IT NEVER OCCURRED to me that Nixon would win the election in 1968. It seemed impossible after all the ferment of the year, the combination of the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement, and the collision of the counterculture—hippie style, free love, drugs, and the transformation of music with rock and roll.
How could a country that elected John Kennedy eight years earlier vote for his nemesis, Richard Nixon? Preoccupied with the internecine battles on the left (I mean, at the University of Chicago we were listening to debates between the Maoists and the Marxist Leninists), I failed to grasp how Nixon was able to attract supporters with his loud condemnations of the hippies, the draft dodgers, and the pot smokers. It was the culture wars before we knew what it was called.
And, like 2016, we imagined that the country would go along with an experienced vice president, Hubert Humphrey, over an untrustworthy demagogue. The “southern strategy” may be a myth, since George Wallace took the racist white vote anyway, but Nixon had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, and people believed him.
Much of the left was in shock when he took office in January 1969, and the anti-war activists fell silent. I had become editor of the student newspaper at the University of Chicago, and after the Democratic convention that summer, I focused on student politics. SDS had begun a sit-in in the administration building at the end of January, which as a Humphrey-supporting liberal I was not convinced was a good idea.
The Maroon was a great vantage point for 1968-1969, but there was not a lot of prestige, or any pay involved. The paper, only published twice a week, never enjoyed the status of the Harvard Lampoon or the Yaley Daily on the campus or on the staff. The UChicago faculty took a dim view of the paper, as they did of anything involving undergraduates.
I was at my desk one morning in March looking at the mail, and there was a letter from the National Student Association, signed by David Hawk. I remembered him from the Democratic primary fight, when he enlisted me in the effort to bring the bereaved Bob Kennedy supporters to join the Gene McCarthy campaign. I designed a button with Bobbie’s last words, “On to Chicago.”
The letter had a simple questionnaire: “Will you go into the armed forces as long as the War in Vietnam continues?”
Without thinking for more than a second I checked “no,” filled in the line for my phone number, stuffed the letter into the stamped, addressed envelope that was provided, and tossed it into my out basket.
I didn’t think about it again until two weeks later, the phone rang, and it was David Hawk. He thanked me for signing and explained that he thought this action by “student leaders” could break the silence of the the anti-war movement. The war was still raging, thousands of Americans were dying in Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were turned to refugees, wounded, or killed.
Hawk had mailed that questionnaire to NSA’s list of a thousand student body presidents and student newspaper editors. He realized that if enough of these “student leaders” announced they would refuse induction, it might get the attention of Congress since many representatives had been student body presidents. And, in the national press core, many reporters were former student newspaper editors. One example was the great David Broder at the Washington Post, who had been the editor of The Maroon.
More than 300 had signed the pledge, Hawk said, and the plan was to make an announcement in Washington and demand to see the President. He asked, “Would you be willing to be one of the signers at the press conference?”
Of course, I said.
The date was Tuesday, April 22. Hawk expected that Allard Lowenstein, who had organized the “children’s crusade” for McCarthy and had been elected to Congress (D, NY-5), was going to get us room in the Capitol for the event. The NSA would provide airfare and a hotel room.
Mondays were closing days at The Maroon, so I took a late flight to Washington to meet up with a dozen signers and run through the program. I found them all in a big suite at the Statler Hilton. Hawk came up to me and said, “Welcome. By the way, the group has chosen you as the spokesman.” (This taught me never to be late for a meeting like this.)
They took me through the announcement, basically a press release, and after reading it, we would answer questions. I immediately, said, “No, no. Everyone’s got make their own statement.”
Hawk had put together a diverse group, with students from Ivy League colleges, big state universities, small liberal arts colleges—people with different social background and ethnicity. If each of us makes a short, impassioned, statement, I said, it will get coverage in your local paper and on your local TV station, even if they don’t have correspondents in Washington.
There was some pushback. The student pols said they needed more time. “Just imagine you are Thomas Jefferson the night before they released the Declaration,” I said. “Put down the first thing that comes to your mind. Explain your causes, your emotions. And make it short!”
Well, they all sat down and produced strong and really moving pledges.
Lowenstein had secured the Agriculture Committee Room, one of the oldest and grandest in the House. We filed in and took the members’ seats on a big curved wooden dais like the Supreme Court.
