Fallows's growing opposition to the Vietnam War

Vietnam. TVP00402. 12th of August, '82. Sound Role #2504. Jim Fallows.
This is Vietnam, TVP00402, 12th of August, '82, Sound Role #2504. Reference follows.
Vietnam, Home Front. WGBH. Scene One, Take One, Sound Role 2504, Camera Role 508.
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Jim, describe how you learned about your draft number coming up, what options you considered and what you finally decided to do.
If I could I'd like to take a couple steps back because the, the ideas that I brought to that time, which was the last year I was in college in 19...fall of 1969, affected the way I felt. I had grown up in a small town in Southern California where Barry Goldwater carried when he ran, and so when I was in high school — I was a graduate of high school in 1966 — the big build-ups in Vietnam were underway by that time, but I took them entirely for granted because everything that was part of government policy was part of what one did in my town.
And so when I went to college in the fall of '66, I first began by thinking that of course this war was right, government had, had endorsed it and therefore I, I would too. I also thought at one step back in my subconscious it was something I would never be involved because it was four years from now before I'd be, be out of college.
As time went on at, at Harvard, where, where I was in college, the first of those premises, namely that this was automatically right, became eroded. And the time when I remember it just very clearly happening was in January of 1967 when Arthur Goldberg came to Harvard to explain the war.
He was in a debate with some professor there, and the professor spent an hour making the case about why this was wrong, why we're going to lose, etc., etc., and I thought, Well, now Arthur Goldberg will stand up and give the answers. And he stood up and he talked and he didn't give the answers, and this was the time when, in my own life, the time when, when I felt my, my feelings change.
Over the next couple of years I ended up going to marches at the Pentagon and in Boston things I would never have done in my previous life. It was, it was out of character for my family, for my town. I didn't go to the extremes of being in the SDS or the Weathermen, but I thought this was a wrong enterprise and that people needed to oppose it.
It then came to be the fall of 1969, the last year...

Fallows's conscription

You have to bring the microphone out. I'm sorry. You snuck in there.
Fine, fine...we, we move now to the...yeah.
Start over saying, Then it came to be the fall...
We move now to the fall of 1969...
Start that one more time...
Not with we move now but it was the fall of '69.
Fine...It was the fall of '69, I was beginning my last year in college, and it was also when they had just put in the draft lottery, as I remember. And, again, I didn't really think that I was going to be directly involved in any of these, these things. They had the, uh, the drawing of the lottery I think when I was coming back from seeing my relatives for Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania.
I was coming back into Boston and I heard that my birthdate, August 2nd, had come up as number 45 on the draft list. And suddenly I realized this was something that I had to figure out what to do about as I had not really thought I would have to before.
There were, there were many confused spirits and climates in the air in those, those days that were going through my own mind and the one thing I knew was that I, I didn't want to go to the war. I had, I was not as cynical then as I might have been. Were I more cynical I would have realized that I could have joined at the Navy and gone to Language Candidate School or could have gone and been an Intelligence Officer in Germany or something, but I wasn't that knowing about the world.
I thought - and we all seemed to think - the choice was, staying out of the draft or going and being killed. That was, that was the way the world worked. So I knew that I didn't want to, to go do that.
I'm not sure of proportions here, some part of it was feeling this was wrong and I didn't want to be involved in an incorrect enterprise. People were very high on the literature of civil disobedience in those days. Part of it was feeling I didn't want to go, I didn't want to go be in, in a foxhole.
There was an additional complication which was in December I won a Rhodes Scholarship, so I was, uh, I was going to be financed to go spend the next two years at Oxford. I wanted to do that instead of going to Vietnam.
So the, the course that I ended up choosing, and it was, uh, was again in the spirit of those times, was to look for the painless way out. Namely, a physical deferment. I'd considered this conscientious objector thing but never went through with that because I wasn't really a conscientious objector to all wars ever. I was, I was against this and against my being in it.
And so one of the best selling items in the Harvard Square bookstores in those days was something called the Draft Physical. And it was a list of all the things people could get out for. And I saw when I, I looked through that, that, uh, there was only one way where I could beat the rap which was that I was then very, very skinny. I, I weighed about 130 pounds in those days, and that was on the, on the merits that was below the height and weight qualifications for somebody of my height.
And with a combination of just generalized anxiety and with a determination to get out, I, I lost about ten pounds over the next few months. So that at the time of the draft physical I weight about 120 pounds. I was a real specimen of emaciation. The...
Let's go on.

