From the Shelf The Trial of Dr. Spock
SO MANY people now support unconditional withdrawal that it seems Vietnam may soon be released to the people who live in it. It all seemed very different a year or two ago, when you could count on people like Dean Rusk to believe in the war.
We have begun to leave, so the questions have become those of the tactics of withdrawal. Thus October 15 is about demanding the tactic of immediate withdrawal. And amidst all this unanimity it is hard to remember that a year and a half ago Dr. Spock was being tried in a federal court essentially for being against the war.
I REMEMBER clearly sinning with some friends last winter in the Freshman Union talking about the war. The conversation was a strange one for we were engaged in flights of fancy as to how one might end a war that still seemed inexorable. In other words, how one might most persuasively address a stone wall: "Suppose a bird flew up to you one day and said, 'If you cut off your toes. I guarantee that the war will end.' Would you do it?" The question seemed reminiscent of grade school and cootie-catchers, but it was easy to answer since we all tend to belittle the importance of our toes and because a talking bird could probably deliver on what it promised. So I replied yes, I would cut off my toes, "Well suppose the bird said to cut off your balls?" That was a very different question, not only because of the Freudian overtones, but because it really posed the problem: What would you do as a man to end the war in Vietnam? We all got silly then and pondered rather than the war, the concept of a talking bird, and then went off to study. But I had trouble, and spent most of the night wondering what I would be prepared to sacrifice to stop the war.
The next night we all sat together again, and it became obvious that everyone else had been thinking too because we immediately started talking about the war. During a Iull in which we were all shovelling down our food, my devilish roommate, who had first postulated the talking bird, said very slowly that there might be way in which those of us sitting at that table could bring the war to an end. Gasps. We lit the essential cigarettes and listened to his proposal for the creation and organization of H-RSC: The Harvard-Radcliffe Suicide Club. It went something like this. Once a week, one of us, drawn by lot, would make his way to Washington, to some public place where he would burn himself to death. Other Club members would make it known that he had done it to protest the war. The suicides would continue regularly until this clear illustration of what the war was doing to our youth made its continuation intolerable. We each believed in the vestiges of Harvard's reputation enough to think that the nation might consider us the pride of her youth going up in smoke. What is more, we believed in goodness. Ideas like this spin black webs around your mind, and I know that in certain instants, I believed that if we followed through we could, of ourselves, end the war in a month. And so, to the question, what in the world can I do to end the war I suddenly had a terrifying and righteously beguiling answer. I could kill myself.
It would be too depressing to describe how the idea petered out. We have all had our great universe-embracing projects that have come to nougat because we hadn't the time or balls. Suffice it that I am writing this article, and my fellow conspirators are also alive. And the war goes on, and for a long time I felt especially implicated because I hadn't made the sacrifice that I had for the few hours rationally considered. But I don't anymore, and I will try to show you how reading The Trial of Dr. Spock helped to change my mind.
JESSICA MITFORD has written a book about the trial of the Boston Five anti-war conspirators, who also existed in that other time when people did and thought strange things to end a war that was still on the upswing. The days of the Resestance and self-sacrifice rather than confrontation.
The Spock Conspiracy seems to have passed into that shadowy Pete Seeger-Odetta land of forgotten movements. I could barely remember what the issues were when I first picked up the book. To refresh your memory, the defendants: Dr. Benjamin Spock (whose baby book is the second-largest bestseller in the history of mankind if you are interested in superlatives like that); William Sloane Coffin. Jim Marcus Raskin; Michael Ferber; and Mitchell Goodman-were charged by the U. S. government with conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet resistance to the draft. They were tried in the Boston Federal District Court and four of the five (all except Raskin) were found guilty and sentenced to two years in the Federal Penitentiary. Spock and Ferber were later cleared on appeal. The cases of Goodman and Coffin will go to the U. S. Supreme Court.
