Donald Sutherland: Remembering a Peacemaker

Donald Sutherland, 1972.

The world just lost a great actor and a notable peace advocate. Donald Sutherland died on June 20, 2024, aged 88. Known globally for his compelling roles in films like Kelly’s Heroes, MASH, and The Hunger Games, Sutherland was much more than an accomplished actor. He was a relentless advocate for peace and social causes.

Sutherland’s advocacy for peace was evident throughout his career, but it was during the Vietnam War that his commitment was most prominently displayed. His vocal opposition to the war led him to support the Indochina Peace Campaign, an initiative aimed at ending U.S. aggression in Vietnam and promoting peace in the region, and to co-organize the FTA (officially Free the Army, often written with a different F-word) tour alongside Jane Fonda.

This series of anti-war shows was performed around the world for American troops, providing a counter-narrative to the pro-war USO (United Service Organizations) tours. Sutherland’s support of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and his participation in these performances was a courageous act of defiance against an unpopular and devastating conflict.

With Jane Fonda, Sutherland produced a documentary about their FTA tour. It featured skits and anti-war songs, interspersed with Black G.I.s talking about their experiences of racism in the Armed Forces. The documentary ended with Sutherland reading a quote from Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun: “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.”

Soon after its release, the documentary was pulled from American cinemas under mysterious circumstances. Sutherland, like many anti-war campaigners, was the subject of the FBI’s surveillance and efforts to discredit his anti-war activism, but he remained undeterred. His resilience and dedication to promoting peace and justice made him a leading figure in the anti-war movement.

Sutherland’s anti-war campaigning continued, and he was critical of the policies of George W. Bush’s administration. “They do not care about Iraqi people,” he told a BBC interviewer in 2005. “They do not care about the families of dead soldiers. They only care about profit.”

In his later years, Sutherland continued to be a vocal advocate for pressing global issues. At the Venice Film Festival in 2019, alongside Mick Jagger, he criticized global political leaders for failing to address climate change. “It’s the same in Brazil, and they will be torn apart in England,” he said. “When you’re my age, when you’re 85 years old and you have children and grandchildren, you will leave them nothing if we don’t vote those people out of office in Brazil, London [and] Washington.”

“They are ruining the world,” Sutherland said. “We have contributed to the ruination of it, but they are ensuring it.” Asked about the climate change protestors at the festival, he said, “They have to fight harder… And they have to get as much support as they can among all of you.”

Donald Sutherland’s legacy as a peacemaker is one of courage, compassion, and unwavering dedication to justice. His contributions to the arts, social causes, and the anti-war movement have left an indelible mark on the world. His memory will continue to inspire future generations to stand up for peace and justice, following in the footsteps of a true peace-promoting giant.

Donald Sutherland’s enduring legacy is a testament to the power of conviction and the relentless pursuit of a better world.

Chris Houston is the President of the Canadian Peace Museum non-profit organization and a columnist for The Bancroft Times.