Interviewees - order of appearance
After years of defying draft laws, Mike finally accepted his draft board ruling that due to security risks he was classified 1Y, the least likely to be draft.
"I was bought to be a law-abiding kid," states Mike whose mother was a school teacher and father worked for the government in DC. After graduating from a vocational high school in Wheaton, Maryland, Mike flunked out of Cornell University. He then joined VISTA in Florida and received an occupational deferment while his buddies from high school were being drafted.
The class-bias of the draft disturbed Mike. "When I got back to Cornell I didn’t feel comfortable keeping my student, 2S deferment so I mailed it back to my draft board." Thus, the start of a several year contest with his draft board, which included sending his health reports pasted to a brick when he discovered draft boards were required to keep original copies of all documents. At his draft physical, he gave anti-war speeches and handed out Wobbly sabotage pamphlets.
After he got arrested 20-25 times at different protests, he was eventually classified 1-Y for security reasons, which "meant that you would only be called up if the United States were invaded, and I would defend my country if it was invaded. I won’t go off to Vietnam to kill other people or get killed."
At Cornell, Mike was a housemate of Bruce Dancis and both were active in the Students for a Democratic Society. Having worked as a motorcycle mechanic, Mike used his mechanical skills to run the anti-war print shop.
Mike continued his political activism after the end of the Vietnam War. In 1979, he won a seat on for Santa Cruz city council when it was more Republican than Democrat and was appointed mayor, ultimately serving five terms while teaching at UC Santa Cruz.
"If you see a problem, you can do something about it. Get together with other people, and you can make a difference. That was what I learned from the 1960s."
When the American Friends Service Committee counseled Joseph for his successful Conscious Objector application, they also trained him to be a draft counselor.
Joseph wanted to go to law school when he graduated from college in 1968, but that was the year the deferment for graduate school was abolished. Instead, Joseph got a vocational deferment by teaching third grade in Chicago as a part Teachers Core. His evenings were spent applying for Conscious Objector exemption with the help of AFSC. He was the recruited by AFSC to be a draft counselor, which required several months training.
It wasn’t the first time Joseph had done grassroots organizing. During his college days he had gone to West Virginia to help labor activists with community organizing. AFSC sent him to Phoenix Arizona where he helped counsel about 5,000 people and also helped resisters in the military. It was during that time when his draft board in Pontiac, MI granted him C.O. status.
Since 1976 Joseph Gerson has worked for the American Friends Service Committee. He educates and organizes locally, nationally and internationally as director of AFSC’s Peace & Economic Security Program and lives outside of Boston.
Fearing the loss of his student deferment after dropping a college course Larry joined VISTA for a vocational deferment. He then became ineligible for the draft as he awaited trial for civil disobedience cases.
Larry, the first in his working class family to attend college, was not interested in politics when he entered the University of Washington in 1964. That quickly changed when massive numbers of U.S. troops landed in Vietnam, and he did not want to be one of them. “I felt that the Vietnamese people were no threat to African American people or anybody else in the United States of America.” Peace activists on campus told him that by joining VISTA, the domestic branch of the Peace Corp, he would be exempt from the draft for a year. He applied and was accepted.
Larry was assigned as VISTA volunteer to work and to live in the slums of NYC in 1966. The poverty of NYC shocked him. He sought out other activists involved in the emergent Black Power movement. Before NYC Larry says, “I was a college boy. I called myself a Negro.” Living and working amongst the power had radicalized him. Larry recounts, “When I came back from VISTA my whole soul was based on doing, by any means necessary like Malcom X had taught us, to gain power for black people in this society ”
Larry’s return to the University of Washington was marked by an explosion of political activism including co-founding the Black Student Union. Larry was one of the BSU leaders asked by high school students to help them organize a sit-in to protest the expulsion of two girls from Larry’s alma mater for wearing their hair in Afros. Days later after the successful sit-in Larry was arrested and charged. Facing a trial made him ineligible for the draft. “They would not take people who were facing jail, “ Larry explains. By the time his lengthy trials and appeals were over, the draft had ended.
A life-long activist, Larry has served on the King County Council in Washington state since 1997. To his delight, Larry’s current office is the remodeled county jail cell where he once was incarcerated.
Phil renounced his student deferment and received Conscientious Objector exemption.
