Jim Henle

Jim grew up in Arlington, VA and now lives in Northampton, MA with his Filipina wife whom he met while serving in the Peace Corps. He has one grown son. He has been teaching mathematics at Smith College for many years. He does all his local commuting on an ancient bicycle and is a Charlie Chaplin lookalike.

I graduated from Dartmouth in ’68 and I understood that, at that point, if I went to graduate school, which was my plan, that they were going to give me a year of school and no more. Maybe the mechanism of a lottery was talked about, I’m not sure, but in any case I knew I couldn’t do more than a year of graduate work at that point. I was thoroughly single and had no idea what I was going to do about the draft. I had a very strong idea about what I wanted to do with my career. I wanted to be a mathematician, and so graduate school was my immediate goal and I wanted to teach, too.

I essentially decided to postpone graduate work rather than have it interrupted and I thought maybe I would have more control over my life if I joined the Peace Corps. It was not in lieu of military service. It was a deferment. If I joined the Peace Corp, if I got into the Peace Corps, that gave me two years for the situation to change. So that is what I did. I applied to the Peace Corps and I was accepted and I went to the Philippines. I also made plans ahead of time, namely I applied to graduate school, I applied for fellowships, and when I was accepted I asked that those acceptances be deferred and they basically were. I was told that I had to reapply, but that was a formality.

I was totally opposed to the war in Vietnam. I had been opposed for at least two years. I hadn’t thought through all the issues – if I’m opposed to this war, am I opposed to all wars? I hadn’t come up with a worldview yet. It was totally obvious to me that this was wrong. The United States had no business killing people in Vietnam and I didn’t want to be a part of that. Beyond that I hadn’t thought carefully. I got involved in the protest movement at Dartmouth, but very tangentially. I was not very active. I demonstrated a couple of times. Part of the Peace Corps process involves an FBI background check and I was clean, though I would say I was accidentally clean rather than intentionally. I hadn’t conducted my life in such a way that it would be clean.

The program I applied for was teaching high school mathematics, but when I got to the Philippines I was actually appointed to a college. So I graduate from college, I go and I’m teaching at a college, which was a wonderful experience, but it was also a branch of the main university and the students were very politically aware and there were demonstrations and student strikes on a very small scale because it was a small, small branch of the main university in a provincial city. While I was there, there were student strikes and demonstrations, but Philippine culture is a very warm, friendly culture. While there’s a certain amount of violence and they can’t have an election without killing a few people, they related to me on a very personal level and so the signs that they held were all against American policy not against me or against Americans as individuals. I had good friends among the Filipino students and had close friends among the faculty. There was never any problem whatsoever even though I think the Philippines as a nation sent troops to Vietnam at the urging of the United States.

I heard about the lottery in the Phillipines. I believe my number was 123. I don’t remember how I got this information, whether it was the newspapers or a letter from home. It seemed like an abstract thing at the time. At that point the other volunteer who came with me might have gone home. I didn’t associate with other volunteers. That’s not the idea of the Peace Corps. You go there to be part of a community of Filipinos not of Americans. So, I didn’t talk to Americans much.

I got married in the Philippines and my wife, a Filipina, was pregnant by the time we were leaving. We arrived in the States in the summer of ’70 and our son was born in August. Now, at this point, fatherhood deferments had ended and my understanding is that they were ended some time early in 1970. In any case, I couldn’t expect to have a fatherhood deferment. I went to graduate school. I had one year in graduate school and that year was full of uncertainty. I went to a physical, which is the first step before anybody is called up, and I was hoping for a 4-F. I had a grandfather who was not allowed to fight in World War I because of flat feet. I had very flat feet, but the army had moved beyond that and flat feet did not work. During my physical there was a loose cannon of a doctor who, with every other individual, said, “Ah. Something wrong with your heart. You need more tests.” I wasn’t the every other one. I passed my physical.

