Conversation: The Boys Who Said NO!
A unique film documentary from producer Bill Prince reports on the 1960s anti-war movement and poses contrasts with non-violent protest today.
The Boys Who Said No! Interview conducted 11/11/2020 Bill Prince ‘72 has been taking time off from near-constant diligence over several years in completing and launching a unique and powerful documentary about young Americans at home during the US war in Vietnam. Bill gave us a generous chunk of one afternoon to talk with us about how the film brings that era to life and poses questions relevant to the activism of our current times. Sylvia Shortt and Malcolm Ryder interviewed Bill for WAM Sylvia: Bill, you did a most fabulous documentary called The Boys Who Said No!, which is about draft resistance in the Vietnam War. I have watched it and was incredibly impressed with the entire documentary.
Sylvia: So that's what we wanted to talk with you about today. I think it would be great if you started with an explanation of the Vietnam War and what draft resistance meant, to set us up in time.
Bill: I'll say first that the movie is about people who looked around at their point in history and just felt that their government was doing something terribly wrong. And it's about a group of people during the Vietnam War who took a certain action to oppose that war. We had been in Vietnam since the fifties initially as a support to the French, but then in 1965, President Johnson dramatically escalated the war and began to draft people. The draft meant that every American household in which a young man lived was affected. We're currently at war in a number of countries, but it doesn't really affect a large number of households, because of the fact that our armed forces are volunteer and often for that reason, people who don't have a lot of other economic or job opportunities.
But in the sixties, there was a system of conscripting people, drafting guys, and theoretically, anyone could be included. All young men had to register with the draft when they turned 18. And if their draft board decided to call them, they had to go, irrespective of their own wishes. But it became pretty clear early on that there were some real questions about the Vietnam War. It looked like to a lot of people from the very earliest days that there were a large number of Vietnamese that really didn't want us there and in fact, we were there because we had gone against our promise in the fifties to allow an election of all the Vietnamese, an election that everyone including President Eisenhower at the time believed that Ho Chi Minh would win. Ho Chi Minh was the leader of a Vietnam independence movement that was a communist movement. He was our principal adversary during the Vietnam War, but there were many, many Vietnamese who were in fact on his side.
It also became clear that the war was an incredibly brutal war. We ended up killing between three and five million Southeast Asians in that war. It also seemed to be an indefinite war. It was very unclear that we were making any progress. So a group of people, high school students, college students, decided that they would oppose this war and the way that they would do it would be to refuse to cooperate with the draft in as public and open a way as possible. So some of them refused to register at age 18 and others refused to go into the service when they were called later on. Our film is about people on the East coast, West coast, Southeast who did this and then started up a public and open movement to try to encourage other people to do the same and try to spread opposition to the war with the ultimate goal of ending the war.
Sylvia: How much do you think the civil rights movement influenced their movement?
Bill: I think it was a tremendous influence. This was a group of people who had grown up in the 1950s. They were children in the 1950s. So they watched it on television. They watched in the newspapers, they watched in national magazines as the series of civil rights demonstrations that started in the fifties with the Montgomery Bus Boycott as all of those demonstrations, campaigns took place.
Things became much more, I think, accelerated or animated in 1960 with the lunch counter boycotts, or sit-in rather, as lunch counter sit-ins throughout the Southeast and many other places. There were diners within stores, dining counters within stores. But most of them were segregated. Most of them did not allow Black people to go there at all. In 1960 there was a flurry of sit-ins where mostly Black students would go sit-in, demonstrate and it had the effect of desegregating many of those lunch counters. Out of that, there was an organization organized called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and they participated in a lot of other civil rights protests after that time. So the draft resisters grew up seeing this happen in front of them and it became to them a moral challenge. Some of them in fact, took part in the civil rights movement -- attended demonstrations. One of the principal leaders here on the West coast went to Mississippi in 1964. That was an extremely important summer in the civil rights movement. That organization I told you about, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had decided that one of their primary priorities would be to register Black people in the Southeastern United States to vote. They went pretty early on '60-'61 and they were brutally repressed. They made very little progress. A number of them were beaten and jailed. So in '64 they decided that they would invite a large number of students, white students mostly from the Northeast, to come to Mississippi and other states to help register voters and to bring national attention to this.
