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Scheer Intelligence: Brave Boys Who Helped End The Vietnam War

Above photo: Documentary filmmaker Judith Ehrlich. Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards.

Filmmaker Judith Ehrlich discusses “The Boys Who Said No,” a documentary about the Vietnam War draft resisters.

Decades after the end of the Vietnam War, the impact on both Vietnam and the United States is still felt. Yet few Americans are aware that the conflict, which killed several million people, ended in large part thanks to the anti-war movement made up of, among others, 570,000 Americans that refused to be drafted to fight a war that many saw as immoral even then. Among those, 3,250 draft resisters–many of whom considered themselves conscientious objectors–were punished with up to five years in prison, including the anti-war activist and journalist David Harris. These valiant young men from a wide range of social classes are the subject of the documentary “The Boys Who Said No,” directed by Judith Ehrlich, who joins Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss her film.

Ehrlich, whose film “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” won a George Foster Peabody Award, in addition to being nominated for an Academy Award and Primetime Emmy, tells Scheer about how her recent documentary began with a reunion of draft resisters that she was invited to by Christopher Colorado Jones, a conscientious objector who served time in prison. Clips that Jones, who was a founding producer of “The Boys Who Said No,” was able to record with a smuggled camera while in prison appear in the documentary.

As editor of Ramparts Magazine during the Vietnam War and a leading anti-war activist, Scheer also shares his unique perspective on the draft and the anti-war movement portrayed in the film, adding that he and his fellow Ramparts journalists also publicly burned their draft cards. While acknowledging the importance of people like Harris, whom he interviewed on “Scheer Intelligence” previously, as well as Harris’ wife Joan Baez, the podcast host tells the film director that the strength of her film lies in telling the story of the collective power that so many young people–many of which will remain unnamed in history books–changed the course of history despite suffering great personal costs.

Listen to the full conversation between Ehrlich and Scheer as they discuss how the conscientious objectors in her film displayed a type of bravery that they lament seems absent from American activism nowadays. You can also read the transcript of this episode below the credits.


Host:  Robert Scheer

Producer:  Joshua Scheer

Introduction:  Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Transcript:  Lucy Berbeo

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence–and I always say, so I’m not going to be an egomaniac, the intelligence comes not from me but from my guests. And in this case, it’s dramatically true: Judith Ehrlich is a terrific filmmaker, documentary film. In one, her earliest film that I know of was called “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” a film about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. And it’s a film you should see right now, but that’s not the film we’re here to talk about.

But whistleblowers–Julian Assange is in jail, Edward Snowden is still on the lam in Russia, and Daniel Ellsberg always said that when he faced, what, 115 years in jail, he thought from his example others would follow. Well, not too many followed. However, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” showed us that the people who didn’t want to go fight in Vietnam and opposed the war were of course right, and the people in Washington and the Pentagon and the White House knew it at the time.

And this movie that you’ve made–and it’s 50 years later–“The Boys Who Said NO!: Draft Resistance and the Vietnam War.” And for young people now, and I teach a lot of them at USC and everything, we don’t have a draft; war is a video game; you’re not going to be called up; if somebody does go into the army, they see it as a career choice and so forth. I’m not going to deny they may have patriotic motivations or what have you. But nonetheless, this was a time when everybody who didn’t have some obvious medical excuse, and was male, was going to go. And you know, I was in that situation myself for some time.

And so this is a movie about people who said no, and really suffered. Many of them went to jail. So why don’t you lay out what the film’s about–it’s about a great historical moment in America–and why is it so late in coming to us.

JE: Ah, hi Bob, thanks for inviting me. Well, the film is really about a very specific slice of what happened during the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement. It’s about the people who were facing the draft and were willing to stand up publicly and refuse induction, knowing they would face prison for that move. Over four thousand of them did actually serve time in prison, but what they did–what they planned to do and actually succeeded in doing, through civil disobedience and creating a mass movement behind them, that was tens and hundreds of thousands of people who refused induction–was that they basically shut down the court system. And the courts no longer could process all the people who were resisting, and they ended up just having to end the draft, and it never has come back in all these years.

