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We Won’t Go”

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

This conflict had an educational effect, but it was not the students who were educated. When the Committee wanted to vote to disown the students, Bevel himself is said to have declared—I have this at third hand—that he would resign. And this was the resolution of the matter: the students were not to be “officially” part of the Mobilization, but individuals on the Committee had the option to support them.

Having survived these discouraging events, the students held a meeting on the night before the rally to find how many would burn their draft cards. They had asked for 500, otherwise all pledges were void. They were fifty-seven, who would do it anyway.

4

Ten A.M. Saturday was gray and damp and the Sheep Meadow was muddy. In a prominent place, a Revolutionary group had set up a steel frame flying Viet Cong flags. Here and there were American flags. But to my pleased surprise there were also a few black flags, of Anarchy. In fifty years in New York I had never before seen black flags at a public demonstration, though it was clear (to me) that everywhere in the world the present Enemy was the coercive State, whatever its ideology.

At the southeast corner, where the draft-card burners had already gathered on an outcropping of dark rock, a rather large black flag was stuck in the mud. I don’t know how it came to be there. At no time had I ever heard anybody use the word anarchism. Yet the style was unerring. Seen closer, the flag had on it a small white pacifist trident. They were public non-violent conspirators against the State.

Unfortunately (?) the unerring style persisted on the rock. The management could only be called miserable. The rock was infested with lolling hippies who had painted psychedelic designs on their faces for their Be-In, with daffodils. “At 10:30 we have to begin to clear the rock!”—but of course the hippies were unbudgeable. A crowd of rude and stubborn cameramen kept pressing into the thick of things; they had been invited. Neatly dressed Federal agents with cameras kept snapping the faces, though they had not been invited. The students were obsessively checking their wallets for their draft cards; some pinned their cards on their sweaters to make sure they would be available. In the racket nothing could be heard. Unlike the highly organized Revolutionaries, they had not thought of having a sound truck. Somebody was supposed to have brought a bullhorn from college 400 miles away, but he had simply forgotten it.

SINCE OBVIOUSLY something was going on, two or three thousand people who had arrived at the Meadow early drifted over to see. The students had “planned” a grandiose fantasy: that a body of sympathetic Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Negro mothers, and older people who had signed a statement in their support, would form a protective ring, while the young men burned their draft cards. Some VFW were there; there were no Negro mothers; there was no protective ring. There were little groups of their own mothers, fathers, aunts, and little brothers and sisters, who, deeply troubled, came to see their kin risk going to jail for five years. There were a few young wives. In the fantasy, there was to be a solemn reading of the moral and political purpose of their action, and a statement of support by the elders. In the hubbub, no such readings occurred.

About eleven, a few older people held hands and formed a line and slowly pushed the cameramen down the rock. “Give the boys a chance! Give the boys a chance!” One cameraman, pushed outside, was tied by his umbilical wire to his battery-man trapped inside. Then on some watches it was eleven and some of the students were burning their draft cards. The line managed to keep out a goon who wanted to punch the heads of draft-card burners. At least one FBI man was inside the ring, nose to the ground and picking up fragments of burned cards that might have a legible signature. The burners had not thought through at what end to begin burning a draft card—there is a technique to everything. The largest group were lighting up from a coffee can of fire provided by the VFW. The star, who got a round of applause, was a Special Forces reservist from a midwestern college, wearing his uniform and his green beret.

They did not form an impressive bloc as they had planned, to show by their numbers that they were performing a mass act. They did not stand out before an attentive public as Witness. Nevertheless, if you looked at them—and I was a close eyewitness—you saw that Chaos was Order. For each one, in the most obvious way, was there and was there with the others. Nobody was following a party line, the action was intrinsic. Yet they knew what they were doing politically, there was a kind of strategy to it, the result of hundreds of hours of analysis and criticism, worth at least a Ph.D. in political science. And their thereness, was not inward, but it impressed itself on the space around.

