Robert Scheer SI Podcast

David Harris on Whatever Happened to Americans’ Moral Compass

Journalist and anti-war activist David Harris speaks to Robert Scheer about his resistance to America’s genocide in Vietnam and his education in federal prison.
David Harris.
David Harris. [Art by Mr. Fish]

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The Vietnam War is one of many heinous stains on American history that to this day often is told through a revisionist lens or outright ignored. Yet the truth remains beneath the layers of whitewashing that the U.S. government sent thousands of Americans to slaughter and be slaughtered over a conflict that had everything to do with Cold War ideologies and nothing to do with justice or freedom. The death tolls are still shocking to read: it is estimated that 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed during the war, along with 1.1 million  North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters and 58,220 American soldiers.

The conflict also inspired an anti-war movement described as “one of the largest and most successful youth-led resistance movements in American history” in the 2020 film “The Boys Who Said NO!” Approximately 570,000 Americans, many of whom were conscientious objectors who refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, a refusal that led to  up to five years in prison for  3,250 resisters. One such anti-war activist and anti-draft organizer was David Harris, who became a prominent journalist  after two years in prison, during which he became estranged from his wife, Joan Baez. In this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Harris joins Robert Scheer to discuss the movement they were both a part of as well as “The Boys Who Said NO!,” which features Harris, and a recent collection of the journalist’s works, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee: Reporting, Sallies, and Other Confessions” published by Heyday Books.

“[The Vietnam War] was not just a matter of mistaken policy,” says Harris. “This was going 10,000 miles from home and killing three million people for no good reason. It’s the textbook definition of evil. And that confronted everybody who came of age during that time, with the question of, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” 

Harris criticizes Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Vietnam War for “pretty much [ignoring] the central fact that it was the uprising of [millions of] citizens that made this war impossible to continue,” and  he bristles against former government officials who irrationally blame activists for prolonging the conflict. The journalist also talks about the Rolling Stone piece he did on veteran and anti-war activist Ron Kovic, which, Scheer relates, “changed [Kovic’s] whole life.”

Scheer and Harris go on to discuss the moral implications of 1960s activism and the very real personal costs activists faced for upholding their values. This causes Scheer to lament that, although the U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for just shy of two decades, there is no comparable anti-war movement in the U.S. today. Scheer holds up the courageous example of Harris, who came from a military family and left his undergraduate studies at Stanford, where he was student body president, to help lead the anti-draft movement, as the kind of valiant activism that is largely absent in today’s America. 

“The main thing is we don’t ever take ownership for our history,” says Scheer. “There you were, on the path to great financial success [and yet] you were part of a generation that thought not selling out was an important consideration. That integrity might matter. That is kind of lost now.”

Listen to the full discussion between Harris and Scheer as they consider why Americans have by and large lost the urge to dissent despite atrocities that continue to be done in their name daily, as well as talk in more detail about Harris’ extraordinary life and work.  

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, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s David Harris, and it’s not just intelligence I’m after here. He’s a great writer, he was a great activist, he went to prison for two years for his draft resistance back in the sixties, late sixties was when he went to jail. And he’s written 10 books; he’s, you know, been an important public intellectual. 

But I want to get at a core issue here of integrity in life. And coincidentally, because one of David Harris’s most important essays, journalistic efforts, is an essay he wrote–actually, I think it’s his first professional writing after coming out of prison and being a draft resister, and one of a group. And by the way, I’m going to promote it later, but there’s a movie that came out last year called The Boys Who Said NO!, about this resistor movement. These are not people who fled the country; these are people who refused to cooperate with the draft board, and a good number of them, thousands of them, were punished for that, along with David Harris. 

And then when he got out, as he said, “divorced and broke”–he was actually divorced from a famous person, Joan Baez, who also played a key role in the antiwar movement; they had a child–and he tried to take up writing. And the first place he wrote for was Rolling Stone and Jann Wenner. And he did a piece called “Ask a Marine,” and that marine is Ron Kovic, who is now much more famous than he was back then. 