But one little contemporary edge to this is that we’ve had registration since 1980; it came back, and since 1980 young people have had to register, young men have had to register. But as of probably next month, if not within before the end of the year, young women are going to have to register too, for the first time in history. So women are going to be affected by the draft, which is sort of an interesting historical moment on that issue which we’re facing right now.

RS: Well, but let’s get–you know, I did a podcast with David Harris, who had been the president of the student body at Stanford when he got involved in the resistance, and he went to prison, I believe, for two years. And you have a screening of this movie, “The Boys Who Said NO!,” a launch, virtual, October 15 to 17. And I believe David Harris and Joan Baez, who he had been married to during that period, and Daniel Ellsberg are all going to be part of your program. So, you know, somehow or other you might mention when and what, and then we can also put that up on the websites that carry this show.

But to my mind, the reason this is such an incredible moment in history is that you had, as you said, hundreds of thousands of people willing to really risk prison. Now, we had the Civil Rights Movement, we had war resistance, we had people who had done that. And here were people who were coming from a more comfortable, you know, many of them were white and many of them came from the middle class and so forth. And they were willing to risk, you know, hard time and do that. And the film captures that. You know, this was heroism on a level that maybe we can’t even comprehend now. And the whole idea of don’t sell out, stand for something, your life has to be–and that you’re not willing to go and be killed, possibly, and kill others for a war that you don’t believe in–that’s what this movie is really all about, is it not?

JE: That is exactly what it’s about. And it’s about the whole–ah, I think that we forget that it actually takes one person standing up to start a movement. And this film really, I think, captures that sense: that each individual really does have a decision to make about how they’re going to lead their life, and what they’re willing to do, and how much sacrifice they’re willing to make once they decide they have some principles they’re not willing to compromise.

So, I mean, I think what’s facing young people today with climate change and Black Lives Matter and the movements that are happening now, very similar in terms of really challenging their willingness to stand up. And certainly there is a movement that is, you know, stepping into place. But this film really does focus on this movement, which started very small. It was, you know, a few people at Stanford and at Berkeley who just stood up, David Harris and his cohorts, and were willing to really challenge the position of the government and say, you know, our bodies are not for your taking; we’re not willing to be drafted into your army, and we’re not willing to fight and kill for your really immoral war. So I think we do try to really set the stage for why people considered this war immoral.

Also, the thing that I think is unique about this film in some ways is we really make the link between the Civil Rights Movement and the antiwar movement, which I don’t think had been clearly laid out before so much. The leadership of the resistance, as it was called, movement–many of them had gone south to register voters in the early sixties; they had been part of the Freedom School movement, and really were influenced and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. Joan Baez, who’s a major character in the film, was very close to Martin Luther King and had been very involved with him, and would show up and sing. And she was, you know, the diva of the folk music scene and the time, and could draw a crowd and protect him in times when it looked really dangerous; she would go down and volunteer to march with King and protect him and his cohorts.

So there’s that, and then David and Joan meet; I like putting a little love story in my political stories. There was Dan and Patricia in “The Most Dangerous Man,” and I’ve got Joan and David in this film. But they end up, she’s pregnant when he goes to prison, and their son Gabriel is born while David is in prison. And they make the cover of Look magazine at the time, which was a very big deal, their little family unit in prison. So, you know, I think that got the attention of the country in an unusual way, because they were so outside the mainstream. But I think it did legitimize that position of being a war resister.

RS: Yeah, and people need to be reminded what was at stake here. Because there were people who didn’t want to go fight, but they would maybe leave the country, or find a way of avoiding it. And I’m not putting them down at all. But these were people–and David Harris deserves a lot of credit for defining the message so explicitly–that said, no; we think the war is immoral, and we’re not going to participate. And we’re here; we’re here, and you’re going to have to take us through the courts, and we’re going to try to make our case.

