Today I’ll take a break from travel stories as I have two stories connected with my Wanderhalbjahr in Europe. Today’s (at the request of a reader) tells how I became a conscientious objector, worked in a hospital, found out I’d been drafted illegally, and got the government to release me and many other men from service. The other, for another day, is how, after my post-release jaunt through Europe, I came to be admitted to Harvard though I’d been accepted to graduate school at the University of Chicago.
I’ll tell the first one today, and the other one some other day. It’s easy to write this because the ducklings are about to hatch, I’m quite nervous, and it’s easier to tell stories about the past than to ruminate on or analyze current events (there aren’t any that intrigue me, anyway). Some of the details of this account are hazy, but I’ll do my best.
On December 1, 1969, the first draft lottery during the Vietnam War was held; this would assign numbers to every eligible man’s birthday, with the number specifying the order in which you’d be drafted. “1”, for example, would be the first person called for service, “2” the second, and so on to 365, the last person called to service. It was clear that they wouldn’t go through the entire year, which would have meant drafting everyone born between between January 1, 1944 and December 31, 1950, the class subject to the lottery.
That included everyone in my college class. (I was born on December 30, 1949). The draft was explicitly meant for service in Vietnam, and we all knew what that meant. If you had a low number, that meant that the government would begin processing you in 1970 for military service, which in my case meant that the service would begin after I graduated from The College of William & Mary in June, 1971.
The government put one day of the year on each of 365 slips of paper (as you see below, there were Feb. 29 births too), and those slips were put in plastic capsules, mixed up in a barrel and picked out sequentially. All of us watched the television drawing in the dorm, nervously awaiting our numbers. A low number meant that, barring a medical deferment or conscientious objection, you would go into the Army and probably to Vietnam. If you were assigned to a combat platoon, you had a high risk of dying.
The general feeling, as Roger Mudd notes in the short documentary of the drawing below, was that if you were in the lowest third of the numbers (1-about 120), you’d be sure to be inducted, in the middle third it was a toss-up, and in the lowest third you’d be safe from conscription forever.
Here, from HistoryNet, are the results of that drawing. My birthday is circled:
As you see, December 30 was assigned #3. That’s the third worst possible number, and guaranteed that I would be drafted. While my dorm-mates who got high numbers celebrated, I had to think hard.
All of us, being Leftist hippies, were opposed to the Vietnam War, and many of us, including me, had gone to Washington several times to demonstrate against it. We saw no point in fighting the Viet Cong, many of whom were South Vietnamese. We saw no point in having our bodies used as targets in a war that had no bearing on national security, and I, personally, saw it as an unjust war on the part of the U.S.
As a peacenik, I had a record of opposing war, but can’t remember exactly when that began, or the time frame during which my antiwar activities occurred relative to the lottery. I know that I’d written a long term paper for my Ethics class (taught by Alan Fuchs, a student of John Rawls), trying to come to grips with the question, “Is there any war that one would consider just?” (I can’t remember my answer save that the vast majority of wars were unjust, and didn’t warrant conscripting and killing soldiers.
What I did realize is that I would try to seek conscientious-objector status based on my views, and if I didn’t get that 1-O deferment, I was prepared to go to jail instead of serving in the Army. Some of my friends saw that stand as impure, thinking that being a CO was a coward’s way out since you were still acting at the behest of the government, and that going to jail or fleeing to Canada were better alternatives. David Malament, one of my fellow students at Rockefeller University (where I started grad school) felt this way, and wound up spending time in jail. Malament later became a well-known philosopher of science and in fact spent a quarter of a century teaching at the University of Chicago. I always meant to look him up, but didn’t get around to it.
I spent the rest of my junior year and most of my senior year engaged in various antiwar activities, which included demonstrating and working for the Quakers as a draft counselor, a period that, as you’ll see, was pivotal in my later history. I also compiled a dossier of my writings and activities that I would need to submit to the draft board supporting a request for 1-O status.
At the time, the only valid objection to war that draft boards would consider was a religious one: you had to have a sincere and religiously-based opposition to war. That applied to Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but not to me, as I was already an atheist. But there were ways in which a profound moral objection to war could be considered, and that’s what I worked on. I’d already written a term paper on the issue, and I went to talk to various rabbis, priests, and ministers, telling them that I was an atheist but detailing my objections to war. To their credit, they all wrote me letters of support averring that my objections were profound, moral, and, I suppose, “spiritual”, though I no longer have a copy of my dossier.