And in preparing for this interview I called Ron up, who is a good friend of mine. And you know, one thing we’ve got to remember about war, the casualties, in the case of ex-Marine Ron Kovic, can send you right up to now. Fortunately he’s still alive; he’s paralyzed. And the elevator went out in his building, and so I got in a whole discussion with Ron about how was he going to get help, and how was he going to be handled, and fortunately my wife is on that case now, so I can turn to David Harris. 

But Ron Kovic said that article in Rolling Stone, “Ask a Marine,” just changed his whole life. He was full of despair; he didn’t think he could ever get his message out. And he’d been, as opposed to David Harris, he had eagerly enlisted in the Marines. He believed in the war, and he thought he should go. And he did two tours of duty, and you know, famously wrote a book called Born on the Fourth of July, and other books. But that particular interview, which was included in Rolling Stone’s 25-year collection of its major pieces, is something I just reread in preparing this, and I felt the need to call Ron Kovic and ask him what he thought about it. And he just–he just was thrilled with it. It just made him come alive.

And let’s just begin with that. I know Annie Liebovitz, who now is probably the most, or has been the most famous photographer in the world, went down to I guess it was Santa Monica where he was living, and did the whole photo display. So why don’t you talk about your own transition from being an antiwar felon, and that moment in your life, and then writing this piece about a warrior who went with enthusiasm and suffered these horrible injuries, and turned against the war. 

DH: Well, you know, I was dealing with the dilemma that everybody who had dropped all else and gone to try and stop the war, had when peace agreements were signed. Suddenly what we wanted to happen happened, and now we had to answer the question, what next? And in my case, I didn’t have much in my bank account, and I was in a joint custody arrangement with my ex-wife. And I had dropped out of Stanford 15 units short of a degree, so I was eminently unemployable from every angle. 

But I thought I could write. And I had had contact with Rolling Stone because they’d done a story about me when I got out of prison. And so I sent off a letter to Jann Wenner, and said–I’d been writing a bunch of radio editorials in the last year of the war, and I sent him a bunch of them and said, you know, these aren’t getting in print; are you interested? And he wrote back saying, no, he wasn’t interested in those, but if I wanted a tryout, he would give me one, and give me an assignment. And I said, you know, I want to write the Ron Kovic story. 

And it was, for everybody who knows his story, it was an archetypal story. I mean, all the elements came here. His initial devotion to the Marine Corps, his disillusionment, and his reincarnation as an antiwar activist had all the elements of an incredible story, and a message. And I knew Ron from movement days, and I went after it, and leveraged the experience I was coming out of to get into the experience that I was headed for. 

RS: Well, let me just say something about that. You know, it is one of the most compelling pieces of writing that I’ve ever encountered. And you capture his life in Massapequa, Long Island, in many ways not that different than your life in Fresno, California, where you were, what, in high school you were the Fresno Boy of the Year or something?

DH: Fresno High School Boy of the Year.

RS: Yeah. And you were a true-blue patriot, and not a rebel against the system or the culture, which is what Ron was. You had a class difference; you know, Ron went straight from high school into the Marines, and you were, you know, student body president at Stanford University, right?

DH: Yeah.

RS: And you know, a future presidential candidate and senator was in your dorm where you were the dorm advisor, right? 

DH: Yeah, Mitt Romney was one of my advisees.

RS: And so in a way, you’re a very important story, because you walked away from a huge career. Obviously very bright, the meritocracy and so forth, Stanford; you’re on your way. And you didn’t go to Canada–I’m not disparaging people who went to Canada, but you–and you didn’t take advantage of student deferments, which you could have. You had many deferments that you could, and clearly a lot of people from Stanford who didn’t want to go didn’t have to go, and other colleges, particularly elite colleges. But you wanted–you took a principled position. And I want to get to that, because we’ve forgotten what that was all about. And it really was a reenactment of the Nuremberg standards. What you were saying is you thought the war was criminal and you could not participate in it, and that was it. And it was really scary to go off to prison over that, and it was originally a three-year term and then you were paroled after two years. 

