The Moral Case for Draft Resistance

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On Monday, Oct. 16, 1967, Americans gathered by the thousands in cities and on campuses all over the country for the first “Stop the Draft” week. On the steps of federal buildings, city halls and university buildings, hundreds of young men protested the Vietnam War by turning in their draft cards — a national act of civil disobedience.

In Boston, draft resisters assembled in the historic Arlington Street Church and turned in their cards in what seemed like a sacramental rite. They moved solemnly up the aisle, some in tears, and deposited their draft cards in offering plates. Others burned their cards in the flame of a candle held by a candlestick once owned by the abolitionist preacher William Ellery Channing.

Reflecting on the moment when he turned in his draft card, James Oestereich, a seminarian in Boston, said, “It’s hard” to confront one’s government during wartime. “We know how to pay our taxes … but we don’t know how to oppose our government in a way that’s responsible and that will be listened to.”

In the national memory of the Vietnam War, anyone who violated draft laws is typically seen as selfish, cowardly and unpatriotic. It was one thing for civil rights activists to confront the government by breaking the law; by 1967, many of them were regarded as among the nation’s finest citizens. But if a citizen defied the draft laws to take a similar stand, few saw it as the resisters did: as a desperate appeal to the nation’s highest ideals.

Certainly, President Lyndon Johnson did not understand. When draft resisters showed up in Washington on Oct. 20 with nearly 1,000 draft cards collected from all over the country and turned them in at the Justice Department, he was furious. Johnson raged privately about whomever “the dumb sonofabitch was who would let somebody leave a bunch of draft cards in front of the Justice Department and then let them just walk away,” and ordered the attorney general, the F.B.I. and the Selective Service to investigate.

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