Several weeks after the demonstrations in Washington, I am still trying to sort out my impressions of a week whose quality is difficult to capture or express. Perhaps some personal reflections may be useful to others who share my instinctive distaste for activism, but who find themselves edging toward an unwanted but almost inevitable crisis.
For many of the participants, the Washington demonstrations symbolized the transition “from dissent to resistance.” I will return to this slogan and its meaning, but I want to make clear at the outset that I do feel it to be not only accurate with respect to the mood of the demonstrations, but, properly interpreted, appropriate to the present state of protest against the war. There is an irresistable dynamics to such protest. One may begin by writing articles and giving speeches about the war, by helping, in many ways, to create an atmosphere of concern and outrage. A courageous few will turn to direct action, refusing to take their place alongside the “good Germans” we have all learned to despise. Some will be forced to this decision when they are called up for military service. The dissenting Senators, writers, and professors will watch as young men refuse to serve in the Armed Forces, in a war that they detest. What then? Can those who write and speak against the war take refuge in the fact that they have not urged or encouraged draft resistance, but have merely helped to develop a climate of opinion in which any decent person will want to refuse to take part in a miserable war? It’s a very thin line. Nor is it very easy to watch from a position of safety while others are forced to take a grim and painful step. The fact is that most of the 1000 draft cards turned in to the Justice Department on October 20th came from men who can escape military service, but who insisted on sharing the fate of those who are less privileged. In such ways the circle of resistance widens. Quite apart from this, no one can fail to see that to the extent that he restricts his protest, to the extent that he rejects actions that are open to him, he accepts complicity in what the Government does. Some will act on this realization, posing sharply a moral issue that no person of conscience can evade.
On October 16th on the Boston Common I listened as Howard Zinn explained why he felt ashamed to be an American. I watched as several hundred young men, some of them my students, made a terrible decision which no young person should have to face: to sever their connection with the Selective Service System. The week ended, the following Monday, with a quiet discussion in Cambridge in which I heard estimates of the nuclear megatonnage that would be necessary to “take out” North Vietnam (“some will find this shocking, but…”; “no civilian in the Government is suggesting this, to my knowledge …
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An Exchange on Resistance February 1, 1968