And Ron was the other side of that coin. And when I talked to him today, he–you know, you did more than just were there. You were in part his inspiration to come out against the war. He had heard you speak, and you very much influenced him, and you gave him a whole focus that if you can make that sacrifice, then he should speak out. And he had seen the war; he had done two tours as a Marine, and he felt you in a sense inspired him. And he even remembered that you had a kind of a farm up in Fresno for the resisters to the war, where some of them were staying there and so forth. And he said he visited there with you. Do you recall that at all?

DH: Oh, yeah. I remember him. We ran a–it was part farm, part waystation for people who were getting out of prison or who were getting out of the military, needed space to make transition. 

RS: You know, what I want to get at here in this is that the journey that you and Kovic followed was a journey of high principle and sacrifice, you know, and on all accounts. And we now treat war as a video game; one accomplishment of the antiwar movement is they got rid of the draft and have gone over to high-tech, which kills a lot of people in these countries, which is what was happening in Vietnam also, with the carpet-bombing and everything else. But we forget that there’s a core principle–and I was offended, actually not by the article, but I read an article about you, and one of the things it goes into–and I should mention here that you’ve had serious medical problems, and at this point in your life you’re kind of looking back at what was worth it and what was important, and so forth. 

But this fellow Alan Goldfarb–and I think it was a well-intentioned article–but what got me going in that article for Alta magazine was that he interviewed some people who–in the government or in foreign policy service around this, many years after this war that no one can defend. And actually they made the argument that you might–people like you, and I guess people like me, because by the way I spoke at that same Kesar Stadium rally that you spoke at–

DH: Yeah, I remember.

RS: And, ah–but this snide, arrogant view that somehow, you know, there were other ways to stop this war. And you know, in my own personal case–

DH: Well, they had even accused us of extending the war.

RS: Yeah. Yeah, and I found that so deeply offensive, and so out of tune with reality–with reality. Because these wars were fought as if it didn’t matter how many of the “others” got killed. Nobody ever really cared about the destruction in Korea, where just about every structure was leveled. Nobody really cared that we dropped more bombs on Indochina than we had, you know, in World War II in Europe and so forth. You know, and it was a question of whether it was politically palatable in the United States, whether it would hurt your career or not. And Nixon even campaigned on the promise to end the war, because it was increasingly unpopular. 

But the smugness of this view that somehow the establishment–and you know, David Halberstam had that great title for his book, The Best and the Brightest; they gave us this war, they justified it. And that somehow people like you, who took a principled stand–and this is what I–I recommend to people to watch this movie [The Boys Who Said NO!], and David Harris is a principal figure in it. The courage it took to say, wait a minute. If this involves war crimes, how could we go along? And we’re not just going to duck for cover or leave the country–I shouldn’t say “just,” because those people had their lives very much disrupted, and threatened. But really you had these, what, 25,000 people who in a methodical way sent their draft card back to the draft boards or the Defense Department and said, no. This is immoral, and we can’t go along. 

I think there are very few people who would now defend what happened in Vietnam as moral. But if I were to suggest–for instance, President Biden just went along with declaring the genocide against the Armenians to be genocide, to be a war crime. And I’m not disputing that. But as a matter of fact, we never recognize any American genocide. We don’t recognize–

DH: Which is a starting point for what I did and what Ron did. You know, we got a–particularly those who didn’t live through it, who are now trying to familiarize themselves with this war, the starting point is that it was wrong, with a capital “W.” This was not just a matter of mistaken policy. This was going 10,000 miles from home and killing 3 million people for no good reason. You know, it’s the textbook definition of evil. And that confronted everybody who came of age during that time, with the question of, what are you going to do about it? And obviously I was, and Ron and a whole bunch of other people were part of saying that for starters we weren’t going to participate. 

And there was a system of military conscription that was in place, and required everybody to register, or all males to register on their eighteenth birthday, and be subject to being called up into the Army. And everybody was required to carry proof that they had registered with them, which was a card that you were issued by your local draft board, under penalty of potentially five years in prison. And what we said as a movement was, it’s time to stop your cooperation. 

