Friday Takeaway: Hitchhikers and the path to peace

  • Frances Crowe at her home in Northampton.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

As a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends, I oppose war and take every opportunity to exercise the moral obligation to encourage resistance to war, weapons and political actions that foster war.

President Trump recently sent some 5,800 U.S. troops to create a human wall along our border with Mexico to keep Central American immigrants from entering our country. Fifty years ago, in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson (and shortly afterward Richard M. Nixon) commanded approximately 545,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam.

While all of the troops now along the U.S. southern border volunteered for the military, about a quarter of Vietnam-era soldiers had been drafted for service through the U.S. Selective Service System.

In 1968, I decided I wanted to oppose the draft by encouraging young men to search their consciences and apply for conscientious objection according to U.S. law.

Young men then qualified as draftees to military service because, identified as 1-A, they met physical and mental requirements for induction into the army.

I wanted young men to resist the draft by qualifying as 1-0, called conscientious objectors. To qualify as 1-0, each man had to demonstrate his moral opposition to war and killing. Each 1-0 would reduce a local draft board’s quota by one man.

After preparing myself by attending seminars on conscientious objection and group process, I decided to invite young men to come to me for draft counseling in the basement office in my home. At first, in the days before social media, I placed an ad in a conventional newspaper.

It didn’t work.

Then, I wrote a personal letter to area clergy and lawyers asking for their help. No one responded at first, but later that week, Bill Norris, a lawyer from Cummington, agreed to help me with pro bono legal advice.

Encouraged, I got into the family station wagon the following Monday morning to drive between Northampton and Amherst in order to pick up hitchhiking draft-age men. In those days when no buses ran along Route 9, many hitchhikers sought a lift, and I had no qualms about picking them up. I handed my riders a mimeographed flyer urging them to attend a session in my home about legal alternatives to the draft if they opposed the war.

I learned that many of them planned to avoid the draft by resettling in Canada or Sweden. Even worse, some entertained cutting off the tip of an index finger to be declared 4-F, unfit for induction into the army according to the selective service system.

The next day, my basement filled with young men looking for a moral, legal alternative to becoming part of the military. I had questionnaires for them from the Valley Peace Center, and soon a vibrant draft counseling operation began. It went on for more than six years.

I orchestrated the sessions on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Friday evenings. I encouraged the young men to search their consciences for moral concerns that demonstrated their opposition to killing. We worked at finding ethical reservations that would convince a draft board to grant 1-0 status regardless of religious belief. We applied the question of John Woolman, the 19th-century abolitionist and Quaker preacher: “What are you objecting to?”

Soon, young men helped facilitate the counseling sessions, and they helped each other enormously. Their experience became invaluable with filing applications and facing draft boards. Pioneer Valley students encountered draft boards all over the country, and we learned effective approaches.

Depending on circumstances, a 1-0 classification led to alternative service in a hospital or government agency. Sometimes a 1-0 classification meant an exemption from service of any kind.

In all, according to the citation accompanying my 2015 honorary doctorate from Smith College, I counseled more than 2,000 young men during the Vietnam-era draft.

War is not the answer.

A 1977 Gazette article described Frances Crowe as “a long-time anti-war activist.” The founder of the American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts, Crowe continues her pioneering peace work today.