Draft Boards Then, Fossil Fuel Companies Now?

One of the projects I’ve taken up since retiring from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network five months ago is a book about the resistance movement against the Vietnam War in the late 60’s and early 70’s. A major focus will be on what was called the “Catholic Left,” or the “Ultra Resistance.”

Between 1967 and 1972 this wing of the peace movement was responsible for the nonviolent destruction of as many as one million individual Selective Service System files of young men between the ages of 18 and 26. We also disrupted the offices of war corporations Dow Chemical and General Electric, twice entered FBI offices late at night and once got out with FBI files that exposed Cointelpro and other repressive FBI practices, and once put out of commission hundreds of AMF bomb casings in York, Pa. scheduled to be dropped in Vietnam.

Some of the hundreds of people involved in these actions spent years in prison, although most did no prison time. Most prominent were the Catholic priests, Frs. Phil and Dan Berrigan.

The first actions, in Baltimore and Catonsville, Md. in October, ’67 and May ’68, were essentially symbolic. Groups of people went into draft boards in the middle of the day, dumping blood over them in Baltimore and burning them with homemade napalm in Catonsville. But as these actions multiplied over the next few years, they changed. Instead of daytime actions, they took place at night. And they weren’t symbolic; they were done to maximize the disruption of the draft boards’ function as the agency which forced young men to join the armed forces and go off to Vietnam. Close to 50,000 of those young men never came back.

Without the draft, the Vietnam war never would have happened.

Those who took part in this movement, of whom I was one, were motivated by deep feelings of anguished urgency. The war in Vietnam, which escalated into a war in Indochina, was wrong from day one. It was a war which was brought into American homes via television; people saw in real time what war was really like. At its high point half a million US soldiers were in Indochina. On many days the “body count” publicly and widely reported was in the hundreds, and most of those killed were innocent civilians. US soldiers were dying and being wounded in large numbers. There was a very real possibility that the war could escalate into a war with China and the then-Soviet Union. It was an extremely scary time.

Paul Couming, a young person from working-class Boston and one of the most active members, put it this way: “I remember being in jail for the Philadelphia action, and thinking that the next two years were crucial. . . I was going to put everything I had in the next two years to try to stop the war. At that point, it didn’t matter to me how many years I got in jail, or even if I got killed.” (1)

Were these actions effective? There is no question that they inspired other, less risky forms of action by other people who were also anguished and upset about the war, or who were just facing the draft. There is also no question that, for the young men whose files were destroyed, they received at least a reprieve if not a complete pass on being drafted.

An authoritative study by two senior officials of President Ford’s Clemency Board concluded that: “The activities of the Berrigans and others did not bring the war machine to a halt. But they did draw public attention to draft resistance, and heavy media exposure contributed to the grassroots, unorganized movement by more than a half-million young men who broke the law and defied their draft boards. Enormous numbers of draft-age men were refusing induction, forcing local boards to refer their cases to federal prosecutors. The courts may not have been jammed, but the prosecutors’ offices were. The draft did not collapse but it did lose much of its ability to enforce induction orders.” (2)

Then and Now

Lots of us feel the urgency of the climate crisis too, but I can’t think of one action that has taken place over the past 12 years of the climate resistance movement that has been similar to those of the Catholic Left/Ultra Resistance almost half a century ago. There have certainly been risky direct actions, lots of them, and some of us have spent time in jail, but with the notable exception of Tim DeChristopher, I don’t know of anyone who has faced or served a many-years-long prison term, and I can’t think of one action analogous to a draft board, or FBI or war corporation, nonviolent direct action.

Why is this?

–One reason could be that there is no one who has stepped forward so far to lead such an effort the way that Fr. Phil Berrigan did in the mid-60’s. Phil was a charismatic, focused, hard-working and detail-oriented leader. Jerry Elmer, a participant in the draft board raiding network, described Phil this way in his book, Felon for Peace: “Phil Berrigan was undoubtedly the most charismatic person I have ever met. He had a commanding presence that could not be fully explained either by his physical stature or his keen intellect. His power in a room was one that could never be ignored.”

–Another is that there is no draft. There is a Selective Service System, but since Vietnam the powers-that-be have chosen not to make an effort to institute a draft.

A draft affects millions of young people. It’s a direct threat. It makes a faraway war much more personally real. It provides a focus for organizing masses of people.

Climate disruption is also very real, and those who experience global-heating-fueled extreme weather events, droughts, flooding, superstorms, etc., are definitely victims of climate disruption. But the connections are not as widely understood or perceived due to the impact of continued climate denialism, the shameful, minimal-at-best mass media coverage of the connections, and the fact that extreme weather events, while more extreme and more frequent today, have been experienced by humankind for millennia.

–Then there’s the fact of computerization and electronic record-keeping. This could mean that, even if an organized group of people wanted to take an analogous action at the offices of, say, ExxonMobil or Duke Energy or Dominion Power or some other fossil fuel bad-guy, it might be both harder to get past whatever security system has been set up [though this might not always be the case] and harder to find documents whose exposure or destruction would have the desired effect. Then again, there are the actions of the internet-based electronic hacking group Anonymous to consider and possibly learn from.

-Finally, and probably most significant, there are the new forms of nonviolent resistance that have evolved since the 70’s, including:

-long-term hunger strikes, as happened last fall for 18 days in front of FERC in DC
-mass occupations of spaces—the Occupy actions in the fall of 2011 are unquestionably the best example
-risk-taking actions such as the kayaktavist flotilla and hanging-from-the-bridge brigade last summer in Seattle that kept Shell’s monstrous Arctic Ocean oil-drilling platform in the harbor for multiple days
-mass nonviolent civil disobedience over a multi-week period of time, as we saw in the summer of 2011 with 1250 people arrested protesting the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House.

All of these actions were effective. In the cases of the KXL and Shell actions, they played an essential role in the eventual complete victories won. In the cases of the FERC and Occupy actions, they have had real impacts on popular consciousness and understanding. Could the Bernie Sanders campaign even be happening if Occupy had not happened?

As the grassroots and activist wing of the climate movement continues to figure out the most effective strategies and tactics to get off fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, we should reflect upon the tactics used by the draft resistance movement, particularly the “ultra resistance” movement, in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Those tactics played an important role in the winning of peace for Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the United States many decades ago. They might do the same in our efforts for a stable climate, peace and justice in our time.

1) With Clumsy Grace, by Charles A. Meconis, p. 61

2) Ibid, p. 151, quoting from Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation

Ted Glick was active in the Vietnam War peace movement from 1968 to 1975, including three-plus years in the Catholic Left. He has been active in the climate movement since 2004. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.