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Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War by Bruce Dancis

Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War by Bruce Dancis

By Bruce Dancis
384 pp. Cornell University Press

Editor’s note: This book was published a few years ago, but we think this review-essay is relevant, especially coming after Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s recent PBS series on the Vietnam War, which brought the war back into the public square. The filmmakers were variously criticized for their depiction of war protesters, most noticeably and thoroughly by Maurice Isserman in Dissent.

“Resister” is Bruce Dancis’ nuanced historical-cum-autobiographic account of the late-1960s movement at Cornell University against U.S. warfare in Vietnam, extending to wider locations and issues. His opening sentences invoke an action—amplified later in the book—that positioned him as a central movement figure:

On December 14, 1966, at the age of eighteen, I stood before a crowd of three hundred people at Cornell University, read a statement denouncing the war in Vietnam and the draft, and tore my draft card into four pieces. I then walked over to a nearby mailbox and sent my statement and the four pieces of my card to my draft board in the Bronx, New York, informing the Selective Service system I would … no longer cooperate with the draft in any shape or form. I expected to be arrested on the spot.

I was among the crowd. It was the end of my sophomore year at Cornell (a year ahead of Bruce). During the previous academic year, with the U.S. replacing France in leading “anti-communist” (imperialist) intervention in Vietnam following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, The War seized attention on campus. The first provocateurs to grab my awareness were a small set of doctoral students who occasionally mounted a soapbox on Cornell’s Arts Quad lawn, declaiming against The War in historical, political and moral terms. At first these “long-hairs” aroused vague fright in my cognitive remnants of Cold War-saturated youth. After all, Khrushchev had yelled “We will bury you!” (1956) and banged his shoe (1960). Didn’t the U.S. need to block Communist spread in Asia? Yet the soapbox orators seemed knowledgeable, and charismatic in their “anti-establishment” thinking and styles. As I gravitated towards teach-ins and other spaces of debate, I became persuaded that The War was wrong-headed and shameful.

However, I was hardly an activist when I came to the scene of Bruce’s “crime against the state.” I did not know him or any other identifiable campus radical. At the time I was chronically lonely. Cornell’s oft-lamented male-to-female undergraduate ratio of 3:1 sustained a large fraternity system as a key means of access to erotic life. Yet when visited in my dorm by fraternity rushers the year before, I was put off by visible sexisms and inanities, and did not opt for the “brotherhood” of a frat house. I craved a different social possibility. The figure of Bruce, alone in his bravery yet witnessed by a solemn crowd—including a core of people who clearly knew him and cared greatly that he risked prison—reached into emotions that left me restive for days. The powerful appeal of this respectful community, gathered around Bruce’s action, was heightened by contrasting yelps from engineering students in nearby Olin Hall:  “Three cheers for Dow!”—the chemical company, in which Cornell owned stock, that produced napalm used in the Vietnam War. Bruce chronicles all this in “Resister.”

A few days later, seeing Bruce walking by himself on campus, I approached. Bruce told me about the group with which he was affiliated: Students for a Democratic Society. I listened with hope in the possibility of a home where loneliness might dissolve in community. Within the hour I was a card-carrying member. Soon I was attending SDS meetings. Here my tale joins Bruce’s narrative. Within four months, on April 15, 1967, I was among 20 to 30 people who, responding to a national call emerging from the Cornell SDS, publicly burned draft cards—the first such event involving more than a few people. This was in New York City, at the outset of the first large-scale, multi-city mobilization against The War. In “Resister,” Bruce describes this action, and the complex politics leading to and following it, including acute ambivalence among members of the National Mobilization Committee.

I had grown up in Long Island. My Jewish parents, on the liberal-progressive side of politics, chased upward mobility in culturally mainstream terms. By contrast, Bruce was a “red diaper baby,” born to parents with socialist-democratic and Ethical Culturalist politics. He spent summers in work camps frequented by figures such as folksinger-activist Happy Traum and pacifist David McReynolds of the War Resisters League. Bruce was thus primed to find community with students like Matty Goodman, son of renowned public intellectual Paul Goodman, author of the book “Growing Up Absurd,” which many of us read and found to describe our middle-class lives. And Burton Weiss, the first openly gay man whom I knew, as well as a scholar of Kabbalah, who—at a NYC grand jury hearing on the April 15 draft-card burnings—chose candidly to testify that he had burnt his, which meant he could not invoke Fifth Amendment protections against incriminating himself if asked about others. Burton was not about to “rat on my friends,” as he put it. So he brought to the hearing a mentor, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who lectured the grand jury, as Bruce recounts, about “ancient Jewish laws that essentially said a Jewish man could not testify against another Jew in a Gentile court.” Burton of course did not rat on Gentile friends either.