RS: We are given to an American exceptionalism. When we do bad things, they’re mistakes. You know, oh, yeah, OK, a lot of Native Americans got killed or what have you, but that wasn’t really intentional, it wasn’t the main drama–that’s an improvement over, you know, the cowboys were virtuous and blah, blah, blah, that we’re raised with. Slavery was a mistake, but you know, it was a part of the times, and then segregation–we go through this whole mythologizing. 

And the picture on your book–and I do want to recommend this book from Heyday Books, because it’s a collection of great journalism. You know, great journalism–they’re individual pieces of very different subjects ranging from marijuana-growing to war and what have you. But it’s journalism at its best. And it’s the kind of journalism that had a currency in the seventies, when you were doing this, and really has fallen out of favor; it’s not done with that kind of edginess that you did, and you did it for quite a few publications. So I do think people should get the book. 

But I think the main thing is we don’t ever take ownership for our history. Whether it’s dropping the–the only country that’s dropped nuclear bombs on civilians and people, used them in war–we don’t. And I want you to address that. Because there you were, on the path to great financial success; you could have become, I don’t know, become a lawyer or something, gone to Harvard from Stanford, it’s the route, careerism. And I think we’ve lost that edge. You were part of a generation that thought not selling out was an important consideration. That integrity might matter. At least a lot of people felt that way; certainly the woman you were married to, Joan Baez exhibited that. 

And that is kind of lost now. And the idea that you went to prison over this principle–how many people would go to prison over their objection to the Iraq War, if they were called on to fight in it? You know, they wouldn’t, or very few would. And so I want to address that. You’re, you know, you’re a still-living monument to that kind of integrity. And on the cover of the book, you’re wrapped in the family American flag. You know, you had the same convictions that Ron Kovic had, and you lost them because of a reality check, both of you.

DH: Yeah, I wanted to go to West Point when I was in the fourth grade. And my father was 20 years an officer in the Army Reserve after serving in World War II for the duration. And my brother was a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division. So it wasn’t like I came from a pacifist family. But I think one of the things you have to remember about this period of time is that nobody started out in this position. That there was a collective search for meaning and response that was very painful on the individual level and very challenging on the larger political level. 

But you know, all of us had to make two decisions. The one was that we were not going to participate, and whatever the consequences of that were, we weren’t going to, we weren’t rolling over for it. The second choice was, what are you going to do about it? And we went looking for people who were prepared to put themselves on the line and ante up. You know, our approach to the antiwar movement was, you know, it’s fine and good to have an opinion about the war, but we need to take that to another level, and make it clear what’s going on here, and do that by dint of our own personal sacrifice. We were saying to America, look, this is such a hideous proposition that we’re prepared to spend time in prison to try and stop it. And I think ultimately that played a big role in changing the minds of the Americans that ultimately forced the war to end. 

RS: But why doesn’t the model hold? Because I mean, in this story–and I don’t want to put down the story that was in Alta; I think–it’s by Alan Goldfarb, I think it’s well worth reading. I’m really angry–I mean, I think it’s a very good story. I’m upset about some of the establishment figures in, I don’t know where, the Council on Foreign Relations or whatever, that he quotes. That they know the wise way. There’s an internal mechanism. It’s the same thing that’s been said about Edward Snowden or Julian Assange or any whistleblowers; Daniel Ellsberg, for example. You know, there are channels. And what you were saying is, no, there are not channels. The fact of the matter is, this war is proceeding, it’s not stopping, and there’s no intention to stop it. 

And we’re actually in–I want to bring it up again, the Nuremberg principles, something that came out of the U.S. government. That you know, as a kid–because I come from, well, you wouldn’t know, but I come from a German Protestant father and a Russian Jewish mother. And I was up against this, you know: how were my father’s relatives involved in this barbarism? And you know, I went back to find my father’s brother, who was in the German army. And his answer was the same that you got from a lot of people who went off to Vietnam: he said, hey, I was a farm boy, and they came and we were conscripted and we went, and I ended up in Stalingrad, you know. But we held people like that accountable: What did you do? What were your activities, what were the orders, why did you follow the orders? That was the whole question. And what you did was in real time said, hey, that’s a question Americans have to answer.