A number of draft resisters, including one in our film, participated in that, went down to Mississippi to work in that. It became a moral challenge and they thought to themselves that they wanted to do something that was as important, even if it meant some risk because resisting the draft was against the law. There had been legal penalties for draft resistance for some time, but they became more intense in 1965 when Life Magazine, one of the major national magazines at the time carried a picture of a young Catholic worker movement guy, burning his draft card. This appeared in Life Magazine, August the second, 1965. It caused an explosion of opposition, including within the Congress, and they passed a law increasing the penalties for draft resistance to a maximum of five years in prison. That law was passed through Congress and signed by the President on August the 30th. So there was legal risk and also opposition from other Americans. The Activist Experience
Bill: A number of demonstrators at times were attacked. When the draft resisters looked at the civil rights movement, they saw also that not only was the civil rights movement a movement of conscience, but it was a movement willing to take risks, willing to put yourself, your freedom on the line. And so that in fact is what the draft resistance movement ended up doing. There was draft resistance within the Black community, and there was draft resistance within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
We have the former program director of SNCC, the nickname for that organization. Cleveland Sellers is his name, who tells about his own draft resistance. And at one point I think there were something like 17 male staffers in one of the principal SNCC offices, and 16 of them were under indictment for draft resistance.
There was very early on within that organization opposition to the war, in part because we were being asked to go to Vietnam and fight for the freedom of the Vietnamese. But then when African-American soldiers came back home, there was not freedom and democracy for them here. So there was a parallel experience within the Black community of that. And I will say that one... well probably actually the most well-known draft resister in the world was a Black American named Muhammad Ali who was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He had been a very controversial figure because he had converted to Islam and joined an organization called the Nation of Islam that was quite controversial. But when push came to shove, Muhammad Ali was in fact drafted and he went into the induction center.
One of the ways that people would do this [resist] would be to go into the induction center. It's basically the place where you go in a civilian and you come out a soldier. The key moment of being in an induction center is when they ask you to raise your hand and accept an oath to join the military. And the symbol of that is that you stepped forward and when you would step forward, then you would accept being a soldier. And at that point you were a soldier. Well, Muhammad Ali went in to the induction center in Houston but did not step forward. And so he was tried, convicted. It took the all-white jury less than half an hour to convict him. And he was on appeal for three years before his sentence was overturned. His case was dismissed.
And about the same time, this was in April, 1967, Dr. King, Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to speak his mind, truly speak his mind about the war in Vietnam. He was very opposed to it for a number of reasons. And that happened within three weeks of Muhammad Ali's refusal of induction. So it was a tremendous example from within the Black community of conscience in regards to the war, and was in fact another way in which the civil rights movement challenged young white students and inspired draft resisters.
Sylvia: You know, I was really struck with some of the footage particularly because my brother was one of the people that burned his draft card. And I remember him telling me later that he really enjoyed burning his draft card, but he didn't realize that the cops would come after him so hard.
Bill: How hard did they come?
Sylvia: He went to jail briefly. He wound up being [designated] 4-F for medical reasons. So that was helpful for him, but I think the intensity of the opposition was very striking in the film.
Bill: Yes, there are scenes in the film of anti-war demonstrators and around them is kind of a whole phalanx of pro war. Most of them, young men shouting things like “Bomb Hanoi!” Hanoi being the capital of the North. Vietnam had been divided in two parts, the South, where we were in control and the North where Ho Chi Minh was in control. So the guys were shouting ”Bomb Hanoi!” in that scene and shouting a number of other insults and slogans at the demonstrators. There was a lot of opposition.
Malcolm: I remember thinking that my own awareness of what was going on and my sensitivity to it was pretty low at the time. Going into Westminster in 1968 was a big deal in my family. Well, for my mom, especially and I remember that for her, it was something of a great relief. She, one night, said at the dinner table, you got pretty good grades and you're my only son. So I don't think you have to worry about the draft. But while that sounded like pretty good news to me at the time, I just really didn't appreciate, you know, how profound that was.
Bill: There was a study where they interviewed high school students. And the question was how much does the risk of being called to Vietnam, how much does that affect you? How important of an issue is it? And among the ninth graders, 10 to 15% said that it was an issue. Among the seniors, now, this was not at Westminster, it was in a public school system somewhere, but of the seniors, 85 to 90% of them said that the Vietnam War was an important issue for them. And I think it goes to show that at that time if you had some kind of deferment or some kind of way in which you were going to avoid being drafted. I was like you, I really did not think about what I was going to do about the draft. I was in Westminster and then went to college and college students got deferments.
