Burning Draft Cards

From the November 19, 1965 Issue

Seldom does there occur a liturgical ceremony more impressive than the draft-card burning which took place in Manhattan's Union Square November 6. Through the opening poems chanted by the only bearded speaker of the day, through the homilies delivered by A. J. Muste and Dorothy Day, through the ritual destruction of the cards, through the closing hymn—"We shall overcome"—there ran a quality so frequently missing in the sacred acts of the Church. Here was an act with consequences; not another manifesto, but a commitment backed by the willingness to risk five years of personal freedom.

Impressive, too, was the audience—dare we say congregation? The 1500 people present in support of the card burners were not merely restrained, they were reverent. The formal, serious nature of the event was dear; and applause, not cheering, was the crowd's sign of approval. Hecklers here and there who greeted each participant with shouts of "Red stooge" and "traitor" were simply requested to "please, keep silent" by young men and women wearing tags saying "Practice Nonviolence." The chairman invited the hecklers to choose a spokesman to present opposing views; and when the spokesman took the microphone to charge that this was "obviously a Communist-inspired meeting," only a few boos, some laughter, and much silence resulted. Even this gentleman's wild assertions were submerged in a mood not of militancy but of compassion for all entangled in the mess in Vietnam—American soldiers and their families as well as Vietnamese women and children.

Compassion did not trouble a contingent of counter-demonstrators. From across the street and behind police lines, they carried signs with messages like "Burn Yourself Instead of Your Card'' and tried to drown out the speakers with chants of "Drop dead, Red." Was it from hardness of head, heart, or hearing—or simply from habit—that they even booed their own spokesman? Following the ceremony, and ignored by police and unobserved (or unreported) by most of the press, they marched through the neighboring streets. Up Madison to 18th and over to 5th—where they set upon two young men wearing "Practice Nonviolence" tags, and began beating them. Down 5th Avenue and then back to Union Square—repeating again and again their eerie chant: "Give us joy, bomb Hanoi! Give us joy, bomb Hanoi!" When finally a policeman appeared, they raised a new cry, "Support your local police!"

It was a day of contrasts and paradoxes. We have expressed our doubts about the necessity of illegal protests against the war in Vietnam; and presumably burning draft cards falls into that category, though hardly in the same way as draft-dodging or interfering with troop trains. Yet has an illegal act ever been so close to legality—scheduled and performed before an orderly and respectful audience in a public park, with municipal permission and protected by hundreds of policemen?

The presence of those hundreds of policemen was another contrast. They were a grim reminder that the day of nonviolence preached from the platform is not yet. True, American dedication to the rights of free speech and assembly, without which not even an army of police would be of help, made possible the Union Square gathering. Nevertheless, there remains the ironic (but important) lesson that at the periphery of that dedication, in the form of the young hecklers, it required controlled force, in the form of the police, to assure that the advocacy of nonviolence would be heard.

And the day's other lessons?

In the statements made by the five young men who burned their draft cards, two points were repeated again and again. First, the war in Vietnam is immoral. Second, no individual can surrender his moral judgment to any government, no matter how imposing or even dear to him that government may be.

On the first of these points, we cannot associate ourselves with the witness of these protesters. What does their brave act say about the moral aspect of the war in Vietnam? It is extremely difficult to tell. As pacifists they are opposed to all wars and all violence, and we cannot imagine a war they would not feel obligated to denounce, should the opportunity present itself, with the same symbolic force they employed in Union Square. Since they disapprove of all wars, what particular light does their disapproval of this one shed?

Our own pronouncements on Vietnam have been uneasy and hesitant. Of this we are not ashamed; the situation provides little alternative. If intervention and the employment of force were a moral question while non-intervention and withdrawal only a question of real­politik and national convenience, the issue would be considerably simpler. But one can sin by omission as well as commission; the option of not employing force is also a moral question. Nor are any of the issues raised by the Vietnamese conflict—from the protection of those who have fled to the South to the containment of Red Chinese expansion—without their moral over­ tones. In every case, the horrible ambiguities must be faced and balanced, working all the while in the nearly paralyzing knowledge that at stake are lives, of men, of women, of small children, whose value is incalculable. In every case, the U.S. could possibly be culpable by not acting as well as by acting. Those who have, a priori, decided we can sin only by acting must be respected; but their decision does not help us much.

Where the witness of the five men does help is in their insistence upon moral judgment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, not the government, not circumstances, not "credibility" nor the necessity of "honoring our commitments" nor "national interest" can release the individual from making a conscientious judgment on the particular events occurring in Vietnam. Every responsible citizen, and in particular every draftable male, must make this judgment today. Nor can he even make it once and for all; should circumstances change, he must be ready to reverse his position tomorrow.

The fact that this moral judgment may be complex and qualified does not mean that it should not be made at all. The forms of support for the war in Vietnam, the methods of opposition, degradations of conscientious objection may not be as refined as we wish; and there is always the danger that the necessary momentum of public agitation will narrow them further. Nevertheless, alternative actions do exist, from writing Congressmen to marching in the streets, from protesting particular actions to protesting the war, from encouraging negotiations to demanding withdrawal, from requesting non-combatant military service to refusing cooperation with the conscription system. The entirely illegitimate alternative is to let it all pass by, to deny any responsibility, to surrender one's conscience.

Ultimately, one must judge a cause by its inherent significance and not by the character of those who espouse it. We are grieved by the actions which Norman Morrison and Roger LaPorte took to protest the Vietnamese war. There may have been demonstrations supporting U.S. policy as reverent and impressive as the one in Union Square protesting it. There certainly have been anti-war agitators as vicious as the pro-war ones on November 6. But we fear that the moral responsibility shown by the five men who burned their draft cards is being forgotten in the growing movement "to honor our boys" and to prove our loyalty. We also fear that the war-lust of the counter-demonstrators could become the mood of the nation. If that were to occur, all is lost not in Vietnam but in America.

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