DH: Yeah, I remember that when I was a freshman at Stanford, the kind of hot book at the time was Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem. And you know, she reaches the conclusion in that that the issue is not what do you do if you’re the rest of the world faced with the Nazis; the issue is what do you do when it’s your country that is the Nazis. What do you do if you’re a German? And that framed the next 10 years of my life, because we were Germans. We were committing an enormous evil, and refusing to recognize it, hiding it in all the different ways possible. And using love of country to justify what is palpably evil. 

And we had to go out and set up a new moral standard. And I think to our credit, we were able to at least keep the country from falling into total moral oblivion. But getting the country to take responsibility has been, was difficult at the time, and ever since has become more difficult. America does not want to remember what it did. It does not want to take responsibility for what it did. So it continues to do it over and over again. It’s not until somebody has an accounting here that we’re ever going to get out of this cycle. 

RS: You know, one of the key phrases in Hannah Arendt’s work was the phrase, “the banality of evil.”

DH: Yeah.

RS: And this keeps–when I read, you know, accounts about what you did and so forth, there was always kind of a snide banality of evil lurking there and attacking you. You know, why were you doing this, and weren’t there better ways, and aren’t there smarter people that know how to do this. And you know, is it really as awful as you’re describing. I happened to go to Vietnam before the heavy bombing, and I was in the north after, and I was in Cambodia quite a bit, a couple of times. And you know, it just would hit me that anyone who went through that in any way–I was a journalist; I wasn’t like Ron Kovic–but you would see the evil around you. you know, you just cannot look at carpet-bombing, at what it does to a whole rural population. And somehow we made that seem ordinary. We made it seem normal. 

And what you were penetrating was that fog of normalcy, it seems to me. What you were really saying is, no, this is it–this is the same kind of thing. And I don’t think it’s just a period piece about Vietnam. What we’ve done is now turned war into a video game, right? And as a result, we–and we don’t have a draft. And so the issues that you’re raising are still issues. Our taxes support wars that make no sense, you know, like in Iraq, elsewhere. We’re still building up a big war machine. But we’ve made it even more common, not questioned. It’s just–you know, we have a huge military budget right now, in the middle of a pandemic. And so here you are, kind of an artifact of a peace movement that really doesn’t exist anymore. It’s kind of depressing, isn’t it, at this stage of your life? It certainly is at mine. 

DH: Yeah. No, I–it’s watching everything we built slowly be ebbed away. And you know, there is no moral discussion going on, other than in the Black Lives Matter movement. Otherwise, the notion of moral responsibility is getting incredibly short shrift in our culture. And the fact is, democracy–what we learned in Vietnam was that democracies only work when citizens act out the democracy. It’s not–citizens are not supposed to stand around and watch. Citizens are supposed to frame the politics of that moment, and right now we don’t have that kind of citizenship going on. 

RS: You know, it’s interesting. I want to wrap this up, but I think it goes even beyond questions of war and peace and so forth. I mean, you know, I was reminded the other day–I just looked at the statistic–when we were talking about Vietnam, we used to say the U.S. had six percent of the world’s population and it was responsible for a lot of waste, a lot of war, a lot of this sort of thing. And now it’s four and a quarter percent of the world’s population. And yet if you look at a whole range of issues, certainly of climate change and waste and pollution and so forth, you look at the consumption, you look at the amount of wealth that is wasted at the same time there are so many people who don’t have the necessities of life–you get a darker view of American exceptionalism. It’s not just the wonderful good guys screwed up once in a while, which was one view of Vietnam. Maybe it’s systemic. Maybe this is what we are. Maybe we are the bullies, maybe we are the wasters. And it’s kind of a harsh message that, you know, most people, even people who consider themselves progressive, don’t really want to accept. 