And I don’t know that anything of that kind has happened for basically white, middle-class people. We know in the Civil Rights Movement, for both white and Black and anybody else who was supporting it, there was that kind of test, because in the South you had brutal sheriffs and policing agencies of every kind that would threaten your life, both legally and by lynching. But this was, you know–and Stanford is a very good example; you’re asking a young person who’s kind of got it made, going to Stanford, and even going to Berkeley in those days, and you’re saying to them, look, we want you front and center to say I don’t believe in this war and I’m not going to give you my body or my mind. And, you know, I’m going to go serve time in prison. Which, you know, was not going to be pleasant.

And you know, I myself at the time was editor of Ramparts, or one of the editors–I forget which year, whether I was managing editor or editor-in-chief. But we burned our draft cards on the cover. But you know, people could say well, but were they really going to get you? And you know, we did, we had to face a U.S. attorney. But the fact of the matter is, these were young people who didn’t have a lot of lawyering, and they were doing it. They were just doing the right thing.

And that’s something that has been lost about our history. And that to my mind is what made this period of the sixties so special. Yes, there was great, wild music; yes, there was experimentation with one’s life. But the willingness, first of people in the Civil Rights Movement and then in the antiwar movement, to say, no, my body is not yours for war crimes or racism–I think we’ve lost a lot of that. I don’t want to bum people out, but you know, that’s different than saying I’m going to save my diet to help the environment. It’s also different from isolated cases of people doing very brave things and strapping themselves to a tree that’s going to be cut down or something. This was a mass movement that denied the moral authority of the ostensible democracy.

JE: No, I think–yeah, I think you’re extremely correct in all that. And so when you burned your draft cards, did you all face legal charges for that? I mean, that’s–

RS: Oh yeah, we were dragged before the U.S. attorney in New York. In fact, I believe it was Cy Vance’s father. And you know, it was not fun; I’m not going to make light of it. But we had well-known attorneys, and also we had freedom of the press on our side; we were, you know, burning our draft cards–a question we weren’t saying, I guess we were saying, but they didn’t want to have that test. Yeah, it was unnerving.

But I don’t want to take away from the largely anonymous group of people that we’re talking about here, and they aren’t just the David Harrises. People whose lives got messed up, you know. You know, I know Bob [unclear], for instance, who’s been a big booster of your making this movie, lives here in Los Angeles. You know, it affected his life; it tore people’s lives apart.

And I want to get back to the main thing. The reason I want to show this film in schools and everywhere is because it’s about integrity. It’s about integrity, and it’s about whether we’ve lost that sense of integrity. And I agree with your point about Martin Luther King; it was very much inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. And the peace movement–after all, Martin Luther King was the one who embraced the peace movement. In his speech at Riverside Church, he said that my government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, and he joined the Civil Rights Movement with the peace movement.

And yes, there was no question, the example of the Civil Rights Movement framed this. But it meant, for a privileged person like David Harris and many others who we don’t know their names, to step up and say hey, I’m going to do the same, I’m not going along. And maybe they’re not going to lynch me off a tree in Mississippi, but if you throw me into a federal prison, that’s pretty bad. You know, for a couple of years, that’s pretty bad.

JE: I think the thing, the distinction of this group versus the mass antiwar movement, is that they weren’t just talking about being thrown in jail for a few days, or a couple of weeks at Santa Rita, as people were, including Joan Baez. They were signing up for five years in prison. And they were willing to do that, and they didn’t try to get out of it. So, you know, they were basically saying put me in prison, and we’ll see what happens then in terms of this draft. And I think the government responded to that level of courage. You know, that they really couldn’t–it was hard to put that down, people that were really willing to do that, to make that kind of sacrifice. You don’t see that often.

And you know, when you brought up the whistleblowers–because I’ve made films about whistleblowers; I’m making another one now about a whistleblower in Iceland–but just, Snowden, Edward Snowden actually has publicly said a number of times that he did what he did because of seeing our film about Daniel Ellsberg, which is something I’m really proud of. But I think that the idea of film being a way that inspires people to actually do something–not just go, well, that was nice and interesting.

