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A HISTORIAN’S ENGAGEMENT. By: Schalk, David L., Peace & Change, 01490508, Oct2000, Vol. 25, Issue 4


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By David L. Schalk

This memoir offers a microhistorical analysis of the American anti-Vietnam War movement. The author’s aims in bringing this memoir of his five years as a draft counselor to the public a quarter-century after the Vietnam War’s end are three. First, the scholarly goal is historical recuperation of a key ingredient of the antiwar movement that has been studied from a national, but rarely a local, perspective. Secondly, the author hopes that before his generation passes, while there are still surviving activists, his text will inspire other draft counselors to come forward and publish similar accounts, which should offer interesting regional comparisons and provide the basis for a broader national study. Finally, the author, trained as an intellectual historian, hypothesizes that his memoir may provide some empirical support for Julien Benda’s claim that “history is made of shreds of justice that the intellectual has torn from the politician.”


This memoir was initiated by a request to write an article on the 1960s. My first reaction was to decline, because since the publication in 1991 of War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam, a work that deals in part with intellectual opposition to (our) Vietnam War, I have been researching and writing about other decades. However, in a flash of inspiration I volunteered to contribute a memoir on my experience as a draft counselor from 1968 to 1973, with the idea that one individual’s modest contribution to the antiwar movement might be of more general interest. Perhaps, I thought, an exercise in microhistory would elicit responses from those who were engaged in the same or related activities. There were, after all, 4,100 local draft boards. We know that the Vietnam War, as it escalated, especially during and after 1967, elicited diverse counter-reactions from the rapidly developing antiwar movement. One of these was the establishment of counseling services, a kind of shadow organization paralleling the Selective Service System, which sometimes succeeded in beating that system at its own game. Perhaps they were not as elaborate and well organized as the services in New York City or Philadelphia, for example, or even what we offered in Dutchess County, New York. I have never seen even an estimate of how many districts were covered nationwide.(n1) Nonetheless, a simple and conservative extrapolation from the number of young men I counseled in depth (279), multiplied by the nineteen trained counselors on staff by the spring of 1969, would suggest that between 1965 and 1973 the number of American males who sought draft assistance outside the official channels of the Selective Service System totaled well into seven figures.

As I began to go through old materials, dutifully filed away after the draft ended in 1973, I was shocked at what I found. I did not realize how painful resurrecting these memories would be, or how much I had forgotten. For example, I did not remember that I had served as Head Draft Counselor for Dutchess County, with a population of 300,000, for a year. I remembered that I had gone to the local radio station, WEOK, for a talk show, fielded anxious questions from a number of listeners, mostly mothers, and got an angry call from a conservative male accusing me of being a Communist because I mentioned in some introductory remarks that I had been initially trained by the American Friends Service Committee. But I did not recall the last time I spoke on the radio in the spring of 1973. I found the prepared text of those remarks, which I shall cite in concluding this memoir.

Another document I unearthed, which I had absolutely no recollection of writing, was three pages of reflections, dated April 5, 1968, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In this text I lacerate myself for not doing more in the struggle against the war.(n2) Yet I had been active in the antiwar movement since 1965.(n3)

One of the key impressions, indeed the key impression that emerged from this exercise in historical recovery, was that nostalgia for the 1960s is completely misplaced. Whatever elements of liberation--in cultural life, in sexual behavior, the women’s liberation movement, and the struggle for civil rights for minorities, especially black Americans--were percolating to the surface of American society in that tumultuous decade, were, after the conflict began to escalate in 1965, overshadowed by the horror and devastation of the Vietnam War. In addition to the incalculable destruction wrought upon the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and their land, that undeclared war left scars upon the American body politic which in my view (and I am certainly not alone in this) are far from healed a quarter-century after the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975.(n4)

What kept me from closing those dossiers for a second time, and abandoning this exercise, was the assumption that my own intellectual and political itinerary is representative of what was going on more broadly in American higher education in these years, and not idiosyncratic and isolated. The only way to test that assumption is to publish this memoir, and there is no more appropriate place to publish it than Peace & Change.


In the fall of 1963, having completed my Ph.D. the previous May, I joined the Department of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the time the department was divided into four sections: history, philosophy, literature, and music. The faculty, mostly young, had a real sense of mission; we were, or so we thought, humanizing and liberalizing the next generation of America’s scientific and technological elite. My colleagues were brilliant and inspiring; several of them have risen to real eminence. For example, Hubert Dreyfus, now at the University of California, Berkeley, was in the philosophy section, Emmet Larkin of the University of Chicago was in the history section, while the playwright A. R. Gurney, Jr., taught literature. Also in the literature section was Louis Kampf, who in a famous coup, which was widely discussed in the press at the time, got himself elected President of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in 1971. During his one-year term he labored mightily to liberalize, even to radicalize that staid institution.