DH: Yeah, and then on top of that, it’s the exact wrong response to the situation we’re facing. We’re not going to solve the fallout from climate change by building better weapons or bullying people. It requires us to build a solidarity as the human species. And so all of that cowboy stuff is the exact wrong response to what we need. 

RS: So let me close by asking you, you know, we looked back at your life, and you know, what are the touchstones? I mean, something very special happened in the sixties and seventies. It’s a mixed bag [Laughs], you know, but something very special happened where suddenly at least discussions of integrity–personal integrity–became front and center. And reading your account of that period, it’s there. It’s there in the dorms, it’s there in the endless discussion–if that’s true and that’s true, then what’s the right thing to do, and so forth. 

And it seems–and then you even talk about the media at that time reflecting that, you know: it’s not my country, right or wrong, what should my country do, what is my role, what is accountability. And now–and with Stanford actually sort of a center of this shift over to this internet billionaire world, where you know, what’s big and what sells and what makes money and how do you get on that career track–and your life has been lived in exactly the opposite way to what most universities now recommend for the successful life, which is careerism trumps everything. How do you look at this period? What has happened to Stanford or other major universities?

DH: Who’s asking the question of “who are we”? I don’t see it happening. You know, because the next question after “who are we” is what’s right and what’s wrong. And these are the biggest questions human beings have. And you can’t be a full human being unless you have explored those questions and found answers. And I think that’s been lopped out of the culture. And we lose as human beings from it, not just as a body politic, but we lose as individual human beings. We become less so. And we become social engineers and leave democracy behind. 

RS: Yep. So, any regrets?

DH: Not a one. You know, part of when I was doing this back then, I used to tell myself, I want to get to be 75 years old and look back on it and feel good about what I did. And I look back on it at 75 years old, and I feel very good about what we did. I think it was special. I think we saved the country from itself, at least momentarily. 

RS: You know, and that’s an interesting point, the success of that movement. And one thing–again, I keep getting back to this, and people should read it for themselves. It’s a good article by Alan Goldfarb, and it’s Alta magazine. That’s what Will Hearst puts out, right, that’s a good publication.

DH: Yeah.

RS: And everything. And I don’t want to blame Alan Goldfarb for the quotes that he has from these so-called realists, who say oh, well, they just lengthened the war and so forth. Because that’s a convenient stand for careerism. You know, why did Daniel Ellsberg do what he did in releasing the Pentagon Papers, and you know, risking 125 years in jail? Why did Edward Snowden tell us what was really going on in the surveillance state? And the fact is, the scary thing is there’s so few of them. Daniel Ellsberg said he had to wait three decades or something for other whistleblowers to come along, you know, when he was talking about Snowden. And you know, it’s really quite amazing, in a society that prides itself on individual integrity and freedom and accountability and democracy, that we have very few David Harrises. Very few Daniel Ellsbergs, very few Edward Snowdens. And that’s a question I’d put to you: what is it about this culture that denies assertions for individualism and obligation?

DH: Well, it’s important to remember that there wasn’t always such an isolation. I mean, these guys who are talking about us having extended the war couldn’t be more wrong. And one of the things we have to remember about this history is this was the only war in American history that was stopped because a citizens’ movement rose up and made it impossible for the government to continue. It was an extraordinary moment in history that we keep turning a blind eye to. When what’s his name, the documentary filmmaker who made the 10-part series on Vietnam and managed to–

RS: Ken Burns, yeah.

DH: Ken Burns–and managed to pretty much ignore that central fact, that it was the uprising of citizens that made this war impossible to continue. And that involved millions of people.

RS: Well, I know that is true, because I actually got to interview Richard Nixon after he was in office, after he was disgraced and went back to his office in New York. And he had been traumatized by the antiwar movement. Doesn’t mean that led to good behavior; he escalated the war and so forth, but eventually had to get out. It wasn’t enlightened liberals that finally ended it; it was cold, calculating Nixon, and recognized that this world was far more complex, and that the–after all, the whole rationale for Vietnam was that somehow Vietnam was a surrogate of China, because they both had communism around them. 

