Memoir Set in Vietnam Era Offers Inside History of Anti-War Organizing

Learning From the Sixties(Image: Charles Street Press)Excerpted from:
Learning From the Sixties: Memoir of an Organizer
John Maher
Charles Street Press
Boston, 2011

Based on the success of “Vietnam Summer” (1967), I knew that public opinion was turning against the Vietnam war. I was convinced that the ultimate success of the anti-war movement depended on its support in working-class and minority communities, where the war hit hardest in terms of its economic consequences, lives disrupted, and lives lost. In twelve months spanning 1965-66, 85 percent of all men drafted had a high-school education or less. I joined the Boston Draft Resistance Group, a disciplined and creative effort to build the anti-war movement in working-class and minority communities, and to help young men from these vulnerable communities stay out of the army and out of jail. Our draft counseling leveled the playing field and reduced the gap in risk between upper- and middle-class guys, who were almost never drafted, and low-income and working-class guys, who often were. In the end, however, not everyone could qualify for a legal deferment. For those who didn’t qualify for legal deferments but were strongly opposed to the war, I was the counselor of last resort. The program I helped run was known as the “horror show.” The following is an excerpt from my book, “Learning from the Sixties: Memoir of an Organizer.”

The Horror Show 1967

My brother Albert’s experience had first suggested to me how a “horror show” might work. Because he had gone to Cuba in violation of the state department’s travel ban, he was targeted by the Selective Service System for immediate induction. When he reported for his pre-induction physical in Puerto Rico, they asked him if he was going to refuse induction into the army, certain to mean jail time in federal prison. “Hell no,” he replied. “I want to serve in the army, to learn how to shoot a gun and blow up bridges so I can fight the bad people who are trying to take over the country.”

When he wouldn’t leave, they threw him out. Several months later, he received notice of his “1Y” deferment, and never heard from the Selective Service System again.

The army was prepared to make some hard choices. Individual nonconformists or “fuck-ups” could be isolated and broken in basic training. But a man who appeared to be an organizer, a person who could build a group on the inside to challenge the legitimacy of the army and the war, was dangerous to them and had to be kept out….

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I felt Herb could pull off a horror show. When he decided to do it, we sat down and wrote a flyer that expressed in his words his reasons for opposing the war. We also outlined and practiced the speech he would use at the army base. Besides helping him prepare beforehand, my role was to go with him to the draft board, pass out his flyer, line up support on the bus, work up the crowd at the army base when he started his speech, and then use the chaos and confusion as cover to get the hell out before they arrested me.

The day of the pre-induction physical there was no problem getting inside the local draft board office. I wore a watch cap to cover my thinning hair, to help me pass for a pre-inductee. Getting on the bus, however, was always something of a challenge. The day’s catch of potential draftees sat on benches in the office as the clerk called the roll. I knew that there would always be “no shows.” The trick for me was to wait just long enough after a name was called to make sure he wasn’t there, then take his name and place on the bus. When I said yes to “O’Leary,” for example, there would be some snickers of surprise from the other registrants – they had gone to high school with “O’Leary” and knew that I wasn’t he.

Once on the bus, the real work began – talking to the other registrants about the war and lining up their support for the coming action. Sometimes a person unknown to us before wanted a piece of the action, volunteering to play a role in disrupting the process, gambling that he too might be forbidden to join the army because of his bad attitude.

Horror shows developed more or less like this. When we arrived at the Boston army base, we would file quietly off the bus so as not to give the game away. The army viewed the first roll call and orientation at the pre-induction physical as crucial to socializing the draftees

The attitudes of the pre-inductees toward military life will be influenced by the manner in which they are treated during pre-induction processing. All phases of pre-induction processing will be conducted in a dignified and professional manner. (U.S. Army Regulations 601-270, ch.2, p. 2, cited in Thorne, p. 241)

I hadn’t yet read the regulations but I knew that during the roll call we had to hit them hard and disrupt their “process.” I would start the leafleting, while the person I had come with talked to the other pre-inductees who had come on different buses. When the sergeant began his roll call and orientation the potential draftee I had worked with would step forward and say something like the following:

“Before I go in the Army I want to know why we are in Vietnam. If we’re there to protect freedom why…”

“You can’t do that! Be quiet while the roll is called,” the sergeant would interrupt.

“Let him speak! Let him speak!” several other inductees would holler.

“And after he finishes speaking I have some things to say,” says the back up we had met on the bus.

“You can be court-martialed for this,” the sergeant threatened.

“The hell we can. We’re not in the army yet,” says my guy, letting the sergeant have it.

“Then shut up before I break your goddamn neck!” the sergeant might scream, blowing his cool.

“Try it, you fat-assed motherfucker!” says the backup, seeing the sergeant had lost control.

Once the “horror show” was going good, and I snuck out through the huge, empty warehouse next door, Herb got the letter he was looking for, barring him from the Army, and I think the backup did too…. Guerrilla tactics rely on popular support. The “horror show” depended for its success on the others on the bus headed for the Boston army base. Their attitude ranged from sympathetic neutrality to enthusiastic participation. They knew I was an infiltrator, but no one ever reported me to the officials of the draft board. No one ever sided with the officers during the “horror show” at the base. By late 1967 the working-class draftees from the Greater Boston area, though for the most part not yet ready for public protest, no longer supported the war.

The Boston Draft Resistance Group was a remarkable organization. Staff and volunteers became professionals committed to laying out the options and supporting as best we could the decisions of each potential draftee we met. The BDRG was also a remarkable community. The work could be heartbreaking. Sometimes guys lost their nerve and let themselves be drafted when they needn’t have been. We mourned with the communities where we were working the predictable casualties of the war. We took risks all the time at the early morning [drills] and horror shows. The young men we were reaching out to had to trust us, and we had to trust each other.