Fifty Years of Resistance

Photograph Source: University of San Diego – Public Domain

If only for a short time, the forces of good and evil and all of the shades in between came together. The protester and Yippie cofounder Abbie Hoffman was right about symbolically jumping on the Earth in the 1960s and the Earth jumping back in answer and that it would never happen again. The epoch of the great changes is now so far behind that even a distant look over a person’s shoulder can’t exactly bring it back again the way it really was. We were there as a segment of the generation of baby boomers when all of the forces coalesced and for the briefest of moments we made a difference. Many in the generation of baby boomers knew the distinction between a just war and a just cause in war and the wars in Southeast Asia were neither.

July 2023 will mark 50 years since my arrest by the FBI for my resistance to the Vietnam War. A search of the Internet yields the result of the first attempt to have the record of my arrest expunged. Yet no record exists of the successful expungement of the FBI arrest record. If a search is completed today, the unsuccessful attempt with its pejorative description of my military status in 1973 remains. It’s like an endless, though pretty much ineffective, reminder of all of the horror and negativity of those days, except for the resistance. The issue of two attempts at appealing for an expungement of my record was stymied by incorrect advice about what federal court jurisdiction in which to file the case, which is not the fault of the government. As a former chaplain at Brown University observed: “I can’t believe this is still going on.” Once the government has a hold on a person, it generally won’t let go.

When I think of the face of resistance today, I lament, but realize the environment for protest today is so much different from that of the late 1960s through the early 1970s. When a few thousand people showed up at the Rage Against the War Machine protest and rally in Washington, D.C. on February 19, 2023, I thought how about 10,000 protested at the state capitol in Providence, Rhode Island on October 15, 1969, as part of the moratorium against the Vietnam War. Trying to hold the two eras in my mind simultaneously reminds me of the character Dorothy’s observation in the Wizard of Oz: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” One month later, I would be in basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and a massive second demonstration against the Vietnam War took place in Washington, D.C. It was painful not to be part of that protest. It was more devastating to be part of the military in which I did not belong.

Besides the moral underpinnings of war resistance during the war in Southeast Asia, there was the element of self-interest. Millions of students and others were opposed to the war for a myriad of reasons, self-preservation being one of them, and it was fashionable for the generation of baby boomers to oppose war for reasons ranging from idealism, to a revulsion of war, to survival. Many without economic means weren’t as fortunate. For students coming of age in the 1960s, following the staid 1950s, protest for some was natural. Many were acquainted with Students for a Democratic Society’s “Port Huron Statement,” a testament to a newer world of individual and group human development and a world of cooperation. No matter the criticisms of that writing, it was still a beginning point from which to seek a more just world that the Vietnam War would soon leave in the dustbin of history. Seeking a newer world was possible for many who came from comfort. Many others, not from materially comfortable backgrounds, also resisted.

Having taken part in revolutionary times and becoming a war resister during the Vietnam War was remarkable. There were masses of others doing similar acts of resistance to both the military draft and the military itself, probably hastening the end of that war. The resistance made the antiwar slogan “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came,” meaning on the ground. Protest in the streets became irresistible and a foil to Richard Nixon, who hated both protest and protesters. He was the consummate anticommunist and conducted the war in Southeast Asia with a viciousness difficult to describe. His favorite means of war was from the sky with masses of bombs and bomblets frequently dropped on civilians, with napalm and agent orange augmenting that carnage. Not only a projection of power around the world, but a bulwark against communism was the order of the day and part of the old order that would take on different causes as the decades after the Vietnam War passed. The objects of US militarism weren’t all that remarkable, but it was the continuation of empire and its violent dictates.

I came to antiwar activism and protest on the low road of dissent. Providence College in Rhode Island is where I was an ROTC cadet during my first two years there. I was pretty much like my friends at school, a product of the 1950s and early 1960s, albeit for one major difference that set me on a course of later protest.

