Resister by Bruce Dancis (Cornell University Press) is a warm memoir of those adventuresome days of student activism during the Vietnam war.
Dancis and I led parallel yet opposite lives. He was in Students for a Democratic Society. I was in the College Republicans. He led demonstrations at Cornell University. I reported on demonstrations for the Temple News. He went to jail. I went into the Navy.
Those were exciting times. Nationwide demonstrations were organized, draft records were destroyed, buildings were occupied, universities were brought to a halt. Interviewing an anti-war activist at Temple, with a smirk, I asked, “My observation is that you are having fun." He smirked back, hesitantly, "Yes.”
A former editor at the Sacramento Bee, Dancis spent 19 months in the Federal prison at Ashland, Kentucky, convicted of destroying his draft card.
Dancis comes over as a prankster, but also a young man totally dedicated to the cause. He took on the Cornell administration on free expression (he was busted for wearing a button ridiculing a Cornell administrator) and Cornell’s investment in South Africa. Though he had dropped out of school to pursue politics, he had the audacity to remain an active member of the Cornell community, raising a ruckus, publishing a magazine, speaking at demonstrations, and taking a leading role in the Cornell chapter of SDS.
Not only did he politically oppose the war in Vietnam, but he took the radical step of actively trying to bring down Selective Service. He and his fellow activists plotted draft card turn-ins. Dancis was committed to nonviolence, when many of his SDS colleagues were moving towards revolutionary tactics. A crazy man of principle, he chose to go to jail rather than seek status as a conscientious objector.
Dancis was also a musician—of sorts. His band “Titanic” played around Cornell, and he set up a jam session while on a “fact finding” meeting with representatives of the Vietcong and North Vietnam in Budapest. He reflects on some of the great songs of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Whatever you might say about Nixon, some mighty fine music was written during his reign.
Dancis gives interesting observations of prison life. He noted how some prisoners deteriorated in jail and how some inmates drew within themselves to cope. I had the same observations of life on a Navy ship. Ironically, Dancis, who went to jail to avoid military service, was issued surplus military clothing in prison. He left prison in a Navy pea coat.
Looking back over forty years, and having examined several historical studies, Dancis believes that the resistance helped bring down the draft. He writes that the prosecutorial system broke down under the weight of so many cases of draft law violations. Some cases were thrown out of court because evidence was poorly developed. In the end, Federal prosecutors only went after leaders of the anti-draft movement and violators who made themselves media figures. Under public pressure, the Nixon administration instituted a draft lottery, and as the war drew down, stopped conscription.
Dancis concluded that the anti-war movement was successful in ending the war. Fearful of massive domestic upheaval, the Nixon administration tempered its war initiatives, and wound down U.S. involvement by placing more and more responsibility for fighting the war on the South Vietnamese military (“Vietnamization.”)
Notwithstanding our opposing politics, I think Dancis is correct.
There are two especially admirable touches to the book. Dancis wrote about his relationship with his girlfriend “Jane”, but kept her real name out of the book. I admire his respect for her privacy. While Bruce was in prison, “Jane” found a new love. Rather than break up by letter or telephone call, Jane journeyed from Cornell to Ashland in rural Kentucky to tell Bruce in person that she was breaking up.
Amor vincit omnia.