In response to:

The Case for Amnesty from the April 6, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

I read with great interest Professor H.S. Commager’s essay on amnesty [NYR, April 6]. It has special meaning for me since I am now anxiously concluding the last few days of my imprisonment at Safford Federal Prison for refusing induction into the US military.

I gather Professor Commager calls for universal amnesty for all evaders, deserters, and (although never directly mentioned) those of us who did not flee and stood against the war in the courts and have thus suffered the consequences of imprisonment.

Unfortunately, this article and the recent deluge of similar articles and speeches by members of what for convenience’s sake I will call the liberal establishment on the question of amnesty have left me with very mixed emotions. I appreciate the thoughts and sentiments expressed but somehow I can’t help but wonder why these learned men (some of whom were the very architects of the original insanity of escalated involvement in Southeast Asia in the early Sixties) haven’t seen fit to place their bodies and their existence where their verbal and monetary commitments have long rested….

This is not so much an attack on Professor Commager’s fine essay as it is a question of why it is that now for the first time amnesty is being discussed as a matter deserving of serious attention. Why has there been a decade of silence while those of us in prison have been subjected to the caprice of venal and politically pliant federal judges? Why have we had to withstand the most vicious of vitriolic denunciations in courtrooms where justice is ostensibly to reign unmolested? And we withstood it alone with only the support of our close friends and family. Why have we been degraded and vilified before the nation as cowards and traitors when our only instance of wrongdoing was violating a law which would force us either into active involvement or complicity with the murder and destruction of the Indochina war? Why are hundreds of us still in jail?

We are not an obsequious pack of cowering animals who after being scolded for our offensive actions will silently creep back to our persecuter’s side after all is forgiven or forgotten. We are in fact a significant portion of the young male population of this nation that realized long before our leaders the absurdity and error in our criminal involvement. Some of us chose to stay and some to flee.

The question still remains unanswered (and is perhaps in its essence unanswerable) of just why are so many individuals concerned that justice (for the first time) be granted to those of us who were unwilling to accept the decade of lies and murder which has spewn forth from four administrations. There are now very few exiles and even fewer being imprisoned. Yet, still hundreds are imprisoned and thousands remain in exile. The rhetoric seems a case of too little far too late.

Why is there business as usual for my liberal benefactors in the East and elsewhere while the air war is being escalated at an alarming rate. Indeed, Hanoi and Haiphong have just been bombed and yet reaction is practically nil. How long will Nixon’s insanity be allowed to continue until meaningful action replaces empty rhetoric? This should be the question under serious consideration and not amnesty. The avenues for significant nonviolent protest are many and it is long overdue that innovative means of expressing discontent with Nixon and his sycophants be employed by those who comprise the out elite and find any further killing unconscionable. Words no longer suffice. They haven’t for a long time….

Finally, Professor Commager’s essay seems to give one the impression that the nation is governed by an enlightened President and Congress. If that be the case than I take exception with the assumption. Certainly the question of amnesty will be broached to Nixon but I have no reason on earth to believe the man will ever consider conditional amnesty much less universal amnesty. And since we seem destined (perhaps I’m a bit too fatalistic) to suffer through four more years of the man and his vacillations I expect no largess from the President or Congress.

No, the question is not amnesty for those of us who have taken action against the war. There are no large massings of deserters and evaders on the Canadian border or in the airports of Scandinavia awaiting eagerly the day of their return to the forgetfulness of their American countrymen. Those of us in prison will continue to await our release dates and will remain in prison rather than accept conditional amnesty contingent upon menial subsistence alternative service work which violates both the Constitution’s provision against involuntary servitude and our own individual conscience.

Irrespective of what some in this nation feel we are owed for pointing out the inherent stupidity of our monumental blunder, we will all gladly accept our immediate end to the destruction and killing in Southeast Asia and forego amnesty.

The war continues and we ask that it be stopped. We don’t wish to serve as scapegoats or soothing salve for the collective liberal conscience of America. We want the killing stopped. Immediately. Not one more life wasted. That will do nicely in place of amnesty.

Michael K. Garrity

Safford Federal Prison

Safford, Arizona

Henry Steele Commager replies:

It is impossible not to sympathize with Mr. Garrity’s impassioned challenge to the liberal establishment. As I am not a part of that establishment I cannot speak for it. My own opposition to the Vietnam war dates back to 1963, and has been unremitting from that time to the present. As to the assumption that the nation is governed by reasonable men, I must make clear that my article was a reprinting of my testimony before the Senate committee dealing with the problem of amnesty. No sensible lawyer who wants to get results would start out by attacking the jury as a body of poltroons, and no one testifying to a Senate committee would be well advised to attack the intelligence or the integrity of the members of the committee or of the Senate itself. This consideration goes far to answer the other question which Mr. Garrity raises: why the sudden outpouring of arguments on amnesty? The answer: because now for the first time there is a bill before the Congress which calls for amnesty—a very limited amnesty, to be sure. The purpose of my own testimony was to oppose that bill and call for a far broader and more generous approach to the whole problem than that envisioned by Senator Taft.

What is to be done? Protests are of no avail: this administration is deaf to all moral arguments. Stopping traffic, breaking windows, withholding taxes, these things are apparently of no avail: these activities merely fan the flames of Agnewvian rhetoric. The only hope seems to be in political action. Stiffen the backbone of congressmen so they will exercise their constitutional right to stop appropriations. Elect McGovern to the Presidency.

This Issue

June 15, 1972