My draft board was where I grew up in Arlington, VA. It was a Virginia draft board and one could expect that to mean it was very conservative, but I was a graduate student in Cambridge, MA so that’s where the physical took place and I passed. I’m a calm sort of person. I was disappointed, but in my life, basically to that point, nothing terrible had happened to me or to people around me. I had this feeling that terrible things happen to other people and not to me. So I guess underneath all this was a feeling that things are going to work out okay. For example, my intention was to go to graduate school. I didn’t go to graduate school right away. Was this a disaster for me? No. Was it bad or was it even neutral? No, because the Peace Corp was a wonderful experience. It was a wonderful experience teaching and finding my wife. When things happen to me, I kind of expect that they’re going to be good for me, one way or the other. I have an optimistic outlook.

A couple of high school classmates were not as fortunate. They went to Vietnam. I knew three who did. Two of them went because to them it seemed like an adventurous jolly thing to do. One of them died in Vietnam. A third went because he thought that one day he was going to run for office and this was something that ought to be on his resume. He was one of my closest friends, but someone who had always had conservative political views. We talked about it some. It wasn’t a tragedy for him. He had only one incident under fire and the way he described it was he had his bunch drop their weapons and run. He got a medal I think.

Vietnam certainly affected my life as well. I was a pretty aggressive person intellectually in those days. It would have taken something like this to deflect me from graduate school. The next thing was that I thought that maybe I could get a hardship deferment in the sense that my wife was not a citizen. She was a new mother, not used to American society, and she would suffer extensively if I were taken away. The appeal went to my local draft board and they had no sympathy to that point of view. You can say what you want about Virginia and it’s probably true at that time. The laws against miscegenation, marriage between races, was taken off the books only a year or two before we were married. I’m sure the sympathy was all in favor of the Vietnam War at that time, but what also happened during that year was a Supreme Court ruling that said, you don’t have to have a religious background for your pacifism. At that point, I had begun thinking through the issues and I had begun to decide that no, war is wrong in general. It’s not just this war. Killing people is not a good way of settling problems. It’s not justified, but I had no religious basis for this. I was raised without any religion and I couldn’t claim much intellectual lineage for my pacifism either. My father had fought in World War II. But the Supreme Court said that I n longer needed a religious basis. I applied for status as a conscientious objector. My local board turned me down. I appealed. I had heard that you could shift the appeal from the state where you grew up or where you were registered to the state where you were living. Massachusetts had a different attitude toward the war. My understanding was that the head of the selective service board in Massachusetts was quite liberal. In fact, I understand that when he was forced out eventually, he immediately went into private practice counseling draftees.

So I shifted my appeal from Virginia to Massachusetts. I also went to a lawyer who was in business drawing up appeals and he helped me with the appeal and it was successful. I won conscientious objector status. Of course with my draft number I was still called up. That happened in the spring of ’71 and so I had to find an alternative service job that was acceptable.
At one time it would be that the local board would find a job for you and that’s probably what happened in World War II and the Korean War. By the time the Vietnam War rolled around, there were first of all more CO’s than before. Also, it was a tight employment market so it was not easy to find jobs for people. So, it was up to us to find our jobs. I thought teaching would be fun and I found out, by the way, that teaching in a public school was not acceptable because public school teachers were paid too much. It was actually considered too plush a job. I began looking for jobs at private schools and I interviewed in a place somewhere outside of Boston, at an alternative school. My parents knew people involved in a private school in Alexandria, VA and I got a job there. I’m trying to remember now whether I had to apply or whether they just took somebody’s word for it that I was going to do all right. I don’t remember an interview. I’d done a summer job at the school. They ran a nature summer camp and I worked for one summer driving the school bus and dumping garbage for the school so they knew me and I suppose my resume as a math major with a year of graduate school and some experience teaching gave them the confidence to hire me.

As for me being a CO in this community, it was not an issue with anybody. Northern Virginia is a fairly liberal community despite the local draft board. During my interview for the CO they wanted to know what I would do if my mother was raped. My answer didn’t convince them that I was sincere. They wouldn’t have been convinced that anyone was. Pacifism wasn’t going to fly there, but the community was liberal and the school was quite liberal. It was in fact set up to be an integrated school. It was the first integrated school in the state of Virginia. It was a cooperative school. The parents were involved. They were all liberal, middle-class committed parents.