Growing up Phil expected to go to West Point and become a Commanding Officer like his old man. But by 1966 he thought the Vietnam War was a mess, as did his father. So Phil went to college where his opposition to the war deepened. After taking a course on the History of Conscientious Objection, he applied for C.O. status.
In the summer of 1970 he walked into his local draft board. “I identified myself to the elderly occupant of the only chair and reminded her of my letters, and their missed deadlines, and she looked at me in exasperation.” It turned out that the volunteer members of the local Selective Service board had been forced to retire under the new federal retirement age of 65. No one in liberal Swampscott, MA volunteered to take their place.
“When I asked for C.O. status, she made the change on the spot, with no process, and no requirement for alternative service. So I lucked out.” Phil views his story as typical of kids from prosperous families who more than likely found a way out of the draft. “Half of my friends were working-class, and they all went to 'Nam. Several were killed, and their families traumatized. So it's not something I'm proud of; it's just the way I dealt with the Draft.”
Phil now lives in Lexington, Kentucky where he restores vintage cars and protests on a regular basis.
Lowell and Shirley Knutson:
Born in a hamlet in North Dakota, Lowell moved to Seattle where he was a high-school star athlete. Lowell knew early on his future was the ministry. After 33 years as a parish pastor, Lowell was elected Bishop of NW Synod the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1987. Lowell used his bully pulpit to advocate for a range of social issues from homosexual and Native American rights to tax reform. In response to the AIDS epidemic, he help found “Open Door Ministries” to provide pastoral care to people affected by HIV/AIDS.
His political views of his latter years were a departure from his younger years. Lowell recalls, “I was a conservative Republican, and you accepted what the government told you.” Then the Vietnam War hit home when his oldest son, Pete, opposed the war and the draft. It was a pivotal experience for Lowell. “That was the beginning of my evolution in political matters.”
Shirley Knutson, a Seattle native, graduated from Stanford University. In contrast to her husband, Shirley was critical of U.S. military policies during the Cold War. “I was never for war.” When her oldest son became the lighting rod in their community for his anti-war stances, the family paid a price as well. “It was not easy for the kids, and it was not easy for us, but it worked out well. It helped a lot of people learn. I mean even though it was hard. It was a good thing.”
Shirley was practicing physical therapy in the 50's when she worked with wounded soldiers returning from the Korean War. While busy with raising five children, Shirley was active in her church and volunteer work. For years, Shirley held a leadership role in “Open Door Ministries” serving the Gay community.
After receiving a low lottery number in 1971, Bruce obtained a Conscious Objector exemption.
By the time Bruce was eligible for the draft, his stance against the Vietnam War was well established and shared by the majority of the American public. Even his mother, an Eisenhower Republican, had turned against the war. He did not, though, have a plan on how to avoid being drafted. In fact, he dropped out of college after one semester. “I didn’t realize at the time that was pretty much a fatal mistake. If you wanted to get a student deferment, you needed to show a consistent attendance at college and good performance.”
Nonetheless, when Bruce went for his draft physical, he did not feel at risk of being sent to Vietnam. No one he knew was being sent to Vietnam, even those who were drafted. “I did my tests, and I clearly scored well. They were not going to put me on the front line launching grenades.” However, Bruce felt the need to take a public stance against the war. “It was this question of complicity, is this something you want to be a part of even if you could survive it? “ He decided to pursue a Conscious Objector exemption, although he didn’t know anyone who had applied for C.O. status.
Using American Friends Service Committee book “In Place of War” as his textbook, Bruce submitted his C.O. application to his draft board in a largely working-class suburb in Maryland which did not see many requests for deferments. Although his draft board was comprised of mostly veterans, they granted Bruce his C.O. status.
“I have relatives who had served in the military; my grandfather was a marine. At family gatherings I really felt on the outside. Of course, my hair was long at the time and that also a source of disapproval, but for the most part I didn’t feel stigmatized.”
He did two years alternative service first as a nurse’s aide and then medical technician at the National Institute of Health and found out not everyone who got a deferment were anti-war. “When I was NIH, some of the doctors, really reactionary pricks, had gotten vocational deferments and clearly felt no shame about getting out of the draft and on the other hand being vigorous supporters of the war.”
Today Bruce works as an architect in New York city. Living 10 blocks away from the World Trade Center, Bruce often reflects on how the principle of complicity that guided him during the Vietnam War is relevant to current U.S. military interventions. “We are all responsible for the policies of our government. You can’t say, ‘I’m not a player’, because you can certainly be penalized for it as the people in the World Trade Center were regardless of their politics.”