Four semesters of basic humanities were required of all undergraduates, and enrollments in electives were rapidly increasing. Noam Chomsky told me years later that there were cyclical patterns of humanities enrollment at the Institute and there was a direct correlation with the level of student involvement in outside issues: the more activism, the more students signed up for humanities courses.(n5) The Linguistics Department was actually in a separate, somewhat dilapidated building, #20, the Radiation Laboratory. (It had been rapidly constructed during World War II for a temporary purpose in another corner of the campus, and was not demolished until 1999 to make way for a new Computer Sciences Center. I recall having difficulty locating Noam Chomsky, searching through a rabbit warren of corridors and offices, when we met to discuss some contemporary political issue.)

The Vietnam War gradually impinged on our consciousness. In the fall of 1964, I and other humanists teaching at MIT joined “Scientists and Engineers for Johnson and Humphrey,” and we campaigned vigorously for Lyndon Johnson’s election to a full term in office. Our strong support was motivated largely by our fear of Barry Goldwater, who, with his slogan “In your heart you know he’s right,” seemed to us at the time irrational enough to order the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam were he to be elected.

The first antiwar petition published in the New York Times appeared in the February 16, 1965, issue. This was very early (the first Marine units did not land at Danang, signaling a serious escalation in the conflict, until March 8, 1965). The language was prudent and courteous. This “Open Letter to President Johnson on Vietnam” was signed by 424 academics, and I was one of them.(n6) Shortly afterwards the FBI visited my landlady, a stalwart New England matriarch, asking about my character, whether I paid my rent, etc. She was somewhat surprised, and informed me of this inquiry. I was not alone; other signatories from MIT told me that they, too, had been investigated. The FBI must have decided that I was inconsequential, as I was never, during the entire Vietnam period, aware of being harassed or even observed by any law enforcement officials.(n7)

Signing this petition definitely marks the beginning of my antiwar activity; it was neither a particularly surprising nor a particularly radical gesture. I was one of 66 signatories from MIT and 62 from Harvard. I was simply earlier than other academics from other universities because there was an energetic and charismatic colleague who convinced me to sign. I do not remember who he was.

After February 1965 my opposition to the war escalated rapidly, along with the conflict. Again this is not surprising or difficult to explain; there was simply a close paralleling of intellectual engagement and the escalation of the conflict in Southeast Asia. By June 5, 1966, I was one of more than 6,400 academics and other professionals who signed an antiwar text published in the New York Times. I also wrote letters to congressmen, to the State Department, and to President Johnson, was involved with teach-ins and vigils, and began to participate in peace marches. All of this was nonviolent and officially legal.

In July of 1966 I left the United States for France for a semester of research and writing, completing one book and starting another. At least superficially, with the Algerian War settled four years earlier and President de Gaulle still highly popular, with rapid economic growth and technological advances, France seemed peaceful and stable. There was little or no public debate about America’s involvement in Vietnam, because everyone, including de Gaulle himself, opposed it. Time and again the first question French people would ask me when we were introduced was “What is your position on the Vietnam War?” Once I said I was strongly opposed to it, I was immediately made welcome.

When I returned to America and to teaching at MIT in February 1967, I had completed an outline and some preliminary research for a second book, which became The Spectrum of Political Engagement.(n8) I wanted to study the political involvement of French intellectuals, their engagement in the French sense of descending from one’s ivory tower into the real-world social and political strife. That precise meaning of the word was not so well understood or widely employed as it is in the United States today. The research I was doing exerted a kind of supplementary pressure on my conscience, and I began to find it not only an ethical but also now a scholarly necessity to put some of the theories that were emerging from my studies to the test of experience.

During my half-year out of the country there had been a visible change of mood among my friends in the antiwar movement. Their bitterness and sense of frustration had increased exponentially. It seemed as though none of their efforts had made the slightest impact, and the nation had already embarked upon the third year of ever-intensifying combat in Vietnam, a “real” if undeclared war. It is difficult to communicate at a distance the sense of helplessness and suppressed rage we all felt by the spring of 1967.(n9) Americans are not very patient people.(n10) And we were, after all, Americans, even if some extremists of the right accused us of being traitors. Day after day, month after month, the evidence of war crimes and atrocities mounted, and yet it seemed that we were having no effect. Zero.

One could submerge oneself briefly in a kind of euphoric solidarity. I felt that when I went to Manhattan with my wife to march in the largest peace demonstration of the Vietnam War up to that time, the famous April 15, 1967, march from Central Park to the United Nations Plaza, where we heard Martin Luther King, Jr., denounce the war with such force and eloquence. I saw the flower children, many of them strikingly beautiful young women, adorn with bouquets the policemen who lined the street corners on our route.

But obviously none of this had any visible effect, and we were not privy to the growing doubts of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. I remained committed to a nonviolent approach, and “In Retrospect,” to borrow the title of Secretary McNamara’s famous and controversial 1995 memoir, I have never regretted that decision. I may have shaded slightly into illegality, as will be explained later, but I never practiced or endorsed any form of violence. At the same time we were searching for a new, hopefully effective, way to express our opposition, or by this time our hatred, of what our nation was doing in North and South Vietnam. It is at least possible that the form of engagement I chose would have been different had I not been an academic teaching at an institution with a student body that was more than 95 percent male.

