David Harris, Presente!

David Harris is a hero, and he is one of my heroes. While this may sound maudlin to some, it was David Harris who was there at the beginning of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War and who preceded that era with his work in the civil rights movement in the US South.  David Harris remains true to the high principles that motivated so many.

What made Harris such a significant figure during those epoch periods in US and world history, those days of great change, was his willingness to take risks and pay a price for his acts of conscience. Another hero of the antiwar movement and counterculture movement, Abbie Hoffman, once said that the duty of the revolutionary is to get away with it. I am in no position to make any judgements about Hoffman’s point of view, but he also suffered from the consequences of taking on an imperial system during a time of war. Sometimes a person can’t get away with it and this society exacts a price that is paid.

David Harris was there for those who needed a hero to look up to during those days of revolt. He refused to take part in the militarism of the Vietnam era and paid a very significant price. He was locked up for 20 months for his refusal to go along with the immorality of the war. Those in power don’t like protest that draws the curtain away and exposes the wizards and their lies.

Others come to mind like Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of the Plowshares movement such as brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman are also among the pantheon of the great who took, and continue to take, such great risks to their personal safety in the hope of a better world.

Because Vietnam-era war resisters were so effective in ending the Vietnam War through their protest, the revisionists cannot stop their efforts to rewrite the history of that hideous war and the history of protest. Here is one example of that revisionism from a recent article about David Harris:

The movement was “radical and irreverent and had a ‘negative follower’ effect, which occurs when someone behaves so odiously toward a certain party that he stirs sympathy for that party in onlookers,” Garfinkle contends. “Normal Americans hated the dirt, filth, and language [of the antiwar movement] more than what was going on in Vietnam. It boomeranged and lent more support to the war policy. As the antiwar movement became more mainstream, it slowed the war, but was counterproductive. It made it easier for the Johnson administration [to continue the war], and it resulted in getting more people killed” (“David Harris Might Be Dying, but He Continues to Resist,” Alta, November 4, 2019).


How wrong! Millions of people resisted the war and stopped it. The mass killing ended!

Of David Harris’ many books and articles, three are especially important and dear to me. In Our War (1996), he writes about those who resisted from a contemporary perspective and adds to the debate about who stood up. In Goliathhe writes about his early years of activism and protest. That book gave sustenance and support to many who were at the barricades, or were soon to be there. Dreams Die Hard (1982) is an engaging assessment of the Harris’ role in the civil rights movement along with Allard Lowenstein’s, and Lowenstein’s  protege Dennis Sweeney’s, activism in the civil rights era and beyond .

Here’s David Harris in his own words about the antiwar movement and his resistance to it in “I picked Prison Over Fighting in Vietnam,” New York Times, June 23, 2017):

Growing up in Fresno, Calif., I believed in “my country, right or wrong,” just like everyone I knew. I could not have anticipated that when I came of age I would realize that my country was wrong and that I would have to do something about it. When I did, everything changed for me.

I went from Fresno High School Boy of the Year 1963, Stanford Class of 1967, to Prisoner 4697-159, C Block, maximum security, La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution, near El Paso.

I was among the quarter-million to half-million men who violated the law that required us to register for military service and face deployment to Vietnam — the draft. About 25,000 of us were indicted for our disobedience, almost 9,000 convicted and 3,250 jailed. I am proud to have been one of the men who, from behind bars, helped pull our country out of its moral quagmire.

More than 400,000 soldiers resisted in one way or another. Some who resisted did not fit a description of being antiwar. About 25,000 resisters, both draft and military, left for Canada and a few other countries. An additional 25,000 men and women accompanied a resister, which in itself is quite remarkable. Imagine that level of commitment and caring for another.

Between all classes of war resisters, draft and military, it is not difficult to comprehend how the Vietnam War could not go on. Add domestic unrest and unrest within the military, in addition to human rights violations in war, and the handwriting of the war’s end was on the wall. Civil disobedience was one way in which many protested the Vietnam War.

By the war’s end in Southeast Asia, between three to five million were dead in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Fifty-eight thousand soldiers from the US were dead. Unthinking anti-communism coupled with regime change and the lust for power had been temporarily spent. The so-called lessons of the Vietnam War were short-lived with Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush picking up where Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had begun. Their fundamental misunderstanding of Vietnam was not seeing the right under an international agreement, the Geneva Accords, for that nation to reunify.

The Vietnam era, the war, and the antiwar movement produced people of great stature. David Harris is among those who keep on going on in conceiving and carrying out the acts of a new and better world. A better choice of heroes can’t be found!

When freedom called us
Called out our names…
And the beckon of the highway
Saw through all our useless games

Jorma Kaukonen and Tom Hobson, “Song for the North Star” (1974)

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).