Jim Humphreys grew up in Erie, PA, received a four-year National Merit Scholarship and spent two years each at Swarthmore and Oberlin. After two years of graduate study at Cornell he switched to Yale and finished a Ph.D. in mathematics. He taught at the University of Oregon, New York University, and the University of Massachusetts, along with research time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ and visits at dozens of universities around the world. He lives now in Northampton, MA.
My own story from the Vietnam era is different from many others, but all of us certainly had a story. I had decided very early against that war, even before attending my first teach-in during a summer math institute at Boulder in 1965, while I was still in graduate school. In fact I had become skeptical about all wars and became more so in the Cold War era.
Though I was raised in a conventional lower middle class setting in Erie, PA and some of my 20-odd first cousins became career military people, my parents were not especially religious and were suspicious of politics and militarism. My father had first-hand exposure to the intense pro-war social pressures during World War II, being exempted from the draft to support his wife and three young sons. But like most of my peers I registered for the draft (then hypothetical) in 1957 when I turned 18 at college, trekking to the nearest draft board in Media, PA (the one which later became famous in the Vietnam era).
Long before it was finally revealed that the Tonkin Gulf affair, which whipped up war frenzy in the US was basically a hoax, my private decision was to go to Canada or otherwise evade the draft. Initially I had student and occupational deferments during graduate school and also while I started teaching at the University of Oregon in 1966-68.
With the war intensifying and the draft lottery looming, I applied for and was granted conscientious objector status by my hometown draft board (back in Erie) in spite of not being affiliated with any conventional religion and expressing my objection mainly to that particular war. By then even the more conservative draft boards were starting to recognize conscientious objection based on deeply held ethical principles. It probably didn’t hurt that my own application was supported by a senior colleague at Oregon who had delayed his own college life for years to serve in the Navy during World War II.
That draft card got shredded not long after. (Of course, at that point I didn’t play the really winning card: the fact that I was gay. Too difficult to deal with then.) The war didn’t end anytime soon, so I got used to being in antiwar demonstrations in Eugene, New York City, Washington DC.
The draft still exists in theory, but Americans have mostly gotten used to perpetual wars fought by mercenary soldiers and paid for in borrowed dollars as well as distant blood. For most people Vietnam is a vague memory, a place where US investment dollars now flow, but tourists mostly don’t.