My parents were always in my corner. I had during my last years at Dartmouth emotional arguments with my mother on Vietnam. She felt that this was the right thing to do and that communism was bad and we were saving Vietnam from communism. Communism was equated with totalitarianism and so on. I had these battles with my mother. My father felt the same way, but my relationship with my father was different. He would hear the argument and this big smile would come over his face. He was just so delighted that his son had these passionate views and was speaking so forcefully. It just amused him so much and whenever I tried to argue with him, the argument sort of petered out because he was quite content that I had these views and he was quite content that he had his views. He didn’t see any reason to talk about it.

By the early ‘70s, my parents had begun to realize that this was not working out. They certainly agreed that I was passionately against the war and they certainly didn’t want me to serve. I never had any feeling from them that I shouldn’t, that there was anything wrong with applying for a CO status. They were helpful in finding me my CO job.

I think both of my parents would have been unhappy had I chosen to go to jail and I think they might have been unhappy if I had chosen to go to Canada. My own personal view is that I don’t deserve any blame for being a CO, but I don’t deserve as much credit as the people who went to jail are entitled to. Going to Canada has about the same moral weight as being a CO, but going to jail had a far greater moral weight. The people who went to jail, those were the people who are truly admirable. There should be a monument in Washington for the people who went to jail. By becoming a CO I didn’t hinder the war effort in the slightest and what happened might have been that one more individual who didn’t have the education, the resources that I had, went to Vietnam. There’s nothing admirable about my position. Those who chose to go to jail made a dramatic point and they made a great sacrifice. The only guy I know who did that was a fellow math major at Dartmouth. I thought he was the best mathematician in our class. He was a brilliant guy with a very intuitive mind and he wasn’t the same when he got out of jail. He didn’t go to a great graduate school. He didn’t do terrific mathematics and I think it just took all the oomph out of his life. I would like to know what the impact was on a personal level of the broad group of draft resisters that went to jail. That would be an interesting story.

As for me, if I had not gotten the CO, I didn’t have a plan. I’d thought about going to Canada. I really don’t know what I would have done. I don’t want to know. There are certain things you don’t want to know about yourself. What I was my level of cowardice? Going to Canada. Could I have knuckled under and been drafted? I can’t see that happening. Maybe Canada would have happened. Maybe there would be some way of going back into the Peace Corps and deferring longer. I don’t know. I think I just had this faith that really bad things don’t happen to me. My wife would have preferred the Canada option. She wanted us together and that would be the simplest way.

The bottom line remains, to this day, that everything that happens to me is good. I think the Peace Corp and alternative service are a great resume. My teaching as a college professor was greatly improved by the experience I had both in the Philippines and teaching at the Burgundy Farm Country Day School. I think that if it derailed my mathematical career temporarily… I think probably being who I am, I would have cared as much as I do about educational issues and so my professional life would have been a balance. It would not have been all mathematical research. I’ve had a good mathematical research career. It’s not a stellar career, but I’m happy with it.

As far as the draft lottery itself is concerned, it could be made fairer if it is reinstated, but if you can still buy your way out then that’s a major problem. That happened in the Civil War, but the draft back then had an interesting twist to it. You yourself had to find somebody who was willing to be your replacement. It’s true that in my being a CO somebody had to go in my place, but I didn’t have to know this person. I didn’t have to see this person face to face. I didn’t hand money over to this person to take my place, but that’s what happened during the Civil War.
Psychologically I knew what was happening, but I could easily put that away.

If there was another draft lottery, they wouldn’t draft my son whose almost 34, but if I were of draft age I would consider it a threat and a terrible thing. I’m still a pacifist. I’m opposed to war as an instrument of national policy. On a personal level of course, I wouldn’t want to be drafted. The question of whether a draft makes it more likely or less likely that this nation would choose war – I haven’t thought this through. My first thought is that such a law would reduce the chances that the country would go to war. It’s certainly true that I noticed in the years since the Vietnam War that the public regard in this country for American, human life has risen tremendously. When Americans died in the bombing of the warship Cole, that was considered a massive tragedy. The casualties in the Iraq War, although tiny in comparison to the Vietnam War, loom large in the public mind, and all our military strategies are centered around preserving American lives. It seems to me that a draft law might very well be successful at curbing American military tendencies.