The book uses the vehicle of "the court-room drama"-which is always gripping in a Perry Mason versus D. A. way. Miss Mitford uses it only for its natural excitement and writes an impassioned, sympathetic and very original view of both the strange ways of jurisprudence and the anti-war stance of the defendants. This makes for enjoyable and uplifting reading. The Ghandian stance of kindly Dr. Spock-who is in a very real sense the father of us all-is rare in America. Miss Mitford herself seems to speak as an adult resistance supporter and explains the defendants' (and undoubtedly her own) embarrassment that they are only trying to give stature to a grass-roots movement of youth. The challenge to the consciences of younger resisters going off to jail rather than into the army, seems to have carried the defendants to a militancy that they might never have known. One occasionally has the sense that they are on trial for betraying their positions of authority and respect to the cause of crazy young people.
In speaking of the government's method of prosecution and the trial procedure, Miss Mitford sticks on the crucial issue of political trials. In this case the defendants are tried under the traditional catch-all political repression charge of "conspiracy" for what are essentially their anti-government beliefs. The Conspiracy charged by the government was in effect the Resistance itself, and the five figurehead defendants were held responsible for the entire draft-card burning, induction-refusal movement. One assumes that the government could not tolerate the tremendous anti-war moral tide unless it could be boiled down to a conspiracy. That not one of the men knew another any more than in passing made no difference to the charge of conspiracy. Shared beliefs equal conspiracy when the government needs a charge.
FURTHER. Miss Mitford outlines so clearly the prejudicial handling of the case by Judge Francis Ford that any lingering belief in equal justice under law is mercifully put to rest. Ford formulated his closing charge to the jury as a barely-veiled order to convict. But we later learn that this becomes the grounds for the appeal that set Spock and Ferber free. Why the other two were not also freed is bewildering save with the sensibility to the workings of the law that the book conveys.
The great tragedy of the case is that the trial served absolutely no therapeutic function. Had the conspiracy actually existed, creation of a political defense would have been easier. Several of the defendants had stated in speeches that they were aiding, abetting and counseling non-compliance with the draft laws so that they might force the government to undertake a test case on the issues raised by the war.
They had assumed that such a test case might deal publicly with questions of the illegality of the war under international law, the responsibility under the Nuremburg principles to refuse to comply in what one considers in good conscience to be war crimes, and the idealistic nature of the Resistance movement. But at the very opening of the trial of these essential points were ruled out of order. No arguments on the illegal nature of the war were to be heard (as that would have placed the government on trial). All issues of free speech and conscientious objection were ignored by the judge. All he wanted to know was had the defendants conspired to break a law.
Thus the charge of conspiracy, like a horrible shadowy octopus, swallowed up the men and issues whole and forced on them a half-hearted legal defense. The story of the trial becomes almost absurd as we see Sloane Coffin's lawyer arguing that if his client did in fact aid and abet the burning of draft cards, this did not hinder Selective Service but help it, since all draft card violators were to be immediately reclassified as I-A meat on the hoof.
The horror of the political trial in this country is seen to be less as a repressive measure, which is straightforward and makes for martyrs in litigating against a defendant's convictions, but as a black cloud which is unconcerned with convictions and buries them over in reams of paper.
In Miss Mitford's previous book. The American Way of Death, she shows that the greatest horror of dying is not death itself, but the sugary coating that we give to it with doggy cemeteries and $20.000 gilt-edge Eternal Rest Coffins. In the same way, the horror of the political trial in this country is not that it tries to exterminate opposition but that it coats it over with gooey legal semantics or refuses to deal with it at all. Clear light and creative action cannot be seen through the democratic quagmire. And thus the logic of preferring a George Wallace who says what he thinks and is openly repressive to Nixon or Humphrey becomes immensely more clear. So does the fact that government and polities really do operate in a Machiavellian universe.
I promised to explain why I don't feel as guilty now about chickening out of the H-RSC. Even if I could have mustered up every fibber of my body and put my life together on an airplane down to Washington and burned myself on the steps of the Capitol, the war still would have gone on and on. There is no machinery built into this republic to respond to the anguish of its citizens. There is of course next Wednesday and somehow we again wait and trust.