Draft Resistance in the Vietnam Era

Some Different Reasons Men Resisted

In the first half of the 20th century, anti-war activists were concerned primarily with the abolition of war. It was very hard to be a war resister in the early part of this century. Most of society mocked and ridiculed anyone who didn't want to go off and fight. The courts were very harsh on men convicted of draft evasion, and often sentenced them to very long (sometimes "life") prison sentences.

While the reasons for being "anti-war" were mostly religious during the First and Second World Wars, in the 1960's, the reasons given by young men who were resisting the draft included not only religious beliefs but ethical considerations as well.

Consider the example of two New York City men: Paul Carling, 20 years old, a practicing Roman Catholic; and Ben Koenig, 24 years old, a nonpracticing Jew. Both applied for CO, but were turned down, and then appealed. Paul's reason was: "I believe in a personal God and Father of man and His Son Jesus Christ who by becoming man made brothers of all men." Ben's reason was: "My belief is wholly my own," he informed his board. "It is my credo and my religion. I will not kill." In previous wars, most of the resistance was made up of men who were opposed to war for religious reasons. However, in the Vietnam war, the number of men who resisted on moral grounds exceeded the number of men with religious objections.

Robert Smith, who (in 1994) works for the Brandwine Peace Community, was a draft resister in the late 60's. He turned 18 in 1968, and registered as required by law. When his draft card came a few weeks later, he returned it to the Selective Service. This illegal act might have caused him to be arrested, but before he could be indicted for non-cooperation, the lottery was instituted, and his number was high, so he was not called for service. According to Mr. Smith, for most resisters, the Vietnam war did seem different from past wars. "The U.S. was the aggressor."

Mr. Smith also commented that the Vietnam war utterly failed the "Just War Theory" as set out by St. Augustine. There are ten points, all of which must be met if a war is to be considered "just." The conditions are variously stated, but could be summarized as:

    1. Gross injustice by one party
    2. Gross formal moral guilt on one side
    3. Undoubted knowledge of this guilt
    4. Don't declare war until all else has failed
    5. A proportionality between punishment and guilt
    6. Moral certainty that justice will win
    7. Intention to further good and avoid evil
    8. Means employed kept within limits of justice and love
    9. Respect for rights of neutral parties
   10. Legitimate authority declares war in the name of God
So, for many young men, the war in Vietnam was morally bankrupt, and totally indefensible. To them, the U.S. was the "bully," and it became a moral or religious necessity that they confront the military war machine.

Whereas in past US wars, the main reason for not joining the army was "to end war," the Vietnam era saw many diverse reasons for avoiding or even actively resisting the Selective Service. In the first section, we saw how the number of resisters to the Vietnam war was huge when compared with prior U.S. wars. Next, we took a look at the types of draft avoidance that were popular in the 60's. In this final section we examined some of the reasons for draft resistance. Each of the three sections began with a look back at the first half of the century to see how these issues played out during the First and Second World Wars. The sections each ended with a look how the Vietnam era compared to WW I and WW II.

You may now go back to the Introduction, or continue on to the Conculsion.