A rich range of SDS characters come alive in “Resister,” including young women and men who became notable scholar-activists. Bruce vividly portrays how this new left interacted with old left and younger Cornell faculty. Doug Dowd, an economics professor, had been summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the McCarthy era. As Bruce recounts, Doug was enlisted in 1968 as Eldridge Cleaver’s running mate on the presidential ticket of the Peace and Freedom Party. Eqbal Ahmad, a young professor who taught about guerilla warfare—he assisted independence movement in Algeria while doing doctoral research (and narrowly escaped assassination, watching his car blow up one day as he approached it)—later became a key political scientist in the Institute for Policy Studies. Dan Berrigan, Jesuit priest and prize-winning poet, arrived in 1967 to direct the Cornell United Religious Works. Dan was a key figure in the Catonsville Nine, comprising notable Catholic activists who were tried and imprisoned after seizing draft files from a Selective Service office and setting them afire.

Bruce recounts many incidents and ways in which such exemplars of conscience and intellect took time to nurture student political movements. Of vital significance to my young radical life was a day in 1968 when I received postal notification that my draft status had been re-categorized as 1-A Delinquent. This was punishment for having burnt my draft card in 1967. It eliminated my student deferment; and “delinquent” meant I would be called for army duty in a month’s time (which happened—I reported and passed the physical but refused induction). Bruce alerted Dan and Eqbal, who generously invited me and Bruce—we both lived in a radical house, 315 ½ Eddy St.—“the Half,” a significant site in Bruce’s stories—to dinner at Dan’s apartment for talk and company on this personally disturbing day. That evening the TV news, as we watched in Dan’s apartment, broadcast what Bruce notes as “one of the most indelible images of the war … the head of the South Vietnamese National Police … shooting an unarmed and handcuffed NLF prisoner in the head.”

Bruce is a historian by discipline, with a master’s degree in American history, and a journalist by career who retired in 2008. Along with memory, he draws on research: his collected materials, archives, interviews and texts on 1960s activism that amplify contexts. Nearly 50 years later, he reflectively traces significant themes for historical insight into the antiwar movement, focusing on the ethical challenges of living a politics. He highlights the importance of means that are consistent with ends, which is vital for a movement whose goal is social justice. He also emphasizes practicing participatory democracy—which I experienced in the early days, when the Cornell SDS chapter was young and small. I recall my excitement in the realization that I and others, whatever our (in)experience, could give voice that was heard and respected on crucial decisions. For example, should we try to block the Syracuse induction center, risking police beatings, or just picket with signs? Participating meaningfully in such decisions pressed me to listen, think, study, consider consequences, and gain sophistication.

However, the movement did not remain small for long. War-related actions—against the draft but also on-campus military recruitment of students into the Reserve Officer Training Corps—generated excitement. Being connected to SDS became “cool,” drawing more numerous and varied students, even young men in fraternities. Erotic and political-ethical impulses began to mix, including new kinds and intensities of male macho. Bruce comments that, while he and others in Cornell’s SDS movement “made a genuine effort to operate democratically,” this was imperiled “in part because we failed to reach equality between men and women in our chapter in terms of leadership, participation, and influence.” Indeed, when a Woman’s Liberation Movement emerged, separating from SDS, male leaders were uncomfortably surprised.

The growth of SDS into a mass movement made it more difficult for the organization to continue as a living democracy. Yet democracy thrived in smaller spaces of everyday life that built and maintained the work of political activism. Bruce accounts, with due pride, how the SDS chapter, over a few years, gathered people and, with minimal material resources, put them to work, developing a childcare center and a printing operation—the Glad Day Press. The latter produced artistic posters, cogent pamphlets, and more, for Cornell SDS and other chapters.

