On a chilly afternoon in the spring of 1967, David Harris stood before an audience of nearly 60,000 in San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. Clad in a denim jacket against the cold, the 21-year-old sported muttonchops and a prodigious mustache, and his six-foot-three frame seemed too large for the simple lectern. Speaking with an inexplicable New England accent, he preached that “the brutality in Vietnam is simply a reflection of the brutality of American life” and warned that “you will do her murdering [until America is] confronted by young men who will not murder!” The crowd roared in approval, and he urged the men in the audience to return their draft cards and to refuse military conscription.
But on this afternoon in the spring of 2019, Harris, 73 and recently diagnosed with incurable metastatic prostate cancer, talks to more than a dozen juniors and seniors at the Athenian School in Danville, California. They’re studying the Vietnam War and are seated in a classroom whose bright green walls are covered with posters bearing slogans like “Make Art Not War” and “Dissent Is Not Disloyalty.” Harris explains that instead of defecting to Canada to avoid the war, he felt a patriotic obligation to go to jail. He was not dodging the draft; he was resisting it and taking his punishment. Much as he did more than 50 years ago, he holds his audience’s rapt attention.
His voice becomes animated and his blue-gray eyes light up as he talks with the students about their worries: gun violence, climate change, Trump administration policies. Harris’s advice is simple: actions, not words, are needed. “You get what you do,” he urges them. His mantra: Resist.
During the turbulent Vietnam era, hundreds of thousands of people heard Harris speak, saw him on the evening news, or read one of the many magazines and newspapers covering him. He was married to folk singer and fellow antiwar activist Joan Baez, and the famous couple were known as Mr. and Mrs. Peace. Over the course of the war, many young men burned their selective service draft cards. In all, 25,000 were indicted for draft-related offenses, nearly 9,000 were convicted, and more than 3,000 spent up to five years in prison for doing so. In 1969, David Harris became one of the latter and was incarcerated at Safford’s Federal Prison Camp in Arizona and then in La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution near El Paso. As Prisoner 4697-159, he continued to speak out against the war, led hunger strikes, and spent 3 months of his 20-month sentence languishing in solitary confinement.
Harris’s journey from Mr. Peace to elder statesman of protest hasn’t been easy. He has remained busy, writing 10 books, penning op-eds, running for political office, protesting against the Iraq War, and supporting causes like prison reform and improving care for Vietnam veterans. He’s even a major figure in a new documentary, The Boys Who Said No!, which the filmmakers hope to finish next year. However, while he may once have been the most famous draft resister besides Muhammad Ali, Harris today is largely known only to people of a certain age. Worse, he’s haunted by revisionists who question the effectiveness of protest in ending the Vietnam War, and his life’s work is challenged by ongoing debates about the utility of marches and demonstrations. What has a movement like Black Lives Matter accomplished? What have the protests by the parents of Sandy Hook and the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas led to? Is it all futile? Does this generation need a new Mr. Peace offering a more determined approach?
Yet Harris is resolved not to become a lion in winter. Before he succumbs to the ravages of age—aside from cancer, he’s had two knee replacement surgeries and a pacemaker implanted in his chest—he will speak to students, and anyone else who will listen, as often as he can. Resist, he urges.
“The country is in dire shape,” Harris warns. “Young people are the ones with the biggest stake, and they’re being sold down the river daily. We need young people today to rise up before it’s too late. I’m going to be dead when the brunt of the idiocy comes and the price that has to be paid arises.”
THE BIG HOUSE
Harris sits in the dining room of his Marin County home, perched on a hilltop near Mount Tamalpais overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Wearing a blue knit cap, he is pale complected owing to the hormone suppression medication he ingests daily to stanch his cancer. It has already attacked a lymph node in his pelvis; two spots were found on a vertebra and one on a rib. He cites a study that shows 54 percent of people receiving his treatment survive 5 years or more, and he says that his doctors give him 10 more years of life, but neither outcome is guaranteed. And naturally, he won’t let illness keep him from orating about the need for action—this time to an audience of one.
Harris was raised as a Christian Scientist and was named Fresno High School Boy of the Year in 1963. In his youth, he wished to go to West Point or become an FBI agent. Instead, he enrolled at Stanford University, and in 1964 he experienced a political naissance while venturing to rural Mississippi to register black voters. “Part of it was I felt like I was gonna miss the great adventure of my generation,” he explains. “But I had no problem with the politics of it. There weren’t politics to me. Black people oughta be able to vote. What’s the big deal? It’s not like that’s a radical proposition.”
After returning to Stanford, he became inspired by the activism and writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Hannah Arendt, American scholar Allard Lowenstein, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Bob Moses, and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist. (Harris considers himself a “situational” pacifist. “There may be circumstances when force is required,” he says.) In 1967, Harris cofounded the Resistance, an organization that encouraged people to defy the draft. The following year, he refused induction and married Baez. A couple of months later, he was convicted of draft evasion, a federal felony.
