David Harris at an anti-war protest at the Presidio in San Francisco, 1968. Photo by Jim Marshall, Wikimedia Commons
David Harris, who died earlier this month at his home in Mill Valley, was an enormously courageous and impactful leader of the nationwide nonviolent resistance to the Vietnam War.
Growing up in a conservative family in the California Central Valley, David Harris dreamed of becoming a West Point cadet or an FBI agent. A Varsity football player, Harris was named “boy of the year” at his Fresno High School graduation in 1963, and earned a scholarship to Stanford.
After freshman year, he went to Mississippi to join the civil rights activists in the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration campaign. Returning with a powerful sense of moral purpose, Harris found himself unable to be silent about the horrific cruelty and immorality of the Vietnam War, and the military conscription system that processed young men to kill and die there.
His first anti-war protest in March 1965 “felt like an emergence, from dark into light, from forest into clearing” (Harris, Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us, 1996).
Receiving his own draft card 1966, he mailed it back to the U.S. Selective Service with a letter informing them that he refused to serve.
“I sealed the envelope, walked down the block to the mailbox and put the envelope in. I remember that summer afternoon, the dirt of the road nearby, and I remember feeling like I could have flapped my arms and flown back to my house if I had wanted. I felt like I was my own man for the first time in my life.”
This action — writing the letter, inserting the card, dropping it in the mailbox — was one young man’s expression open refusal, direct confrontation, and personal liberation.
Harris was elected to serve as Stanford’s student body president on a platform calling for “the end of all university cooperation with the conduct of the war in Vietnam.” Before the end of the academic year, he quit office in February 1967 to focus on the national movement to end the war. Rev. Davie Napier, Stanford’s Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Religion, spoke to the Stanford Daily about Harris’s “authentic qualities of greatness.”
“How often do you see a man who, in being himself, can help you be and find yourself; in whom you are able to detect np deviousness at all; whose compassion is no less compassionate for being unsentimental; who cares like hell about the world he live[s] in, and somehow go on loving and believing in people who inhabit it, even while he protests the ways we are lousing it up?”
With several activist classmates, Harris founded “The Resistance” to advocate and spearhead civil disobedience against the draft. With Harris as its unofficial leader, and most charismatic public speaker (delivering over 500 speeches in 20 states), The Resistance organized campaigns at which young men publicly announced their noncooperation with the selective service system. Conscripts gathered to protest the draft and return their draft cards as Harris had done, or cards were collected and mailed back to the U.S. Army in bulk — a crime punishable by a $10,000 fine, and a maximum of five years in prison, in each case. If enough young men refused conscription, Harris reasoned, the Selective Service system would be blocked, and the criminal justice system would be so overwhelmed that only a small percentage of draft resisters would be prosecuted.
In a memoir of his tenure as Stanford’s president at that time (Stanford in Turmoil: Campus Unrest, 1966-1972, Stanford University Press, 2009), Richard W. Lyman recognized Harris’s heroic stance as the public face of national resistance in the face of likely arrest and imprisonment. “One marvels at Harris’s faith and courage — after all, each speech he gave urging others to follow his example exposed him to conspiracy charges that could (at least in theory) result in a five-year prison sentence.” For Lyman, however, Harris was a quixotic figure, a naive idealist tilting at windmills.
“Harris’s charisma… could not make anything remotely resembling a mass movement out of the idea of going to jail for totally resisting Selective Service. The hope was that the success would starve the armed forces and force and end to the war. But recruits to the Resistance were single individuals here and there.”
One marvels at Lyman’s willful ignorance of the facts:
In the first effort to organize draft resistance at a national level, Harris declared October 16, 1967 as the first national draft card turn-in at the April 1967 Spring Mobilization to End the War, which drew 400,000 marchers in New York City and 100,000 in San Francisco, and another 100,000 marchers at a follow up protest at the Pentagon. In the Bay Area, over 300 men turned in their draft cards; a total of 2,000 draft cards nationally were turned in at protests in 18 U.S. cities. The last day of Stop the Draft Week coincided with the March on the Pentagon in Washington, DC, where 100,000 people marched and over 600 were arrested.
Over the coming months, greater and greater numbers of young men joined the draft resistance movement. By 1969, male student body presidents of 253 universities wrote to the White House to inform President Nixon of their commitment to refuse induction.
According to the Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium at the University of Washington: “Draft resistance became so widespread that eventually President Nixon pledged in the campaign of 1968 to end the draft, believing it was a way to undermine the antiwar movement. Instead, he tried to make the draft more palatable by instituting a lottery to randomly select who would be drafted based on a young man’s birthday. The first lottery was held December 1, 1969. Even with the lottery, draft resistance and the antiwar movement continued to grow into the early 1970’s.”
By May 1970, following the US invasion of Cambodia, and the killing of students at Kent and Jackson State, over 25,000 draft cards were collected and returned. In 1972, there were more conscientious objectors than draftees, all major cities faced impossible-to-process backlogs of induction-refusal cases. There were too many resisters to prosecute and jail.
As documented by University of Washington Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium: “The size and power of the antiwar movement, including draft resistance and GI resistance, along with the determination of the Vietnamese, forced an end to the war and the draft. The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 and Congress cut off funds for the war as a result of a major grassroots lobbying effort.”