And no one–really, this is a good point on which to end, because just having talked to Ron Kovic today and realizing, paralyzed, he has to stay on the third floor of his apartment building because the elevator hasn’t been working for days. And there’s nothing to do, and how is he going to get the help he needs to even get out of bed. And why was he sent to Vietnam? It wasn’t because there was anything in Vietnam that mattered. It was that this was a surrogate for fighting China, and there had been this revolution in China that we thought was awful and caught us by surprise, and now we were going to punish them, first it was in Korea and then it was going to be in Vietnam. 

And the irony–and just conclude on this for people listening, because you teach and speak in high schools and other places, and I know I teach–I always ask people, well, we were told the war in Vietnam had to go on or they would challenge us in San Diego, or there was this international communist threat. You know, denying that it was nationalist or anything. And the irony is that the great experts on war, the great strategists told us oh, this will be terrible for America’s place and everything, and the fact of the matter is, when we suffered the most ignominious military defeat in American history at the hands of a really relatively poorly armed, basically peasant army, what happened? You ask people that question, even pundits–what was the military consequence? Did the Vietnamese attack San Diego? What happened? And the fact is it was communist Vietnam and communist China went to war. They went to war over their border and over some islands and so forth; they’re still hostile.

So the whole foundation of this war, which sent you to prison, which cost Kovic three-quarters of his body, was a fraud. It was an act of stupidity. It was oblivious to fact, logic–anything. And yet none of the people who brought it all together, who sold it, who packaged it, who directed it, were ever held accountable. None of them. Is that not true?

DH: It was one of the great wrongs of the 20th century. [overlapping voices]

RS: But we talk about accountability. We raise children to be accountable, we talk about accountability. We hold a shoplifter accountable, and they do it a couple of times they’re gone for 10 years. You know, we hold people accountable around the world. And the idea that this folly–it’s not the only one, but that this folly was constructed on a totally–this is what the Pentagon Papers showed. And they were going to throw Ellsberg in jail for 120 years for what, revealing an internal Pentagon history that showed the whole thing was a fraud. 

You know, so Ron Kovic shouldn’t have been sent, and you shouldn’t have been faced with resisting the draft. I mean, this is the part I don’t get. When you read an article and they quote some people who say, well, the war would have stopped earlier–that’s nonsense. They don’t understand the hysteria of militarism. That’s what you were going up against. How dare you challenge the patriotism? How dare you break with the government? How dare you endanger the lives of American troops by objecting to the war? They were trying to make you a non-person, the enemy. Was that not the buzz saw that you walked into? 

DH: Absolutely. That was what we had to change. And it was by dint of a lot of people’s sacrifice we shifted that, where suddenly it was no longer possible to portray antiwar people as unpatriotic. The country came to see that we were motivated by patriotism every bit as much as the people who were for the war. And that was an enormous achievement. 

RS: Well, on that note, you know, as Ron Kovic always says when he sees somebody in uniform and so forth, thank you for your service. I think the American people owe David Harris a thank-you for his service in trying to prevent the war. If the people trying to prevent that war has been more successful, Ron Kovic would not be paralyzed right now on the third floor of an apartment building worrying about how he can survive. You know, and so I really think these lessons cannot be forgotten. And just because you now do them by drones, you do them anonymously, there are human beings on the other end of those drones. So again, David Harris, I wish you all luck with your health problems, and I want to thank you for being one of the great symbols of American democracy. 

And that’s it for this issue of Scheer Intelligence. Christopher Ho at KCRW posts these shows. We want to thank him. Natasha Hakimi Zapata does the introduction, Lucy Berbeo the transcription. and Joshua Scheer is our overall executive producer. I want to thank the JWK Foundation for, in the memory of Jean Stein, a terrific writer and someone who did oppose the war in Vietnam, helps fund these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. 

10 comments

  1. When I learned truth about French occupation of Vietnam and Vietnamese composed a Declaration of Independence from France modeled after USA Declaration of Independence, it made me ashamed & disappointed in American mainstream media that refused to bring us the truth when it should have. Today American mainstream media has nearly 100% control from White House & Congress for the regime of American Exceptionalism aka fascism is disguise.