Bill: They were deferred for their entire college career. And at one point in the war, if you then went on to graduate school, you were deferred during graduate school. And it only lasted until age 26. So you could be a student until age 26 and avoid the war completely. But I think that's right... us in Westminster, you know, virtually all of us went to college and that meant it was not close to us in the way that it was to other guys graduating high school.
Malcolm: And the weirdness of seeing the war on television, which was pretty unprecedented, but not living a daily life that was even remotely like what you saw. There was a lot of cognitive dissonance there, I guess,
Bill: I think so. It was something that was a big part of everybody's life at that time and has not been since. And that was that the government allowed reporters to be embedded in military units and to be very close to combat and to film and show on television footage from Vietnam, including combat footage. I remember there was a nightly count of the number of Americans and South Vietnamese had been killed, basically a body count versus the number of North Vietnamese or Vietcong that had been killed. That was another way besides the draft. That was another way in which that war came into everyone's home. And was part of the reason why the American people, eventually a large number of them, rose up against that war, because it was so personal. The government no longer allows reporters to be so close to military action. And so combat from Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever is basically not seen. It is mostly unseen.
Making the History
Sylvia: I was totally amazed with the archival footage that you guys found. I mean, you found so much that I had no idea was out there. And you had also a ton of stuff by Joan Baez. It was wonderful. How many people did you actually have working on digging up all that material?
Bill: Not very many. I think it was probably three people, our director, our principal editor and an archivist who is an unbelievably resourceful woman named Blanche Chase, who lives here in San Francisco. She just knew how to do it. I think the more rare, the more unusual footage she knew how to find it. And I think that's one of the strengths of the film that the movie is not told just by a talking head sitting in the picture in front of you, just sort of talking. It's told by the archival footage. And so it really becomes very vivid. You really feel what happens then in a way that just talking about it would not.
Malcolm: One of the things I've been dying to ask you about is your observations on how our recent protest experience compares to what you were showing in the film.
Bill: I think there's a very, very strong parallel and has been for some time, but obviously this year with the killing of George Floyd and the demonstrations that arose after that, it's even more pertinent. It's just a way in which sometimes people look at their government and they feel like their government is not going to be responsive. And they wonder what they can do. Sometimes it's an immediate reaction, sometimes going to the streets is an immediate reaction in an emotional response to a terrific injustice like George Floyd's killing. And sometimes it's a violent... at least at times reaction. But also some of the times it becomes a movement. In other words, people decide they're going to dedicate themselves to whatever their cause is and join an organization and just stick with it.
That's what happened during the Vietnam War. They were people who dedicated years of their lives working within organizations to oppose the war. And the same thing is true now. Black Lives Matter is an ongoing organization that continues to work, and the climate organizations too. A number of them basically have a campaign over time. And it's not just a one-time deal. They're dedicated to it. This is their mission.
Sylvia: What do you think the similarities and the differences are in the two eras?
Bill: I will say that the racial composition of the anti-war movement is different from the racial composition of the current anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement. It was mostly white people, draft resisters, even though there was as much draft resistance within SNCC and a number of Black guys, you know, didn't cooperate either the visible protestors were white, they were fairly well to do. They went to college. They were middle class and these days it's much more diverse, multi-racial, multi ethnic. I just think there's a difference in the way that white demonstrators are treated compared to demonstrators of color or a multicultural group.
Sylvia: Although, I guess we would say the police violence was still there for both groups.
Bill: The police violence was definitely there.
Right, right. Absolutely.
So... Joan Baez’s husband, David Harris, he grew up in Fresno and was kind of an all around good guy and was Boy Of The Year for Fresno High School in 1963. And then he went to Stanford and Stanford was kind of a hotbed, even in 1963. They took a number of people to Mississippi in 1963 before the big push in '64. David went in '64. He was student body president, but he resigned to oppose the war. He and three other students started an organization that they called The Resistance and he was their principal organizer and I think speaker. He went around, he estimated to me one time that he gave between 1,200 and 1,500 speeches against the war before it was all over. There were a number of demonstrations that he participated in. One that he did not participate in was in December, 1967 over in Oakland, California. But Joan Baez did participate in that one.
For those who don't know, Joan is a legendary folk singer and activist, a tremendous moral voice, B A E Z, if people want to look her up. And she was very well known at that time. She was arrested. She was in jail and David went to visit the people in jail and apparently sparks flew and they developed a relationship after she got out of jail and they married. It was about a year and a half later that he was arrested and taken to prison. But in the meantime, they toured around, she would sing, he would give talks and they were on the cover of Look Magazine.
