From Protest to Resistance -- The Quaker Peace Testimony During the Vietnam War -- 3
Jeremy Mott


During the war, more than a few Friends and other pacifists came to give qualified support to violent revolution in Vietnam and other Two-Thirds World Countries. American military defeat in Vietnam was welcomed, not only as the quickest method of ending the war, but also as a good way of ushering in a better society there. A very few Friends went so far as to advocate violent revolution even in the United States. It is difficult to think of a period since 1660 when so many Friends supported violent revolution.

A war spirit also weakened Quaker support of nonviolent revolution and nonviolent radical activism. As the war ground on, Friends and AFSC staff who persisted in nonviolent civil rights activism found themselves more and more isolated. Perhaps more to the point, Friends who engaged in illegal shipment of medical supplies to all parts of Vietnam, in tax resistance, and in draft resistance, found their support from the Society of Friends and AFSC was spotty, to say the least.

One should not complain too much. Quaker nonviolent action flourished during the Vietnam War as it had at no time since the Revolutionary War, with the possible exception of the period from 1948 to 1965. In cities like Chicago, where the entire Quaker community supported nonviolent war resistance, draft resisters’ trials became great celebrations of the power of nonviolence and truth.

There can be little doubt about Quaker cynicism about war: it flourished during the Vietnam period, eventually being extended to nonviolent radicalism as well in many cases.

Before we consider Quaker conscientious objection during the Vietnam War, we should consider two related matters: the Seeger decision and draft counseling.

Fortuitously, the Supreme Court decided US v. Seeger in the spring of 1965, just as the greatest escalation of the Vietnam War was occurring. In this case, the Court defined “Supreme Being” so that the phrase meant nothing; accordingly, Congress eliminated the Supreme Being clause from the draft law two years later. Also, the Court defined “religious training and belief’ for conscientious objectors very liberally, so that even agnostics and members of no religious society could be recognized as conscientious objectors.

The Seeger decision received enormous publicity, informed many people about legal CO recognition who had never known that the CO exemption existed, and informed even greater numbers that they too might be eligible for CO exemption that they had wrongly thought was available only to Quakers and Mennonites. In fact, only one conscientious objector was released from prison because of the Seeger decision: Fred Etcheverry, a Quaker who, Selective Service and the courts had decided, lacked religious training and belief even though he was clearly a Christian!

Unfortunately, Friends did not mount a major political campaign to ensure enforcement of the Seeger decision, and the US Immigration and Naturalization Service does not abide by it today. However, the Seeger case brought a flood of men to see the fast-expanding group of mostly volunteer professionals known as draft counselors. Some draft counselors worked for or volunteered for AFSC or CCCO. Other draft counselors volunteered for local peace groups and Friends meetings. Men of all ages were draft counselors, and by 1967 they were joined by many women counselors.

Those counselors who were “public” -- not counseling only the members of their own church or students in their own college, etc. -- overwhelmingly were Friends, or closely associated with Friends. (I say this with authority, since from 1969 to 1973 I was the Editor of CCCO’s Draft Counselor's Newsletter, which had about 5000 subscribers.) Draft counseling, from John Woolman’s day to the present, is identified with Friends. During the Vietnam War it was one of three major antiwar witnesses dominated by Friends, along with tax resistance and medical aid for all parts of Vietnam, which were much smaller activities.

Draft counseling helped millions of men gain CO exemption and other exemptions and deferments. It helped speed the demise of an active draft. It inspired military counseling and (in Canada) immigration counseling. Perhaps most important, draft counseling went far to re-create a sense of community for young men who felt themselves abandoned by peers, schools, families and government. Young men sometimes broke down in tears as they realized that counselors -- often the unheard-of Quakers -- cared for them and would try to help.

Quaker conscientious objection during the Vietnam War is complicated. As the war approached, a combination of factors made the “testimony of deferments until age 26” the preferred course for most draft-age Friends. However, reduced availability of deferments during the war, plus increased guilt about taking deferments and exemptions in wartime, as well as better availability of draft counseling and wide knowledge of the Seeger decision, all made the various conscientious objector choices (other than I-A-O) something that many young Friends considered and used.

Quaker prisoners for conscience’s sake were almost all non-co-operators or draft resisters. If one meets a Friend now who sought CO exemption and was imprisoned after not receiving it, that Friend almost certainly joined Friends after imprisonment. The same situation prevailed for Mennonite, Brethren, and Jehovah’s Witness prisoners. Jehovah’s Witnesses made up the great majority of CO’s in federal prisons throughout the war.

Quakers who did alternative service usually did it the normal way: a low-wage job for a hospital or other nonprofit agency, alone or with one or two other CO’s; such jobs were mostly chosen by the CO; often there was no pastoral care and no connection whatever to other Friends. (In Chicago, the draft resister community provided some camaraderie for the CO’s working alone in mental hospitals around town.) Many of these CO’s were lost to Friends and to organized pacifism.

