Little did David Miller know that his individual act of resistance of burning his draft card at an antiwar rally in late 1965 would help lead to the collapse of the system of military conscription that had been in place since World War II. Nor did he realize how much draft resistance would spark the peace movement that helped end the war in Vietnam.
For Miller and others of his generation, the draft was a fact of life, something that hung over the head of every young man from birth. At age 18, all were required to register with a government agency (Selective Service) and to keep it informed every time they changed addresses, got a job, enrolled in college, got married, had a child, etc. The government could then draft them into two years of military service whenever it needed them. Young men even had to carry their draft cards with them at all times so authorities could check that they were in compliance with the law. To violate the any part of the law was punishable by imprisonment of up to five years and a $10,000 fine – a fact stated prominently on all draft cards.
Other opponents of the Vietnam war had burnt their cards, most notably several dozen at a big antiwar rally in New York City earlier in 1965. In reaction Congress rushed through a law to make burning a draft card a felony. By torching his card a few weeks after the law had been passed, Miller showed he was not intimidated.
Draft resisters engaged in a classic act of nonviolent noncooperation with what they considered an unjust law that was sending men to fight in an unjust war. Literally hundreds of other young men emulated Miller’s action, though many decided that burning the cards destroyed the evidence, so they mailed their cards back to Selective Service to force the government’s hand.
In early 1967, four resisters from the San Francisco area came up with a plan that transformed what had been essentially a personal or individual act to a mass action. Influenced by their experiences with the Civil Rights movement in the South, David Harris, Lennie Heller, Steve Hamilton and Dennis Sweeney issued a call in early 1967 for young men across the country to turn in their draft cards at local rallies on October 16th.
They dubbed their movement “The Resistance,” and it quickly grew to about 60 autonomous groups across the country, mostly based on college campuses. At the October 16th rallies, about a thousand cards were collected. Cards from the rallies were brought to the Washington, DC on Oct. 20th where a delegation led by Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous baby doctor, presented the cards to officials of the Department of Justice.
The government was confused about how to react to the receipt of the cards. The DOJ, led by Attorney General Ramsey Clark, decided to indict the “leaders” – Dr. Spock and four others – of what was essentially a leaderless movement of draft age men. That move backfired badly, as thousands of supporters of the draft resisters signed petitions saying that they, too, were just as guilty as those who had been indicted. To make matters worse, the government lost the legal case.
General Lewis B. Hershey of Selective Service disagreed with the Justice Department’s approach and tried to crack down on the resisters themselves by declaring them delinquent and ordered them to be speedily inducted into the military. But that backfired, too, both politically and legally and many cases were later overturned on procedural grounds. The net result was that the number of draft resisters increased exponentially after October 16th as did demonstrations and nonviolent civil disobedience actions at local draft boards across the country.
To give some idea of the scope of the draft resistance movement, Selective Service referred 184,135 men to the Justice Department for prosecution of violations of the draft law during the Vietnam war. Yet only a fraction of those who violated the law were convicted (8,756) and less than half of them (4,001) were imprisoned. The sheer number of resisters had made enforcement of the law increasingly difficult. As the war continued and became more unpopular, many prosecutors declined to bring charges against the resisters, juries refused to convict, and judges did not send those convicted to jail
Add to the nearly 200,000 who had violated the law, an equal number of men are estimated not to have registered but were not detected by the system, and some 100,000 fled to Canada rather than be drafted.
In his book, Jailed for Peace: The history of American draft law violators,1658-1985, Stephen M. Kohn described the result: “By the end of the Vietnam War, the Selective Service System was demoralized and frustrated. It was increasingly difficult to induct men into the army. There was more and more illegal resistance, and the popularity of resistance was rising. The draft was all but dead.”
The draft was finally killed by Congress and President Nixon. What had been an accepted part of life in America was gone because of the sustained nonviolent resistance of thousands of young men and their supporters.