They were apparently quite unemotional and very satisfied with themselves, but you could see that they were deeply moved by one another, by the desperate moment of our country drifting into 1984, by the need for action. I touched the hair of a young fellow who was curiously watching his draft card burn; he smiled at me composedly. One mother came climbing up the rock, and her son spontaneously embraced and kissed her, which was not his usual manner at all. A young fellow, who had no card to burn, was holding up a sign saying “20 YEARS UNREGISTERED.”

The News said that a couple of dozen burned their cards; the World-Journal that there were a few dozens; the FBI has said 175-185; the Times “quoted” a figure of 200. A girl friend of one of the students counted 158, which is the number they accept, and they are always accurate and honest.

How will the middle-class parents and connections of these usually high-ranking students respond to their arrest? Has not the atmosphere of our country been enough poisoned by this war?

5

According to Martin Luther King, an experienced judge of crowds, 350,000 people rallied in New York. That’s the big fact. People came by trainloads more than a thousand miles. They came because of exasperation, beyond frustration, far beyond “petitions,” “protests,” and “demands.”

The speeches ranged from mediocre to lousy. It was impossible to speak well because the situation was ambiguous. There was a dramatic escalation of verbal protest. There was no longer any talk about negotiations; the imperialist and military-industrial motives of the war were taken for granted; the breakdown of formal democracy was taken for granted. Speaker after speaker urged draft-resistance, urged Negroes to resist the draft, urged agitating among high-school students to refuse the draft. Everything was on the brink of turning protest into action.

The one episode of the draft-card burning was non-verbal and expressed the obvious future, that big protest will go over the brink into action. The news coverage (at least in New York)* was perceptive. In every case, on the three major TV stations and in the big papers, the draft-card burning was highlighted, but the important fact of the vast crowd was kept central. Despite the opposite apprehensions, the burners neither got lost in the shuffle nor did they hog the publicity. What came through the static was the clear message that the Committee itself had finally come to: that open civil disobedience, as an act of political power, was not yet an official part of the proceedings, but it was not unthinkable.

The important statement in the speeches was Bevel’s “ultimatum” to the President to stop the war by May 17, the next rally in Washington. What does that mean? For the President will not have stopped the war but will have escalated the war. It might mean that the demonstration will be “officially” legal but will condone many kinds of non-violent civil disobedience by large numbers, including investing the White House; or it might mean a direct call for mass civil disobedience. If these are the prospects, how many will rally to Washington? I don’t know.

WE ARE NOW FACED with the inevitable result of polarization. Because, in my opinion, they are ill-informed—it was a great mistake not to have continued the teach-ins—a big majority of Americans acquiesce in the President’s escalation: roughly half of that majority positively approve and want more, the other half go along. Yet about a third of Americans have escalated in their dissent; the government has been unable to make its case. These people want no more talk, they want Stop. As 2S begins to evanesce, the draft-card burnings will increase. Other young men will return their cards to their senators and ask them to burn them on the Senate floor. We can expect thousands of Negro youth to heed King’s call for “conscientious objection” and Carmichael’s blunter slogan, “We ain’t goin’.” The tax-refusers have doubled in numbers. The next step will be for Ph.D.’s to begin to quit war work, and for workers in war industries to call strikes on various pretexts. And, as if coincidentally, we are currently seeing a wave of student power protests on dozens of campuses, of new civil rights and black power protests in cities North and South, and industrial and agrarian strikes.

In this superheated atmosphere, suppose a large crowd does invest the White House. It is not unlikely that the police or soldiers will cop out and use tear gas and hoses; or five, ten, or twenty people could be shot, a classical “massacre.” How would America respond to this? I don’t know.