  2. “America” had no moral compass from the get-go. I mean, look at what “colonists” did to the Native People who were already here and flourishing (genocide); look at what was done to Black Lives and is still happening today (lynching and other forms of murder); consider what has been done to Asian and Muslim populations around the world (incessant bombing). My question is this – Who died and made White Men “god”? And further, who gave the USA permission to destroy other countries, cultures, humans, biodiversity and Earth on a whim?

    1. True. “America” is best defined as a sham to rob people of hope & joy.

  3. This was an important interview for me because I was with David at Stanford in the Draft Resistance, one of the Boys Who Said No. I was reassured that our sacrifice made a difference, and I was reminded how horrible was the War on Vietnam. Like David, even though the big doors of ‘success’ were closed to me, I have no regrets.

  4. A great discussion on an essential topic. There are very few Americans who have consistently shown the integrity of David Harris. I’m grateful for his example.

  5. The Vietnam War was not an act of stupidity. It was massive murder. It was built on greed. We have a responsibility to all of the victims of the war, the military and civilian casualities of both sides of the war, to speak up for them since they are unable to speak for themselves. This was mass murder and in order to stop all future wars from happening, we must recognize the wrongness of what happened in Vietnam before we can move forward. Peace to All who believe that another world is possible.

  6. “…The death tolls are still shocking to read: it is estimated that 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed during the war, along with 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters…”

    It’s a measure of just how imbued we all are with the propaganda that anyone who understands what a horrific con job that war was will still not make the connection that we feel the need to differentiate between civilians and combatants, as if they weren’t all simply Vietnamese.

  7. U.S. capitalists and imperialists sought empire before the chains of our own colonialism were even thrown off. I agree with a previous poster. Why do people assume this country has or ever had a moral compass? Some individuals have and do, but that matters not. There was a brief period where a weak and ridiculed anti-imperialist league worked to limit imperialism, but that was unsuccessful, probably mostly due to the many footholds already gained in many places before the 1890’s as well as the reality of organized greed and ambition. The only anti-imperialist presidents were against the imperialism of other countries, not the imperialism of this one. We are truly propagandized, manipulated and indoctrinated from birth to death in this country. History is not taught. It is avoided and replaced with myth, selective facts, and a study of our ‘greatness’ as much as any totalitarian state I think. Unless a draft notice, a fascist president, or a death of a loved one from attack rises up and slaps one personally in the face, people don’t seem to question, seek answers, even think about it. We are kept so busy with our meaningless jobs and our next new purchase of a want that there is little time to ponder how the world works. We give up on democracy, even representative democracy, because we know it doesn’t really exist. We are powerless and most of us know it. We can’t even keep profit making out of common resources in our local municipalities because so many sellouts maniacally seek profits and dividends and monetize everything in order to lazily live off the next person’s needs rather than produce anything of value. What chance will we have to stop international exploitation and wars that are rampant and thoroughly entrenched if we can’t control it in our own cities and counties. Foreigners own our land, houses, water, plenty of production, and other resources. We have imperialism incoming and outgoing. There seem to be no limits. Nationhood seems to be a false construct, used mainly to raise armies and tax monies for powerful internationalists and MNC’s and to keep people in line. We pay fees for services our taxes used to cover while our taxes go to subsidize private profits or worse – to kill or dispossess other exploited people – and of course to always continue the indoctrination and non-education of our kids in schools. Go, China. Someone else might as well have a go at it, because this country is not likely to ever develop a moral compass. BTW, Mr. Biden might consider that throwing money at people is not truth-telling or developing a moral compass – but then, those probably aren’t his goals.
    Two other presidents are famous for throwing money at people in the face of serious wars and quests for further imperialism – LBJ and FDR – both imperialists – the War on Poverty and the New Deal. People might consider that and be doing some questioning of Biden’s motives. So. What is to be done?

  8. The flaw in this argument is the assumption that America had one in the first place.

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