Look, next to Life, was the most widely read national magazine. They were on the cover of Look Magazine with photographs from when she visited him in prison. He's there with his prison uniform and she's there with their young son. They had one child who was born about four months after David went into prison. He was and is a tremendous speaker, a tremendous thinker. Unfortunately their marriage didn't last a long time after he got out of the prison, but they both obviously continued to work against the war.
Malcolm: So when he did get out his profile had, I'd say in some respects, it hadn't changed that much. He was, you know, he was a political celebrity as much as anything else.
Malcolm: But I guess one of the things that would be another avenue of investigation for lots of us who watched your movie is who he was associated with most of the time, you know, after he got out. And did he start other organizations? Where there rifts or competitions?
Bill: He became a journalist when he got out and worked for Rolling Stone magazine. And I believe the New York Times and wrote a number of books including one specifically about the war. So in terms of his own political work, it took the form of journalism and authorship rather than political organizing. That's not true for some of the other draft resisters. A couple of them had a very central role in the Nuclear Freeze Movement.
This was a movement that took place in the seventies, I guess against the escalation of the nuclear arsenals on each side between ourselves and the Soviet Union, and was actually successful in leading to some pact or treaty that reduced the size of those arsenals. And other people also participated in other political organizations in their own way as well. Now and Then
Sylvia: Going back to the differences between now and then, I'm really struck by how separate all the movements were back in the Vietnam War era and the intersectionality of all the movements in today's protests.
Bill: I think that's a great point and it's something I feel that makes me more hopeful about today's movements. Back in the sixties, there were tremendous riffs among subgroups within the anti-war movement. And some of them would study this particular thinker or some of them would study that particular thinker, and they would have these arguments and they couldn't work together. And they had to go form their own organizations and it weakens the movement for that to happen. But these days you're right, people are seeing how these movements overlap, they intersect and therefore there's much more of a sense of, we need to get together. We need to unify, we need to work in a unified manner rather than go off and do things on our own.
Sylvia: So this is a Westminster alumni magazine. You were a psychiatrist for the bulk of your adult life, a psychiatrist turned documentary filmmaker.
Did you learn any skills at Westminster that you applied to becoming a documentary filmmaker?
Bill: I think I did. You know, I think it's one of these things. I was at Westminster from fourth grade onwards. Age 10 onwards through the rest of high school. Those are extremely formative years. I can't really look at Westminster and say, Oh, yes, there was this thing that guided me to film, or there was this teacher that guided me to the anti-war movement or anything like that. But I think that just in terms of critical thinking, working hard on a project, you know, being thorough, being organized, et cetera. And then also in terms of social skills, just being able to work with other people. And I think in particular Westminster was good for that because it was a fairly harmonious school. There weren't a lot of the divisions and riffs that occurred in other schools, public schools, whatever.
Malcolm: Yeah, I have a memory of a rebellious newspaper that lasted for 10 weeks.
Bill: It lasted for one issue. And I'm really sorry I don't still have a copy of that. I don't remember the name of it either. I remember the names of the two guys that organized it, but for their own privacy, I won't disclose them here, but yeah, underground newspapers were a big deal. They were a big deal both in civilian life and in the military. And I'll comment in a minute on resistance within the military. But there was one in Atlanta called the Great Speckled Bird. So these two members of our senior class wrote this [underground newspaper] and distributed this, and of course got into a tremendous amount of trouble. I think I remember them sitting out in the hallway outside of Dr. Pressly's office. So it only lasted one issue.
Sylvia: We shall not publish it in the magazine, but I do have a copy of it.
Bill: I will say, just to sort of complete the story. You know, the draft resisters were early on, they were kind of an ignition. They were kind of a spark that got things moving. There were many other movements that got things going, but the anti-war movement before it was all over, was very widespread.
Within the US there was a demonstration in '69 where 2 million Americans demonstrated on a single day in 80 different cities. And there was a series of demonstrations in may of '70 where 4 million students went on strike after the invasion of Cambodia and the shooting of the students at Kent State and Jackson State. That was a tremendous force of pressuring the government to end the war, but a resistance within the military was as well. The guys either stateside or in Vietnam were affected by the questioning of the war and by the demonstrations, as much as civilians were, and the discipline within the military basically eroded. There was a lot of refusal of orders. Alcohol and drug abuse went way up, desertions went up. There was a certain amount of assassination of senior officers. It was kind of a mess. And part of the reason that the war was ended was because they were losing control of the military.
Sylvia: I was struck by the amount of cases in the dockets and how the judges just didn't want to see them anymore because there were too many, and they had other things to do.
