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We Won’t Go”

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Throughout his career as a student, the pressure—the threat of loss of deferment—continues. It continues with equal intensity after graduation. His local board requires periodic reports to find what he is up to. He is impelled to pursue his skill rather than embark upon some less important enterprise. The loss of deferred status is the consequence for the individual who does not use his skill or uses it in a non-essential activity.

The psychology of granting wide choice under pressure to take action is the American or indirect way of achieving what is done by direction in foreign countries where choice is not permitted.

I repeat this quotation from the official Selective Service Orientation Kit, which has already appeared at greater length in The New York Review, in order to shock intellectual readers and to make clear why a self-respecting young man cannot hold up his head if he accepts such manipulation. Even if the goals of the social engineering were good it would be intolerable; but in fact they are Vietnam and corporations needing manpower.

So, in a number of colleges, groups have formed who say, “We Won’t Go.” Sometimes they boldly sign their names to statements in the student or local press. (Naturally, since the young people are often subject to imprisonment, expulsion, or other reprisals, I shall not mention names, even colleges.) The purpose of We Won’t Go is political, to start a mass movement of draft resistance to stop the Vietnam War, “the way the French got out of Algeria.” It regards personal conscientious objection as rather immoral, and protest as futile since formal democracy is evidently not working. (Johnson is pursuing Goldwater’s program; the war is undeclared; the war budgets are passed by votes of 400 to 5, which is clearly not the state of opinion, either in the Congress or out of it.) Finally, trying to stop the Vietnam war by a show of power, We Won’t Go hopes to go on to a fundamental “reconstruction” of American society: it is not enough to get out of Algeria or Vietnam and end up with De Gaulle—or Bobby Kennedy.

But can such a frankly revolutionary purpose be accomplished by this kind of Open Conspiracy, relying on spontaneous groups? Does it not require more clandestine action and strictly disciplined organization? This is the question that is now agitating the radical students, although only a year ago they were still hotly discussing whether to enter into “coalition” with left liberal forces or to push for “participatory democracy” and “student power.” Things have moved fast.

At the beginning of March there was a crisis in the Open Conspiracy debate when a We Won’t Go group at an Ivy League college, which had been organizing draft resistance in the town, suddenly decided to call for a mass draftcard burning at the Spring Mobilization in New York City on April 15. They sent out a pledge form to other groups and to SDS chapters, the pledge to become binding when it would be signed by 500. In fact, a dozen of them had determined to burn their draft cards on the 15th in any case.

THE MAJORITY REACTION among radical students was sharply negative. It was ridiculous, it was claimed, to stick one’s neck out and be picked off when the movement was so weak. The cool thing was to hide behind the student 2S deferment and work quietly. Since in fact the vast majority of students would not sacrifice the safety of 2S, the draft-card burners would cut themselves off from the mass. Civil disobedience was either holy-roller moralism or egotistical heroics and not political at all. And many SDS chapters disowned the Spring Mobilization altogether, as just another protest.

Besides, there was the usual more virulent hostility of Trotskyists and Maoists, partly spiteful against any project not proposed by themselves, partly sincere on ideological grounds: “Why Vietnam? There is napalm in Peru too.” Indeed, the Trotskyists have been proposing a directly contrary strategy: to join the army and propagandize the troops. (The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting the court-martial of an unexceptionable soldier who kept distributing Trotskyist literature.) This heroic Leninism assumes, I guess, that the American army is similar to the devastated Czarist troops of 1917.

A more sympathetic criticism was that the proposed draft-card burning was hasty and not thought through. What would be the next step after the quixotic gesture? Nobody could really answer.

Against this discouraging opposition (which in fact doomed them never to get 500 pledges), the draft-card burners were buoyed up most, I think, only by their despair: that we were daily destroying the Vietnamese and soon there would not be any Vietnamese left. And the same is true as I write this and as you read it. They felt that they shared an exasperation with millions, and if they made a beginning their movement might catch fire. To play it cool was precisely to be trapped in the system. 2S was the trap; it broke spirit, it prevented thought and risk. Anyway, 2S was being whittled away and might not survive the new draft law. Also it was shameful to be registered at all. One had to refuse to be pushed around any more and defy them to do their worst. Of course the action was hasty and unplanned; but for two years a minority in SDS had been urging refusal of the 2S deferment, and nothing had been done in all that time. The only way to know was to act and think as you went along.