CAMBRIDGE, 1967-68

When classes resumed at MIT for the fall semester of 1967, the national anguish over the Vietnam War was reflected in the student body, and more and more students were questioning my colleagues and myself about the draft. These inquiries were mostly of a moral nature, as the law still protected students by deferring them through the undergraduate years and all the way to the Ph.D. And since one could not be inducted after age twenty-six, it was easy to lay low, stay out of politics, and string along one’s studies until the age of eligibility was passed. (However, if a young man had been involved in resistance activities or had gotten into some sort of difficulty with his draft board, then draft eligibility could be extended to the age of thirty-five.)(n11)

This security in avoidance of military service, common to all American college and university students, as long as they maintained “reasonable progress” toward their degrees, was especially true of MIT. Its graduates, even if they did not pursue advanced studies, could obtain an occupational deferment by working in a defense-related industry. Between 1950 and 1968 Mrs. Eleanor Lutz was the sole “Selective Service Advisor” for the entire MIT community, which averaged 7,300 students at any given time. She took pride in never having “lost a man” (i.e., no one was drafted). With the changes in Selective Service regulations which removed or reduced the protection against induction MIT students had enjoyed, Mrs. Lutz was replaced in April 1968 by the “MIT Committee on Selective Service,” comprised of seven members, including three deans and three vice presidents!

With no clear sense of where it would lead me, I joined the first group of draft counselors to be formed at MIT. My records begin with notes taken at training sessions. I have no precise notation as to why I took this step rather than some other. Speaking again “in retrospect,” I believe that I made this choice because the skills I possessed as a historian and an intellectual would allow me to master a complex mass of data in a way that would be helpful to young Americans, and at the same time to play a small role in the antiwar movement. Although later I did become comfortable in front of the microphone speaking to large audiences, I did not at the time (nor did I ever) see myself as charismatic, as a Noam Chomsky, a Daniel Berrigan, or a Staughton Lynd, for example.

The membership of our group included two chaplains, two scientists, five historians, and an anthropologist. (A mathematician and a chemist soon joined us.) We made inquiries as to how we could be trained and found an instructor from the American Friends Service Committee. We really did not know what to expect, and at the beginning were rather surprised to be sharply questioned and accused of not doing our homework by our teacher, an earnest, bearded young man half the age of some of those present. But we did learn our material thoroughly because we understood full well that a life could hang in the balance. If one were to be effective, one had to acquire a near photographic command of the broad outlines of an immensely complex set of regulations governing the operation of the Selective Service System, knowing where to look for specific details related to an individual’s case. As I noted during a training session, we were “trying to make an individual think through a significant problem central to his life, and give him the largest range of facts.”(n12) We understood that some of what we would be doing was technically illegal, in that it was against the law to advise a young man to follow his conscience, if in so doing he decided to violate the draft law or army regulations.(n13)

Hence the records I kept of students counseled, both in Cambridge and later in Poughkeepsie, are brief and schematic, sometimes just initials, sometimes an annotation like “bearded student” or “friend of John C.”

Some materials have been lost or destroyed, but I did save four carefully indexed and organized notebooks, along with some of the key texts we used. These included the Guide to the Draft by Arlo Tatum and Joseph Tuchinsky and the Handbook for Conscientious Objectors, published by the highly respected and efficient Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) based in Philadelphia.(n14) Both works were constantly updated. And we had regular refresher sessions, because after 1967 there were frequent changes in the regulations.

In the fall of 1967, while I was still in training as a draft counselor, an incident occurred that I shall describe briefly, because I believe it is not isolated and reflects patterns of dissent within the armed forces. I received a series of collect telephone calls from pay phones scattered around the United States from a soldier, the son of friends, who had deserted from the army just before he was scheduled to leave for Vietnam. (Technically, desertion meant being AWOL for more than thirty days. A good estimate is that 53,000 soldiers deserted in 1968, and by the spring of 1969 the AWOL rate was one every three minutes.)(n15) The young man was frightened and confused and sought my advice as to what to do. I thought that my phone might be tapped, and I strongly suggested to the young man, whom I knew to be a fine athlete and a skier, to go to Canada “where I’ve been told the snow is beautiful.” There, I said, he could sort things out, make some personal decisions, and get back in touch. But before he could bring himself to leave the United States, the FBI caught up with him and he was sent to the “Special Processing Detachment” at Fort Meade. His family asked me to write a letter to the Army regarding his psychological condition, which I did, and with the help of psychiatrists and his own perseverance he was able to obtain his release from the military on a General Discharge under honorable conditions.

After his release I wrote him on April 16, 1968, promising him complete confidentiality, with several questions. “Since I am actively engaged in draft counseling,” I suggested, “it is very possible that I might be able to help someone else in a similar situation by using information that you are in a unique situation to supply.”

For example: How were you treated? Did you bring politics and draft resistance into your case at all, or did you purposely keep them out? How did you defend yourself?. How were you able to persuade the authorities to grant you the general discharge under honorable conditions? What advice would you have for a young soldier already in the army or the reserves, who has come to change his mind re Vietnam?