“Resister” traces how SDS pressed Cornell, as a prominent Ithaca landlord, to provide affordable housing for local residents. SDS researched, and made known, how the relative wealth of students from downstate New York created a high-rent market, forcing people who worked at Cornell and elsewhere in Ithaca, who often drove beat-up vehicles, to live in trailer parks some distance away. Shifting from local to global, SDS challenged Cornell’s stock holdings in banks and other companies that profited from South African apartheid. I vividly recall when the Rev. Gladstone Ntlabati, whom Bruce describes as “an exiled South African freedom fighter … studying at Cornell,” told a group of us from SDS how European nations had exercised economic sanctions against the South African government. They were reacting to the Sharpsville Massacre of March 1960, when South African police gunned down nonviolent protesters of new policies that used “pass laws” forcibly to move black and “colored” populations into isolated locations. Ntlabati explained how a consortium of powerful banks floated a huge loan to the South African government, to protect their investments until the sanctions momentum dissipated. Hearing this, my 22-year-old self was shocked into ethical understanding of how capitalism and racism intersected in global processes, hidden in everyday practices such as making bank deposits.

Within such detailed accounts, Bruce analyzes how, in a capitalist world, a prestigious university funded itself through unjust investments that compromised its claims to be an ethical pillar of society. He also analyzes how the Cornell SDS branch, in taking aim at the university’s ethical shortcomings, fell prey over time to internal tensions that compromised its democratic ethics. “Resister” chronicles how SDS actions to end Cornell’s complicity with South African apartheid, and its role as an exploitative landlord, got caught up in infighting. The anti-apartheid issue was pushed by a self-named “action faction” linked to the Weatherman group within national SDS. The housing issue was pushed by a “studious” set that aligned with a National Caucus of Labor Committees. Contesting each other ideologically, these groups began to meet separately and make their own moves, not always reporting to the wider SDS membership, at cost to democratic dialogue and consensus-building.

Bruce also recounts in graphic detail how the mostly-white Cornell SDS interacted with African-American students whom Cornell was recruiting in small but growing numbers. This includes dramatic events of April 1969, captured in famous photos on front pages across the nation, of Cornell Afro-American Society (AAS) members bearing (unloaded) rifles, with ammo belts slung across shoulders, marching out of Willard Straight Hall, the student union they had occupied for 36 hours during parents’ weekend. They had evacuated parents—residing in upper-floor hotel rooms—at the crack of dawn. It is here, in my reading, that Bruce’s narrative carries a most acute sense of the impossible necessity of democracy. With humility, Bruce reports his own agonized snap decisions behind the scenes, working with and against other white SDS and black AAS voices in the heat of events, as some 6000 students occupied the Barton Hall field house. The occupiers supported AAS demands for African-American studies at Cornell and, more controversially, for amnesty following the Willard Straight Hall takeover. Bruce also reveals agonies among divided Cornell Faculty Senate members in considering these demands. Although I was an SDS activist at this scene, I learned new dimensions of events in reading “Resister.” I find it a rich, honest, textured and trustworthy insider’s account.

After burning my draft card publicly in 1967, I was twice visited by FBI agents in pre-dawn hours. I expected to go to prison, and so did lawyers I consulted, for refusing induction into the army in 1968. After a couple of years of anxious wait, a Supreme Court decision let me off the hook. Bruce, however, was imprisoned from May 20, 1969 through December 23, 1970. I was up and watching, mutely disturbed and sad, on the morning he exited the front door of The Half—again alone in bravery, this time not amid a supportive crowd—climbing into a housemate’s car for the drive, with his girlfriend and a few others, to his lawyer’s office in Syracuse. He then surrendered to U.S. marshals and was transported first to a way-station jail and then the Federal Youth Center in Ashland, Kentucky. From there, I lost touch with Bruce. I have waited these many years for the relief provided in the first sentence of his section covering his prison years: “I was not raped in prison.”

I will leave Bruce’s revealing prison stories for those who read the book. He notes that few draft resisters did time, and little has been written about their experiences. Bruce contributes reflections on how a committed activist made necessary adaptations to a total institution while keeping his politics alive. This offers worthy contrast to Bill Ayer’s “Fugitive Days” account of living underground to elude arrest. From different vantage points, Dancis and Ayers each register tensions and reactions to the dissolution, after its June 1969 national convention in Chicago, of the SDS movement to which they had been dedicated.

In a brief Epilogue, “Resister” circles back to questions posed earlier in the book about whether the anti-war movement made a difference. Bruce argues reasonably that meaningful political and cultural change came from movement actions. However, I found myself wanting a historian’s comparative reflections on possibilities for a movement now. Why is there such little mobilization as crises of governance become chronic? How might digital communication make for less sustained surges of protest such as Seattle and Occupy? How has the near-denial of press access to battlegrounds since Desert Storm limited possibilities for broader awareness that supports resistance? “Resister” does not reflect from the past into such contexts of the present—the only wish for more from this otherwise highly satisfying read.