Eliot Fratkin is a professor of Anthropology at Smith College. His wife Marty Nathan is a physician and activist who for many years headed the Greensboro Justice Fund, created after her first husband was killed with four other demonstrators by Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in 1979. Elliot and Marty live in Northampton MA and have three grown children, two of whom are adopted from Ethiopia.
I graduated high school in 1966 and registered for the draft like everyone else. I thought it was a sign of maturity at 18 years old. I’m from Philadelphia and went to Central, an all-city high school. There were more than a few of us who were politically conscious in high school. In 1964 my twin brother and I sent books to Mississippi and tried to go down to march in Selma in 1965, but our parents wouldn’t let us. My first real job was as a teacher’s aide in an inner city kindergarten for the Headstart anti-poverty program. President Johnson really did a lot of good things around civil rights and against poverty; he was a genuine New Dealer. But I remember in 11th grade when, in February 1965, my history teacher told us that the US had begun bombing North Vietnam. Basically this told me that this war was not coming to an end, but that we were escalating it instead. That’s what Johnson did to us. We felt much betrayed.
I went to the University of Wisconsin and was there for two years until ‘68 when I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. Across the country the protest movement was expanding from civil rights to the anti-war movement. At Wisconsin things had really started heating up by 1967. In October 1967, there were about 300 demonstrators led by SDS* who blockaded a chemistry building where Dow Chemical was recruiting prospective employees, mainly engineering students. Dow was making napalm as well as saran wrap and we didn’t want the university to contribute to the burning of Vietnamese villages and children. The police came in, clubs swinging and literally dragged us out. I was this skinny guy at the time who should have known better, but this policeman came up to me and started hitting me with a stick, so I grabbed it and said, “Stop hitting me.” Then they all starting clubbing me and I started punching back in self-defense. That moment was caught on the news. It played on CBS and was later used in the film “The War at Home,” which was about the blowing up of the math building in Madison in 1970 that killed a young researcher.**
After the police pulled us from the building, I was put in this van with about 4 other demonstrators. A bunch of guys were outside asking us what we wanted to do, and I said, “Go get my brother.” My twin brother Jake came and found me there. He just kept saying “Don’t worry. I’m gonna get you out of there. I’m gonna get you out of there.” I told him, “Fine, go find a lawyer.” About three minutes later the back door of the van opened and my brother and another guy were tossed in. They had taken out the valves from all the tires so the van just deflated and was stuck. We were all in it together now.
The police had asked us for our names and were about to let us go, but the van was now immobilized right in the middle of the campus. Soon it was surrounded by a lot of students, and the police, stupidly, set off tear gas. What had been a demonstration of 300 became a demonstration of 5,000. They called it the Dow Riots and the police sent scores of demonstrators to the hospital.
We did get out on bail, and later William Kunstler*** defended us. The six of us were arrested on disorderly conduct charges. He argued, “How can you claim disorderly conduct for civil disobedience?” Ultimately they agreed and threw the charges out. My dad called us the night of the arrests. He was a very mild-mannered, quiet accountant from Philadelphia; he said to us in his south Philly accent, “Okay, so let me get this straight. There are 40,000 students at Wisconsin, six of them who are arrested, and two of them are my sons?” I don’t think my parents knew what to do with us. They were worried about us being radicals. They had friends who had been blacklisted in the 1950s and worried the same thing would happen to us.
The entire country was experiencing anti-war demonstrations and marches. It always amazes me when the media or Hollywood depicts the anti-war movement as if it were a few crazy outsiders. It was hundreds of thousands of people; most of my generation was against the war. And not just us. I marched in a demonstration in New York City led by Martin Luther King, and there were several hundred thousand people in the streets that day. I believe it was this strong public opposition which helped end the war; this plus the fighting power and endurance of the Viet Cong.
I remember when Johnson resigned. Hundreds of us were watching the news in the U Wisconsin student union (no one had a TV in their room in those days). Lyndon Johnson came on the news and with a weary face said, “I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” People started whooping and running in the streets like this was going to change their lives, “The war is over, I don’t have to go!” But it didn’t end for another bloody eight years.
