More photos in gallery below article.
Stories from the Vietnam War, told by the people who experienced it
“What I Saw at the Draft Card Burning” *
I was in high school when I took the above photograph in the spring of 1967 in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, during a draft resistance event. April 15, to be precise, the day Lyndon Johnson’s war met its match: the antiwar movement on the home front, which came into its own 50 years ago this spring and summer, moving from the margins to center stage in the national debate.
Word of mouth was our social media, friends calling friends, or listening to Bob Fass’s “Radio Unnamable,” or seeing a flyer slapped over a subway ad. Something of that sort — I can’t remember exactly what — brought me to the staging grounds in Central Park that day for an enormous antiwar march organized by the Mobilization Committee to Stop the War, which proceeded down Fifth Avenue to United Nations Plaza, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the keynote speech linking the civil rights and antiwar movements into a combined struggle.
The lowest estimate was 125,000 people, which was already many times higher than any demonstration of the previous year; the highest estimate was 400,000. Everyone was in high spirits, too, despite the chilly gray day. I had my camera, and took photo after photo.
While waiting for the march to begin I decided to check out the southeastern end of the meadow, where rumor had it a draft card burning would be staged by a different group piggybacking on the main event. And so there was.
I watched as a young man with blond hair took a lighter to his card. I aimed my camera. With the first click of the shutter, my teenage antipathy toward Johnson’s war and all things authoritarian solidified into a firm resolve not to go, if and when my turn came.
Though still a symbolic act, what that sandy-haired guy in the photo did was important: He crossed the line from protest to flat out defiance of the military and the president, who had recently pushed through legislation making it a crime to burn a draft card. Wave a sign in a demonstration and afterward you could go back to class or work. Not after this. He knew the consequences: either wait to be arrested, go underground or to Canada, if you could make it across the border. And yet, he did it. That took guts.
At first it was a restrained and dignified ceremony; most of the participants wore jackets and ties and burned their cards individually or in small groups. It was eerily quiet. In a way, this was an initiation ceremony, the resisters choosing an alternate rite of passage to manhood, having rejected the traditional one provided by the military because of their opposition to an illegal and immoral war. In effect their stand affirmed a basic tenet of democracy, the legitimacy of the government rests upon the consent of the governed. And they did not give it.
Somebody had forgotten to bring an urn. (How’s that for a classic example of the left’s notorious lack of acumen for detail organizing?) Finally, a red-faced organizer returned out of breath with a Maxwell House coffee can found in a park trash can. A sign was lifted high: “Draft Card Burning Here.” So, it began. I barely had time to shoot half a roll before all hell broke loose.
Far more young men than anyone expected converged on the can, eager to toss in their cards before they flamed out. Supporters who were there to protect the “burners” inadvertently added to the crush. Press photographers and newsreel camera teams swarmed in, jockeying for position, and then, suddenly making their move, undercover police and F.B.I. agents snapping photos for their files muscled their way forward Two fedora bedecked heavies took an instant disliking to me. “Scram, kid!” one yelled. (Actually, they used far more colorful language.) When I didn’t, they stomped on my feet, elbowed me in the ribs and shoved me out.
I jumped back in as the battle pinwheeled down the slope to pick up even more people in the meadow. Nothing was going to stop the resisters from completing their mission.
Over the summer and fall there would be more draft resistance events, such as mailing in draft cards to induction centers, and more large-scale antiwar demonstrations. But that spring day in April 1967 marked the first time the dissenters could no longer be ignored by the administration, nor marginalized with confidence, nor dismissed as a redoubt of malcontents, commies and elitists on a few college campuses.
* This is the editor’s title. My preferred title is: ‘This Is Why There Is An All-Volunteer Army’.
** The long version of this article, which did not appear as the published version in ‘Vietnam ’67’, continued with a section bringing the issue of the draft up to the present:
. . . commies and elitists on a few college campuses. Too many people were protesting from all walks of life. Too many young men expected to serve were willing to sacrifice everything by torching their draft cards. The word was out, the die had been cast: LBJ’s war was doomed. He had lost the youth; they didn’t buy the lie.
Which is perhaps why ever since the Pentagon has relied on the all volunteer army.
And yet, today the temptation may be strong in the halls of power to ignore the lessons of the past and go for another round of forced conscription. Even without a hot war flaring up, simply maintaining an ever expanding network of bases around the globe is a tall order for an all volunteer force to fulfill. Thus far, the lukewarm drip drip drip of drone and special forces strikes has gone on without creating a need for a supplemental draft, either. (Small comfort, that.) But considering the current occupant of the White House’s volatile and capricious personality . . . Well, let’s not go there.
In short, do think twice; don’t do it twice. The result may be the same.
— Steve Fine reported to his Army induction center in the fall of 1971 when his student deferment ran out. He was not drafted. He is now a writer and photographer in Los Angeles.
The New York Times
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
All images copyright Ⓒ Steve Fine