Published in the Nonviolent Activist, April 2000

We Ain't Marching Anymore: Draft and Military Resistance to the Vietnam War

By Andy Mager

Draft resistance permeated our national consciousness during the Vietnam War as "Hell No, We Won't Go!" echoed through our city streets, college campuses and high schools from coast to coast. Twenty-five years after the end of the war, what can we learn from that movement and those who made life-altering decisions of conscience?

Of the 27 million men of draft age during the war, nearly nine million enlisted. Only 2.2 million of the remaining 18 million were drafted. Approximately 700,000 refused induction or deserted once they were in the service. According to government figures, which are generally conservative, more than half a million men and women were classified as deserters. Estimates of the number of non-registrants range from 250,000 to two million, about half of whom were African-American.

On the civilian side, the Justice Department identified 570,000 men who violated the draft laws. Of 206,775 names referred to U.S. Attorneys for prosecution, 25,000 were indicted, more than 9,000 were convicted, and 3,250 were imprisoned for their resistance. Some 172,000 men received legal conscientious objector status. While every war in the history of our country has faced some moral resistance, this was a decidedly different phenomenon.

Resistance to Stop War

"The idea of draft resistance as a way to influence or stop a war is fairly new in American life," notes peace movement historian Lawrence Wittner. He classifies the resistance to World War I as primarily one of "personal witness" and identifies the idea that "wars could be halted if men refused to fight" as developing soon thereafter. Wittner believes that those resisting World War II did not do so to "disrupt" the war and that "draft resistance during the Vietnam War represented a turning point, for it was both widespread and, often, designed to destroy the draft and 'stop the warmakers.'"

The Korean War-era draft remained in place as U.S. involvement in Vietnam deepened. In 1963, President Kennedy increased the number of "adviser" troops in Vietnam to 15,000. The first major anti-war protests began the following year. In the spring of 1965, President Johnson escalated the ground and air war. During the first International Days of Protest against the war on October 15, 1965, Catholic Worker activist David Miller burned his draft card rather than giving a speech, breaking a law passed several months earlier. His action received tremendous publicity. By the end of 1965, draft call-ups˜which three years earlier had averaged some 6,000 a month˜increased to 40,200 per month.

Although antiwar activity had begun to build in New York City and other metropolitan centers, it had not spread throughout much of the country. Dik Cool, a student at Michigan State University, had to travel far to begin learning about the war. "In 1964, I hitchhiked out to southern California with a college buddy. His parents were, what I guess we'd now call, the hippies of the day. They introduced me to folks that I had never known existed, such as the Peacemakers." Later that year, Cool drafted a letter to the Selective Service about his resistance to the war. Like other resisters, Cool saw "the privilege that college students had in terms of who fights wars. I decided that I wasn't going to accept that."

By the time of his 1965 trial for refusing induction in Syracuse, NY, Cool was still not connected to any movement organizations. There was no visible community support for his stand, and his pacifist attorney tried to convince him to apply for conscientious objector status rather than resist. Cool experienced a deep sense of isolation. "I really had no idea what I was getting into. I wasn't sitting with anybody to talk about what prison would be like. There just wasn't anybody to talk to." But his personal commitment carried him forward; he eventually spent two years in federal prison.

Reflecting on that time, Cool recalls, "In many ways prison was an opportunity for me to meet and interact with and learn from a range of people that it's just impossible to come in contact with, particularly for a middle-class white guy. It certainly continued my radicalization process."

Being white and middle class, Cool was similar to many draft resisters who would follow. But unlike Cool, David Harris of California was immersed in the anti-war movement as a key figure in The Resistance, a decentralized network of draft resistance activists. He characterizes that movement as not very diverse in today's terms. "No women were subject to the draft. Mostly college students, mostly middle-class, some Blacks, and some exceptions to the class rule. But by the standards of the time it was reasonably diverse." (Women did play key roles in the movement despite the sexism of the times and despite not being in a position to formally resist the draft; Harris himself was married to prominent antiwar activist and folksinger Joan Baez.)

Harris was imprisoned for 20 months. He believes that the draft resistance movement played a central role in the larger movement to end the war. "It provided a real impetus for the rest of the movement. When there were people who were prepared to risk five years in prison it made it easier for other people to go out and march or pass out leaflets. It provided inspiration and a sort of moral grounding." An historic example of that inspirational effect involves Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, who often cites draft refuser Randy Kehler's conscientious resistance to the war as a major influence on Ellsberg's decision to risk his career by releasing The Pentagon Papers.

GI Resistance Blossoms

Draft resistance also sowed the seeds for resistance within the military itself. Early in the war, the few cases of GI resistance such as those of Dr. Howard Levy (1967) and the Fort Hood Three (1966) received widespread publicity. As the war continued and the peace movement grew, non-cooperation within the military expanded greatly. GI coffeehouses were set up outside military bases throughout the country, providing peace activists an opportunity for dialogue with those in the military; the kitchen equipment for the first GI coffeehouse was donated by The Resistance.