His reply was very interesting, and while no similar cases came to my personal attention during the Vietnam era, I shared the advice with other counselors. He ascribed his success to luck or fate and his own perseverance, and did not think his own case would be much use to anyone.

I think that to get out of such an institution takes much self-confidence and the determination to knock down any obstacle that stands in the way, no matter the consequences. Once the Army believes (or once you get them to believe) that you’re that determined to get out then they’ll let you out. Of course it takes some diplomacy to keep them from sending you to jail or to a mental institution. In general I think it’s best never to mention politics or current ideas or trends or groups but to work from purely individual thoughts and feelings.(n16)

Returning to the central issue of draft counseling, on February 14, 1968, our group felt ready to issue a press release announcing our availability to advise members of the Cambridge community who had problems concerning the draft.(n17) We were carefully organized and highly precise in the language of our public statements, and were certainly putting our scholarly training to work. In those pre-computer days we had to devise systems for cross-referencing, and at a first level we followed checklists. I cite one non-technical guideline that illustrates the spirit of our group: “#12. Do not attempt to force the registrant into an alternative which might be inappropriate for him. Don’t try to make the choice for him. You ought to state your bias if, for example, you think that filing for C.O. [conscientious objector] is the only honorable deferment or if you happen to be opposed to going to Canada for political reasons.”

At the moment we went public with our press release, we could have had no idea that the first of many changes in a Selective Service law that had remained basically the same for twenty years was imminent. Three days later, on February 17, 1968, the New York Times announced that most deferments were to end for graduate students, and that job exemptions were to be limited. Panic is the only word to describe the emotion that hit MIT, and we were busy. Between February and June of 1968 I counseled twenty-nine young men in depth.

It was imperative to warn young men that they should not have any illusions that the bureaucracy would forget them. Our guidelines were very clear: “It is extremely probable that all persons who refuse to report for, or submit to, induction will be prosecuted.” If a young man claimed to be a C.O. and decided to refuse induction when his claim was rejected, it was crucial that he should not under any circumstances step forward when ordered to do so by authorities. Complying would have put him under military rather than civilian jurisdiction, and he would be subject to military law. If the young man had the presence of mind not to step forward, he would be released from the induction station and free to go about his business. At some later date he would be charged, and his trial would be in a civilian court.(n18)

We quickly learned to be extremely alert concerning matters of procedure. Decisions of draft boards could be overturned at trials because of procedural errors. For example, if a draft registrant submitted new information to his local board, it was obliged to send him a new classification, or at least acknowledge the receipt of the information stating that the additional documentation did not affect its prior decision.

We had to have a perfect command of all the regulations concerning appeals, which were allowed. There were State Appeal Boards and even a National Selective Service Appeal Board, which represented the president; an appeal to it was known as a “Presidential Appeal.” Rules pertaining to filing appeals were arcane, with rigid time specifications, probably to discourage registrants from taking advantage of this right. Nonetheless, as the war escalated and draft counseling services became ever more active, the number of appeals increased dramatically, from under 10,000 at the state level and 163 at the presidential level in 1965 to over 119,000 and 2,175, respectively, in 1967.(n19) We learned about the intricacies of getting permission to travel abroad if one was eligible to be drafted. We pored over the “Medical Fitness Standards for Induction in Peacetime Army” (one must remember that the Vietnam War was undeclared), so that we could refer our “clients,” as we often called them, to sympathetic medical specialists if they appeared to have a condition which would exempt them (4-F or 1-Y deferment).

Given the high education levels of most of our clientele, it was not surprising that many young men were very serious about conscientious objection, and we had to be vigilant in our counseling. We understood the intricacies of a very important Supreme Court ruling of March 8, 1965, United States versus Daniel Andrew Seeger.(n20) This ruling was popularly known as “The Seeger Decision,” and during the Vietnam era remained as near to a legal definition of religion as the Supreme Court would provide. The operative language, which we relied upon in draft counseling, was from Mr. Justice Douglas’s concurring opinion: “In sum, I agree with the Court that any person opposed to war on the basis of a sincere belief, which in his life fulfills the same place as a belief in God fulfills in the life of an orthodox religionist, is entitled to exemption under the [Selective Service] statute.”(n21) Hence after 1965 it was no longer necessary to believe in a supreme being to qualify for the 1-O conscientious objector deferment, but few draft boards were aware of this nicety. We made it our duty to remind them. Receiving that coveted 1-O classification allowed the registrant to fulfill his military duties in civilian alternative service, such as working in a hospital.(n22) Draft boards were for obvious reasons very reluctant to grant that status. Indeed, a young man whom I counseled reported to me that he was the first registrant from his board in its entire history to receive a 1-O classification.


