Sep 30

Hell No I Won’t Go (1965-1969)

(Continued from Viet-Report)

Draft Card 1968

At Brandeis that fall (1966) a student dive-bombed and crashed a light airplane into the center of campus, killing himself and his female passenger.  Rumors swirled that it was a love pact, a Romeo-and-Juliet affair, but in the background there was the Vietnam draft.  With the massive escalation of the ground war, the Army was hungry for bodies.  Single men not enrolled in school had no protection and were being inducted by the many hundreds of thousands.[1]

The war was hugely unpopular on campuses nationwide.  The draft, and how to avoid it, became a major preoccupation publicly and privately.  Everyone who lived through those years has a story to tell.  Here’s mine.

When I took a leave of absence to go to Mississippi in the fall of ’64, I lost my student deferment for the year, but the marriage to Viki entitled me to the marriage deferment.  On returning to Brandeis in the fall of ’65, I had both the marriage and the student deferment, and was looking good.

Nevertheless, in the summer of ’66 I was reclassified 1-A, the category of those immediately eligible for induction.  My draft board was in Olathe, Kansas, the site of a major military base.  While Viki and I were on vacation in St. Pierre et Miquelon, the draft board sent me a status questionnaire that did not reach me.  Because I did not respond to the questionnaire on time, the board treated me as delinquent and sent me a notice to report for a pre-induction physical exam in Kansas City.  By telegrams from St. Pierre I filed an appeal, and also notified the Board by letter of my work for Viet-Report and my pending federal criminal indictment for conspiracy to organize the second Cuba trip.  It was my hope that this sinister-sounding federal criminal case would mark me as undesirable.  The tireless Leonard Boudin submitted a letter in support.

This maneuver, an echo of my mother’s efforts in Nazi Germany to play one bureaucracy against another in favor of my father in 1939,  worked to an extent: on appeal, the draft board in Olathe put my status on hold until the federal criminal case in New York was resolved.  But when my divorce papers from Mexico arrived in early ’67, at about the same time as the Supreme Court decision dismissing the federal criminal case against me and my fellow defendants in the Cuba trip, all I had was the student deferment, and by this time students were being drafted.

At some time in early ’67, I received a notice for a pre-induction physical examination in Boston.  The air at that time was thick with tactics for trying to get disqualified on fitness grounds, and I tried several.  I made an appointment with the campus psychologist and tried to convince him I was mentally unfit.  He didn’t buy it.  The night before the physical, I drank a gallon of black coffee, which was supposed to mess up your heartbeat.  Rotten luck, my EKG was fine.  It was time for more creative measures.

On January 12, 1967, I sent a Conscientious Objector (C.O.) form to my draft board.  Its central feature was a set of full-page color photographs, glued to the form, taken from Ramparts magazine‘s famous expose that month, by James Colaianni, of the use of napalm against civilians in Vietnam.  Similar pictures soon appeared more widely, chilling support for and firing up opposition to the war.

Vietnamese children running after U.S. forces napalmed their village

In response to the questions on the form, I wrote:

If there were a Supreme Being, could He allow children to be napalmed like in the pictures on this page?  I do believe in a Supreme Principle, namely that People’s Inhumanity toward Each Other has to be Stopped, and that the Duty of not becoming Tainted with this evil Massacre is superior to what any Nation commands me.  Nothing can justify what is being done to these children.

I was born in Germany in 1941 during the midst of the War.  As a small child I suffered the bombardment of cities.  I remember air raids and the Sky being red with fires and black with smoke and after the War I walked and played on ruins and rubble heaps and I was there when one day they dug out some corpses that had been buried there.  I was shell-shocked  when I was four years old, and until I was in High School I still had nightmares about bombs falling on me.  As a child in Germany, I had to see doctor to help me get over these dreams but it didn’t help much.  In the last two months it has been coming Back to me and seeing the pictures of the Children of Vietnam brought my dreams back, and I am seeing another doctor about it.  I am very suspicious of people who say that their Consciences prevent them from doing something, and so I don’t know whether my reaction to War is like the sort of Conscientious Objectors that don’t want to fight, even though they don’t know what War is like.  I know what it’s like.  These children are Me. I feel their suffering deeper than my conscience and I won’t have anything to do with anybody who has done that to them.  Whether this is a matter of Conscience or something Deeper not covered by Law you have to decide.

