Opposition to the war in Vietnam was well under way before The Resistance was founded in 1967. President Johnson dramatically escalated the war in early 1965, beginning a massive bombing campaign and sending the first U.S. ground troops in March. His actions swelled a long-planned April anti-war rally in Washington DC to more than 25,000.
Protests grew throughout the year; an estimated 100,000 participated in the International Days of Protest in 80 cities within the U.S. and around the world. So many young men had publicly burned their draft cards by August 1965 that Congress, denouncing them as dirty, long-haired beatniks and most certainly Communists, outlawed the practice. Less than two months later, David Miller became the first to publically burn his card despite the new law – the first, but certainly not the last.
Opposition continued to grow. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group, put out a statement in January 1966 expressing sympathy for “the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft.” The GI resistance movement also grew. Donald Duncan, a Green Beret Master Sergeant who had served in Vietnam, published an article in Ramparts magazine entitled, “The Whole Thing Was a Lie.” In June 1966, the Fort Hood Three, Army soldiers in Texas, put out an eloquent and widely publicized refusal to follow orders to go to Vietnam, calling the war “illegal, immoral and unjust.”
In this context, David Harris, Dennis Sweeney, Steve Hamilton and Lenny Heller met in Palo Alto, California, in March 1967 to organize a group opposed to the draft and the war that they called simply The Resistance. Their plan was three-fold:
First, they pledged to encourage as many young American men as possible across the country to refuse to cooperate with the draft, culminating in a massive draft card turn-in October 1967. As the U.S. sent more troops to Vietnam, the government depended on the draft to conscript enough men to fight the war, so The Resistance aimed at destroying the draft’s effectiveness through nonviolent noncooperation.
Second, they resolved to become visible moral examples, and challenged other young men to join them to block the draft by refusing to cooperate with it. They knew the risks - a $10,000 fine and a maximum of five years in prison.
Third, they anticipated that by overwhelming the Selective Service System, the courts and prisons, they would clog the system and force a stop to the draft. They calculated that these institutions would be unable to prosecute a massive number of new resisters.
Harris announced the target date of October 16, 1967, for the first national draft card turn-in at the April 1967 Spring Mobilization to End the War, which drew 400,000 marchers in New York City and 100,000 in San Francisco. Resistance members travelled around the country to college campuses, churches and peace groups to speak and organize. Dozens of Resistance groups sprang up around the country.
Their first national mass protest and draft card turn-in was held as planned on October 16. In the Bay Area, over 300 men turned in their draft cards during an event coordinated with Stop the Draft Week, a week-long attempt to block the operation of the Oakland Draft Induction Center. A total of 2,000 draft cards nationally were turned in at protests in 18 U.S. cities. The last day of Stop the Draft Week coincided with the March on the Pentagon in Washington, DC, where 100,000 people marched and over 600 were arrested.
Dr. Benjamin Spock and 4 others, including Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin and Harvard student Michael Ferber (also featured in our film), were charged with conspiracy for bringing these draft cards to Washington DC.
Draft resistance continued to build nationally. In May of 1970, following the US invasion of Cambodia and the killing of students at Kent and Jackson State, over 25,000 draft cards were collected and returned.
Eventually, over half a million men refused the draft by outright resistance or evasion, but only 8,000 went to trial and 4,000 were convicted because the courts and Selective Service System were overwhelmed. Most were imprisoned for roughly two years in minimum security prison camps, although there were exceptions. The government targeted draft resistance organizers, so David Harris, Randy Kehler and Christopher Jones, the film’s producer, were among several of the men interviewed who were indicted, convicted and imprisoned with longer sentences.
Their willingness to follow their conscience and go to prison for their beliefs made draft resisters a kind of moral compass for the rest of the anti-war movement. Resisters also had a powerful effect on their families and the public, persuading more people to take the war seriously and personally, to protest and resist.
Historian Michal Stewart Foley, author of the book “Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War,” whom we interviewed for the film, said “draft resistance was by far the most important, most influential, and the leading edge of the anti-war movement ... there's two major subsets that deserves the most attention: one is draft resistance and the other is Vietnam veterans against the war… “
“There is a moment in '66 and into '67 where it's not clear what's driving the whole movement,” says Foley. “And then it ends up being draft resistance in a very clear and obvious way. After a while draft resistance steps back a bit, and it becomes the veterans… So, it's like a dance with all of these different groups doing the thing that's most important to them and focused on the war in different ways, collaborating many times, but at other times operating on their own.”
Reasons for the Peace Movement to Celebrate
Little did resisters know at the time, that individual acts of nonviolent resistance would combine to create a powerful movement at a particular point in time, so that the Resistance and Peace Movement exerted a significant constraining force on the Presidents’ ability to wage war.
According to Foley, who interviewed staff that worked in the Johnson and Nixon White House, fear of the growing number of draft resisters, and the rise in public and international opposition, led Johnson to back off plans to deploy 200,000 more troops. In 1969 “Nixon was contemplating a ground invasion of North Vietnam, something that Johnson never considered seriously not because he feared how the Chinese might respond…,” says Foley, but “because of the scale of the protests at home… he didn’t think he could survive the public relations outcry.”
Draft resistance became so widespread that eventually President Nixon pledged in the campaign of 1968 to end the draft, believing it was a way to undermine the antiwar movement. Instead, he tried to make the draft more palatable by instituting a lottery to randomly select who would be drafted based on a young man's birthday. The first lottery was held December 1, 1969.
Even with the lottery, draft resistance and the antiwar movement continued to grow into the early 1970's. The size and power of the antiwar movement, including draft resistance and GI resistance, along with the determination of the Vietnamese, forced an end to the war and the draft. The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 and Congress cut off funds for the war as a result of a major grassroots lobbying effort.
The experiences of Vietnam-era draft resisters provide a powerful example of a nonviolent strategy to oppose war and promote social justice.