I was at a tag sale the other day and while rummaging through a box of books came across a small blue book that shaped a large part of my early resolve to become a lawyer. It is the Handbook for Conscientious Objectors. It figured significantly in my early college years.
The handbook was published by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and contained information about the draft laws, the principles behind the conscientious objection to war, and information on draft classifications, religious exemptions, alternative service and prison life.
One fascinating aspect is that the book was first published in 1952, in an initial print run of 8,000 copies, and republished every few years thereafter in similar annual numbers until 1968, when 98,000 copies were published. 1968 was when the Vietnam War exploded and the effects of the draft were suddenly felt by every young man between 18 and 26.
That was the year that Lyndon Johnson upped American troops in the country to nearly 550,000. Over 15,000 of them were killed, as well as 28,000 of our South Vietnamese allies and an estimated 200,000 communist troops. The war cost the treasury over $77 billion (over $500 billion in present day dollars) that year alone.
I was part of a draftee rights counseling program that began in 1968, and the handbook was our textbook and bible. We spent months learning such arcana as the various classifications one could receive and what they meant. There were many, including a deferral to finish a year of high school or college, a deferral for agricultural or essential employment, as well as hardship deferrals for married candidates and sole surviving sons (Google the "Sullivan brothers") and exemptions for divinity school students.
Classifications could be appealed to the local draft boards and then to the president. Those classified as I-A were ranked for induction beginning with delinquents (though that criteria was outlawed in 1970), to the earliest volunteers, and then from youngest to oldest, single men before married.
Conscientious objectors could seek relief from enlistment or qualification for alternative service under what was known as the "religious training and belief" clause. The handbook spends some time explaining just what a religious belief is, quoting from, among others, Benjamin Franklin and Immanuel Kant. The case of U.S. v. Seeger figures large in the discussion, differentiating between theocentric and an anthropocentric notions of ethics. Hard stuff for an 18-year-old.
There are sample questions to be used to prepare the draftee for interrogation. "Do you object to killing or being killed?" "Should we let the Communists oppress the Vietnamese people?" "Do you object to other boys being drafted or just yourself?" And, "Why didn't you become a CO until you saw your deferment running out?" My favorite is, "Do you realize that by refraining from helping our army you are helping North Vietnam?"
In addition to the question of personal morality, there were ones rooted in bible verses, such as asking why Christ said "he that hath no sword, let him buy one," and asking why there were so many wars in the Old Testament. Stuff best thought of before the applicant appears before the draft board.
A fair amount of the handbook deals with protests, non-cooperation and criminal prosecutions. One chapter is dedicated to prison life, both in county jails and in federal prisons. There is even a section addressing the issue of homosexuality in prisons, explaining the CO's, though they might get a little more attention, did not really have to fear rape.
There is a bibliography, including writings by Huxley, Gandhi, Thoreau, Tolstoy and William James. Additional resources were available from the American Friends Service Committee and the Catholic Worker movement. One group which had national prominence was the North East Committee for Non-Violent Action located in Voluntown, Conn. The Voluntown Collective, as we called it, occasionally made the news when some redneck group from the wilds of Eastern Connecticut raided it. The raiders were invariably arrested by the state police, and marched shoeless into some local jail to await arraignment. It all made for great TV news.
Rereading the handbook 45 years later, I was struck by how such issues as the standard of review for local draft board actions, the available avenues of appellate review, alternative theories of resistance and other legal issues, all of which seemed so arcane and difficult then, were just simple matters of administrative and criminal law, both in theory and practice, concepts I would master 10 years later when I began my career as a lawyer.
I don't remember when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, but after reading the handbook, I think it must have been a long time ago.•