My family owned a small coffee shop/lunch shop in a small Rhode Island town, and as my mother became increasingly antiwar, heated debates often took place over the counter there. She began writing letters and commentary against the war in the state’s major newspaper, the Providence Journal, and the heat and reaction against her rose. My family was known in the community, so they were spared the retribution that often comes with challenging the status quo.

In one particular interview that a local newspaper conducted with my mother, along with a supporter of the war, the reporter asked my opinion of the war. I noted my opposition to the war, but said I would go into the military if drafted.

My college campus had a vibrant antiwar group that I joined soon after the article, but the campus chaplain did not counsel students about the draft and the military and he sent me to the chaplain’s office at nearby Brown University where a vibrant draft counseling center operated. Years later, when I applied for amnesty as a war resister through Jimmy Carter’s amnesty program, the chaplain at my alma mater would write a letter to support my effort.

At the Brown chaplain’s office, the draft counselor told me I would never be a candidate for conscientious objector status because of my religious affiliation. He said the draft board in my town would come after me with issues about the support of Israel by Jews, which, looking backwards, seems like a ridiculous argument, but today is not over 50 years ago.

I ultimately took a spot in a so-called safe National Guard unit that had just returned from Vietnam. The military would not consider a bona fide physical issue I had and I was off to basic and advanced training in Georgia, which I took to much like a fish out of water. The racism toward the Vietnamese people during training was everywhere at Fort Gordon.

I did not belong in the military and as the details of the My Lai massacre, one of many massacres by the US in Vietnam, and the Kent State massacre of protesting students in Ohio in 1970, my resistance to that war and the military hardened. I stopped going to monthly meetings at a military unit to which I had transferred after moving to New York City in order to attend graduate school. The military ordered me to active duty following a legal battle over my status that called into question my ability to be in the military based on mental health issues. The lawyer who represented me refused to include issues of conscience in my appeal to the order to report for active duty. Two years later, I was arrested by the FBI and sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey to be processed along with hundreds of others who had resisted the military for many reasons. I received a so-called “bad” discharge and appealed it, but would not receive relief from the government until Jimmy Carter’s amnesty. An earlier so-called amnesty by Gerald Ford was so vindictive to both draft and military resisters that few applied for relief. Recall that Ford had granted the warmonger Nixon a full pardon for crimes committed by him while president.

Researching the primary documents in my case while writing my memoir (Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister, revised 2022), a relative, a cousin, most likely called the FBI to turn me in. No other evidence exists about why the FBI suddenly found me.

The years and decades that followed the Vietnam War, and the larger war in Southeast Asia, saw me maintain my opposition to war. I remained on the streets for every war in which the US took part beginning with the wars in Central America. Antiwar protest became difficult following the attacks of September 2001, but there was an uptick in antiwar protest as the US readied itself to fight a useless and immoral preemptive war in Iraq for regime change in 2003. The same motivation would involve the US in Libya.

By the time of Barack Obama’s so-called troop surge in Afghanistan, the antiwar movement largely disappeared from the streets, as many saw Obama in only a positive light and did not believe his actions merited protest.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, antiwar protest was very much muted and the incessant beating of the drums of war by the Biden administration and the mass media further took any significant organizing for protest away. The magnitude of the pro-war bent of the media across the West for war is remarkable even in the face of the potential for nuclear war.

There is complete denial in the US media about some of the other effects of war and a global economy. The New York Times carried an investigative piece on February 25, 2023, “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.” While superior in recounting the exploitation of children, mostly coming from Central America and unaccompanied, the effects of a brutal capitalist system and wars dating back to the 1980s, driven by the US, are at the heart of that exploitation, but that would never be admitted in the US mass media.

I look back over the decades of protest now and lament how protest has lessened in the face of the demands and propaganda of empire and the economic issues driving war and the arms industry. The US stands with some of its allies in a world moving toward a multipolar universe with its massive global military presence. I don’t see any silver lining in this, but I remain proud of my years of protest and my antipathy toward all wars, but I sorely miss the camaraderie and politics of the New Left. I can’t imagine anything better than being on the front lines in seeking a newer world.

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