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What the PBS "Vietnam War" series missed about draft resistance

(Published in the San Francisco Chronicle)

The PBS series “The Vietnam War” presents a devastating history of the war, showing it to be ill-conceived and a major human tragedy for both America and Indochina. It clearly validates that the peace movement was right to oppose the war and call for the withdrawal of American troops and air power.

But, despite that, in its 18 hours, the series falls seriously short in how it portrays the peace movement. While segments do present some major antiwar events, the series misses its full scope, significant impact, and lessons for today. In the last episode of the series, the producers chose to include two antiwar voices who both apologize for their actions and the movement, rather than take credit for turning the public against the war.

I was part of that historic movement, starting in 1968 as a freshman at UC Berkeley. My opposition to the war led me to file for conscientious objector status when I registered for the draft at 18.

When draft resistance leader David Harris, folks singer Joan Baez, and nonviolence advocate Ira Sandperl spoke at UC Berkeley in 1969, I was challenged to take a further step: refuse to cooperate with the Selective Service System in an act of outright resistance. He and others were traveling and speaking around the country to build support for a mass draft resistance movement that would make it harder to continue fighting an unjust and unnecessary war.

Harris already had refused to be inducted and was facing several years in federal prison.

It wasn’t an easy decision for me, considering the possibility of prison. But I returned my draft card because contributing to the growing draft resistance movement was a powerful way to help end the ongoing slaughter in Vietnam.

The draft resistance movement grew. Nearly 200,000 young men were cited for draft violations, 25,000 sent to trial, and 4,000 sent to serve an average of two years in federal prison. Eventually, the scale of draft resistance made it harder for President Richard Nixon to escalate troop levels. He ended draft calls in 1972.

The courage of draft resisters also inspired Daniel Ellsberg to risk life in prison and release what became known as the Pentagon Papers, revealing the secrets and lies of the war, another critical factor in turning the public against it.

Despite the significant impact of draft resistance, there is nothing about it in the PBS series. Instead, the series features two men who evaded the draft by going to Canada. But draft resisters were not draft evaders. Resisters publicly refused to be drafted and were willing to face the consequences. The series falls short in several other ways to portray accurately the multifaceted peace movement, including how grassroots lobbying in the early 1970s led to Congress finally cutting off war funding in 1973.

Why do these omissions matter? This 10-episode series is being hailed as a definitive history of the war and will be viewed for years to come. The antiwar effort was the largest political movement in modern American history, with a major impact on ending the war and changing America. Its lessons hold much relevance today.

That is why the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee is bringing together antiwar leaders, veterans and historians Oct. 20-21 in Washington, D.C., to present a more complete portrait of the movement, in what we’re calling “Episode 11.”

While the PBS series studiously avoids presenting any conclusions about the war or its lessons, its producers, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, wrote in The Atlantic:

“The war … reminded us that the duty of citizens in a democracy is to be skeptical — not to worship our leaders, who have always been fallible, but to question their decisions, challenge their policies and hold them accountable for their failures.”

This is what motivated the Vietnam War peace movement and is one of the most fundamental takeaways from the war — active citizens’ movements are essential to hold political leaders accountable and to question their policies, especially in times of war when so many lives are at stake.

As Novick also noted in a recent interview on the NPR series “Here and Now”:

“Every generation seems to have to learn these lessons again because they are hard to hold onto when you didn’t actually fight in that war and you didn’t live through it. It’s good … to be reminded of what really happens when you unleash the gods of war. It’s not pretty. It’s devastating.”


Steve Ladd is an adviser to the Boys Who Said NO! film and a member of the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee.

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