By Clara Bingham
“The [Vietnam] War did what almost nothing else could have…It forced a major breach in consciousness. And it made a gap in belief so large that through it people could begin to question all the other myths of the corporate state.”
—Robert Reich The Greening of America 1970
In the summer of 1967, the perfect storm of the Sixties revolution was beginning to rumble. The escalation of the Vietnam War and the resistance to the draft, combined with the black power movement and the psychedelic-fueled counterculture, would soon cause a nation-wide spontaneous combustion.
But in June of ’67 the antiwar activists and the counterculturalists were two distinct tribes. They occasionally overlapped, but neither movement yet recognized that they both grew symbiotically off of each other’s energy and message. David Harris, the heart throb hero of the draft resistance movement who dropped out of Stanford (where he was student body president) to found the Resistance, and eventually marry Joan Baez and go to jail for three years for refusing to serve in Vietnam, described the two sides of the Sixties youthquake this way: “A lot of hippies at the time were looking to get stoned and dance and play. We were all for getting stoned and dancing and playing, but the serious business was how to deal with the machine that’s chewing up Southeast Asia. All those things were mingled together and they were all part of the same uprising of young people who insisted on writing their own ticket. Because the tickets that were being written for them were bad at best and criminal at worst.”
Writing your own ticket during the Summer of Love meant exploring a new psychedelic-inspired consciousness and a joining a utopian life style that practiced peace, free love, and communalism. But underlying much of the hippie motivation to reject the “system” was the horror of the war in Vietnam and a corresponding fear of conscription. The draft instantly politicized an entire generation. Between 1965 and 1973, 27 million young men reached the age of 18. Everyone did not, however, become politicized in the same way–some chose cultural revolution, and others chose political revolution, but neither of these revolutions could have existed on the massive scale that they did if not for the other. Opposition to the war became the common cause that united a diverse range of people. The San Francisco hippie community, for example, adopted its own style of antiwar protest. “We had left confrontational politics,” Peter Coyote of the Diggers told me. “We were deep into cultural warfare. The Diggers were cultural revolutionaries. We began to analyze the situation more deeply and realized that the entire culture was producing the Vietnam War—this wasn’t a political aberration. If you accepted the premises of profit and private property, you wound up in Vietnam.”
The six months preceding the Summer of Love provide critical context. On January 14, 1967, 30,000 people (most of whom were tripping on Owsley Stanley’s white lightening acid) converged on Golden Gate Park for the first Human Be-In. This “Gathering of the Tribes” brought together the political antiwar activists who hailed from across San Francisco Bay in Berkeley and the hippies who had flocked to Haight Ashbury. According to Danny Goldberg, author of the upcoming book In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea, “some of the psychedelic advocates were against the war, but looked down on the antiwar movement as being too angry, and at the same time, many in the antiwar movement, many of whom liked to get high, looked down on the psychedelic movement for being too disengaged from the suffering. But there was lots of overlap.” Jerry Rubin spoke out against the war at the Be-In, as did Beat poet Allen Ginsberg who called for “a new kid of society involving prayer, music, and spiritual life together rather than competition, acquisition, and war.” Timothy Leary, who often criticized antiwar activists for replicating the power dynamics of the elder generation, counseled the crowd to “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
Three months later on April fourth, 1967 Martin Luther King shocked the civil rights movement, the Democratic party establishment and the press when he publicly denounced the war for the first time at New York’s Riverside Church. Fifty years ago today, on April 15th, 1967 over two hundred thousand antiwar protesters marched in San Francisco (from the foot of Market Street to Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park) and New York where dozens of men burned their draft cards in Central Park’s Sheep’s Meadow. More than 150,000 people marched in New York City against the war—including Martin Luther King, Jr., James Luther Bevel, and Benjamin Spock—and another 60,000 marched in San Francisco (where Coretta Scott King spoke). Up to its time, the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam was the largest antiwar demonstration in U.S. history. In many ways, it marked the beginning of the mass, antiwar movement that would expand greatly over the next four years.
In June, Mohammad Ali was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his heavy weight boxing title, giving more impetus than ever to a new coalition of black and white draft resisters. “These were huge things that no matter how stoned you were, you knew about,” said Goldberg. Meanwhile the war casualties mounted. By the end of the year, 20,039 American soldiers had returned to Dover Airforce Base in flag-draped coffins, and with the increase in casualties and president Johnson’s escalation of the war came a decrease in its popularity. On July 1, 1967, a Gallup poll found that 41% Americans believed that the Vietnam war was a mistake.
By the time thousands of hitchhikers had made their way to Haight Ashbury to take part in the Summer of Love, the drumbeat against the war sounded loud and clear. San Francisco’s port was also teaming with war ships preparing to sail to Southeast Asia, and GIs who were having second thoughts. The AWOL GIs offered the hippies a chance to participate in antiwar activism on their own terms: “We noticed soldiers in uniform coming into the [Digger free] store, leaving their uniforms, putting on old clothes and disappearing out into the Haight,” said Peter Coyote. “And we thought, well, there’s a kind of antiwar activity that we can get involved in. So we started an ID ring…..We could make good [fake] looking ID that would actually hold up to the first supervisory review. That was our direct antiwar intervention.”
Opposition to the war took place in different ways all over the Haight. The newly created Resistance, founded by David Harris and others, spent the summer organizing for the first national draft card turn-in day on October 16 when more than a thousand young men would defy the Selective Service System by publicly relinquishing their draft cards. Resisters held weekly potluck dinners at a church on the Panhandle that summer, and AWOL GIs who had literally just jumped ship were often present.
“The AWOLs sometimes took a resistance position of public nonviolent civil disobedience,” said Christopher Jones, a draft resister and producer of The Boys Who Said NO! the upcoming documentary about the draft resistance movement. “But other GI’s just wanted to be hippies and “drop out.” We were all joined viscerally and spiritually as resisters, COs, AWOLS, run-aways, and their lovers. Everyone was caught up in the heavy ether of the draft which was hanging over all of our heads. It was scary because we never knew when we were going to be busted.”
The peace movement united hippies with straight politicos, GIs from farms in Indiana with Harvard draft resisters, musicians, artists, doctors, and architects, men and women, and it was growing exponentially by the day. Its influence on the counterculture during the Summer of Love was inescapable. “The war was always in the air,” said Christopher Jones. “We were all reading the same newspaper, the Berkely Barb, which was a melting pot of radical and hippie news, we were all listening to the KMPX radio station, which played the sounds of our home-grown bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, and Janice with Big Brother and the Holding Company, who all sang songs about peace and love. We all believed that we were essentially teetering on the brink of nonviolent revolution.”
Clara Bingham is the author of Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul (Random House 2016).