Disqualification from the draft

Can you describe for me briefly the scene on bus, go over the Induction Center, what happened? You board the bus, begin like that.
How about starting with you arrived very thin getting on the bus.
Well, when this came to a head for me was in May of 1970. The school year was over, when the school year had been closed down, in fact, cause this was just a few days after the...
Stop just a moment, please?
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Scene One, Take Two.
Clap sticks.
All this came to a head for me in May of 1971. It was the end of my last year at college. The school year had been called off because of the riots in Cambridge and elsewhere, after the shootings at Kent State, the invasion of Cambodia. And, just about this time it was physical examination time.
The way they did that in Boston was to have one day at the Boston Navy Yard for each of the Local Draft Boards. So there was one day that was Cambridge Day. And what Cambridge Day meant was maybe 5% of the people who lived in Cambridge and 95% who went to Harvard or MIT.
So at 6:00 a.m. in the morning I showed up at, uh, City Hall in Cambridge, shivering because I was so skinny, with all these other people, and I surveyed the scene around me. There were people in red headbands with their torsos all painted with, uh, various obscenities. There were people getting the "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" chants going up, and there was in almost everyone's hand from Cambridge Day a doctor's letter: the trick back, the psychiatrist excuse, the uh, the homosexual exemption, etc. Everybody had prepared to get out in some way.
So we road the bus over to the Boston Navy Yard. This was the rare encounter that any of us had had with the organization of the military, except to be sitting outside the Pentagon, etc.
They took us in there, and uh, there was an interesting change in the people they had running the introductory indoctrination. First, they had one person who obviously had not been through Cambridge Days before. And he was shaken in a few minutes, uh, when the people were yelling at him and screaming at him to get the fuck out and all the rest. They, uh, they got rid of him and brought in somebody who had been through many of these things before. He said, "Look, got all day, we can take as long as you want, you, you're gonna to go through with this."
There were many little grease notes to this, uh, to this event. They gave that uh, a mental classification test, everybody sitting before you went through the physical. And, of course, all of the, uh, all of the wise guys from, from the Cambridge Day were deliberately failing the tests so they would be, try to get out and the examiner told them no, that wasn't going to do.
That was over, we started going through the line and each station of the cross, if you will, each one of the examining points in the Navy Yard, there were some new little surprise, there were some people who had been hoping to get out because of anti-disciplinarian personality traits and they would throw cups of urine on the orderlies. I saw that happen twice. There were people who had surprise messages on their underwear or on their genitals for the doctors as they went through. The doctors had seen this all before. They were much less, less phased.
My own epiphany came as I was going through the end and reached the height and weight station. I realized that I was, I was going to make the cut. And finally I came to a doctor, who was ruling on marginal cases like mine. There was obviously nothing really wrong with the person, but technically was in violation.
And he looked at me and said, as he was looking over the chart, and he said, "Well, have you ever considered suicide?" This was a new thought to me. He said, "Oh, oh, yes, I, I've been feeling very depressed and anxious recently." And then I looked at the ground and he finally stared at me and I knew that he knew exactly what was going on. He wrote "Disqualified, or 1-Y" or whatever, but was putting me in the side with people who were not going to go.
I felt that moment, a lot of people, I think, felt some sense of instantaneous sense of relief — the thing that people had been planning had, had, had worked out. But it was for anyone who was not blind, it was complicated by several other senses. One was the sense of just shame and humiliation. The, this was the one thing in my life that I most wish I had not done.
And, and, just as a tangent, the course of principal in those days would have been for people to formally refuse induction, as a, as a few people did. That was one of the complications — a sense of personal embarrassment.
There was a, a different one, too, that many people tried to blind themselves, to which came just as we were nearing the end of our session, as people were getting ready to get back on the bus to go back to Harvard, to go back to their, future lives. Because they started bringing in the people from another part of Boston, not from the university part, from a white working class district of Boston. And much as four out of five of my friends were getting exempted, nine out of ten of these people were going through being approved going off to war.
And I think that was when everybody had to face the fact of, of what was going on, of what the consequences of our actions were, that we were not going but somebody else was, and we were seeing the people who were going to, going to be in the Army.
That moment has stayed with me in all the, the intervening twelve years. Because, I think it says something. It says something about individuals. But, it says something probably more important in a practical sense about the way we run our society. What it says about individuals, is there was a class of privileged people who took the expedient course, who, who were willing to let, who were willing to blind themselves to the consequences of war. They were doing...
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Scene One, Take Three. Camera Roll 509.
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Stand by just a minute so I can get into my...okay, whenever you're ready.