But I think there is something in this film as well that really asks people to question their own conscience. You know, we just approved or are about to approve the biggest military budget in history, and we’ve got a democratic government that should be lowering the threshold here, and yet it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We have this enormous nuclear arsenal, which Daniel Ellsberg has stood up against time and time again, and working very hard to try to stop the threat of nuclear war, which is hanging over our heads and we don’t look at it. So I think that there’s lots of issues out there that people need to challenge, and that people need to be aware of, whether it’s the draft or–well, it’s not the draft now, but it’s registration for the draft. And the militarization of our society and of our government.

RS: Well, the point is–and people should ponder it when they watch this movie; the movie is “The Boys Who Said NO!: Draft Resistance and the Vietnam War”–is to ask yourself, where do we get a moral code, moral fiber, if we aren’t put at risk? And the lesson for the people who have power in this country, of the Vietnam protests, in large measure this movement of people who said we’re not going with your draft and we will take five years in jail–that was really sobering. But the fact of the matter is, they redefined war. They made war into a video game. They made war into a career opportunity. They changed, so they would not face this situation. They use other people to make wars; they have surrogates, and so forth. And so they’ve kept the business end of war, because now it’s very high-tech and you need a lot of fancy equipment.

And now we’re in an odd moment where, OK, but we need an enemy. And so they keep searching for enemies, and now the betting is will it be Russia or will it be China. Russia seems a little old-fashioned; they got an economy that’s kind of collapsing. China looks better, right, but if you do China, what do you do to Amazon’s business model? What do you do to, you know, [Wal-Mart] and Costco and all these places that sell primarily goods made in China?

And yet, you know–and I just saw a poll, AP [poll] that said 90% of the people in America–I may have the figure slightly off, but it was around 90%–are worried about China and Russia being great threats to our cybersecurity. Not the NSA, not the CIA–which have the most advanced invasion of cybersecurity, and do it everywhere in the world. But, OK, China and Russia are two very dissimilar countries at this point. Russia is run by people who are deliberately anticommunist; China is still run by people who claim to be communist. But that doesn’t matter. In the Orwellian sense, you have to have an enemy. And people are willing to accept that, as long as they don’t have to put their lives on the line to fight that enemy. And that again fits into the Orwellian model: your enemy could be a fantasy. It’s just a thing out there; you invent it, you change the names of it, as he did in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

And they’ve sort of responded to the issue discussed in your movie: that suddenly there was a movement–and I think this is why we had change on civil rights, at least visible change, and the old South collapsed. Because the Civil Rights Movement said, we’re going to put our bodies on the line, we’re going to end segregation. And in fact that worked. However, they came up with alternative models of keeping people down.

And the movie, your movie is really about a very successful antiwar–maybe the most successful antiwar movement that we’ve ever experienced. I mean, it really brought the war to an end, the Vietnam War. But unfortunately, we’ve been in very long wars since then. They make no more sense than Vietnam. And yet we’ve done it without a draft. And that’s the kind of sad irony of your movie, isn’t it?

JE: Yes, because in the technological warfare that we’re now seeing, we don’t really need a draft. We don’t need hundreds of thousands of soldiers out there; we need drones, and weapons, and robots to do the warfare instead of needing masses of soldiers lined up on a mountainside; it’s just not going to be that kind of war again, and need the manpower and the womanpower that we have needed in the past.

So those days are over, but the whole question of–I think your point is well taken about the economics of war, too, Bob. That, you know, we’re going to have to make some choices that have economic repercussions for the country, and I think that’s really–are we willing to give up our Wal-Mart shopping so that we can come to some terms with the kind of world we want to see. And I think those are all issues that are going to be facing us.