By spring 1968 I knew I would be moving to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and had spoken of the Vietnam War and my opposition to it to some of my future colleagues. In April I received an inquiry as to whether I would be willing to continue my draft counseling after I moved in July. The author of the letter was Erica Rubenstein, the mother of a conscientious objector who received that classification from his draft board but still chose exile in Canada. Erica was one of those unsung heroines of the antiwar movement. A large number of young men(n23) were assisted at a crucial point in their lives because of her efforts, and most likely none of them ever met her or even knew of her existence. Without her calm and patient, always unobtrusive, leadership and superb organizational skills, there would never have been a Draft Counseling and Information Service of Dutchess County (DCIS). Erica never accepted a formal position in the organization, but she set up all the preliminary meetings, many of which were held in her home, circulated countless memoranda, and contacted local men of the cloth, doctors, and lawyers whom she knew would be sympathetic. I expect that there are many other Erica Rubensteins around the country, and I would hope that one or more of them would come forward to tell their stories.

Word of my moving to Poughkeepsie, the county seat for Dutchess County, had also had gotten around through links between the scientific community at MIT and IBM, which had (and has) massive manufacturing facilities in the area. Within a few days of my arrival at the end of July 1968 a young IBM employee came to see me who wanted help going to Canada. I gave him the information I had, which was sufficient though not as much as I would later acquire.(n24) I shall never forget shaking his hand in goodbye, or really adieu. We did not know when he would be able to return to the United States. In fact, it would not be for nine years, following the amnesty issued by President Carter. It was a powerful moment. I never saw or heard from him again, and I cannot visualize his face, but I can still feel the press of his hand in mine.(n25)

Later in the summer I helped a few more IBM employees, but there was no service in operation. There was one other trained draft counselor in the region, Robert Stover, who had acquired the necessary expertise in the metropolitan New York area. Bob Stover was a Quaker, a former philosophy professor, and a man of immense quiet dignity. Once in the fall of 1968, before our service was fully operational, he and I were invited to Marist College, also in Poughkeepsie. Vassar at the time was not yet coeducational. Marist had organized a sort of “Armed Forces Day,” and we were put in one vacant classroom where we counseled a number of undergraduates. In the next room were two handsome young recruiting officers who somewhat nervously shook hands with us before they went in to “do their thing.” We probably surprised them--we may have been their first glimpse of “the enemy”--in that we were courteous to them, wore coats and ties, and had short hair.

In the fall of 1968 we got our service established after an intense two-day training session, held October 25-26, at a local Congregational church (the minister was himself a trainee). Our instructor was Steve Pailet, who came down to us from the Boston-based organization “Resist,” one of the largest and best organized of such groups in the country, for obvious reasons given the number of universities in the area. Like many of his peers, Steve had temporarily abandoned his studies to devote his full energies to the struggle, and there was none better at what he did. He stayed with me and my family during those two exhausting days.

Steve began by making the distinction between “service counseling” and “political counseling.” He was convinced that draft counseling should be more than service to individuals.(n26) From there he reviewed the laws and procedures and issues we would have to confront. (Everyone had done basic research in advance, and had read the standard manuals.) One of his general themes was that the group would be helping young men through buying them time: no matter what a counselee ultimately chose to do, he would have time to “sort his life out, since it is a life and death matter.”

When Steve Pailet left Poughkeepsie we had the nucleus of a draft counseling service. In my mind’s eye I can vividly see him as he drove off in a battered Volkswagen beetle to return to the fray in Boston. We wished each other good luck. His ran out a few months later. He was murdered while driving a taxicab, a job he had taken to make ends meet.(n27)

The service that he and Erica Rubenstein inaugurated, which officially “hung out its shingle” on November 14, 1968, grew and in a sense prospered. Our “Statement of Purpose,” designed for public consumption, was very cautious and not totally accurate. We became well equipped to help young men whose appeals had expired, or who because of their opposition to the Vietnam War refused all cooperation with the Selective Service System. This meant giving them information about emigrating to Canada.

What we said to the public read in part: “This service is not meant to advise or to help anyone evade the Draft. Its purpose is to clarify Draft procedures and give young men guidance in seeking their appropriate classifications within the legal framework of the Selective Service Act.” This moderate tone was probably a wise strategy, in that Dutchess County is a famously conservative area, which never even voted for Franklin Roosevelt even though FDR lived in Hyde Park, within the county limits!

The service became quite sophisticated, with an answering service that would refer messages to “Screeners” who would call back the young man, get a preliminary sense of his problem, and then assign him to a counselor.(n28) We had monthly review sessions at the local Quaker Meeting House, where we also established a library and set up a room where some of the counseling took place. We prepared periodic information sheets that analyzed the latest court decisions and pending legislation. We did a lot of research and knew, for example, that Local Board 21, panel A, met on May 15, 1969, and handled 446 cases, with 118 new classifications. It granted no 1-Os (conscientious objectors), whereas Panel B met on May 1, 1969, handled 574 cases with 176 new classifications, and granted 2 1-Os. We scrutinized those boards closely, and in the fall of 1969 we were aware that the attitude of 21-A was changing, making it easier to get 2-A occupational deferments, and the board members were even becoming willing to consider conscientious objector claims.(n29) On the other hand 21-B had a new member, a retired employee of a major oil corporation, who had lived in the South and was known to be unsympathetic to registrants’ claims for draft exemptions.