Political lessons from selective service

Tell us about...
Fine. Near the end of the induction day at the Boston Navy Yard as the people from Cambridge were getting ready to go back on the bus and go back home to their new lives, we realized the other complication in our feelings. It was because the buses started arriving from a different district in Boston — not a university one, but a white working class district of Boston.
And while four out of five, nine out of ten of my comrades from Harvard and MIT were getting out with their doctors' excuses, the same proportion of people from this part of town were, were marching right through the physical and were going off to the military, going off to the war.
Nobody could avoid recognizing what that, that meant then. We knew that while we were not going to war, we were seeing the people who were. We were seeing the people were, were going to be killed.
The question is, does this matter? I think it mattered a lot. Both, both then and now. The reason it mattered then was showing the fraudulence of the basic reasoning of the people, like me, had used in choosing our courses of action.
That reasoning I remember hearing about some of the, uh, the draft counseling, uh, seminars at Harvard. They say that we should think of ourselves as sand in the cogs of the great war machine and that General Hershey, the Selective Service Director, was running out of bodies. And by exempting ourselves from his grasp, we would be slowing down the pace of the war.
It was obvious to anybody who was not, who, whose personal interest weren't wrapped up in believing that argument, as ours were. What should have been obvious is that we weren't bringing the war to a stop that way. There was no shortage of bodies.
What we were doing was making sure that parents, like ours, the most, some, that the, the more influential classes of the nation were entirely spared the cost of this war. That, that because their children weren't going to be paying a cost, either in terms of going off to the fighting or having to do a painful course of, of uh, of resistance, going to prison, or whatever.
You didn't have mothers from Beverly Hills and Belmont, Evanston and all the other equivalent communities around the nation screaming to their congressmen, you know, "You killed my son, we have to stop this." There wasn't that direct tie between the most influential parts of the country and, and the policy of, of, of, of, uh, the war.
It...I think it also, it taught lessons about individuals and about the way a society should be run. What it says about individuals, and what obviously has been on my mind since then, on many other people's, is that a class of the most privileged people took a course that was, was without character, that was, was not something they, they should've done. They didn't do the brave or correct thing. And I think that for people, for men of my generation this is a, will be a permanent breach on the people who took one course or another during, during Vietnam.
About the way society should be run now, I think it teaches a slightly different lesson. Because you can't set up the rules for a nation on the principal that people will do heroic things. You can't expect that. you can't expect them to rise above self-interest.
What you have to do is ally their self-interest with the things you want to see accomplished. Which is why, I think, that there had been no student deferment during the middle 1960's, there would've been no war in Vietnam. Because everybody would have known from the beginning the political cost that would be paid.
It is why I think we are making a tragic mistake to have a volunteer force now. Because it's the same thing I was seeing at the induction day at the Boston Navy Yard, but institutionalized and more extreme.
Because now no one from the good colleges is, very few people in the good colleges are going into the service, and it's much more foreign to our nation economically and educationally than it was even during, during Vietnam. So, I think, uh, the lesson I have drawn about society is that we need to have a universal draft with no exemptions if we want to avoid that painful experience again.
Cut. Rolling.
Scene One, Take Four.
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Ready, Second Marker.
Second Marker.
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Carry on rolling, I just wanted to say again, if you are comfortable saying it was a deliberate political decision by the administration, it would be interesting to hear.
It seems clear, at least to me, that among the decisive influences of why we got into Vietnam the way we did, and why it, why it bled along, and the painful way it did for so long, was that politicians, especially Lyndon Johnson, made the decision to fight this war on what has been called the "Political Cheap" - to not mobilize the nation, and, and, and uh, which meant not mobilizing the reserve to start with.
It also meant something more cynical than that, which was to deliberately, I think, deflect the cost from people in college and graduate schools and then you, uh, it now seems, seems astonishing, but it's true that until the Spring of 1968 there was a deferment for graduate school students. So that if you had enough money and you could stay in school until you were 26, you could buy your way out forever of any of the cost of that era.
And when the graduate school deferment was removed in 1968 it was a tremendous jag upward in protest to the war. Part of that had to do with the Tet Offensive, but a lot of it, I think, has to do with the fact that many people were suddenly touched in their personal lives, lives by this.
Is why I think that if those feedbacks between all of the different classes of the nation, all strata of our society, the feedbacks between them and political decision had been built in from the beginning, if there had been not only no graduate school deferment but no 2S deferment for college students, we would never had fought that war.
Because the politicians would have known from the beginning that it could not have been fought on the cheap. If it was going to be fought, then the children of congressmen and of doctors and of bankers were going to be there doing the fighting, too. And that they were either going to, to find a war they could justify to the public and pursue in normal military ways or else they weren't going to be able to do it. So, that's a mistake we can't repeat.