From the legal standpoint, this application for C.O. status was a guaranteed loser.  You had to profess belief in a Supreme Being, and my “Supreme Principle” — which sounded like a fancy-language version of the popular antiwar slogans,  “Hell, no, we won’t go!” and “Hey, hey, LBJ!  How many kids did you kill today?” — wasn’t going to cut it, especially because I also wrote that “My Beliefs and convictions are Moral, not religious.”  The official response came promptly, denying C.O. status.   But my liberal use of capital letters for emphasis, suggesting an unhinged 19th century zealot, may have left an impression.  It’s the little things that tip the scale sometimes.  Somehow my file got moved to the back of the drawer.

After my second year at Brandeis, I had pretty much picked the brains of the faculty clean of what interested me, and felt restless.  I counted a handful of good friends among my fellow graduate students.  Steve Rosenthal and his wife Mimi come to mind, as do Tonia Aminoff, Nancy Stoller, Judy Adler, Juan Corradi, Volker Meja, Chuck Nathanson, Roger Pritchard, Barrie Thorne, and Gaye Tuchman.  Steve recently retired as Professor of Sociology at Hampton University.  Tonia became a modern American painter.   Nancy became a feminist and health care activist and professor at U.C. Santa Cruz.  Judy  and Volker became Professors of Sociology at Memorial University in Newfoundland.  Juan became a Professor of Sociology at New York University.  Chuck became an education leader at U.S. San Diego and died in 2003.  Roger became a business adviser and activist.  Barrie is Professor of Sociology at U.C. Berkeley.  Gaye is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.  And I also would probably have become a professor of sociology at some such place, but my life took a different turn.

Word came via the sociology grapevine at this time that Tom Bottomore, a senior Marxist sociologist from Britain, had been hired to head up a new department at a brand-new university near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  The timing was good.  I had enough credits for the M.A. from Brandeis, and had not yet started work on the Ph.D.  I was in a relationship with one of my fellow grad students, but this was more what today would be called a “friendship with privileges” rather than a long-term commitment, and when the time came for me to move, we handled it without major grief and remained friends.  I applied for and was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate at the new place, Simon Fraser University.  The position also offered subsistence employment as lecturer.

And, of course, the fact that it was in Canada was a factor in my mind.  I remembered that my father had delayed too long in getting out of Germany, and I did not want to make the same mistake.  And so, at the end of the school year in the spring of  ’67, I packed my belongings into and on top of another second-hand Volkswagen Beetle and took off for Vancouver B.C.  But I was careful to keep my draft board up to date.  In a letter of May 10, 1967, I gave them my new address, and added:

I should point out that my going to this university to do my PhD (having finished my MA at Brandeis) is motivated by the presence here at Simon Fraser of an internationally renowned authority in sociology … and has nothing to do with the university’s geographical location. I mention this to prevent misunderstanding.

Since I was then no longer enrolled in a college in the United States, my eligibility for the student deferment was gone, and as of January 1968, I was reclassified as 1-A, and remained 1-A when I returned to the States in 1969, and for the duration of the war.   I never burned my card.  I never dodged the draft.  But my number never came up.  I have to guess the good people at the Olathe draft board — and they always treated me with courtesy — figured out that I was just not a good fit.

(Continued in Simon Fraser)

  1. [1]The Indochina war theater involved nearly three and a half million American troops, of whom about half were draftees.  War statistics website: 3,403,100 personnel in the Southeast Asian theatre, 1,728,344 draftees.

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