It is now hard for the government to get out of the war gracefully, with some face-saving by U Thant. It has thrown away nearly 10,000 American lives. Rusk, McNamara, and Co. would probably have to go. But if indeed, as some of us think, the pressures from the Pentagon and from war-minded corporations and politicians are bound to prevail on Johnson, a rational policy is impossible. Then we have to make the strenuous analogy to the French in Algeria. In France, in the face of mounting civil disobedience, there was an attempted Air Force coup. In this country, given the backlash, the brainwashing, the news blackout, the militarism of the CIA, and so forth, some kind of martial law and thousands of arrests for sedition are quite thinkable. Or, as in France, there could emerge a strong “Peace” candidate who would try to change nothing, except settling the Vietnam War (which, however, would already be a great thing). There is also the ever-present possibility of a pact with the Russians, whereby we would withdraw from Vietnam and try to establish a Congress of Vienna to preserve the status quo forever.

Finally, there is the messianic possibility that if we get out of the war by the power of populist democracy, we may change our direction, forget our Great Society, and try to make a decent society.

6

On the day after the rally, about twenty of the draft-card burners who had not yet left town held a meeting at Horace Mann High School to discuss future strategy and report back home. They were convinced that some or most of them would soon be visited by the FBI and charged with non-possession of draft cards (since, after the decision of the Massachusetts Federal Court, the constitutionality of the anti-burning law was now dubious. In fact, investigations have begun on some campuses.

Mostly they did not know one another, often they did not know one another’s names. Possibly there was a Fed in the group. Yet their friendliness and mutual esteem were overpowering. There was cross-talk without formality, yet each one spoke unhurriedly, sure he would have his say. They still breathed the suppressed excitement of complicity in having burned their draft cards. If they were not visited by the FBI, the strategy was clear: to talk it up that the government could not prosecute, so go ahead everybody.

All agreed that the right thing was not to stand up conscientiously, but to make arrest and conviction as tough as possible. A few said they would probably plead guilty. More insisted that they were not guilty because they did not recognize the conscription law as democratic. A few were thinking of going to Canada. A few might go “underground,” but they found it hard to spell out what this meant. One thin boy, who looked about fifteen, said that his intention was to make as much loud noise as possible.

Now suppose a few were picked out, as the green beret would surely be picked out—he was arrested on April 19. Unanimously they agreed that each one would come to the other’s help; at the same time they unanimously agreed that every one must decide for himself how he wanted to cope and what kind of help he wanted. But obviously this sublime combination of fraternity and respect for individual choice involved contradictions. For instance, if Tony called on Terry to appear in Court and interrupt the proceedings till he was busted for contempt, how could Terry be pursuing his own instinct to be in Canada or underground? and would not Terry be asked to produce his draft card? They mentioned these contradictions, but it did not seem to shake their sublime formula of total fraternity and individual choice. No doubt it is something I do not dig—I am over thirty.

They seemed delighted at a fantasy of non-violent terrorism: If anyone was picked on, then ten others would burn draft cards down the block, with reporters and TV present. (Finally one could burn ID cards if there was enough admixture of the real thing to keep it credible.) Given the peer-loyalty that has been evident in Berkeley and Cornell, when anybody was singled out, this fantasy is by no means impossible.

They never voted on anything. Like a primitive village, they seemed to know by tacit signs when they had come to a decision. This was astonishing, for in fact they were hardly acquainted. They spoke a language.

Evidently they were morally fearless. They had been through the authority bit many times, with many kinds of administration. College proctors, Southern sheriffs, Feds were all of a piece. “Your generation,” one said to an older man, “is all up tight about being in jail. We’re not.”

The meeting lasted several hours during which they spoke and debated continually. I did not hear a sentence that was not intelligent, nor a tone that was not beautiful.

Letters

Draft Resistance September 14, 1967

We Won’t Go June 29, 1967

We Won’t Go June 29, 1967

We Won’t Go June 29, 1967

We Won’t Go June 29, 1967

  1. *

    The national coverage, as opposed to the New York coverage, gave the usual false picture; it gave a couple of Stokely Carmichael’s more idiotic sentences, whereas the New York coverage gave some strong and sensible sentences; the national coverage played up an American flag being burned, and so forth. In my opinion, this polarization of news is criminal; it is one of the things that is tearing the country to pieces.

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