On top of that, my father, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, offered to write me a letter of support, as did one of his Army friends. I remember part of what my dad said, which was something like “I believe that every able-bodied man should serve his country in the military, but I also know that my son has a sincere moral objection to war, and should not be required to serve.” In the end, I think that that letter, and the one from the other Army guy, were pivotal in getting me my 1-O.
But that was to come. In the meantime I had to go to Richmond, Virginia to take the Army my physical and mental tests. I passed both, though they found my hearing substandard (it still is). I remember standing naked in two rows and being asked to bend over for the fundament check. I was given “draftable” status, so I continued to pursue my 1-O.
The normal procedure for requesting exemption was to appear in person before the draft board to answer tough questions, and they’d decide your status. They rarely granted exemptions. I was preparing for such a grilling, which would also take place in Newport News, Virginia, a notoriously stringent draft board known to almost never grant exemptions. (The city is, of course, home to a huge Navy base and has a huge military population.) But it turned out I didn’t need to. I remember my mother running into my room in the early summer, waving a letter from the draft board. She’d already opened it, and inside was my draft card with the prized “1-O” designation. I was a CO! I was particularly proud that they awarded me my status based on my dossier, and saw no need to put me through the usual in-person grilling.
After I graduated in June, 1971, I immediately went to Rockefeller University for the required summer biochemistry course for all biology grad students. (I’d been admitted to pursue a Ph.D. in evolutionary genetics under Theodosius Dobzhansky). At the end of the summer, #3 was called up for service, and I was required to find my own CO job. The stipulations were that it had to be some kind of public service, and that you’d be paid the same amount as an Army private, regardless of what the normal salary for the job was. (As I recall, I made about $5500 a year.) And of course you didn’t get free food, housing, or medical care like the regular draftees did.
Eventually I found a job as a lab technician working on neurochemistry at Cornell University Medical School in Manhattan, right across the street from Rockefeller University. Rockefeller was kind enough to allow me to live in the dorms and to continue having subsidized food and medical care, as if I was a regular graduate student. They expected me to return after my CO stint, which is what I intended, too. (I worked in the lab of Dr. Michael Gershon, who apparently still works at Cornell. Gershon was a nice guy and was glad to take a CO on board.)
My stint as a technician was easy work compared to some COs, who had to wash bedpans and work as orderlies in hospitals. But it lasted 13 months rather than the regular two years (equivalent to a stint in the Army).
Why the truncated period of service? Well, one day I found that I’d been called up for service illegally. I was reading the New York Times at breakfast, and read on the front page an article that from the first draft lottery, nobody would be inducted into the Army. The war was winding down, and they didn’t need more cannon fodder. Having worked for the Quakers as a draft counselor, I knew that this wasn’t legal: the law required anybody with a given “inductable” draft number be called to service at the same time, regardless of whether he was going into the Army or into service as a conscientious objector. What the Selective Service had done was to draft a lot of COs (about 2500, as I recall), but nobody into the regular army.
I immediately contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and told them my plight, and they agreed to help me. As I recall, they found five other COs like me and put together a class action suit against the government for violating its Selective Service regulations. I said yesterday that the suit was Coyne et al. v. Nixon et al., but it could have been Coyne et al. v. Curtis Tarr et al. (Tarr was head of the Selective Service). I do know that Nixon was named in the suit as a defendant, along with other government officials like Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense.
After a short while, we had a hearing in Federal court in New York City. I recall that it lasted only about 30 minutes, as the government basically admitted it had violated its own rules. Soon after that, the ruling came down: we got a letter from the ACLU saying that we five—and the 2000-odd other COs who fell into the plaintiff class—were released. I was free!
But it was winter, too early to go back to graduate school, and at any rate Dobzhansky had retired and left Rockefeller for the University of California at Davis. I left my job at Cornell, and had to find some place to go to grad school for the fall of 1973. Fortunately, I’d earlier been admitted to the University of Chicago to work under Dick Lewontin, so I went off to Europe for my Wanderhalbjahr expecting to study at Chicago when I returned. (As I recall, I’d rejected Chicago’s offer in favor of Rockefeller’s, but they told me they’d take me if I changed my mind.)
Little did I know that Lewontin had taken a job at Harvard for the fall of 1973, and had forgotten that I had been accepted to work with him. I didn’t know this until I returned from EuropeI called Lewontin, who told me that he couldn’t help me: he’d already bargained to take his five Chicago grad students to Harvard, and I wasn’t one of them.
That meant that I had to wangle my way into Harvard on my own, and I had about two weeks to do it. And that is the next story in this odyssey: How I Got Into Harvard In One Day with the Help of E. O. Wilson.
Time to check the ducks. . . . (they’re still on their nests).