Among the Best of Friends, AFSC-Hawaii 1972 - 1977
I was first drawn to the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) by a flyer I saw in 1971 which depicted offshore oil fields off the coast of Vietnam as one potential reason for the U.S. deployment in that country. Though I didn’t necessarily believe that was the primary cause of the war, I was intrigued to find an actual anti-war organization in Honolulu. I had just moved from the Island of Lanai, where the anti-war movement consisted almost entirely of the underground high school newspaper which Colbert Matsumoto and I founded and published 1969-70, “The Cop-Out.”
After graduating from high school in 1971, I entered the University of Hawaii-Manoa and began my association with AFSC around that time. Raised in a devout Christian household, I had no problem with a radical Christian theology based on non-violence; like many of my peers, my heroes were Thoreau, Gandhi and M.L. King, Jr.
The AFSC is the “action arm” of the Quakers; though the Honolulu Quakers/Friends also had an anti-war, anti-nuclear silent vigil in these years, the AFSC had a long history of nonviolent action/involvement in various hot spots around the globe. One of the Friends, a British gentleman, Colin Bell, personally knew Mao Tse Tung and Chou-en Lai as a result of his service in World War II China as an ambulance driver.
The Quakers practiced a type of Christianity which greatly appealed to me; they had no formal pastor or minister, and their meetings consisted of silence punctuated by comments offered by whomever felt moved to speak. Not all Friends groups are so non-traditional, but the non-hierarchical structure and intensely personal nature of belief and commitment that animates Quakers was definitely the dominant ideology of AFSC.
Though there were many Quakers in the AFSC, many of us were not. Nonetheless, it was expected that you also believed firmly in nonviolence and Truth to Power. There was never any shouting or getting in anyone’s face, either during meetings or during demonstrations. I have no doubt that a person with violent beliefs would have been politely ejected from the group. The entire notion popular at the time of “violent revolution” was understood to be no revolution at all, merely a continuation of the sickness and evil of violent repression under new auspices.
As an established national organization, AFSC was able to provide the sort of basic logistics a start-from-scratch group had a difficult time matching: an office (a partially enclosed garage next to the Friends house on Oahu Avenue in Manoa), a part-time staffer, a typewriter, a phone, etc. There was no real budget for travel or grandiose projects, as the limited money was budgeted and spent very carefully. Everyone but the part-time staff person was a volunteer.
The first staffer I worked with was Virginia Heck, a middle-aged activist from the West Coast who had recently moved to Honolulu. The next staffer was Ian Lind, who is currently one of the top free-lance investigative reporters/bloggers on Oahu.
As a warm body in the anti-war movement, I started out by joining some subcommittees within AFSC. Eventually I was asked to join the Committee, which numbered about 18-24 in those years. Subcommittees performed the actual activist work, Peace being the primary subcommittee. As with all activist groups, there were always a lot of meetings. As a formal organization, the AFSC required minutes to be taken and agendas to be prepared.
A typical project which I remember well was building a replica of a Tiger Cage and transporting the cage to the grass in front of the Federal building. One of us stayed inside the cage to demonstrate how small and uncomfortable it was, while another stood outside passing leaflets explaining the action.
As a budding carpenter, I was heavily involved in scrounging materials and assembling the cage, which was based on the infamous Tiger Cages that the South Vietnamese used to hold their civilian political prisoners as a form of long-term torture (you could neither stand up nor stretch out). The cages were naturally paid for the US taxpayers.
As an example of the non-hierarchical nature of AFSC work: after putting in a long morning on the cage, I said to the other volunteers, “break time” as we did on construction jobsites. One young woman replied, “Who are you to call a break?” The point being, nobody was in charge. Authority was limited; the decision to pursue and run the project was made by the Committee, but volunteers made their own commitments to show up. Nobody got ordered around. But if you were a Committee member, it was a serious commitment; if you said you’d show up, it was a serious matter if you failed to do so.
The Tiger Cage was a success, though I don’t recall getting any press. We learned more about that process as we went along. I recall an elderly man approaching me when I was passing out leaflets and rather aggressively demanding to know if I was “on the side of North Vietnam.” I said no, I only wanted our troops to come home. That mollified him greatly. This incident reflected the great confusion of the time between being anti-war and a traitor. “Hanoi Jane” Fonda had willingly allowed herself to be used by the North Vietnamese propaganda machine, and this smear of “traitor” was vigorously applied to any of us who stood publicly against the war.
Many of the ethnic groups in Hawaii have a long, proud history of military service and quite naturally they did not look sympathetically on us anti-war types—again, because we appeared disloyal to the nation. In our view, of course, we were the true patriots, trying to turn the nation away from a destructive, essentially evil course.
What should be stressed here is just how tiny the band of publicly anti-war citizens was at this time, and how much courage it took to stand up against the antipathy and the apathy of the average Hawaii resident.
