It’s hard to ignore the sixties. Rightists blame the era and its major actors for all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors, real and imagined. Leftists and liberals draw entirely opposite lessons from a period in which the country seemed to be undergoing a nervous breakdown. By now countless books and who knows how many articles by journalists, scholars and Vietnam veterans have sought to understand how and why Americans invaded and the entire enterprise imploded in Southeast Asia and here at home as well.
Jerry Elmer’s compelling autobiographical account of his life as a draft resister and war protestor is a rare bird indeed. Other than John Balaban’s Remembering Heaven’s Face (Poseidon, 1991), memoirs by antiwar draft resisters and pacifists are relatively rare.
The son of liberal Jewish Viennese refugees from the Nazis, he grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., a New York City suburb. A student rebel, he earned mediocre grades, wore an antiwar button in class, and when told to remove it by a teacher and principal he was supported by the local school board. Soon after he left high school for the road and the cause, working with various pacifist and nonviolent organizations (like himself, pacifist but certainly not passive). The two radical Roman Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan whose draft board raids brought national publicity and jail terms for the brothers and their allies inspired him. (Eventually he thought Philip was too intolerant of anyone unwilling to break the law and take the punishment). Moved by Dan Berrigan’s famous remark that he would rather destroy paper than babies, Elmer was convicted for raiding a draft board and destroying "government property" — that is, the files of young draft-eligible young men (really boys) and then accepted — he says reluctantly — a plea bargain and evaded jail.
While Elmer’s recollections have far too many unnecessarily sophomoric criticisms about various antiwar people he encountered — apparently those he disliked were all imperfect save himself — he raises pertinent questions about the war, the opposition, and by extension our current impasse in yet another extremely dubious war in Iraq.
For example, who helped end the Vietnam War? What role did antiwar marchers and protestors play? And to what extent did practitioners of direct nonviolent action help stop the killing? No one, of course, can definitely tell, though Elmer makes a strong case that people like himself played a crucial role in generating opposition to the killing and mobilizing many more people to oppose the war.
Elmer is a Harvard Law School graduate and has since been admitted to practice in state and federal courts. He now practices commercial litigation in Providence, R.I. and serves as legal counsel to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith pacifist organization founded in 1915. Still a pacifist, he writes, "We pacifists are right to oppose all violence, regardless of who commits it or what excuse are given for it." Even more significantly, and looking back at the sixties, he argues that nonviolent direct action is more effective than violence because it avoids "alienating the very people we are trying to reach and influence."
Some writers have insisted that identifying the mass of antiwar people with more radical protestors made it easier for the entire movement of millions of people disgusted with the war and the draft to be easily dismissed by prowar elements. An obsequious media eager to present radicals as the heart of the antiwar and anti-draft movement gave beards, long hair, beads, marijuana and nude demonstrators exaggerated prominence. It may in fact be one of the reasons it convinced an overwhelming number of Americans to re-elect in 1972 a dishonorable paranoid like Nixon over George McGovern, a genuine war hero and outspoken antiwar liberal.
Murray Polner [send him mail] co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran. This article originally appeared on the History News Network.