Pete endured several years of mishaps with his draft board before the the draft ended in 1973.
Pete had no idea his high-school commencement speech, “Appeal to Reason,” shortly after the Kent State massacre would destroyed his chances of a Conscious Objector exemption two years later. The speech did not go well. As Pete recalls, “People in the audience started yelling ‘Communist!’, right around my folks.” His dad, Lowell Knutston, explains, “That’s when he became marked by the powers that be in Everett.”
Knowing the price Pete would pay for his speech probably would have made no difference. As a preacher's son, Pete was taught to stand up for his convictions. “I was raised as a Lutheran, you know. Martin Luther was out there pounding his statement on the church door saying, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other.’
The reason Pete was seeking a Conscious Objector exemption from his draft board in Everett, WA was because he lost his student deferment after being expelled from Stanford in 1972 for interfering with military related recruiting.
While in the process of applying for his C.O. status, Pete was up in Alaska fishing in a remote area. “I can remember being on a fishing boat and watching the FBI fly in and arresting other fishermen who were trying to evade the draft so there was this constant sense of paranoia that they were looking for people.” His parents shared their son’s anxiety about the draft. Shirley Knutson adding, “It was a really stressful time.”
Once Pete started back in college at New School for Social Research in New York, he was declared ineligible for a student deferment because too much time lapsed when he was unenrolled. His Quaker friends gave him the same advice as the lawyer hired by his dad: switch residency to New York to delay induction. By the time the paperwork caught up with him, the war was over for the Americans.
Opposition to the draft and the Vietnam war not only changed his and his parents’ political view, but also the broader culture. As Pete sees it, “In the United States we have a legacy of rebellion and, and whether it was successful or not it creates a climate in which people are much more likely to question; it’s a freer country as a result of it. So the opposition to the Vietnam War is a huge part of our legacy today.”
Today Pete teaches anthropology at Seattle Central Community College and in the summer fishes for salmon in Alaska for his family-run business, Loki Fish.
Bruce renounced his student deferment by ripping up his draft card at a demonstration at Cornell University in 1966 and ended up serving 19 months in federal prison.
As a reward for his anti-war activism, Bruce has a fat FBI file. It even contains a note from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who wanted Bruce indicted before the mass protest planned for New York City April 15th 1967. Ten days before the peace march Bruce was indicted, but it did not intimidate him. Along with his Cornell classmate Mike Rotin and other Students for A Democratic Society activists, Bruce organized a mass draft card burning before the main march, which sparked a nationwide draft resistance movement.
Initially Bruce’s parents argued over his anti-war stance. Having battled communists in progressive organizations in their youth, they equated North Vietnam with the Soviet Union. As they gradually recognized the South Vietnamese government to be an oppressive dictatorship, they turned against the war. Bruce reflects “By 1969, my mother was marching in anti-war demonstrations.”
While waiting for his trial, Bruce went on a speaking tour with Father Dan Berrigan and Cornell Professor Douglas Dowd to build the anti-war movement. Bruce notes that he and the the many draft resisters on campus, including a Protestant and Catholic chaplain had tremendous support from the faculty and students. “I never felt isolated or alone, and I think that’s a part of being in a movement as opposed to guys who made this individual decision all by themselves. They were isolated.”
By May 1969, he was tried and sentenced to 19 months in federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky. When he got out of prison for Christmas 1970, Bruce continued his anti-war work but questioned if their efforts made a difference as the war raged on. It was only years later with the release of the Pentagon Papers and other documents that he concluded the anti-war movement did limit the bombing and the number of troops sent to Vietnam. Bruce concluded, “We saved lives.”
Now in his early 60’s, Bruce reflects, “I won’t get back those years I spent in prison, but I’m proud of what I did.”
Bruce is a retired arts and entertainment editor and critic who splits his time between Southern California and New York. He is the author of Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison During the Vietnam War.
While in graduate school studying Asian history, Sam received a medical deferment.
Having a father who proudly served in WWII in the first Japanese-American army unit and growing up in Hawaii surrounded by military bases, Sam inspired to be a naval officer. His plans changed when he was waitlisted at the military academy. Sam then attended McCalester College in Minnesota where he was first exposed to anti-Vietnam War critiques. As he increasing learned about Asian history, he became against the war.