Sometime in 1972 at the ripe age of 18 I began a Draft Counseling course at AFSC which was being taught by a gentleman whose name I don’t recall. He was training R. Jeffrey Blair (known as Jeff Blair) to take over as lead Draft counselor and that’s how I met Jeff. At this time the Selective Service Act was in full force, and hundreds of thousands of young men were drafted into military service every year. A small number of young American men resisted by either fleeing to other countries, declaring themselves conscientious objectors, or burning their draft cards and defying their government to prosecute and jail them.
Jeff had openly burned his draft card along with a young Asian-American resident of Hawaii. Thus it shouldn’t have been a surprise that when I accompanied him to the Leeward office of the Selective Service to do some research, multiple FBI agents showed up and arrested him. After cuffing Jeff and taking him away, they questioned me. I had nothing to say and so they took my name.
That was not my only interaction with the FBI. Jeff was hauled off to Halawa Jail on a Federal charge with a 5-year prison term and a $10,000 fine sentence, and I was there visiting when his Mom came to see him. It was very moving to see a mother’s concern and alarm to find her brilliant, (Jeff had been accepted to Cal Tech, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) friendly son in prison on a Federal charge.
As a budding Draft counselor, I showed up for my shift and spoke to whomever came by; one day it was Tom Matsuda, son of the President of UH, and my former physics class partner. I think he was surprised to see me with the grand title of Draft Counselor. My training was rudimentary and since I was working and a fulltime student at UH, I think it is fair to say my commitment to researching all the arcane twists in the Selective Service law was minimal.
It should be noted that Draft boards held great power in their communities, and there were media-reported instances of drunk drivers who happened to be Draft Board members threatening Police officers with being drafted and sent to ‘Nam if they didn’t let them off with a warning.
So when a woman called up, asking what to advise her son who had fled to Nepal, I went right to work, asking to see his letter describing his situation. Alas, the mother had also asked her neighbor, a Navy officer, for advice and so the following day I received a call at home (I was 18, living at home) from the FBI. The agent was very aggressive, reminding me that aiding and abetting a draft resister was a crime with a 5-year prison term. My diffidence must have annoyed him—of course I was terrified, but why let him know it?—because he said, and I remember this verbatim: ’This isn’t the Sunshine Biscuit Company, you know. This is the FBI.” He was also kind enough to remind me that they “knew where I lived” and threatened to come up and interrogate me right then.
This is your fine, upstanding FBI at work, badgering an 18-year old. Needless to say, I was unimpressed/disgusted with the FBI, and the entire apparatus of Federal “law enforcement” even as I was terrified to have the full weight of the Federal government bearing down on me. It should be noted that while multiple agents were hot on the trail of young Jeff Blair, Organized Crime was running untouched throughout Hawaii.
After burning the young man’s letter, the next day I took my girlfriend down with me as a witness and spoke with an FBI agent. He was cordial and noted that most draft counselors were attorneys—as if just-scraping-by AFSC had the services of an attorney. There were attorneys around, no doubt, who were willing to defend Selective Service cases pro bono, but none were known to me through AFSC at that time.
There were other groups active nationally, such as the War Resisters League, but there was no contact between them and the Honolulu AFSC office that I knew of.
Jeff Blair defended himself in Federal Court. I accompanied him on at least one occasion to do research in the Federal law casebooks. He was acquitted by reason of being charged with destroying his draft card, while it had only been damaged; Judge Pence, a wise elderly gentleman, commented in court that Jeff was not the sort of young man we should be putting in prison. Amen, judge!
Not all projects received AFSC Committee approval; some were too risky or did not have the public visibility we sought. My friend Dexter Cate, a fearless activist, once suggested we try to stop Navy ships in Pearl Harbor with Zodiac inflatables, or at least present banners against the war to the crews as they passed. Getting run over in little inflatables in Pearl was a distinct possibility, and the dangers and costs just seemed too great. I certainly swallowed hard when Dexter proposed this, but he would have done it.
As proof of his courage, consider that a few years later he single-handedly rowed a small inflatable to Iki Island in storm weather to cut the nets Japanese fisherman had used to trap hundreds of dolphins. He slashed the nets and was found exhausted the next morning by the enraged crew, and spent months in a Japanese prison for his actions. Jeff Blair, who was living in Japan at the time, visited him there.
The average non-activist citizen of Hawaii has no idea of the courage it takes to stand up to the Federal government or the general apathy of Hawaii residents.
Though I claim no courage, I did plan a number of events at UH through AFSC. One I recall taking a lot of work was bringing Dot Weller, who had worked as a nurse at an AFSC clinic for Vietnamese civilians, to speak at UH. Her slides of injuries suffered by civilians were heartrending; I recall being disappointed by the turnout. I believe National AFSC must have funded her travel, though these details escape me 35 years later.
