, but there is more work that needs to be done. We should be asking ourselves why some are treated with respect at the time of their death and others are ignored, whether negligently or deliberately. Why is Daniel Ellsberg’s death treated as so much more notable than Ralph’s? True part of the explanation is that Dan, also a close friend, was an adept self-promoter, and another part has to do with the dramatic fact that before Dan turned against the established order at the end of the Vietnam War, and throughout his subsequent life, he was a rising star among the top tier of Cold War ‘defense intellectuals’ advising the U.S. Government but this is far from the whole story, which at some point should be told fully and fairly.
There is no doubt that Ralph was in certain ways a demanding friend and political personality, being uncompromising in his pursuit and affirmation of some unpleasant and controversial truths implicating the high and mighty, including elected national leaders. We shared similar views of the major global crises during the turbulent years of the Cold War. These included opposition to all forms of nuclearism, the Vietnam War, the anti-Shah movement in Iran, and the Zionist Project of Settler Colonialism in Occupied Palestine. While demanding in his human relations, Ralph also had tender sides of caring and unflinching emotional loyalty that made his friendship a precious reality, especially during the years we were both living in Princeton. Yet his distinguishing human quality was his fearlessness and courage when standing up for truth and righteousness, relying on his imaginative originality and organizing gifts to bring such beliefs to life when exposing the evil falsehoods underpinning the war machine and capitalist modes of exploitation.
I will devote my few minutes to Ralph’s central role in conceiving of and bringing to fruition the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal in the mid-1960s. This was a crucially complex achievement under the most difficult of wartime circumstances that brought Ralph into a confrontational encounter with the U.S. Government. It resulted in many abuses of state power, including lifting his passports, a series of deportations, and a variety of travel bans. Few can claim that became such effective irritants to those administering an unjust world as to warrant these dramatic moves to quiet criticisms and silence.
The Tribunal also documented patterns of U.S. conduct in Vietnam that had led 20 years earlier German and Japanese surviving military and political leaders to be prosecuted and punished by death penalties imposed at the Nuremberg and Tokyo War crimes tribunals convened at the end of World War II. The Russell Tribunal compiled a comprehensive record of US criminality in Vietnam in ways that governmental and intergovernmental institutions, including the UN, failed, indeed refused, to do. Ralph, as well as being the architect of this historic undertaking, playing the leading role in constituting this singular event endorsed by Bertrand Russell and sponsored by the Russell Foundation, as presented in two sessions, held in Stockholm and Copenhagen during 1966-67.
Ralph led the difficult challenge of assembling a distinguished jury of conscience of sufficient stature that even the generally hostile media could not ignore the event. Impressively, the jury was ‘hosted’ by Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading progressive public intellectual of his day. Ralph had the temerity to join Sartre in alleging ‘genocide’ as a principal effect of the US war strategy. In addition to Sartre and Ralph, the jury attracted leading public intellectuals of that time, including Simone de Beauvoir, Lelio Basso, Isaac Deutcher, and many others.
Although Ralph parted company with later iterations of the Russell Tribunal initiative, he deserves to be acknowledged as almost single-handedly having made peoples tribunals a vital political instrument of progressive social activists throughout the world. Such peoples law has become part of the countless current struggles against various forms of governmental repression. This reality is a central feature of Ralph’s public legacy that those who care for humane global governance should work to keep alive and develop further.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London, Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He directed the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (with Robert Jay Lifton, 1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published in March 2021 and received an award from Global Policy Institute at Loyala Marymount University as ‘the best book of 2021.’ He has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2009.
Tags: Obituary, Ralph Schoenman
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