An effort, largely unsuccessful but an effort nonetheless, was made to reach beyond the middle-class student community and to aid disadvantaged youths.(n30) This was one of the key goals of my speaking on radio talk shows, and a few young men from the working class came to me for counseling. I have a record of a black conscientious objector who sought our assistance.

By the end of 1969, with “Vietnamization,” the gradual reduction of the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam, and the ever-increasing levels of antiwar dissent, it was becoming clear that the draft would be modified. We were ready for the draft lottery when it was established in January 1970.(n31) Our clientele was reduced, since those with a high lottery number knew that they would not be drafted. But we continued operations until the draft was terminated.

In the end our service became almost, but not quite, part of the Establishment. As the war was “winding down” after the draft lottery was operational, National Selective Service actually communicated with our counseling service directly, and I assume others around the country. I think that government officialdom felt that if they established contact with the draft counseling services, conveniently neglecting the fact that such services were engaged in some technically illegal activities, local boards would be less likely to make mistakes that could end up in costly and time-consuming litigation.

During those five years in Poughkeepsie I counseled more than 250 young men. Some of them obtained the deferments they sought and deserved. In my files I have not one letter of thanks from a counselee, though a number did call to inform me when they received a hoped-for classification. I am not sure why there is no written record here; the letters may have been destroyed, but I think they were never sent, perhaps because what the young men were going through was too stressful for them.

All the letters I do have in my archives are from women: mothers, fiancees, girlfriends. These letters, all handwritten on lovely traditional stationery, are sometimes inquiries on behalf of a loved one and sometimes sensitive expressions of gratitude, bringing good news of a successful appeal, a deferment granted. They are postmarked from as far away as Houston, Texas.

As early as 1971 I realized that the time would probably come when I could close my files on Selective Service. That moment finally arrived on June 30, 1973, when the power to induct expired and the United States moved to a volunteer army.


The iconoclastic French intellectual Julien Benda once wrote that “history is made with shreds of justice that the intellectual has torn from the politician.” The thousands of people around the nation who worked quietly as draft counselors during the Vietnam War may have made a little of their own history. After 1968 local boards became much more careful and did not misadvise young men about the actual regulations, as they had in the early years of the conflict in Vietnam.(n32) And the powerful, famous (or infamous) head of Selective Service, General Lewis Hershey, finally retired in February 1970 at the age of 76.(n33) He was replaced by Curtis Tarr, an inoffensive bureaucrat, who presided over the gradual dismantling and mothballing of the Selective Service System.

A tentative conclusion that emerges from this account, when we remember that I have been speaking of only one county in one state, is that the patient and persistent application of specialized knowledge to a specific problem is one way that an intellectual can have an effect on society. It is not the only way, but can sometimes be an important one.

While I kept documentation pertaining to the dormant Selective Service System for more than a decade after the draft ended, the last document reflecting my own engagement dates from the spring of 1973. It is the text of remarks I made on WEOK, the local radio station, in May of that year. The first two paragraphs read:

When I last had the pleasure of coming in and talking to you it was an interview situation, and not a talk-back show [I believe what we now term a “call-in” program], but it was a tense time. The war in Vietnam was raging, and draftees were going. Before I could leave the station the phone rang twice--once from an anxious mother who felt her son was being unjustly ordered for induction, and once from a young man with a draft problem.

Now most mothers, wives, fiancees aren’t so worried, though they may be surprised when they learn that the young men in their lives still must register for the draft, and that the machinery of Selective Service is still in operation.

I concluded with an urgent plea to my listeners to contact their senators and congressmen, since the Selective Service System would continue unless it were repealed or funding were stopped after the president’s power to order inductions ended on July 1. There were six bills in Congress that would have fully repealed the draft, and one, H. J. Res. 382, was actually under consideration by the House Armed Services Committee.(n34)

In the end none of those bills passed, and in the year 2000 young men must still register with the dormant Selective Service System when they turn eighteen. However, we have had all-volunteer armed services for more than twenty-six years, and it safe to assume that any future government would be extremely hesitant to reactivate the draft at this late date, especially if its purpose were to gather an army for an overseas war of the colonial variety, if such a conflict is even imaginable in the context of the post-cold war world.

On Memorial Day 1971, members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War attempted to camp out on the Battle Green of Lexington, Massachusetts, popularly known as “the Birthplace of American Liberty.” This led to the arrest of 458 veterans and local citizens, the largest arrest in Massachusetts history. In her eloquent and beautiful account of this symptomatic and symbolic moment, Eugenia Kaledin observes that the event is essentially ignored in the town records, and as late as the 1990s some remain reticent about what happened. If a group of local citizens had not undertaken an oral history, “the entire historical moment might have disappeared.” Kaledin wonders whether something similar is happening elsewhere in America.

