Resisting the Vietnam War Draft

Bruce Dancis reminisces on his history and highlights of resisting the Vietnam War draft as a student at Cornell University.

| May 2014

  • In "Resister," the story of Bruce Dancis filters from protest to resistance to revolution. As the child of a couple that met in the Young People's Socialist League, Bruce grew up with an emphasis on the difference between democratic socialism and authoritarian communism.
    Cover courtesy Cornell University Press
  • "As I got older, my horror and fury over the American bombs and napalm raining down on the people of Vietnam affected me deeply, as did the ever growing number of young Americans killed and wounded in the war."
    Photo by Fotolia/Andrea Izzotti

Author Bruce Dancis gives an insider's account of the antiwar and student protest movements of the sixties in Resister (Cornell University Press, 2014). Dancis offers an engaging firsthand account of the era's most iconic events. From the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to his arrest for burning his draft card during the Vietnam War, Dancis leaves no protested land mine unturned. The following excerpt reviews Dancis' thoughts on his student activism Vietnam War draft.

On December 14, 1966, at the age of eighteen, I stood before a crowd of three hundred people at Cornell University, read a statement denouncing the war in Vietnam and the draft, and tore my draft card into four pieces. I then walked over to a nearby mailbox and sent my statement and the four pieces of my card to my draft board in the Bronx, New York, informing the Selective Service System I would not fight in Vietnam and would no longer cooperate with the draft in any shape or form. I expected to be arrested on the spot.

I was one of the twenty-seven million American men who came of draft age during the Vietnam War. I was also one of the twenty-five million American men who did not fight in that war. But unlike most of those in my age group who did not go to Vietnam, I made a stand against the war and the draft that was public, dramatic, and irrevocable. I became part of a tiny minority of young men—an estimated three thousand—who went to federal prison instead.

It is generally recognized today, as it was then, that avoiding combat in what became the most unpopular war in our country’s history was an attainable goal for everyone, except perhaps for those who were either too poor or too poorly educated to find an alternative. The Selective Service System provided many means of staying out of the war.

Joining the Reserves or the National Guard was one way to avoid going to Vietnam, but it often helped to be well connected politically to get into either. (Unlike the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most members of the Reserves during the Vietnam War remained in the United States.) Deferments for marriage, fatherhood, and economic hardship provided exemption from military service for many, while millions attending colleges, graduate schools, divinity schools, or professional schools received student deferments. Even those without deferments were often able to manipulate the draft system by failing their physical examinations, feigning homosexuality, or just making nuisances of themselves.

Conscientious objector status, which allowed those who held religious objections to participating in war to perform alternative service in lieu of joining the military, was also available to some. Moving to Canada was another possibility, as obtaining “landed immigrant status” in that country eliminated the prospect of being extradited back to the United States. Some draft eligible men simply failed to register for the draft or ignored their induction orders, their files and cases lost in the bureaucratic mess of the Selective Service System.

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