Many of us were very aware of the class differences and how being in college got us out of the war, at least until the lottery was instituted in 1969. Even Dick Cheney, who was a grad student at Wisconsin, got deferred because he was married. But we knew they were running out of bodies and had to end the college deferments. That’s when they instituted a tougher draft with the lottery. Up to then, poor people who couldn’t afford the deferments filled the draft.
There were crazy stories going around about people trying to get out of the draft. I heard about this one guy who put a mouse up his ass. During the physical the doctor saw the tail coming out and asked, “What is that?” and the guy said, “Hey, that’s my mouse, leave it alone.” I knew people who took massive amounts of drugs the day before the physical. I even heard of a guy who cut his thumb off to avoid going into the service, like the Russians in World War I. I never heard anyone defend the war itself. Some World War II and Korean War vets would talk about the duty to defend the country, but nobody my age liked the War in Vietnam. Even the soldiers had an anti-war movement going on within the army, at great risk to themselves.
I wasn’t passively waiting around to get drafted. Going to U Penn and living in Philadelphia, I became a draft counselor with the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee); we helped young men apply for CO (conscientious objector) status. We had to train them to answer questions like, “When they are raping your mother, then would you fight?” or “Should we have fought against Hitler?” But in truth it was very hard to get a CO unless you had a specific religious background. In Philadelphia this meant you had to be a Quaker or Amish or Jehovah’s Witness or Mennonite, but certainly not a member of a regular mainstream religion. If you could convince the draft board you were a genuine pacifist, you also had a chance of getting a CO.
I never applied for the CO status myself because I could not in good conscience claim to be a pacifist. I felt the Vietnamese were fighting a necessary war to defend themselves and their country. When we started the War in Vietnam none of us had any idea why we were fighting over there. But hearing some lectures from radical professors you saw there were real political and economic reasons why we (the US) were there. I came to see the war from the Vietnamese point of view. I know it’s a hard thing for some Americans to accept, but for them it was a just war, to keep a world power from destroying their country. The Vietnamese, and I mean the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, were incredibly organized and selfless. Theirs was a ‘people’s war,’ a war of the grasshoppers as they called it.
So the lottery came around and my brother and I joked that, of course, the biggest schmucks were going to have the high end numbers and not get drafted. Being twins we had the same number since they were assigned by your birthday, but ours was a middle to high number, around 200. My brother wrote a ‘fuck-you’ letter to the draft board and got called up, but he got out on a medical release – he was up for three nights on speed before he appeared for his physical exam. I think they just knew they didn’t need this guy, hair out to here, wild-eyed and crazy, up all night. They didn’t want someone like that in the barracks or battlefield. Following my brother’s lead, I guess, I sent back my draft card saying, “I don’t need this, thank you very much. I don’t want to participate in this war.” About every three months or so after that, the draft board would send me a new card saying they understood that I had lost mine and here is a replacement! So I would have about three draft cards in my wallet.
The University of Pennsylvania was more conservative than Wisconsin, and their anti-war movement was not as strong. So people would go to a demonstration, and someone would say “Let’s burn our draft cards,” but nobody would move. So I would pull out my wallet and pull out one of my draft cards and say, “Sure, to hell with the war,” and set it on fire. And then a few others would get the nerve to burn their cards. While the students at Penn might have been more cautious than at Wisconsin, the cops certainly weren’t. I remember Frank Rizzo himself (then captain of the Philadelphia police and later mayor) would come with the cops with his own billy club, just to join in the shoving. I never did get called up, but I did leave the country by going to grad school in the United Kingdon and later to Kenya to do my graduate research. I didn’t return for seven years, in 1977. Sometimes I thought I should have gone into the Army. Why should class privilege keep me from going through what poor people had to go through? I didn’t want to die, but I thought I could more effectively organize a resistance among the troops from the inside. If you could join a service and organize within, even though it was a very dangerous thing to do, that seemed to me the best way to do it. I had distributed anti-war newspapers at Fort Dix in New Jersey and what really inspired me was what these self-educated servicemen were talking about, how this was not how they thought their lives were going to turn out, especially with the casualty rate so high. People had different reasons for wanting to be in the Army: for manhood, for an education, or just plain employment, but unless you were really bizarre, you didn’t go in to kill people.