Is our social fabric so weak that it will tear if we look squarely at recent controversies? What can we do as a civilization to preserve a vaunted tradition of dissent if people do not want to examine the most painful moments? What records shall we keep in an era of excess information? What questions do we want our children to ask of us? How shall they judge future moments when good citizens might again feel compelled to break the law?(n35)

If this modest effort at the preservation of some parallel memories begins, however tentatively and partially, to answer some of Eugenia Kaledin’s questions, I shall be gratified, and conclude that the reasons to write this memoir were stronger than the powerful temptation to remain silent.


For Erica Rubenstein, and to the memory of Steve Pallet. I would like to thank Joe Golsan and Terry Anderson for their astute and helpful comments on an earlier version of this memoir. Of course I am fully responsible for its contents.

(n1.) If any readers have this information, I would be most grateful to receive it.

(n2.) I wrote, in part, “I know that I have been often acting in Bad Faith and have done not enough and then too late. I’m not really reaching enough students and I haven’t put a dent in the institutional structure of MIT. It would be an evasion to justify my more quiet individual approach because someone like Chomsky--who has sacrificed a lot more--probably hasn’t made much of a dent either. I have been a reactive intellectual living basically in suspension, and by accepting a salary and all the rest basically cooperating with my society. R. L. [a radical friend] thinks that even those who go to prison are fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities of self-improvement in our society. I tend to think he’s correct. Is it an evasion to follow my present course? Maybe so; often I think that it is.... The moment may come when I shall feel compelled to risk full engagement.” I was thirty-one when I penned these words.

(n3.) I shall discuss this phase briefly in the section “Roots of an Engagement, 1963-67.”

(n4.) As a writer I’ve always liked to have a title in mind before setting pen to paper. On this occasion the titles pressed upon my consciousness. Those I eventually discarded in favor of the more neutral (and hopefully accurately descriptive) title I chose were “Resurrecting Pain” and “Celebrate the 60s? No Way!”

(n5.) Chomsky told me this when he lectured at Vassar College in the early 1980s.

(n6.) For an analysis of ten of the most significant antiwar petitions, showing how the language becomes more bitter and aggressive as the war escalates, see my War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 116-29.

(n7.) I have not been able to gain access to my FBI file. The reasons are too complex to detail here. My 1965 federal income tax returns were audited, as were those of other signatories of the early antiwar petitions. But that was a truly minor harassment. I must offer a backhanded compliment to the Johnson and Nixon administrations in this regard. I’m sure that the academic opponents of the Vietnam War were hated by the “establishment”; but to my knowledge at least we were not brutalized or overtly persecuted.

(n8.) The book was published by Princeton University Press in 1979. Completing the research and writing was slowed down dramatically because of my own engagement.

(n9.) The one small change I observed, which was perhaps a government response to the growing antiwar movement, was that official sources talked less in 1967 than in 1966 of the “kill ratio” (the ratio of Vietcong dead to our dead; 10/1 was good, 8/1 was not so good). I was thinking in the context of Robert Gardner’s great ethnographic film “Dead Birds” (1963) about the “primitive” Dani of New Guinea. These people, who were termed “classic Neolithic” and were constantly at war, had a kill ratio of 1/1. It never got worse because no one ever killed someone from the other side until someone on his side was killed.

(n10.) From the opposite perspective, Presidents Reagan and Bush understood this well in mounting quick campaigns in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq. There was never time for an antiwar movement to coalesce.

(n11.) There was also a separate “Doctor’s Draft.” Physicians, dentists, and for some reason veterinarians (I doubt it there were many horses remaining in the U.S. Cavalry!) could be called into the armed forces up to the age of thirty-five.

(n12.) Author’s note from January 30, 1968, training session.

(n13.) Title I, Section 12(a) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act, which was the operative legislation in 1968 when we began active counseling, read in part: “any person ... who knowingly counsels, aids, or abets another to refuse or evade registration or service in the armed forces ... shall, upon conviction in any district court of the United States of competent jurisdictions, be punished by imprisonment for not more than five years or a fine of nor more than $10,000, or by both .... “In point of fact no one had been prosecuted for draft counseling since 1949. See “The CO Counselor and the Law,” Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors Pamphlet dated February 8, 1962. The Department of Justice left us alone, concentrating its energies on developing cases against famous opponents of the draft and the Vietnam War, public personalities such as Dr. Benjamin Spock. Since the focus in this memoir is on draft counseling, I am deliberately leaving out a lot of activities I engaged in, for example working in the spring of 1968 to publicize the case of Pfc. Howard Petrick, an antiwar GI from Fort Hood, Texas, who was given an undesirable discharge from the Army. I mention this briefly simply because I hypothesize that my case is not unique, and that other draft counselors around the country did not limit themselves to what was by necessity a somewhat scholarly and reflective endeavor.

(n14.) This memoir is based as much as possible on original documents. I have tried to be clear where I have been obliged to rely on memory.