“There comes a time when you have to prove who you are. What you are. And that’s what it felt like to me,” he recalls. “I had to stand up in court and tell the judge that I knew there were six technicalities in my record with the selective service system that were grounds for throwing the whole case out. But that I didn’t want to exercise them, because I wanted this to be decided on the issue.”
He goes silent. Through a picture window, I look across a sea of hilltops and beyond them spy San Quentin State Prison, home to over 4,000 prisoners including about 700 on California’s Death Row.
Harris rises and continues. “Because it was one of my terrors that I was gonna not go to prison. Having organized a lot of people, who would go to prison and who were going to be out there on the firing line, and for me to have convinced them to do this and then not be there myself—that was my worst nightmare. So I ended up in court, standing up and saying, ‘I know that this case should be thrown out, but I’m not going to do that.’ ”
He is fiercely proud of his defiance and time served, although he admits that he had “some miserable times” in prison and concedes, “I walked out of prison different than when I went in.”
Baez, now 78, later corroborates this. She tells me that after Harris was released from prison in 1971, “things weren’t the same between us.”
“David was this powerful figure,” Baez says. “The whole concept of what he was doing was astounding to me. He was this lovely guy, so we got married. But when he came home from La Tuna, things unraveled pretty quickly.” The couple eventually separated, then divorced in 1973. They remain friendly: Baez and their son, Gabriel, now 49, come to Harris’s home each year for Thanksgiving.
Looking back, Baez calls Harris’s willingness to go to prison “courageous” but says, “He wasn’t cut out for prison. When he was in public, he was fiery and looked invulnerable. Of course, I’d see the vulnerability.”
She adds, “I’m not sure David ever got the credit he deserves as a leader or a pioneer in the resistance. I’m a little biased, but it was his heart and soul in life, and he went to prison for it.”
For Harris, though, going to jail for his beliefs was a monumental moment. “That time in prison was incredibly impactful, because it was my coming of age. It was my manhood ritual. And I passed with flying colors. I did my time, including long stretches in punishment cell blocks. So, unlike a lot of people connected with the war, I got to spend the rest of my life feeling good about what I did.”
LOUDER THAN WORDS
There are some who don’t find much utility in Harris’s having gone to prison or in the antiwar movement itself. Adam Garfinkle, a member of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Board of Advisors and founding editor of the American Interest, tells me that draft resistance did not help end the Vietnam War.
The movement was “radical and irreverent and had a ‘negative follower’ effect, which occurs when someone behaves so odiously toward a certain party that he stirs sympathy for that party in onlookers,” Garfinkle contends. “Normal Americans hated the dirt, filth, and language [of the antiwar movement] more than what was going on in Vietnam. It boomeranged and lent more support to the war policy. As the antiwar movement became more mainstream, it slowed the war, but was counterproductive. It made it easier for the Johnson administration [to continue the war], and it resulted in getting more people killed.”
I’m uncomfortable reading Garfinkle’s remarks to Harris. And indeed, as he sits there listening, racked with disease, he is clearly furious. “Nobody who lived through that period would ever mount that bullshit,” he says. “He’s sadly mistaken…. The logic is specious.”
“Bottom line,” he adds, “more than two million people were killed, and for no good reason, and we’ve yet to hold ourselves accountable. The position he is taking is pernicious.”
Another opponent of the Vietnam protests at the time was now–U.S. senator Mitt Romney, who, incredibly, resided in the same Stanford dorm as Harris. A 2012 New York Times article quoted a fellow dorm resident who recalled Harris urging Romney to begin thinking about the war and various social issues. “If anybody could turn you, it was he,” the former dorm resident said of Harris. “But Mitt resisted his blandishments.”
Harris tells me, “I had forgotten him completely almost. Until he ran for president. And I started getting calls from reporters because I was Romney’s resident assistant. He was just kind of a frat boy Republican, and I remember he helped organize a counterdemonstration to one of the protests we had.”
Yet the idea that social protest did not help end the Vietnam War is persistent and no doubt nags at Harris. A 1995 New York Times letter to the editor notes, “The antiwar movement itself had largely petered out as the Nixon Administration implemented a series of troop withdrawals and the draft gave way to all-volunteer armed forces.” Similarly, a 2005 Daily Kos commentary reads, “The protest may have actually helped prolong the war by polarizing the country, fracturing the Democratic Party, and allowing the election of Richard Nixon, who capitalized on the counter-cultural image of war protesters to appeal to Middle America.” And a 2008 letter to the International Socialist Review claims, “The truth is that demonstrations don’t prevent or stop wars.”
