According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
On October 15, 1965, there was a rally in New York protesting the build-up of American armed forces in Vietnam.
A friend asked David Miller to give a five-minute speech at the rally about non-cooperation with the draft. Unable to come up with material for his five-minute speech, Miller decided to simply burn his draft card instead. His friends warned him about the dangers of his action, given the new law banning deliberate destruction of a draft card.
Unwilling to either let his friend down or to admit his own fear of public speaking, Miller pressed ahead. When the time came, he held up his card and said, “I am not going to give my prepared speech. I am going to let this action speak for itself. I know that you people across the street really know what is happening in Vietnam. I am opposed to the draft and the war in Vietnam.”* Then he set his card on fire.
He spent 22 months in Federal prison.
The conflict in Vietnam was a product of Cold War thinking. When North Korea became communist, the American administration was afraid the rest of the countries in the region would fall to the communist ideology like dominoes. Although Congress gave the president broad powers after North Vietnam attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, war was never officially declared.
Any military conflict invites debate on duty and morality. The war in Vietnam invited even greater debate for many reasons: because of the tactics used – such as napalming the jungle; because the prevalence of television meant more people were seeing footage of battles and their horrific aftermath; and because the South Vietnamese leadership was not democratically elected, and in some cases was oppressing the Vietnamese people to stay in power.
David Miller, burning his draft card, was part of a much larger group of people concerned about Vietnam.** As the war in Vietnam dragged on, a protest movement swept America, eventually growing so large that in 1973 the government abolished the draft and made the U.S. Army an all-volunteer force.
Americans were sharply divided over the war in Vietnam. Some felt it was a patriotic duty to fight for democracy anywhere in the world, that it was an honor to answer a call to serve your country. They felt it was cowardly, unpatriotic and treasonous to oppose the government. Others felt just as strongly that the war symbolized a form of unchecked authority, that civil disobedience was not just their right, but their duty when they saw the government’s actions as illegal or immoral.
There were good people on both sides of the debate, many of whom had the best of intentions. Much has been written about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and how we still feel the aftereffects today.
In examining this dilemma – what to do when called to fight in a war you don’t believe in – two things stand out vividly: fear, and courage. Naturally, war engenders fear in everyone involved – the soldiers, the civilians, and the families waiting at home. But this war was also about institutional and ideological fear. Fear of communism. Fear of what might happen if lots of people followed an economic and political model radically different from yours. Humans are afraid of what they don’t understand, and that includes ideologies opposed to their own beliefs.
More compelling, however, is the tale of courage.
For it takes enormous courage to stand for what you believe is right – whether that means you are standing in a jungle waiting to shoot or be shot, or that means you are standing in front of a hostile crowd declaring your decision not to fight.
Vietnam War Facts:
Two-thirds of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were volunteers, and those drafted were disproportionately drawn from the poorer, more rural, or less well-educated parts of the American population. Draft boards in more affluent areas were more willing to give deferments.
More than 2 ½ million Americans served in Vietnam before it finally fell to the communists in 1975. 1 in 10 soldiers were killed or injured in Vietnam. Some still suffer the effects of PTSD or Agent Orange today.
68,000 men fled the country to avoid the draft. President Carter issued a general pardon in 1974.
More than half of the three million people who were killed in Vietnam were Vietnamese civilians.
On November 15, 1969, the largest anti-war protest in US history took place when over 250,000 people marched on Washington, DC.
*Miller, D. (2002). Memoirs of a Draft-Card Burner.
**And public speaking.
Atwood, P. (2012). Called to Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 42(3), 527-530.
Fennell, T., Branswell, B., & Wood, C. (2000, April 24). Hell no, they won’t go. Maclean’s, 22-22.
Foley, Michael S., Confronting the war machine draft resistance during the Vietnam War, University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Hershberger, M. (2004, March 1). Confronting the War Machine. Journal of American History, 1537-1538.
Kusch, F. (2015, March 1). Building Sanctuary: The Movement to Support Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, 1965-73. Canadian Journal of History, 181-184.
Miller, D. (2002). “Memoirs of a Draft-Card Burner”, excerpted from I Didn’t Know God Made Honky Tonk Communists, Retrieved June 30, 2015, from http://www.reclaimingquarterly.org/82/rq-82-draftcard.html
October 15, 1965 history.com
Vietnam War History, History.com Staff, 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history,accessed June 11, 2015, A+E Networks
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