Resisting the Vietnam War Draft

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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.
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"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."

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.

It wasn’t just war opponents who didn’t want to fight in Vietnam. The list of pro-war politicians of the appropriate age who avoided going to Vietnam is lengthy. It includes President George W. Bush (student deferment and Texas Air National Guard), Vice President Dick Cheney (five student and marriage deferments), presidential candidate Mitt Romney (student and ministerial deferments), Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (student and marital deferments), political adviser Karl Rove (student deferment), radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (4-F because of a pilonidal cyst), and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (student deferment).

Although political-satirist-turned-U.S.-senator Al Franken and others have used the derogatory term “chicken hawks” to describe the hypocrisy of these gung-ho types who artfully avoided fighting in a war they wholeheartedly endorsed, I disagree with impugning their courage—even though many pro-war politicians have slandered the honor of those of us who refused to kill. I believed then, and still do today, that no American should have fought in Vietnam.

I chose none of those alternatives to the draft, and became a draft resister. (Some have inaccurately called men like me “draft dodgers,” instead of draft resisters. While many of my contemporaries avoided or dodged the draft through deferments and exemptions, I rejected a student deferment and openly defied the Selective Service System.) A few months after destroying my draft card, I began organizing other young men to do the same. Before my nineteenth birthday I had become a leader in the largest movement against the draft in the history of the United States since the Civil War.

During the Vietnam era, only about three thousand men—out of the twenty-five million men who did not serve in Vietnam—were sentenced to prison terms for draft offenses. Those three thousand included nonpolitical draft offenders and members of religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A much smaller group was the political, or intentional, draft resisters like me—those who openly tied our opposition to the war in Vietnam to refusing deferments, taking such provocative actions as destroying or turning in our draft cards, or refusing induction. Since some judges suspended the sentences of resisters or allowed convicted offenders to go free after serving a minimal amount of time in local jails, only a small group of draft resisters actually spent time in federal prisons.

I was prosecuted by the United States government for willfully destroying my Selective Service certificate. I also refused induction into the military, but I was not prosecuted for that federal offense. I was tried and convicted in a federal court and given an indeterminate sentence of up to six years in prison. In a country that does not recognize political prisoners, I, like other draft resisters, was placed within the general inmate population in a federal prison—in my case, a prison in Ashland, Kentucky. After more than nineteen months of incarceration, in late December 1970 I received a parole.

In addition to organizing resistance to the draft, I was part of the radical student movement at Cornell University as a member, president, and cochairman of the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the leading New Left organization of the 1960s. By the 1968–69 academic year, the Cornell chapter had become one of the largest and most active in SDS. My activities landed me on the FBI’s Security Index, Agitator Index, and (I’m not making this up) Rabble Rouser Index.

In this book I look back at what happened during those turbulent years and the circumstances leading to my involvement in the social movements of the era. Like many other young people coming of age in the 1960s, I reacted to developments in the unstable world in which I was growing up.

As a high school student, I was driven to repulsion and anger over the violence inflicted upon civil rights workers and demonstrators in the South, leading me to take my first, tentative steps as an activist in support of civil rights. To this day, my personal heroes are the courageous people who risked their lives in the American South to right the wrongs left by centuries of racism and discrimination. They taught me about the necessity of putting your own body on the line when confronting evil.

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.

We have all heard the story of a Vietnam veteran returning home in uniform, only to be spat upon by an antiwar demonstrator. I never witnessed or read any plausible account of such an occurrence. In his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, the sociologist Jerry Lembcke debunks the myth of the “spat-upon veteran” and finds its origins in an effort by the Nixon administration to undermine support for the antiwar movement. That doesn’t mean it never happened, but such an action would have been contrary to what most of us in the antiwar movement believed. We weren’t anti-GI; we were anti–U.S. policy. We wanted to save the lives of American soldiers—and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians—by ending the war and the bloodshed. It should never be forgotten that as the war dragged on, more and more Vietnam veterans joined the ranks of the antiwar movement.

It may be a surprise to readers, coming from an organizer of the first mass draft card burning during the war in Vietnam, that I never supported burning the American flag. Setting the flag on fire struck me as counterproductive. The sight of the stars and stripes going up in flames invariably garnered the most press attention at any antiwar march or rally—particularly from photographers—and enabled the media to ignore the message we were trying to communicate. I always suspected that many flag burners were agent provocateurs.

In contrast, I found few people who had the same kind of protective feeling over a draft card. If anything, draft cards were increasingly seen by young men as symbols of oppression. Yes, burning a draft card was a provocative action, but it made a statement that was quite different from burning the flag.

My experiences raised questions, then and now. Did the illegal actions of the draft resistance movement help build the movement seeking an end to the war in Vietnam? And did that antiwar movement contribute to the eventual ending of the war, or at least in constraining the efforts of the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations to wage it?

This memoir also presents a brief account of my growing up in a secular Jewish home in New York City during the 1950s and early ’60s, and encountering racism and anti-Semitism in the heart of the Bronx. I will examine the impact of my home life and the milieu of socialist cooperatives and progressive summer camps on my participation in the civil rights and antiwar movements.

Do We Need Another Book on the ’60s?

