President Lyndon B. Johnson made the fateful decision early in 1965 to expand the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. First he ordered the bombing of North Vietnam. Later in the year Johnson sent more than 180,000 American ground troops to South Vietnam. This escalation of the war was met at home by a rapid rise in anti-war protests and dissent. Fifty years later, as our country begins to commemorate the 50th anniversary of those events, are we about to witness a revival of all of the old debates, acrimony and division that engulfed the homefront during those years and after the war ended?
I recently returned from a commemoration of the war and the protests it inspired, a two-day conference on “Vietnam – The War at Home” at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The conference was to observe the 50th anniversary of activism, anti-war and pro-war, at Cornell, and served as the kickoff event in Cornell’s yearlong 150th birthday celebration. The university brought back a group of former students to share our stories about campus activism, which turned Cornell into a hotbed of anti-war protest and draft resistance, and the impact it had on the rest of our lives.
Initially, the organizers invited an equal number of ’60s-era alumni who had publicly supported the war, but all of them either declined the offer or withdrew at the last minute. Perhaps the fact that many who were pro-war in 1965 or ’66 had turned against the war by 1968 or ’69 may explain this. To make for a better discussion, the organizers then recruited some Vietnam veterans among the alums, as well as the current commander of Cornell ROTC, who served in Iraq.
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Frankly, I was surprised that any of us dissenters were invited back. We had caused a certain amount of trouble at Cornell in protests against the war, the draft, military and corporate recruitment on campus, ROTC and the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory’s development of delivery systems for chemical/biological warfare.
But I also recognized the appropriateness of Cornell’s invitation. Student activists have played a significant role in the university’s history. I had been a leader in the anti-war movement and president of Cornell Students for a Democratic Society, one of the largest chapters in the largest radical organization in the country. I was also Cornell’s first draft resister and helped organize other men to resist the draft.
As a freshman, I had refused a student deferment from the draft on the grounds that such deferments were unfair to men who could not afford to go to college. As an 18-year-old sophomore, before a crowd of 300 at Cornell in December 1966, I tore up my draft card and mailed it back to my draft board along with a statement that I would no longer cooperate with the Selective Service System.
About a year later, I also refused induction into the armed services. I was eventually tried and convicted in federal District Court in Syracuse, N.Y., of destroying my draft card. I never graduated from Cornell, having taken a leave of absence to work full time in the anti-war movement. When I finally left Ithaca, it was to begin what turned out to be a 19-month stay in a federal prison in Ashland, Ky.
I never returned to Cornell to finish my college education. Instead, when I was paroled from prison, I moved to California, where I resumed my anti-war activities, received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a master’s in American history from Stanford and began a 30-year career in journalism.
The conference was not my first return visit to Ithaca. I had spent a few days at Cornell four years ago doing research for a book I wrote, “Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison During the Vietnam War,” which was published earlier this year by Cornell University Press.
It was great to connect with old friends from the anti-war movement, many of whom I had not seen since 1969, and to talk with current Cornell students in five different classes and forums. I learned a lot, even from old friends with whom I’ve stayed in contact. One friend, now a physician, told me for the first time that her brother had been a Navy medic who was shot and seriously wounded during his third month in Vietnam, and later joined veterans’ peace groups when he returned home.
The highlight of the conference for me was a public “teach-in,” in which all of the attendees and members of the audience could talk about the war in Vietnam.
I was moved by many of the speakers. A retired professor honored two people from Cornell who influenced him the most – Father Daniel Berrigan, the radical Catholic priest who went to prison for destroying draft files, and a brilliant student of his who joined the Army and was sent to Vietnam, where he stepped on a land mine and was killed.
One of the Vietnam vets recalled with fondness the work he did among South Vietnamese civilians. Another talked about the horrors of the fighting he witnessed – his last words to the audience, “It was a terrible war,” were unforgettable.
A much younger vet talked about how the Army helped him deal with a variety of health problems he faced after he returned from Iraq. The ROTC commander emphasized how he respected all sides at the teach-in – both those who served in Vietnam and those who protested U.S. involvement.
As for me, I bemoaned the loss of more than 58,000 American soldiers and nearly 4 million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers in the war. I discussed my opposition to the intervention of my country on behalf of military dictatorships in South Vietnam against the Ho Chi Minh-led forces of communists, nationalists, Buddhists and others who had already resisted the colonial rule of the French and the Japanese occupiers during World War II.
I talked about the soldiers who returned home and joined the anti-war movement, and how a majority of Americans eventually turned against the war. I offered my respect for the courage of the GIs who fought in Vietnam and condemned the shabby treatment they received when they came back – not from the anti-war movement but from their own government, which for too long ignored and denied their suffering from post-traumatic stress and from the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant. And I sharply criticized the war policies of Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon, the military brass who defined success on the battlefield in terms of “body counts” and men of my generation who supported the war but clung to their student deferments while other young men were drafted.
From the audience rose a man who identified himself as a Cornell laborer and Vietnam vet. He talked about wearing on his combat helmet a peace symbol and a slogan which can’t be repeated in a family newspaper. He thanked those of us in the anti-war movement for trying to stop what he described as “the madness.”
As we all began to file out of the auditorium at the end of the teach-in, a man came up to me. He said he was an attorney, now retired, who knew Edmund Port, the U.S. District Court judge who tried and sentenced me. He recounted a conversation he had with Judge Port (now deceased) in the late 1980s, 20 years after Port sent me to prison. They were discussing my case, the first involving draft resistance in upstate New York, when Port said: “You know, I now think that Dancis was right.”
I don’t regret my actions in opposing a war I considered immoral, illegal and unjust. I don’t regret spending 19 months in prison. But I do regret that the anti-war movement failed to stop the war in the 1960s, and that it dragged on well into the next decade.
It was a terrible war. Maybe, after all these years, that is something most Americans can agree upon.
Bruce Dancis is a former entertainment editor at The Bee.