Bill: The numbers of people that did what these draft resisters did, refuse to register or refuse to go, skyrocketed as well. The estimate is that 570,000 guys broke those laws. And it was just too much for the federal prosecutor's offices to prosecute. So a number of guys got off just because the prosecutors didn't have time to take them to court or themselves were beginning to be against the war.
Malcolm: The first “denial of service” attack, the technical term. Well, that reminds me that there was no internet back then!
Bill: There was none, right.
Malcolm: There was radio, which maybe even was more influential than television, because you could carry around a radio. The other thought that crosses my mind though, is we were in high school. We're taking history courses and the difference between what we could see about history at home and what we were learning in the classroom is a pretty huge difference.
Bill: It was, it was. I think it remains a huge difference. Particularly in regards to the Vietnam War, a friend of mine in Southern California goes to colleges and universities and talks about his work against the war. He went to one classroom recently where there were about 25 students. They asked which of the students were aware of the Vietnam War. One person raised their hand.
Bill: So I think it's a history that since then has been suppressed. You remember Ken Burns' series, 18 hours, 10 sessions of a documentary against the Vietnam War, and the anti-war movement was mentioned for about five minutes and the draft resistance movement was not mentioned at all. Also there has been suppression and kind of... demonization may be too strong a word, but of the demonstrators. So many people, when I told them that I was making a film about people who opposed the war in Vietnam would say, Oh yeah, draft dodgers.
Bill: And you know, the idea that someone is dodging as opposed to standing up for reasons of principle and being willing to suffer the consequences. I think the narrative is that those guys were dodgers, and women too. A lot of women worked in those organizations. Also, obviously they were not themselves drafted, but they were now sort of blamed as being cowardly or out for their own skins. That kind of thing. That's something that I hope this movie gives the lie to.
Sylvia: Well, we know that when we gather in large numbers for something that is morally wrong, that we have power and some people do not want us to know that we have power when we gather in large numbers.
Bill: Yes. There you are. Yes, absolutely.
Malcolm: That's awesome.
Sylvia: Yeah. I mean, I think your documentary is something that needs to be shown in high schools. I mean, I would like to see it get more play. How can we help it get more play? It's absolutely phenomenal. It is one of the best documentaries I've seen in quite a while. And I watch quite a few.
Bill: What I would say is please go to our website, which is www.boyswhosaidno.com. There's not a “The” in there. It's just “boyswhosaidno.com”. Put yourself on our mailing list, we'll keep you up to date with what's happening in terms of showings wherever they happen to be. And I hope a lot of people do see it.
Sylvia: Are there any scheduled for the future right now or not yet?
Bill: You know, we had, we were in festivals, two different festivals last month in October. And because of the holidays and the election we did not schedule anything in November and December. So our next events will be in January.
Malcolm: I wanted to ask you about the role of oral history in this, and certainly in putting the film together. You, I'm sure, took advantage of that as much as you could, but was it more than you hoped for, less? What did you discover?
Bill: More, it was more than I hoped for. Yeah. It was more than I hoped for. That's just a number of stories that you hear that are absolutely amazing. And the things that people did or other people they ran across and many of them are not in the film. One example is a guy who was in New York and not on a political mission at all. But there was a demonstration of some Black Americans around there. I forget exactly what it was. He was advised to take refuge in one of the nearby offices, well, the office that he went into just happened to be the organizational office for the 1963 March on Washington. And he ended up volunteering for them and going to the March on Washington because of that happenstance. On the way he met this guy who was one of the principal proponents of nonviolent demonstrations in the country. He met him on the bus, just happened to sit next to him on the bus on the way down to Washington. There are just so many stories like that.
Malcolm: That's a beautiful thing.
Sylvia: Well, Bill, I think you've told us a lot about the movie and we appreciate your time and hope all the Westminster audience will definitely watch the film. I highly, highly recommend it.
Bill: Thank you very much for the plug.
Malcolm: I'll ask you the dangerous question on the way out, when's the sequel?
Bill: There is another movie, these people are making another movie about how the anti-war movement affected Nixon. Nixon was a particular antagonist during those years. So they are working on another movie called The Movement and The Madman, but it's a couple of years away. I'm not involved in that one. One was enough.
Malcolm: We'll get yours into the daily diet of students.
Bill: Thank you very much. We do too. Absolutely. We want, we want young people to see it, definitely.
Malcolm: Yeah. Thank you so much, Bill.