Others, however, say that these revisionists have it all wrong. Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 provided the Pentagon Papers—top-secret documents about U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War—to the New York Times and others, says that Harris’s leadership “played a critical role. It’s easy to see why he had some charismatic effect. He was very important during the period. Without the draft resistance, it would not have occurred to me to put out the Pentagon Papers. My copying the Pentagon Papers was a chain, a link in ending the war.”
He adds, “The antiwar movement had a great effect in keeping Nixon from expanding the war. The general protest movement definitely limited Johnson’s activity to expand the war.”
The results of several surveys at the time suggest that the antiwar protests did work. A 1966 Gallup poll reported that Americans opposed withdrawing troops from Vietnam 48 percent to 35. Two years later, a new Gallup poll showed that 56 percent of the population favored withdrawing troops. By 1969, 52 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll felt that the United States’ entering the war had been a mistake.
Garfinkle, meanwhile, admits, “I was also opposed to the war.” He characterizes Harris’s tactics as “youthful heroics, [but] sometimes good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. It’s what children think, not mature adults.”
“I don’t doubt the sincerity of his conviction, at the time,” he says. “[But] is it laudable to essentially maintain a myth? Is it OK to maintain an illusion, a ballast for your temperament as you get older?”
Despite these last comments, I sense some admiration of Harris and ask Garfinkle if I’m right.
“Admire? No, that’s too strong a word,” he replies. “Respect, maybe.”
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Each year since 2010, Harris has spoken to the students at Athenian. “It makes me feel good. I want to touch people. I want to have an impact on their lives,” he tells me. “It’s different now. I’m an old man now, and I can appreciate it. For most of my life, I haven’t allowed myself to appreciate it. But I like being a hero.”
Izzy Millet, one of the students at Athenian, says, “I understand why people do immoral things, and I try not to resent that, but it’s always been my belief that you have to do the right thing even though you’re putting yourself at risk.” She recalls students quoting Harris after his visit: “ ‘You get what you do,’ not wished what you had done. It was such an important and empowering lesson that David taught us.”
Millet and her generation face challenges that are arguably more complex than those of the Vietnam era: climate change, school shootings, and Trump administration policies, to name a few. What’s needed is leaders with the courage of their convictions—or, to put it differently, with the courage to be convicted.
Ellsberg sees a clear link between Harris’s principled stand and more recent acts of resistance and whistle-blowing. Harris’s example was a “conscious action to prepare to pay the price by telling the truth, like Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning,” he says.
Historian Michael Stewart Foley, too, argues that Harris and Baez’s efforts in the 1960s are instructive in the present. “Their actions are certainly relevant today, particularly when we consider the casual way in which ‘resistance’ is tossed around in public discourse. A great many Americans identify themselves as part of ‘the resistance’—resisting the Trump administration in ways large and small—but with few exceptions, we have not seen efforts on the part of Americans to fill the jails in resistance to this administration’s barbaric policies,” he writes in an email to me.
“It is not enough to share clever memes about despicable un-American policies. Rather, what we need are more Americans to follow the example of David Harris, Joan Baez and countless others in the draft resistance movement, who were prepared to move beyond mere protest to actual resistance, to nonviolent confrontation that captures the attention of the public and those in power in a sustained way,” Foley continues. “Occasional marches and demonstrations are not enough.”
Harris calls the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School “depressing as hell” but worries even more deeply about another threat: climate change. “I think it is the most significant challenge we as a species will have faced.”
His message to students like Izzy Millet: “We need you. What has to be done can’t be done without you. You’re the ones that can rescue democracy from Donald Trump and his buddies.”
He is talking in a slow, quiet way that makes me hold on to each of his words; perhaps his direct honesty is what enthralled those thousands to whom he spoke a half century ago: “It makes me angry and makes me wish I was 22 again and had the energy it takes to organize uprisings. But I’m a dinosaur.”
He muses, “You get old, and you don’t have your hands on the steering wheel, and that’s appropriate.”
On my final visit with Harris, a couple of months later, his color has improved from that pallid gray to a rosy hue. He tells me that the meds seem to be helping, and he appears more comfortable about the prospects for his remaining years: You get what you do.
“It’s not me that’s going to do that stuff that needs to be done,” he says. “I’m too old for that shit now. I’m not around for much longer, relatively. And I don’t mean that just ’cause of my illness. I’m 73 years old. And my father lived to be 76, and he was the longest-lived male on my entire family tree, so the numbers don’t add up.” (As Alta went to press, Harris received a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer.)
“Resisting evil takes an enormous amount of energy,” Harris says. “And while I’ve got energy, I don’t have the kind of energy it takes to do that kind of organizing; I’ve done that. I don’t think there’s anybody that would dispute that I’ve done my bit. And I obviously want to be of whatever use I can be. But I think we need some 20-year-olds to grab this thing by the scruff of the neck and go for it.”