Once he graduate from college in 1968, he was draft eligible, but decided to go to graduate school anyway and was awarded the prestigious Woodrow Wilson fellowship. Shortly thereafter, he received a letter from another fellow urging him to resist the draft, which prompted Sam to call his parents to declare he would resist the draft and go to prison if necessary. “I think I acted compulsively, and then had to live with the consequences.”
Two books influenced his decision, John Kennedy’s Profile in Courage, and the German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's 1932 Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. “I was raised Christian in the protestant tradition of expressing one’s personal moral views being important.”
However, by the time he received his induction notice, Sam was reluctant to go to prison. He went to his physical outside of Detroit.
Samuel Yamashita is the Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History at Pomona College, where he has taught since 1983. He recently published Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 1940-1945, a study of the impact that the Asia-Pacific War had on ordinary Japanese.
While on a student deferment studying in Canada, Bill became a landed immigrant.
Bill was grew up in a conservative family in the conservation state, Nebraska. To pay for college, he accepted a ROTC scholarship in 1967, requiring him to join the army. While in ROTC training, he was exposed for the first time to critics of U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War. Bill ended up agreeing with the critics, “If your ability to survive isn’t being threaten by some other nation, it’s an immoral war.”
His ROTC training, though, gave him an insight into what motivates a soldier. “My experience in that short time was that you end up feeling this incredible sense of bonding with people you share pain with and that in the end overcomes apple pie, motherhood, and love of country.”
Over the objections of his parents, Bill resigned from the army, gave up his ROTC scholarship, and declined financial help from his parents. To pay for college, Bill joined the Ironworkers union, but was seriously injured. While recovering he figured out Canadian higher education was affordable so transferred to McGill University in Montreal. After two years, Bill quit school and officially immigrated to Canada, but returned to the states when his marriage broke up.
The experience with the draft had a lasting affect on Bill. He expressed a commonly sentiment that, “I felt the people who were ostensibly my people who should have been taking care of me weren’t. They failed me and all of my colleagues.” Bill’s alienation from American culture left him with no desire to politically fight to end the war. “I really didn’t think of myself as having a role in the community; I just wanted to get out of the way.”
Today, Bill is fully engaged in his community and politics. He worked building community at a local vibrant community center for 7 years until retirement, resides in a shared group home he intentionally designed for group living, and has been at the center of grassroots politics for decades.
After losing his student deferment, Karl enlisted in the Coast Guard.
When his working-class dad was out of work for over a year recovering from a car accident, Karl dropped out of college and got a job at a plywood factory . By doing so, he lost his student deferment, a risky status in 1966 when you did not want to fight in Vietnam. Karl's reason for opposing the war was straightforward, “I didn’t want to kill someone over whose political system was better.”
Karl knew he had to figure out something and fast. He rejected “running off” to Canada, whose border was only 2 hours away. After talking with a neighbor who served in the Coast Guard during WWII, Karl decided that joining the Coast Guard was his best option. “I lucked out and got in right as a lot of other guys were trying to do the same thing.” None too soon. He was in training at Coast Guard boot camp in California when his draft notice arrived in his mailbox back home.
Karl is a retired telecommunications engineer, dividing his time between Seattle and Phoenix.
Kathy lived “on-the-run” with her baby and husband for over a year until her husband’s draft board lost track of him.
Kathy did not think much about politics when she moved to Seattle after a brief stint at community college in Spokane where she was raised. She got a well paying job at a Seattle newspaper, lived cheaply in a large group shared home, and saved her money.
As the sole female in a communal household, Kathy was confronted with the effects of the draft on her housemates and soaked up their critiques against the war until she too opposed the war. Kathy even repeatedly marched against the war until she got pregnant. Now with a husband at risk of being drafted, Kathy no longer viewed the draft as “a guy thing”.
After weighing their options including going to Canada, they decided to move every time her husband received a letter from the draft board. Several factors worked in their favor. Landlords didn’t require background checks, and rent was cheap. They used their savings to pay cash for rent. By the time her husband’s lottery number was being called up in 1969, fewer men were being draft and the system to enforce draft laws was clogged with millions of other draft evaders.
At the time it was clear to Kathy that the draft was unfair to less privileged. “Poor people, people who didn’t go to college or weren’t aware of their options were affected much more than your middle-class or upper-class kid who went right to college or maybe who had people who could pull strings.”
Kathy is a retired college counselor living in Seattle.