After the war wound down, a lot of people my age just seemed to stop caring about politics. In part the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy wore us out, and the Nixon administration was very repressive. Many young people withdrew into “drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll”; others joined hippy farms and communes, others, like me, traveled or moved abroad. Some radicals joined underground groups like the Weathermen;**** I knew one of the bombers of the math building in Wisconsin, who ended up serving years in prison.
I went to the UK for graduate school in anthropology. I was at the London School of Economics (LSE) from 1970-1972. As an American I was criticized about what the US was doing in Vietnam, and the only thing I could do was to say I was opposed to the war. But if I asked about Britain’s own imperial politics including British rule in Northern Ireland, some of the so-called liberals at LSE got defensive and said I could not possibly understand that situation, it was entirely different. But I didn’t really see it as that much different from Vietnam.
But there was a lot of anti-war activity in England, and I went to several demonstrations in London. Once I got arrested at the US Embassy for demonstrating against the mining of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam, and I got my nose broken by the police. Later in my life I did a Freedom of Information Act search and was surprised to learn the FBI has a record of my arrest in London. They seemed to monitor the anti-war activities of Americans abroad, even though the FBI is supposed to be a domestic agency. There were all kinds of information they were getting about us.
Today, our military is so-called voluntary, but it is still made up of less educated and poor people. I think people go into the service in their 20’s or even late teens without a clue as to what war is like, and then they see it. They get shot at, bombed, see their friends die. Some have killed people – not just enemy soldiers but women and children – all the things your body screams at you against doing. My wife, Marty, says this is a reason so many soldiers come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder.
I’m very anti-military so I wouldn’t endorse a draft lottery if there was one, but a lottery would be the fairest way to draft people. Then we would see what happens when rich and powerful people have their sons and daughters go off and get killed in a useless and imperialist war.
The Vietnam War radicalized people who would normally not have been radicalized. There was, for a brief time, unity across color and class lines. Today more than 60% of Americans oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they are not demonstrating against it. Many people think we are doing the right thing over there. “We’re liberating their society, spreading democracy, educating and freeing women.” All these things are covers for corporation greed and the government’s need for political hegemony.
I think it was really interesting to have gone through what I did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I was 18 to 24 years old and very impressionable; to be active in that time and place was a real privilege. We got to see lots of things you would never see in a so-called normal period. You got to see what the military and police really do. You got to see what poverty really looks like. You got to see the effects of imperialism. Maybe people will see that again soon. It wasn’t a very happy time, no matter how Hollywood and TV describe it. People were dying. Many of us became activists because we were pushed into it by what was going on around us. It changed my life.
*Students for a Democratic Society was a student activist movement in the United States that was one of the main iconic representations of the country’s New Left. The organization developed and expanded rapidly in the mid-1960s before dissolving at its last convention in 1969.
**The Sterling Hall Bombing occurred on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus on August 24, 1970. It was committed by four young people as a protest against the University’s research connections with the US military during the Vietnam War. It resulted in the death of a university physics researcher and injuries to three others.
***William Kunstler (July 7, 1919 – September 4, 1995) was an American self-described “radical lawyer” and civil rights activist, known for his controversial clients. Kunstler was a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the co-founder of the Law Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the leading gathering place for radical lawyers in the country.
**** The Weather Underground Organization – abbreviated WUO – was an American radical left organization. It originated in 1969 as a faction of Students for a Democratic Society composed for the most part of the national office leadership of SDS and their supporters. Their goal was to create a clandestine revolutionary party for the violent overthrow of the US government.