If you look at the all volunteer army, that’s heavily weighted towards the less moneyed classes, weighted towards non-whites, and I imagine a lottery would reduce that somewhat, but access to legal assistance, access to influential people…It’s hard to imagine that not being around. A lottery may very well be fairer, but it will still reflect societal inequities. Human society is such that you may not be able to avoid that anyhow.

I know of one man whose draft story is quite incredible. This is somebody who was in the Peace Corps and who had two close encounters with the draft that ended successfully. He graduated the same year I did in 1968. In the summer of 1967 before his senior year, they changed the rules so that you had to apply every year to get a student deferment. Starting in 1967 in order to get that student deferment you had to sign away your rights to a fatherhood deferment. This guy was not a father. There was no wife, let alone child, on the horizon, but he didn’t want to sign away his fatherhood deferment. He had heard about this in advance so before the letters came with the form and his signature and the rest of it, he wrote to his local draft board requesting a deferment for his senior year in college without any promise to not ask for a fatherhood deferment. I guess because it was done early enough, he got it. A few years later he was in the Peace Corps working in a small, rural village with his wife. They joined the Peace Corps together. They would go to the big city, which was a day trip if not a two day trip away, for various medical purposes and in about April of 1969 they visited the doctor and found out that she was pregnant. That was delightful, but almost at the same time they got a telegram from this guy’s father. The telegram said that President Nixon had just signed an executive order doing away with all fatherhood deferments except those pending. This guy went back to his village where the postmaster owed him a favor. He applied for the fatherhood deferment and the postmaster stamped it a month earlier and he got his fatherhood deferment.

Having been asked to think about these matters again after a long time I’m a mathematician. I’m in fact a logician. It matters a great deal to me that my positions are consistent and rational. Am I still a pacifist, am I still opposed to war? And what about that question about my mother being raped. Where does that fit in? What about the first Iraq war in which we were in some sense punishing an aggressor? What about the bombing in Kosovo? What about World War II? The answer is: Yes, I am still a pacifist. In regard to my mother’s rape, I’m not opposed to police forces. I’m not opposed to the rule of law. I think that we need protection from criminals and that protection has to be measured and appropriate. But you must have policemen and occasionally that policeman will have to use force and even violence to protect human life. And on the world scene the same is true. What we need is essentially a world government. We need a place in which there are laws governing how a country behaves and there is an international police force, which would of necessity be an army that can enforce the will of the world one way or the other. How this world government is ever going to appear, I don’t know. You can look, for example, at the current Iraq War and say, yes it’s true that it’s a good thing that Saddam Hussein is removed. Should we have done that? No, of course not. Had the United Nations said this is something that must be done because we’ve tried every way we can to tame this monster, then I would have supported American participation in an international police force action to remove this rogue leader. I happen to think that it wasn’t in our self-interest to start the war against Iraq. I remember hearing somebody blast France for its opposition and accuse France of taking its position to protect and promote its own oil industry and its own interests in Iraq. I said to myself what I should have said to him: “I’ll make a deal. I won’t accuse the United States of such accusations if you don’t accuse France and let’s just look at the issue of whether this is an appropriate way of dealing with what we both agree is a problem.”

It has been a pleasure, a very great pleasure, to revisit these memories for me. I think this is an exquisitely interesting time in our lives, in the life of our country, and I think that the issues I have been talking about are coming back right now. Long ago we should have been fleshing out these things, but it was so emotional back then. People have said that the battle, the intellectual battle, the emotional battle over this was replayed in the impeachment of Clinton, and I believe that. The hate of that man by the conservatives can only be explained by historical events going back to the ‘60’s and Vietnam and how they affected us all.