EARLY ON in his splendid memoir Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison During the Vietnam War, Bruce Dancis asks, “Do we need another book on the ’60s?” One is tempted to answer “no,” at least not of this kind.
Resister appears, at first blush, to be a near-parody of an archetypal New Left bildungsroman. Born at the height of the baby boom, Dancis was raised in a secular, left-wing Jewish household in New York City and spent summers at a socialist camp upstate. As a teenager, he was outraged by racism and awed by the Southern Civil Rights Movement. Next came the Ivy League, opposition to the Vietnam War, and leadership in his local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Dancis was there at the 1963 March on Washington and at the Yippies’ fabled burning of paper money at the New York Stock Exchange in 1967. He ripped up his draft card. He hung out with movement giants like Abbie Hoffmann and the radical priest Daniel Berrigan. Sporting a Beatles haircut, he took drugs and listened to a lot to Dylan, The Fab Four, and the Stones. As a journey through the familiar, Resister might best be appreciated by those least versed in the iconic history of the 1960s.
But people are more than archetypes. And Dancis’s life, read with nuance, separates in fascinating ways from 1960s clichés, leaving plenty for aficionados of that spectacular era. Dancis, moreover, is an activist, not a memoirist, at heart. He asks, sheepishly, “Are There Lessons to Be Learned?” from his biography. The book answers with edifying instruction about the power of conscience in modern times.
Dancis was raised more a pink- than a red-diaper baby. Devout Democratic Socialists, his parents felt hostility to communism that likely exceeded their distaste for capitalism. From them, Dancis inherited a suspicion of communism that made him leery, unlike most of his radical peers, of Mao’s China and North Vietnam, even as he fought for their right of self-determination.
Dancis went to Cornell University — by reputation a “lesser Ivy,” with state-funded programs and in out-of-the-way Ithaca, New York. He and the Cornell politicos seemed to lack the irksome conceit of many of their Columbia and Harvard equivalents. Equally important, Cornell SDS maintained a highly local flavor, blessedly quarantined from much of the ideological wrangling that destroyed national SDS by 1969. And though he became a self-described revolutionary, Dancis remained more or less a pacifist, avoiding both frenetic contempt for the United States and delusions about imminent revolution by means of the gun. Pushing back against the Weathermen-saturated mythology of the radical 1960s, Dancis’s life reminds us that it was possible to be in the whirlwind without being consumed by it.
Above all, Dancis distinguished himself with the depth of his resistance to the draft. With other resisters, Dancis made a public showing of his opposition, forswearing the student deferment he could easily have garnered and destroying at a rally his Selective Service card to tempt authorities to prosecute him. More than displays of personal conviction, Dancis reminds us, such acts were envisioned as a way to literally sabotage the war. The early hope was that a growing wave of this resistance would jam the courts and then the jails, imposing both an administrative and moral burden American society could not bear. To this end, Dancis organized national draft card turn-ins and crisscrossed the Northeast, often with Berrigan, making speeches about the evils of the Vietnam War and the promise of draft resistance.
No matter Dancis’s proselytizing, the resistance plateaued. The war makers, hoping to defuse the opposition, softened and then phased out forced conscription. Even so, Dancis took his protest “all the way.” In November 1969 he was sentenced to up to six years in federal prison for defying the draft. He was just 20 years old. One of just a handful of resisters ultimately imprisoned, he served 19 months in a medium-security facility in Kentucky.
I was a campus activist in the 1980s at Brown University, when opposition to apartheid South Africa and CIA recruitment on campus raged. The rites of passage established in the 1960s continued with the campus protests of my day: fierce battles with administrators, disruptions of university business, and trials before rinky-dink disciplinary boards in which one felt, in the heat of moral passion, that the whole world was watching.
What remains hard for me to fathom is the sheer scale and intensity of protest in the 1960s — the rapid mobilization of thousands of students around the latest administration outrage, the takeover of whole universities, and the almost casual way that young people like Dancis put their futures at risk. Some of the ardor sprang from the depth of institutional betrayal — Dancis recounts the little-remembered collusion between universities and the US military with respect to the draft. Seeking to make the draft somewhat less skewed to the uneducated and the poor, the US government demanded for a time that college students earn a certain grade point average (or score well on a qualifying test) to retain their deferments. With little initial chafing, Cornell facilitated this policy until Dancis and much of the campus erupted in protest.
More than the pressure of events seemed to drive the protest, though. By some socio-historic alchemy we may never understand, an uncommon number of young people felt in the 1960s that it was both their right and obligation to resist injustice, and to do so fairly anonymously, with little thought of personal plaudits. In today’s world of ubiquitous celebrity and self-aggrandizement, Dancis’s humility as he served that obligation is both refreshing and instructive. One senses that he never felt himself a hero. Setting a positive example that others might follow to achieve a moral goal was his steadfast priority.
The writing in Resister, unfortunately, falls short of the life it describes. Dancis at times provides comically laconic accounts of momentous things. Of the March on Washington he recalls, “It seemed as if the black folks looked proud to be taking part in the protest.” So too, he is conspicuously poor in conveying the soul-searching and joyousness of the protest culture. “I can’t overstate the importance,” he reports, “of topical folk songs to my political development.” A more ambitious writer might have woven favorite lyrics into the recreation of some political epiphany. When his girlfriend of several years gave him a “Dear John” speech while visiting him in prison, he remained inert. At such moments, I wanted to jump through the pages, shake him by the scruff of his mop-top, and command him to feel something.
By the end, I concluded that his impassive, observant tone is essential to who he is: a profoundly decent and thoughtful man, with an unshakable moral compass, and an intent to do the right thing with precision and follow-through. There are not enough people like that, with that kind of courage and grace. Bruce Dancis — Live Like Him!