The statements worked. We had the national press corps (junior grade at least), and four TV cameras. We hit a lull in the news, and we connected with the press, as Hawk planned. My mother Eleanor was delighted that my picture was on the front page of the Houston Post, and she agreed with my stand. My dad, not so much.
The next day the White House sent word to the NSA that they would meet with us. Not Nixon, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Counsel John Ehrlichman. They set a 90-minute meeting for the next Tuesday, April 29. And we all said we would be there.
With intended irony, the meeting place was the Situations Room in the basement of the White House, also called the War Room. It was where Lyndon Johnson frequently met with his staff and the Pentagon brass to review tactics for the War in Vietnam. Prof. Kissinger, who liked to be called Dr. Kissinger, held forth like he was in his classroom at Harvard dealing with stubborn (and, in his view, dull) students.
What I always will remember was his statement: “If the war is still going on a year from now, we will have no moral argument against you.”
Kissinger left after a half hour, and Ehrlichman took over, like the bad cop he was. He said that if we “persisted in refusing induction, we will bust you just like you ran a red light.” He got angrier and tougher as the meeting when on, suggesting in essence that the death penalty was too good for us.
Then it was over, we went up to the press lobby and now we had the attention of the senior press corp. I remember Mary McGrory from the Washington Post. I read her political reporting in day-old Wapos in the Harper Library at school. The give-and-take with the press was good and friendly, but then there were cries coming through a door open to the Rose Garden, “Bring them out here.” It was the TV reporters with their crews, who were close to deadline for the evening news.
We were herded outside, and then, as spokesman, I was pushed to the front of the group. There was a semi-circle of microphones on stands, and then one of the reporters stepped right in front and pushed a big mike with a foam cover into may face. He said, “Dan Rather, CBS News.”
And I was on!
Watching the clip now I have ask, what is that accent? I’m not sure who I was channeling, but it came out okay. I quoted Kissinger’s “no moral argument” remark. Then each of the group came forward and made some quick comments, and we answered questions. We got on the evening news—Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, and Frank Reynolds on ABC.
After a break, we went back to the hotel to make calls to local papers for “exclusives.” I got in the Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle.
The next morning, I was on the Today Show. The Washington correspondent, Richard Valeriani, met me at WRC, the NBC-owned station. And then I went over to the Post’s WTOP to be interviewed by Martin Agronsky, who had his own show.
And we made the point. Nixon had tried to upstage our White House meeting with a big attack on the college unrest, saying that protestors were “terrorizing” other students and faculty. The Times gave this the lede on the front page, and our story was tucked in at the end. But the Washington Post and others put us on the front.
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The war continued for four more years. In the next month the secret bombing of Cambodia was revealed. Many of our resistor group were sidetracked by the student sit-ins and strikes on their campuses. Later in 1969 David Hawk was one of the organizers of the Moratorium, the biggest anti-war demonstration of them all. He did not get away from the war and its consequences after the US withdrawal, becoming the executive director of Amnesty International in the U.S. He went to Cambodia to document the Khmer Rouge genocide and headed the United Nations human rights office in Phnom Penh.
While the war victims in Southeast Asia and in the US military are the real witnesses to this horrible, unjustified war, no one knows its impact on people better than Hawk. But the government and the media has never learned the lesson. The 20th anniversary of the war in Iraq brought out pundits who talked about it like it was a board game, with no mention of the deaths and casualties among civilians and soldiers—or of the tragic long-term disruption of human lives.
I don’t know what happened to all the signers, but none of the “student leaders” at the meeting with Kissinger were ever inducted. I declined to cross the line at the AFEES (Armed Forces Examination and Entrance Station) in lower Manhattan. The Justice Department issued an indictment, and the FBI came looking for me in 1972. But I kept my pledge, and never entered the army.
For me, I knew I had hit home with this anti-war effort the next December when I was back in Midland visiting family for Christmas. There was a dinner at the country club, and I sat next to one of my cousins, Ed Black. He asked me if I was holding to my pledge to resist induction. I said, yes. He said, “Do you know what we do to people like you down here?” I said, “What?” He pointed up to a big wooden beam running across the vaulted ceiling.
“We hang you from the highest rafters!”
The Movement and the “Madman”
PBS American Experience
Premiere: March 28, 2023
Preview: Chapter 1
My clip starts right after minute 10.