One of the Berrigan brothers also spoke at UH, and his talk on faith and nonviolence was inspiring even to a dedicated young idealist as myself. His visit was not AFSC-sponsored, but I was in the audience.
Once of my duties was to attend meetings at UH to represent AFSC as a registered UH student organization (I’d registered it, and had a small mail box on campus.) The other organizations seemed hokey and inconsequential compared to stopping the war, and I guess I mostly spent the meetings ogling the co-eds in attendance.
I also recall sitting alone at a table at UH, passing out leaflets to bored/apathetic students. That was lonely work. Once the Draft ended, interest in the war fell to near-zero.
Rather naturally, I applied for Conscientious Objector status which was duly granted, Hawaii having a liberal Board at the time and the need for cannon fodder having decreased by 1972. But with a draft lottery number of 31, I could still have been drafted for either civilian or military duty as a CO.
To make the draft fairer, President Nixon had removed all student deferments and begun a lottery. Every year, a lottery of birthdays was pulled from a drum; my birthday came up number 31, and I was very depressed, reckoning they’d get to 31 for sure. Because the war was already winding down, they only drafted 49,514 young men in 1972 and I was never called up for duty. The draft ended on July 1, 1973. At the height of the war build-up in 1966, 380,000 men were drafted; in 1969, 283,000 got the letter from the Selective Service Administration.
Having studied the issue closely, I had one ace in the hole: weight. Very obese and underweight draftees were classified 4-F (unfit for service), and so prior to my pre-induction physical (yes, I was called for that) I ran around campus a lot in a windbreaker and got my weight down to 133 pounds on a 6-ft. 2-inch frame, below the cut-off by a few pounds. (Clearly, you had to be severely underweight to escape the long arm of the Draft.) Who knows if they would have classified me as 4-F or not; fortunately I didn't have to find out.
Here is a link to data about the lottery: Draft Lotteries 1970-73.
Some readers may feel I should have wanted to serve my country; but I felt I was serving my country, and in a way which few others had the desire/beliefs to do. My small "band of brothers and sisters" didn't believe the North Vietnamese were wonderful; we just didn't see the point to the U.S. killing hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians but plenty of Americans, too, to defend a hopelessly corrupt regime of plutocrats.
By 1972, everyone knew the war was "winding down" (or lost, if you prefer), but plenty of people were getting killed or maimed every month while the U.S. dithered. If you read this interview with John Negroponte, you'll learn that the U.S. could have withdrawn from Vietnam in 1969; all we had to agree to was replacing the corrupt, venal Thieu government in Saigon with a coalition government which included the Viet Cong (Communists).
Exactly what was so negative about this that it was worth hundreds of thousands more lives to prop up the sickening Thieu regime for a few more years? Would the Communists have eventually taken over the Coalition government? Very likely; but it would have been a less bloody and costly way to get to the same place we reached in 1975 when North Vietnamese armor rolled into Saigon. And if the U.S. needed a "fig-leaf" to cover its withdrawal, what was wrong with a coalition government?
After the war ended in 1973, AFSC moved on to resist nuclear weapons and useless weapons systems such as the B-1 Bomber. One example of our anti-nuclear work was a "Peace" tree-planting at Honolulu City Hall. AFSC had contacted officials in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and several representaives actually flew in to join the tree-planting. They brought small buttons in the shape of leaves which represented peace; I think I still have mine somewhere.
There were also various demonstrations, such as the one illustrated by this photo Ian Lind snapped of me.
After a job injury cost me the vision in my left eye in 1977, I had to go to the mainland for an operation. Unsure of my future, I resigned from the Committee, having served to the best of ability for many years. In that time 1972-77, I’d served as Peace Subcommittee Chairperson, and contributed to a number of projects. In 1976 I founded a working group to research the topic “Who Owns Hawaii?” but never published the final report.
I should also mention that though there were very serious people involved in the anti-war movement in Hawaii, most also had a sense of fun. Subcommittee meetings were held at people’s houses, and often included potluck meals. I remember Meda Chesney-Lind taking several of us young men to task for showing up with nothing but a six-pack of beer, while others had prepared casseroles or salads. Guilty as charged.
We also knew just about everyone in the movement, even if they weren’t in AFSC. I recall running into Jim Albertini at the Honolulu Symphony one night, and he gave me a hard time about wearing a suit, as I only wore scruffy blue jeans.
Activism requires a lot of scutwork: mailing out agendas, attending meetings, taking notes, writing newsletters, trying to raise funds, making contact with other groups, trying to find a sympathetic person in the media, calling people to make sure they show up, and so on. Then when you get out there and take a stand, people are honking at you, in support or derision, you never know. And you never know if you accomplished anything for all the hours of labor you volunteered; did anyone’s mind change? Did anyone even notice? You don’t know. But you do it just the same, because doing nothing is not an option.