Very few Quakers chose the other type of alternate service, done by so many Brethren and Mennonites: volunteering for assignments chosen by a church service agency; no pay other than subsistence; orientation and other programs, usually in large groups; many women and others not doing alternative service participating; some assigned overseas (usually for three years, not two.) AFSC had made a principled decision not to have this sort of program in 1948, at the start of the peacetime draft. As a Friend who served in Brethren Volunteer Service (until I decided draft resistance was an even better witness and I could handle it), I am a member of a privileged few. CO’s who served in BVS and similar programs usually remain members of the peace churches and strong pacifists to this day. Some are radical Christians.

Though the AFSC decision not to have a long-term volunteer service program like BVS was principled, it must be the worst mistake AFSC ever made. There is no doubt in my mind that such a long-term volunteer program would have become a powerful witness for peace and a powerful engine of draft resistance during the Vietnam War.

By the time of the Vietnam War, few Quaker men served in the military as noncombatants. The war created a new CO option: emigration, especially to Canada. Many Friends did this, especially early in the war.

As for ending the war by encouraging diplomacy and negotiations, that hardly seemed possible, at least during the early years. Nevertheless, one intrepid Friend, Staughton Lynd, did travel to North Vietnam as early as 1965 in a private diplomatic venture to end the war. Many AFSC people followed his example. At home, American Friends continued to press a great, little-known lobbying effort throughout the war.

No part of the Quaker Peace Testimony was more worn down by the long war than our testimony of service. During the 1960’s AFSC started eliminating its famed short-term work camps and its peace institutes, so that few were left by the beginning of the Vietnam War and almost none were left at the end. One must admit that programs like this were almost impossible to manage during the late 1960’s. Youth rebelled against all authority on all matters. Yet why weren’t programs continued for other age groups? Or resumed when things calmed down?

However, the Quaker service record during the Vietnam War also includes the AFSC prosthetics work at Quang Ngai -- one of the finest Quaker service programs ever undertaken. I note that this was long-term volunteer service, even if not so labeled.

Wasn’t there more to the Quaker Peace Testimony during the Vietnam War than this dreary record of worn-down witness? Of course there was, much more, and it may be summed up in the popular Movement phrase, “from Protest to Resistance.” For the first time -- at least the first time for American Quakers and pacifists -- Friends were determined not just to protest war or to witness against a war but to end a war by any and every nonviolent means available.

The Questing Beast grew a new limb, which remains to this day and seems permanent: concerted nonviolent resistance against war.

This new part of the Quaker Peace Testimony is unique in that it is a combination of two older parts, both refashioned to serve in a new way. One of the older parts now taken over is the campaign of nonviolent resistance, often involving extensive civil disobedience, against injustice. Friends had used this part of our heritage in leading the great nonviolent campaigns against nuclear weapons in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Now we were to wage nonviolent war -- spiritual warfare, if you will -- against a war itself. A little consideration will show that nonviolent war resistance is far more complicated and difficult than most other nonviolent social activism, even when extensive civil disobedience is involved.

The other part of the Quaker Peace Testimony now taken over -- subverted, some might say -- is conscientious objection, of both legal and illegal varieties. Once mass draft resistance began in 1966 and 1967, with draft card turn-ins and draft card burnings, sometimes involving hundreds of men, non-cooperation with the draft was as much an act of nonviolent war against the US government as it was an act of witness to one’s Quaker or pacifist beliefs. Even the filing of a legal CO claim was sometimes meant as an act of nonviolent war against the military system.

Acts and campaigns -- note the martial language -- of draft resistance and tax resistance were intended to deny manpower and money to the government and to overburden the courts and to catch the attention of uninvolved citizens and get them involved in opposing the war. Acts and campaigns of shipping medical aid to all parts of Vietnam were also meant to overburden the courts and to catch the attention of uninvolved citizens and involve them. Acts of legal, nonviolent protest generally had only the latter purpose. Any idea of convincing government officials by one’s witness was usually discarded as impractical. The US government and military, war resisters agreed, responded only to force -- hopefully nonviolent force.

Yes, yes, you might say, but these nonviolent war resistance campaigns involved hundreds of thousands of people, very few of them Friends. I can’t argue with that. But many of these campaigns were thought up by Friends and many were led by Friends. A Quaker Action Group is the prototype, and the largest, of those informal groups of Friends who came together to resist the Vietnam War. The most remarkable “official” Quaker body that acted with this purpose was the Peace and Social Action Program of New York Yearly Meeting, led by Larry Apsey and Ross Flanagan. And one of the nation’s major draft resistance groups --which engaged in other types of war resistance as well -- was CADRE, Chicago Area Draft Resisters, which was led mainly by Friends, and friends of Friends.

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