But in terms of weaponry, in terms of–I just want to get back to the one thing that I think is important about the film and the people who it’s about, is that this was a youth-led movement. It was started by Christopher Colorado Jones, who was the original producer, who tragically died in an accident a year before the film came out. He was 17 when he stood up and refused to register for the draft, and he organized other non-registrants who were under 18 and were unwilling to register at all. And the lot of these–and David and his cohorts–were probably about 19 or 20 at the time. The movement was run by very young people, and they actually, in terms of success, it’s the only time really that a mass movement like that changed policy in the United States and ended the draft, which was a major change. So I think it can really point to having a very successful mass movement of civil disobedience and noncompliance that was run by young, young people.

RS: So talk a little bit, in the time we have left, on the people we meet in this movie. Because, you know, as I say I know Bob [unclear], and he’s a great guy, lives in Los Angeles, and kept trying to get me to watch the movie and I kept saying yeah, yeah, yeah. And then finally I watched it. And the power of the movie is you face yourself in this movie: would you have risked five years? Would you–and now we can make it both men and women, because then it was men, but now we have a draft that will apply to women as well. You know, would you stand up? And it was a visceral decision; you know, you were going to go to basic training, you were going to learn to use your gun, and you were going to learn to kill people. And yet you could be killed. And you know, the American casualties were real, the 59,000 deaths and many more injured.

And so the movie really gets into that psychology. And I think it kind of belittles it to talk too much about Joan Baez, who I think was extremely brave–I’m not taking anything away from her. And the fact that she was married to David Harris certainly helped a lot, and David Harris also had been the student body president at Stanford, and was an articulate and appealing guy; I’m not taking anything away from them. But most of this movement were people who were not going to get their 15 minutes of fame, and they were going to suffer in prison probably with not many visitors and not much recognition. And your movie introduces us to those people.

JE: Yes, good point. I mean, I think that, yeah, sometimes it’s nice to have a little star power to get some interest, but it is a film about anonymous people who never would have been known. And who–you know, this started with a reunion of 70 of the people who had been to prison, and their partners, et cetera. And there was just–I just went along to do the interviews–this was almost 10 years ago–and I just went along to do the interviews, and then it evolved over time, because Christopher Colorado Jones was so intent on getting this made into a film. It just, you know, was going to be a document of this event, and just the stories were so amazing, and the courage of these people, and the fact that they were still–they never wavered. I mean, here it is 50 years later, 60 years later, and they’re still totally committed to the position they had then.

So I thought that was–that inspired me, and I was really wanting to tell their story. There are some great characters: Tod Friend is one of my favorites, he owned the Tomales Bay Oyster Company and was a rough-and-tumble guy who served another prison sentence after the one for war resistance, because he left the country and started sailing on boats with drugs on them around the Panama Canal, and got caught. Anyway, but he was a brilliant guy, and he died tragically not long after I interviewed him, and slipped off his boat in Tomales Bay. But he opens and closes the film, really articulate, really heartfelt guy who served very hard time, served more than five years in prison.

And there’s also Bob Cooney, who’s a historian and a fabulous human being. Actually, I’ve got to say they’re all pretty much fabulous human beings. Lee Swenson, who worked with Joan at the Center for the Study of Nonviolence, and Dan Ellsberg, who was inspired to leak the Pentagon Papers because of his acquaintance with Randy Kehler, who was a war resister who went to prison and was a leader in the movement. And also [unclear], who went on to win the Nobel Prize with other people for anti-landmine work.

And so many of these people have gone on to spend their lives doing nonviolence training, nonviolence activity, and just spending their lives doing good, useful work for the community. And so it didn’t end with their prison sentence; they didn’t walk away angry and unhappy about having done what they did, but really enlivened by what they did. And those prison sentences didn’t stop them from being the people they had gone in being, and came out with even more conviction.

RS: You know, the interesting thing about this movie–and I really urge people to watch it. By the way, how do they watch it?

JE: Oh, well, we’re having this special gala online launch; in the times of COVID, there are so many new ways to look at films. But the 17th of October, there’ll be this gala at 5:00 Pacific time, and for the two days preceding that there’ll be an opportunity to watch the film online. I think the best thing is just to go to “Boys Who Said No,”, and that’ll lead you to buying a ticket for that, and joining us.

