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Editorial & Opinion

Jerry Elmer: 50 years ago today I turned 18, at the height of the Vietnam War



I turned 18 on August 30, 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War – that is, 50 years ago today.

At the time, men turning 18 were legally obligated to register with the Selective Service System (the draft), fill out a variety of forms that would determine their draft status, carry a draft card, and go into the army if called. Failing to do any of these things (including failure to have a draft card in your possession) were all felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison.

When I turned 18 fifty years ago today, I refused to register for the draft. Instead, I presented myself to what would have been “my” draft board (had I registered), and gave the draft board clerk a 10-page mimeographed statement explaining in some detail why I wouldn’t register – because of my opposition to the war and my opposition to the draft that supported the war.

At the time, Selective Service law gave a man a week after his eighteenth birthday to register. In order to ensure that my nonviolent civil disobedience was fully public, I fasted for that week, and stood outside the draft board where I had refused to register giving out leaflets to the men going in and out, urging them to also refuse to cooperate with the draft. (You can see that one-page leaflet, here.) I sent out a press release, and there was a fair amount of local news coverage about my action.

At that time (just as today) middle class kids (which is what I was) were expected to go directly to college from high school. Because of my opposition to the war, I decided to work for the War Resisters League (WRL) instead of going to college. (WRL, a pacifist organization, had been founded in 1923 by men and women who had been active in opposing World War I and is still in existence today.) In the 15 months after finishing high school, I also destroyed Selective Service records at 14 local draft boards in the Northeast (including at four draft boards at Fields Point here in Providence). Years later, when I decided to attend law school, I was the only convicted felon in Harvard Law School’s graduating class of 1990.

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You can see the lengthy explanatory statement I presented to “my” draft board, here. When I read the statement today three separate things occur to me.

First, the large and small errors leap off the page at me. In the very first paragraph of page 1 (page numbers appear in upper right-hand corner; the cover page is unnumbered), I misstated the year of the United States – supported coup in Guatemala that overthrew the democratically elected Arbenz government. On the next page, I casually asserted that “Thou shall not kill” is the sixth commandment; it is the fifth commandment. (In both these cases, you will see my hand-written corrections, belatedly inserted in 1969.) There are repeated references to “mankind” and “All men are brothers” (last page) that I would certainly say differently today. There are a couple of references to God (bottoms of pages 2 and 6) that I would not write today. (And, of course, there are typographical errors and punctuation mistakes throughout the document. I can only hope that current readers will give some slack to the 18-year-old author of the document!)

Second, however, I am struck by the fact that today I basically agree with the main points of the argument I expressed 50 years ago. In the first paragraph I say, “The war in Vietnam could end tomorrow and the basic nature and direction of American foreign policy would remain unchanged. Vietnam is not an isolated blemish tarnishing an otherwise noble record of American foreign policy.” That certainly turned out to be only too true; think: Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq. I argued 50 years ago that there is both a moral imperative (pages 1 – 2) and a practical imperative (pages 5-6) to take direct, concrete action in furtherance of your professed ideas and beliefs. Today, 50 years later, I still believe that that is the way social change happens.

Third, I am struck by the discussion on pages 3 and 4 of why non-cooperation with the draft was the correct course. I posed the question thus:

If it is the army and killing which I oppose, why do I refuse to register for the draft? No one is hurt by [my] merely registering. Why not accept a student deferment or a Conscientious Objector [C.O.] classification?

At the time, I argued that there were both specific reasons for not accepting a student deferment or C.O. status and general reasons for not cooperating with the draft at all. Specifically, student deferments and C.O. status favored middle class whites and disfavored poor people and people of color; accepting these classifications would be taking advantage of special privilege. More generally, I argued that it is wrong to participate in a system (here, conscription) to which one is fundamentally opposed. “I say that since I am so deeply opposed to the draft, I do not want to cooperate with it at all. Rather, I wish to throw the entire weight of my whole being against it.” This made me a draft resister, not a draft evader.

Fifty years later, I find that the distinction between draft resisters and draft evaders has been lost on many people, but the difference is a crucial one. Draft evaders (and there were many of them) were primarily motivated by self-interest. They sought to evade military service because there was a war on and they might get hurt or killed. Draft evaders were keen to cooperate with Selective Service by registering, filling put the required forms, and trying the game the system by obtaining any deferment or exemption they could (legitimately or not). Draft evaders stayed in college in order to qualify for student deferments; they feigned medical conditions in order to qualify for medical deferments – anything in order to evade service themselves. If that didn’t work, they might flee to Canada (again, a safe course for the individual concerned).

By contrast, draft resisters were more likely to be motivated by altruistic concerns and sought, by their actions, to end the war and change a system that they opposed. Most draft resisters were, like me, eligible for multiple exemptions and deferments – student deferments, C.O. status, and so forth – but made a conscious, deliberate choice not to avail themselves of those easy outs. Instead of evading the draft, we sought to end the war by confronting the government with our public civil disobedience. At the time I publicly refused to register there were hundreds of draft resisters in federal prison, and thousands more awaiting prosecution.

What happened after I publicly refused to register for the draft 50 years ago? The clerk at “my” draft board (Mrs. Abraham) filled in the registration form for me and sent me a draft card. I burned the draft card at a demonstration at that draft board (called just for that purpose) in November 1969. Later, Selective Service sent me a notice to appear for a pre-induction physical examination; naturally, I did not go. Each of these actions constituted a separate felony, each one punishable by another five years in prison.

Interestingly, I was never prosecuted for my nonregistration. (At the time I refused to register, men who quietly refused to register were never prosecuted. If they were caught, they were simply obligated to register late. However, at the time I refused to register, fully 96 percent of men who publicly refused to register were prosecuted and lots of these public nonregistrants were serving time in federal prisons.) I never knew for sure why I was not prosecuted for my own nonregistration, but I have always thought it likely that the government elected not to pursue a duplicative prosecution in New York for nonregistration when I was very soon under federal indictment in Providence for burglarizing the Selective Service offices here and destroying all those draft files.

Jerry Elmer was a Vietnam-era draft resister. He is the author of Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Vietnam-Era Draft Resister (Vanderbilt University Press 2005). In December 2005, Felon for Peace was published in Vietnamese translation as Tôi phạm vì hòa bìng by Thế Giới (Hanoi), Vietnam’s pre-eminent publishing house. This was the first book ever by a U.S. peace activist to be published in Vietnam.

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