I first began to reflect on those years in the early 1970s, when I wrote some essays and gave guest lectures on the New Left in a friend’s class at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was also involved in political movements during the ’70s and ’80s that tried to learn from our past mistakes.

But I gradually began to think less about the ’60s, largely because I felt my life’s work should not revolve around the activities I was involved in when I was seventeen to twenty-two years old. I also did not want to continually reference what I did on December 14, 1966, and the ramifications of that action on the rest of my life.

I turned toward pursuing a career and raising a family. My studies as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and as a PhD candidate in American history at Stanford University in the 1970s carried me further back in time than the 1960s. After leaving graduate school with a master’s degree but without finishing my doctoral dissertation, I became a journalist. I eventually switched my focus to entertainment—writing, with a political and social edge, about rock and reggae music and movies. In addition to working as a freelance writer, I became the entertainment editor at the Daily Californian, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and the Oakland Tribune, and the managing editor of Mother Jones magazine before spending eighteen years at the Sacramento Bee, sixteen of them as the newspaper’s arts and entertainment editor.

My desire to return to writing about the Vietnam War and draft resistance came about during the 2004 presidential campaign, in part out of my dismay over Democratic candidate John Kerry’s downplaying of his important involvement in Vietnam Veterans against the War. But I was dissuaded from doing so by the Bee’s executive editor, Rick Rodriguez. Rick felt that as an editor and member of the Bee’s management, I should not be expressing my personal opinions about the presidential race, and I accepted his decision.

I also had a family to nurture. My life as a husband and father and stepfather for four children brought me greater responsibilities, along with irreplaceable love and joy. But I did not have the time to embark on a project as all-consuming as researching and writing a book.

By late 2008, much of this had changed. My kids were all grown up. With the state of newspapers and the fortunes of print journalists declining rapidly, I took a buyout from the Sacramento Bee. While I remained a journalist, writing a weekly column on DVDs that was distributed by two newspaper syndicates, I had the freedom to take on other projects. My wife, Karen Dean-Dancis, strongly encouraged me to write a memoir about my days as a draft resister.

As I began to look into the matter, I discovered that very little had been written by either scholars or Vietnam-era draft resisters about the experiences of resisters in federal prisons. David Miller, a Catholic pacifist and the first man to burn his draft card after such actions were made illegal by Congress, devotes a chapter of his memoir to his time in federal prisons in Allenwood and Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

More pertinent to my own experience is the activism of David Harris, perhaps the second-most-prominent draft resister of the era (after heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali) and the author of several books on the war in Vietnam, draft resistance, and prison. Like me, he was a student radical (at Stanford) before becoming an antiwar and draft resistance organizer.

Yet one size does not fit all when it comes to draft resisters—and David Harris is quite tall, while I’m a little guy. He is from the West Coast, and I grew up in New York. He remained a believer in nonviolence and the tactic of draft card turn-ins longer than I did. He was antagonistic to SDS in Northern California, while I was active in the organization in upstate New York and nationally. He went to prison in the Southwest, and I was imprisoned in Kentucky. He was married to Joan Baez, the most famous female folksinger in the world, and I wasn’t (though my wife Karen does have a beautiful singing voice). Our experiences were dissimilar, and we have different stories to tell.

The same goes for many of the histories of SDS, which tend to emphasize the twists and turns of policies emanating from the organization’s National Office in Chicago. Yet SDS, more than most groups on the left, was decentralized and often dysfunctional as a national organization. When an SDS national convention or one of the quarterly National Council meetings adopted a program, many local chapters didn’t follow through on them. The history of SDS is actually the story of hundreds of different chapters, yet little has been written from the perspective of these local chapters—with the exception of Columbia University SDS, whose members generated massive national attention in the spring of 1968 by occupying campus buildings, holding a student strike, and suffering significant injuries at the hands of the New York Police Department.

From November 1965 through May 1969 my life was intertwined with the Cornell chapter of SDS. In addition to opposing the war in Vietnam and the draft, we conducted vigorous campaigns around Cornell’s institutional support for South African apartheid and the university’s role in the creation of an overcrowded housing market in Ithaca, New York. I was deeply involved in the events of the spring of 1969 at Cornell, which attracted national attention when black students fighting to build a black studies center seized the campus student union, armed themselves in self-defense after an attack, and gained the support of thousands of white students, led by SDS. The Cornell chapter remained an effective organization during 1968 and the first five months of 1969, while the national organization and many local chapters were being consumed in factional conflicts. In some important ways, the history of Cornell SDS challenges, or at least adds some nuance to, the conventional narrative about the breakup of SDS.

Are There Lessons to Be Learned?

I am not presumptuous enough to believe that the story of my activism and resistance, and its successes and failures, will impart valuable lessons for young people who are today bringing a new commitment to organizing and direct action. For one thing, American society has changed significantly in forty years, and today’s challenges differ in many ways from the battles we fought in the ’60s. I also believe that having a “presentist” agenda might distort any account of what took place back in those days.

On the other hand, I would be pleased if today’s young activists, who have both inspired me and caused me some consternation, learned something useful from this account. At the least, younger readers will find out about organizing in a period before the advent of cell phones, text messages, and the Internet, let alone answering machines, personal computers, and overnight mail.

Excerpt from Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War by Bruce Dancis, published by Cornell University Press. © 2014. All rights reserved.

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