Eventually, over 500,000 men had refused the draft by outright resistance or evasion — but only a tiny fraction of these were convicted. The system was overwhelmed — exactly as Harris and his young colleagues had planned. As described by Vietnam era historian Michal Stewart Foley “draft resistance was by far the most important, most influential, and the leading edge of the anti-war movement …
As the movement’s public face, David Harris was indicted and convicted; his crime: “refusal to submit to a lawful order of induction”. By then he had married the singer/activist Joan Baez, a leading figure of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Baez was pregnant when David was taken by federal marshals to prison and their son Gabriel was born during his father’s incarceration. Along with a handful of leading organizers, Harris received a longer sentence than most of the others who were prosecuted for draft evasion. Harris served one month in San Francisco County Jail, seven months in a federal prison in Arizona and another twelve months in federal prison in Texas. Shortly following his release in March 1971, Harris and Baez separated, and later divorced, but they remained friends throughout his life. Out of prison, Harris returned immediately to the antiwar movement, until the war ended two years later. He married again, fathered another child, and continued to live as a peace activist, journalist and author until his death on February 6, 2023.
Reflecting on his experiences in a 2017 essay published in the New York Times (“I Picked Prison Over Fighting in Vietnam“), Harris wrote:
At stake was not just the nation’s soul but mine as well. So I took the draft card I was required by law to have at all times and returned it to the government with a letter declaring I would no longer cooperate. Carrying that card had been my last contribution to the war effort. If the law was wrong, then the only option was to become an outlaw.
Some would call me a draft dodger, but I dodged nothing. There was no evasion of any sort, no attempt to hide from the consequences. I courted arrest, speaking truth to power, and power responded with an order for me to report for military service. While delaying that order with a succession of bureaucratic maneuvers, I helped found the Resistance, an organization devoted to generating civil disobedience against conscription. Three or four of us lived out of my car and crashed on couches, going from campus to campus, gathering a crowd and making a speech, looking for people willing to stand up against the wrong that had hijacked our nation.
On Oct. 16, 1967, the Resistance staged its first National Draft Card Return, during which hundreds were sent back to the government at rallies in 18 cities. We staged more rallies and teach-ins. Hundreds more draft cards were returned, at two more national returns as well as individually or in small groups. We provided draft counseling for anyone, whether he wanted to resist or not.
At draft centers, we distributed leaflets encouraging inductees to turn around and go home. At embarkations, we urged troops to refuse to go before it was too late. We gave legal and logistical support to soldiers who resisted their orders. We destroyed draft records. We arranged religious sanctuary for deserters ready to make a public stand, surrounding them to impede their arrest. We smuggled other deserters into Canada. We even dug bomb craters in front of a city hall in Florida and posted signs saying that if you lived in Vietnam, that’s what your front lawn would look like.
My fellow resisters and I brought our spirit of resistance to the prison system, organizing around prisoner issues of health care, food and visits. I was a ringleader in my first prison strike while still in San Francisco County Jail, awaiting transfer. After being sent on to a federal prison camp in Safford, Ariz., I was in three more strikes, at which point I was shipped to La Tuna. My first two months there, I was locked in a punishment cellblock known as “the hole” with three other ringleaders from Safford…
… Several years after that, I was invited to testify at a Senate hearing considering pardons for our draft crimes. I told the senators I had no use for their forgiveness, but I would accept their apology. I’m still waiting to hear back from them on that.
I am now 71 and the war that defined my coming of age is deep in my rearview mirror, but the question it raised, “What do I do when my country is wrong?” lives on.
For those looking for an answer today, here are some lessons I learned:
We are all responsible for what our country does. Doing nothing is picking a side.
We are never powerless. Under the worst of circumstances, we control our own behavior.
We are never isolated. We all have a constituency of friends and family who watch us. That is where politics begins.
Reality is made by what we do, not what we talk about. Values that are not embodied in behavior do not exist.
People can change, if we provide them the opportunity to do so. Movements thrive by engaging all comers, not by calling people names, breaking windows or making threats.
Whatever the risks, we cannot lose by standing up for what is right. That’s what allows us to be the people we want to be.”
David Harris was an American hero in the proud tradition of civil disobedience and radical nonviolence of Sojourner Truth, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Joan Baez, Rev. James Lawson, David Hartsough, Daniel Ellsberg and many others inspired by their writing and activism.
In 1849, Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes used to fund the U.S. war against Mexico. In his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau reflects on the obligations to follow one’s conscience and to resist unjust laws and orders, especially when they serve an immoral war. “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies,” Thoreau observes.
“They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well… A very few- as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men- serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay”…
David Harris refused to be a “wooden man.” From the moment he mailed his draft card back to the Army, Harris fiercely held to his own dignity and inner freedom, and modeled to his fellow citizens the power of conscience, inspiring his generation, and all those who can be inspired by his moral courage, and empowered by the strategic lessons of the resistance movement he helped to lead.
And see the new PBS documentary “The Movement and the Madman” premiering on PBS on March 28:
The MOVEMENT and the “MADMAN” shows how two antiwar protests in the fall of 1969 — the largest the country had ever seen — caused President Nixon to cancel what he called his “madman” plans for a massive escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam, including his threats to use nuclear weapons.
At the time, protestors had no idea what they had prevented and how many lives they had saved.
Told as a political thriller, the film is a David-and-Goliath tale that will engage viewers in a you-are-there experience with insider accounts from movement leaders and Nixon officials, commentary by historians, and illustrated with dynamic archival footage.
Jonathan D. Greenberg