Let me say that I am a partisan of these Open Conspirators, as I was for the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. And it is partly for a reason that they cannot understand. If there is ever again going to be decency in America, it will be by open populist revolt. If formal democracy is not working, our action must be “illegal,” but it must be real democracy, making an open claim. Open opposition sometimes seems naive, in the face of the CIA disclosures, our secret expansion into Thailand, and so forth; yet it is realistic to American psychology. One night a few of the group were at my home, and it seemed to me that they were too dutiful, too forbidding, too meticulous about warning any convert of all the risks and avoiding enthusiasm. “Don’t you see,” I said, “that we are proud of you? that maybe some day America will be proud of you?” They didn’t dig this at all. I fatuously mentioned John Hampden and the ship money. They had never heard of John Hampden.

A month later, two weeks before April 15, national SDS began somewhat to support the draft-card burners, printed their pledge in New Left Notes, and ran an excellent sociological study of their organization. (In my opinion, the best sociology in America at present is these action studies by students.) By this time it was clear that they would not get 500 pledges.

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Back at the Ivy League school occurred the following passionate interlude: the Student Government decided that the pledges were illegal on the campus because they violated a Federal law, and they ordered them forth-with to cease. SDS, whose table was being used, unanimously voted to defy the order. The proctor of the Administration singled out a few offenders. The next day a couple of hundred were on hand to disobey the order. A few more were singled out. The numbers grew. Altogether ten were disciplined, and nearly a thousand began ciamoring to be disciplined.

During all this time, of course [I quote a participant], pledges were solicited. Every day large crowds packed the Student Union lobby to listen to speeches, discuss the issues, and so forth. Fifty pledges were collected that week. On the day of the suspensions, nine faculty members and clergymen interposed themselves between the proctor and the students, gave their names, and asked to be treated like students. 25 to 50 professors are probably willing to put themselves on the line for us if anybody gets thrown out.

…Finally, the Faculty Committee on Student Affairs suspended the Student Government decision and tabled the whole issue until it can be “discussed further.” There are still some trials to go through and there is some question about whether we are legal at the moment, but it looks like the administration is going to try to keep things cool until they blow over. [The suspensions were in fact lifted.] This is probably the wisest thing for them to do. The atmosphere of the week before vacation was very ugly. A large number of people were prepared to get thrown out of school, and with a little more provocation the place would have blown up. My personal opinion is that this spring or next fall—is going to erupt.

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A week before Saturday the 15th, opposition suddenly arose from an entirely unexpected quarter. The Committee for the Spring Mobilization did not want any draft-card burners. Apparently this was necessary because certain labor unions and Dr. Spock of SANE threatened to withdraw from the rally if there was any civil disobedience. Dr. Spock was already under heavy fire in SANE for being associated with a rally that included Communists and asked for unilateral American deescalation, and the Times and the New York Post were thundering that the rally had been captured by irresponsibles and would surely fizzle. Also, it would be impossible to advertise and get parade permits if the Committee condoned anything illegal. And pathetically, there seemed to be jealousy that the little draft-card burning would get the headlines and TV pictures and upstage the main event. To their deep chagrin, pressure was brought on the students to commit their crimes on April 14 or April 16, any day but April 15; and any place that was not the Sheep Meadow, which was the official staging area.

On the other hand, a minority of the Committee, who were supporters of the students, urged them to alter their plans precisely for the opposite reason, so that they could perform their act with dignity and not be lost in the vast crowd. With great courage, the Community Church offered its steps as a good setting.

The students felt betrayed. To them it was only too clear that administrators were administrators, whether at the Multiversity or the Spring Mobilization against the war in Vietnam. But they would not concede. “If we are willing to defy the USA, we are certainly willing to disobey Chairman Bevel.” And it was evident to them—they were right—that they were adding to the Mobilization; there had to be something that was not just another protest So they gave out to the press and TV that they would burn their draft cards on the 15th of April at the southeast corner of the Sheep Meadow at 11 A.M. sharp—the “official” proceedings were to commence at twelve.

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