RS:…everybody write that down. But let me tell you, this is a movie to–depending on your age, to show your child, your son, your daughter, your grandchildren, whoever you are, or your friends. Because it really raises a fundamental question of ethics. What do we have ownership, what are we responsible for? What defines us? And you know, your first movie that we first talked about, about Daniel Ellsberg, “The Most Dangerous Man in America”–well, Daniel Ellsberg became the most dangerous man in America because the establishment said revealing the truth in the history, conducted internally in the Pentagon, of the Vietnam War, would deny the value and the importance of the war. And as you said, Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out it was the witness of young people not going along–Daniel Ellsberg said, if these people are willing to risk prison, and I know about this document that tells the truth called the Pentagon Papers, and I don’t reveal it–then who am I? What am I?

And unfortunately, there have been very few Daniel Ellsbergs. You know, recently we’ve had the Edward Snowdens; we did have, as you mentioned in the Civil Rights Movement, quite a few heroic people. But really, this movie begs a question: where are the rest of us? Where are the rest of us, and why don’t we take the stand? And when will we take the stand. You had Bradley Manning–you know, here a young person in the military, now Chelsea Manning, who saw war crimes. Witnessed war crimes, and released the evidence of the war crimes. You know, and released it to Julian Assange.

And Chelsea Manning has had her life made miserable by the public authorities because she won’t turn in Julian Assange. And Julian Assange is sitting now in prison–where are the human rights organizations? Where is the outrage that now a Democrat–we can’t blame this on Trump–now a Democratic president is holding, is trying to get the Brits to turn over Julian Assange. What, for his crime for doing what Daniel Ellsberg did, for telling us the truth about war crimes.

And so your movie really puts us all on the spot. It says, you know, if those–the boys who said no–could say that and go to jail for five years, prison for five years, what would I do? And what am I doing now? What are we doing now? That, to my mind, is the educational power of this film, “The Boys Who Said NO!,” directed by Judith Ehrlich. And by the way, you are an Oscar-nominated person and an Emmy, I guess, nominated person…and you won, I was going to say won the Peabody Award. So you’re a very successful filmmaker.

And I think it’s really to your credit that you are reviving this episode of American history that almost no one knows anything about. It’s been buried, OK? I think I suspect many people even listening to this show don’t know that this was the movement that stopped the Vietnam War. We got about another minute here. Do you want to close it with something?

JE: I’m just thinking, it contributed to ending the war; it ended the draft. But I just think that it’s, you know, we need these kinds of films just for ourselves, to sort of think about where we stand, as you put very articulately, where we stand in relation to our own conscience and our own ability to make change, and what we’re willing to sacrifice. And it may be very little, but even a little helps, if millions of people do it. So I think that it’s important for us all to sort of see how far we’re willing to go–

RS: And it defines our own humanity. But that’s all we got. We’re going to find out about this movie October 17. Go to the website, “Boys Who Said No.” Check it out, and get other people–you know, just as a self-education, what would you have done, what did you do. I want to thank–and we’re going to conclude this now. Do you want to say a last thing? Go ahead.

JE: I just want to say we will be–we’re looking for a broadcast outlet, it’s going to be with Bullfrog Films for educational sale soon, so schools will be able to get it that way. And yeah, and community screenings through Bullfrog. So if your organization wants to rent the film and show it to your gang, that would be wonderful. So we’re hoping–

RS: And your class.

JE: And your class. Thank you.

RS: OK, “The Boys Who Said NO!” I want to thank you, Judith Ehrlich, very distinguished filmmaker, successful. Christopher Ho at KCRW who posts our podcasts on that terrific NPR station here in Santa Monica, get your local station to put it up. Joshua Scheer, who is our producer, executive producer of Scheer Intelligence. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who writes the really terrific intros; I hope people go on and listen to the show, but the intros are great. Lucy Berbeo, who does our transcription. And the JWK Foundation, in the name of a fiercely independent journalist, Jean Stein, that helps with the funding for these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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