Fallows's early political beliefs

Continue to tell us a little bit about your vision of the country.
This, this may be somewhat at odds to what you're really looking for is the prevailing political vision, and, and, in, in, when I was young, was that of capitalism and liberty under siege.
The, the idea was that politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, who I supported in his first race for governor of California in 1966 and worked for him as a teenager, they were the way to arrest the tide of socialism and international compromise and things like that.
And in this setting the war in Vietnam seemed like a, the right thing for America to be doing. This was, this was taking the step against the Communists here, as opposed to Pearl Harbor or San Francisco. While I was, was in high school I followed this as a perfectly normal thing. It was like the Korean War, which was only ten years in the past. After all, it was part of defending liberty around the world.
The only person I knew in my high school who questioned it was somebody who, for that reason, became a weirdo. He, he was just ostracized from all things, was not part of normal high school society. And that was the, the uh, the mental baggage I took with me when I went off to college.
That's very interesting. Rolling.
Scene One, Take Five.
And mark it. Clap sticks.
Stand by Jim. Okay, go ahead.
The first time I had a sense that the war was going to touch me personally, the first time I knew that in my soul was in the fall of 1969, the beginning of my last year in college when the draft lottery had just been introduced.
I was, had spent Thanksgiving weekend with some of my relatives in Pennsylvania and was coming back to Cambridge when I heard on the radio that the lottery had been held, and that my birthday, which was August 2nd, had come up number 45 — that is a sure draftee.
That was, I guess, the first time that it struck me that I had to figure out for myself not in the abstract, not in terms of political realities what I was going to do about all this. The...

Fallows's disqualification from the draft

Is this some new thought?
Yes, this is a new thought. So that...
We have to change the rolls.
Fine. The scene that presented itself at the Boston Navy Yard as the people from Cambridge started going through was a lot of, of talented and well-educated, privileged people who had decided that the way for them to carry out their political beliefs and their personal salvation was to take on the most loathsome sort of personality traits.
And so there were people who were, were yelling and demonstrating and changing, "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" — there were people who would never be rude in their normal lives who were unbelievably rude to the, the orderlies and sergeants who were, were steering them around.
Probably the extreme of this was something that I saw twice, which was, as you passed the urinalysis station, where you're seeing if you had diabetes, people would come up holding vials of urine, hear the orderly and flip it in his face. And I think that was the, that was the extreme of what this line of thought led people to.
I'm rolling.
Scene One, Take Six.
And mark it.
Clap sticks. And stand by. And action.
At the end of the physical they had a doctor who ruled on cases like mine. A very marginal case whether somebody was fit or not. I was led in in front of this guy, and he looked over the folder, saw I was basically healthy but I was somehow very much underweight.
And he looked at me, he had a fatherly eat like my own father, a doctor, and sized up what was going on. He looked in my eyes and said, "Have you ever considered suicide?" This was a new thought to me.
I said, "Oh, oh yes, suicide. I've been feeling very unstable, very much under pressure." He looked at me for a second again, I turned my eyes to the ground, cause I knew what was going on, he knew what was going on. He picked up a form again and dashed across it "disqualified 1Y" or whatever the logo was, handed it to me and walked out.
He had, (sigh) I don't know what was going through his mind, because perhaps, uh, he, he was a willing accomplice in all this. He knew what was happening to perhaps his own children, were in a similar situation. But I saw him go through that exercise several times, that day with people other than me.
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