Hundreds of thousands of GI's deserted, refused orders or took other steps to bog down the military machine. In addition, some 17,000 applied for conscientious objector discharges. Keith Mather of San Francisco was drafted in September 1967, and, although he knew he "didn't want any part of the war," he went along with the process. Shortly after beginning his advanced infantry training, he went home for the Christmas holiday, feeling "like I was walking around with a weight on my shoulders. I decided that I wasn't going to Vietnam and the weight was lifted."

Back at the base, Mather soon went AWOL, returning to San Francisco. He quickly became involved with the War Resisters League and with other AWOL servicemen who refused to go to Vietnam. He and nine other military resisters, representing all four branches of the military, sought public sanctuary in a church, chaining themselves to ministers of different denominations. Their action, which received significant publicity, ended with their arrests and incarceration in military prisons.

When Mather refused to cooperate in any way in San Francisco's Presidio Stockade, he was put in solitary confinement. On October 11, 1968, fellow prisoner Richard Bunch was shot and killed by a member of the military police while walking away from a work detail. Other prisoners rioted in protest, and three days later Mather and 26 other prisoners who wanted a more focused demonstration held a sit-in. The 27 protesters were charged with mutiny and faced up to 25 years in military prison.

Mather had already been sentenced to four years for his earlier resistance, and, as one of those identified as ringleaders, feared for his safety. He and co-defendant Walter Polowski escaped and went to Canada. He lived there for 12 years before returning in 1980 under his own identity. Four years later Mather left his drivers license at a gas station. When it was turned over to the local police, they realized he had an outstanding warrant and arrested him. For four and a half months he endured a difficult imprisonment in various military prisons; significant peace movement support and a sympathetic media probably helped gain his early release.

Effects of the Resistance

Linking with those in the military was an important component of the movement strategy to, in Harris' words, "make it impossible to raise an army to support the war." Another important challenge was transforming draft resistance from an isolated act into a large scale movement. On April 15, 1967, the morning of a massive peace rally in New York City's Central Park, 175 men burned their draft cards. The following fall, The Resistance organized mass draft card turn-ins. The first and largest occurred on October 3, 1967, with more than 1,500 men returning their cards.

While this approach never led to the complete collapse of the U.S. military, "we certainly made it far more difficult for the government to raise an army," observes Harris. Confirming that view, Col. Robert Heinl wrote in the June 1971 issue of Armed Forces Journal, "The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States." And the Oakland, CA, Induction Center reported that from October 1969 through March 1970 more than half of those ordered to report for induction did not show up; of those who did, 11 percent refused induction.

Large numbers of both draft and military resisters chose to leave the country, with most heading to Canada, others to Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. Estimates of deserters range from 80,000 to more than 200,000. One-third of those who left the country had refused to accept deferments or exemptions for which they would have qualified, contradicting a popular view of the expatriates as cowards. Leaving the country was also, for many exiles, a powerful way to live out their rejection of dominant U.S. values.

The last induction of draftees took place on July 1, 1973. Draft registration ended March 29, 1975, and the war was over a month later. President Ford's conditional amnesty offer in September 1975 and President Carter's pardon for draft resisters in early 1977 still left tens of thousands of military resisters out in the cold.

No Regrets

The Vietnam War is still being fought in popular culture. This year's presidential field consists almost entirely of men who faced the prospect of fighting in Vietnam. Except for John McCain, they waffle about their positions on the war and the choices they made. Historical revisionists paint an image of deep regret on the part of many who opposed and/or resisted the war, regret expressed by none of the resisters contacted for this article. (No surveys provide us with statistics.)

"I don't know of any draft resisters who have turned their backs on draft resistance," says David Harris. He adds, "I think that the people who evaded the draft didn't really take a position, other than their own self interest. Some of them have regrets now." Randy Kehler agrees, "I don't know and haven't heard of anyone who went to prison or left the country or became a CO or refused to register who regretted it later." Dik Cool's only regret is that "we didn't end the war earlier. But in terms of personal decisions, I did what I thought was best in terms of ending the war." Keith Mather "wishes it hadn't been so hard on my children and other family." But having "people tell me that they didn't go because of what I did erases any potential regrets. I'm proud of it."

While few former resisters question the positions they took several decades ago, not all remain active in movement efforts. Some have, like Kehler, whose efforts for nuclear disarmament, war tax resistance and campaign finance reform have continued since the war, and Cool, whose Syracuse Cultural Workers provide beautiful resources to support and inspire social movements. Both Harris and Mather continue to speak and write about the war and their resistance to it.

There can be little doubt that the massive war resistance during the Vietnam War was a critical juncture in our nation's history. How powerful that legacy remains is in the hands of those of us who continue to work for peace and social justice.

Andy Mager is a former editor of the NVA. When he refused to register for the draft in 1980, he was fortunate to have the opportunity to draw on the experience and knowledge of previous resisters.