(n15.) My source here is a Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG) newsletter of April 1969. BDRG was very well organized and extremely careful in its research. When the Boston Globe that spring instituted a bi-weekly column entitled “The Draft Counselor,” the authors were three members of BDRG. Lest these data seem exaggerated, Lawrence Baskir and William Strauss, in their standard work on the subject, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation (New York: Knopf, 1978), state that a soldier went AWOL every two minutes and that there was a desertion every six minutes, and their global figures for the Vietnam War are 1.5 million AWOL incidents and 500,000 desertion incidents. Baskir and Strauss go on to quote the Senate Armed Services Committee, which estimated in 1968 “well before AWOL and desertions reached their peak, absenteeism was costing the military the equivalent of ten combat divisions of fifteen thousand men each” (122).

(n16.) Handwritten letter dated May 22, 1968, emphasis added. In re-reading my correspondence with this individual, I was impressed by how well a twenty-year-old could write in 1968!

(n17.) After announcing our formation and availability and our completion of a course of instruction on Selective Service law and procedures, the text reads: “Its members are qualified to answer such questions as ‘Which occupations offer a deferment?’ ‘Are all students deferred?’ ‘How long is one eligible for military service?’ ‘Must conscientious objectors be opposed to all wars?’ ‘Must they believe in God?’ and a wide range of others. Where their own knowledge of some special topic is insufficient, they will confer with or refer to competent professionals....” The counselors were listed with their phone numbers. This differed from the system later developed in Poughkeepsie.

(n18.) For reasons which are unknown to me, the one exception was New York City, where C.O.s refusing induction were ordinarily arrested and thus would have to post bond before being released.

(n19.) Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) News Notes, 20: 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1968), 2. Source not given; the numbers seems reasonable, and the CCCO was known for the care and accuracy with which it presented and recorded data.

(n20.) The case was reported in detail in the March 9, 1965, New York Times. There were actually two co-defendants, Arno Jacobsen and Forest Peter, and all three claimed conscientious objector status even though they did not belong to a formal religious group. All three were released from their military obligations in a ruling that according to the Times “read like a short course in theology.”

(n21.) According to the CCCO the test might be put in these words: “A sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualifying for the [C.O.] exemption comes within the statutory definition.” CCCO News Notes, 20:5 (Sept.-Oct. 1968), 1. I have a handwritten note after this passage, “Never to be forgotten.”

(n22.) The work was rarely pleasant. C.O.s were ordinarily assigned menial and degrading tasks.

(n23.) It is not possible to arrive at an accurate total. I know that I counseled more than 250 young men, which was probably the largest number by a fair margin. Estimating conservatively that the other eighteen counselors averaged a total of fifty “clients,” the total reached by the DCIS would have been over 1,000.

(n24.) In addition to special contacts we developed over time, the basic text we used was Mark Satin, ed., Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, published in Toronto by the House of Anansi for the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme. To give some indication of the numbers involved, the first edition, dated January 1968, was printed in 5,000 copies; the second two months later numbered 20,000. With the help of groups such as the Vancouver Committee to Aid American War Objectors, we studied carefully the pros and cons of renouncing U.S. citizenship, especially before an induction order was issued. The purpose of so doing was to “avoid committing an offense against U.S. Selective Service Law and thus to be able to visit the U.S. in the future without fear of arrest.”

(n25.) Male embracing was still awkward for me, as for many of my generation.

(n26.) “He’s right, but one does not become immediately aware of this. A sort of gradual politicization must develop. On ne peut pas dire ca tout de suite.” Author’s note, October 25, 1968.

(n27.) The article in the Boston Globe announcing his death indicated that the presumed motive of the killer was robbery. I do not know whether the crime was ever solved.

(n28.) The instructions for screeners were very precise and detailed. If a parent answered, the screener would simply say he was returning a call to the son and would like to know when he would be reached at home. “If pressed, attempt to allay anxiety by whatever means seems indicated. Confidentiality for the young man is the highest priority whenever possible.”

(n29.) One can only guess at the reasons; perhaps the Board was reflecting the growing national antipathy toward the war in Vietnam.

(n30.) It is surely a legitimate question to inquire as to the reasons for this lack of success, and I have been asked that question. In truth I have no answer and can only speculate that factors of class, education level, and level of political awareness were involved. Perhaps readers who were themselves draft counselors can shed some light on this question.

(n31.) I actually have a copy of the White House Executive Order of November 26, 1969, “Amending the Selective Service Regulations to Prescribe Random Selection.”

(n32.) This statement may seem strong, but we all knew it to be true. It was a given in the counseling community. Complaining about misadvising by the draft boards was a refrain we heard constantly from the young men who came to us for help.

(n33.) General Lewis Hershey, an immensely powerful man, directed the Selective Service System for twenty-eight years, bitterly hated by the Left and passionately admired by the Right. President Nixon had to be very prudent in finally insisting upon his retirement. Hershey was promoted to the rank of Four-Star General and given a special honorific position as Presidential Advisor for Manpower Mobilization.

(n34.) I have no record of whether people called in response to my appeal, and or of local opinion on this extremely sensitive issue.

(n35.) “Vietnam Comes to Lexington: Memorial Day 1971,” in Against the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists, ed. Mary Susannah Robbins (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 149.