John Lennon Wasn't Really a Pacifist

This article is from the archive of our partner .

This Wednesday will mark the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon's assassination. As such, there are numerous tributes and intriguing what-if essays hoping to put the enduring legacy of the renowned musician, artist and free-thinker in context. But there's also at least one Beatles biographer who believes the Lennon has received far too much credit in at least one area: his role as a peace activist. His name is John McMillian and in the Boston Globe he wrote an essay entitled "Re-Imagine" that aims to dispel the notion that the musician was an unabashed "peacenik."

McMillian argues that Lennon was really "was ambivalent about pacifism, and his public enthusiasm for the peace movement was fleeting and capricious." Such words may sound like heresy to modern ears, and McMillian is careful to clarify that Lennon had explicit peaceful inclinations, but that his legacy has been hijacked by "well-intended tributes and vigils" that sometimes "extol a naive style of pacifism."

In fact, in the early years of the Beatles, the band was under strict orders by a "savvy manager" to avoid controversial statements about the Vietnam War. "Lennon may have been annoyed by this restriction, but for the most part, he acquiesced," McMillian notes. Even the peace protests that Lennon staged (the "bed-ins" and "acorns for peace") were "probably" not his own ideas but Yoko Ono's. And in 1972, under pressure of deportation from the Nixon administration, Lennon "abruptly terminated the activist phase of his career" and didn't really return to it even when he received a green card in 1975.

What John Lennon should be recognized for, argues McMillian, is his "hostility to orthodoxies." He explains:

If people could bring themselves to delve a little deeper into Lennon's life and thought, and stop dwelling on his soapiest platitudes from the Vietnam War era, they might still find his example instructive. One of the big themes of his career, after all, was his hostility to orthodoxies. This is a man who expressed cynicism about Jesus and his apostles, denounced the Maharishi as a fraud, and then, at age 31, turned his back on the Beatles. ...
His stint as a carnival barker for the peace movement represents only a small fraction of his career. Everyone remembers one of Lennon's most famous compositions, "Give Peace a Chance." Another very good, but less heralded, song that he wrote, was called "Gimme Some Truth."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.