He was America’s most beloved and trusted pediatrician, with millions of parents following his instructions for caring for babies and children.
So the Jan. 5, 1968, federal indictments against Dr. Benjamin Spock and four other Vietnam War opponents stunned the nation. The New York Times and The Washington Post gave the story front-page play.
The men, accused of conspiring to urge people to violate draft laws, earned so much notoriety that they even had a nickname: “The Boston Five.” But most people cared only about the fate of Spock, whose seminal work, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” first published in 1946, had become the foundation of American parenthood.
“Don’t be afraid to kiss your baby when you feel like it,” Spock urged mothers and fathers, who had been warned for decades to withhold physical affection from their children.
Was the federal government really going to imprison the 64-year-old baby doctor because he’d allegedly encouraged young men to resist the Vietnam draft? And what about Spock’s four alleged co-conspirators? Would the Johnson administration lock up a Yale chaplain (who was a former CIA operative), a Harvard graduate student, a former aide to President Kennedy and a New York writer?
The answer was yes. The government was cracking down. Spock and his cohorts were accused of violating a section of the Universal Military Training and Service Act, which dated to World War I, and declared a person guilty if he “knowingly counsels, aids or abets another to refuse or evade registration or service in the armed forces,” according to press coverage of the indictment.
Spock, who’d embraced nuclear disarmament as a cause in 1962, was an early critic of the Vietnam War. He believed the U.S. was illegally waging war in Southeast Asia and that it was his patriotic obligation to oppose it, even if it meant risking his iconic status.
“My own belief is that this was a totally outrageous and abominable thing that the United States had been carrying on,” he would testify at his trial. “I felt strongly that the United States had lost its leadership of the free world and that the United States was now despised by hundreds of millions of people who used to believe in the United States around the world.”
The Johnson administration — empowered by the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution that gave the President authority “to take all necessary measures” against attacks on U.S. forces — was gradually escalating American involvement in Vietnam. In 1965, Johnson eliminated the draft exemption for married men.
In 1966, 1967 and 1968, the Selective Service drafted 300,000 men a year, according to Michael Foley’s book, “Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War.” By 1968, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam was estimated to be about 500,000. The government felt compelled to quash any threat to its military imperatives, even if it meant making the bespectacled Spock the face of treachery.
But the draft resistance movement was also surging.
One of the resistance movement’s key moments — later seized upon by The Boston Five’s prosecutors — came at an Oct. 16, 1967, rally at Flagstaff Hill in Boston and a march to the nearby Arlington Street Church for a service. More than 5,000 people showed up, many of them college students. People held signs that read, “Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?” and “The Resistance: Don’t Dodge the Draft, Oppose it.”
The demonstrators walked to the church, which filled rapidly, with nearly 3,000 participants stuck outside listening to the service on loudspeakers. One lecturer was Michael Ferber, the Harvard graduate student who would shortly become a member of “the Boston Five.” Ferber told the audience, “Each of our acts of returning our draft cards is our personal ‘No.’ When we put them in a single container or set fire to them from a single candle we express the simple basis of our unity.”
Then came the keynote speaker, William Sloan Coffin Jr., a former CIA officer who was serving as a Yale chaplain. In about two months, he, too, would join Ferber and Spock among the Boston Five. But that day he called for churches and synagogues to provide sanctuary for draft resisters. When the sermons were over, men in the pews deposited their draft cards in offering plates carried by the clergy. Members of the press perched in the balcony began snapping photos, Foley wrote, their sounds masking the whispers and tears of the people below relinquishing their draft cards or, in some cases, burning them with candles.
It was against the law to destroy draft cards. Failure to carry one’s draft card could also result in an arrest, Foley wrote.
Four days later, on Oct. 20, Ferber gathered all the cards collected at the church, including his own, put them in an envelope and took them to Washington. The goal was to give the cards to then-U. S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark in dramatic fashion.
Ferber and hundreds of others marched to the U.S. Department of Justice. There, Ferber was joined by three others from the Boston Five: Spock, Coffin and Mitchell Goodman, a writer from New York.
On the steps of the building, Goodman asked people to turn in their draft cards. Then, Foley wrote, “Dr. Spock, wearing his trademark three-piece suit, smiled as the men took turns dropping the returned Selective Service documents into the satchel that he held in his hands.”
Spock, Coffin, and former Kennedy aide Marcus Raskin — the fifth member of The Boston Five — went into the Justice Department and presented a briefcase full of draft cards to an assistant deputy attorney general.
Moments later, “two FBI agents burst into the conference room and scooped up the briefcase,” Foley wrote.
When the indictment came down against Spock, 65, Goodman, 44, Coffin, 43, Raskin, 33, and Ferber, 23, it was not only a shock to America, but a shock to the indictees. In an interview with The Washington Post, Ferber said he learned about the charges when he got a call from a United Press International journalist.
“The reporter said, ‘Mr. Ferber, do you have any comments?’ and I said, ‘About what?’” recalled Ferber, now 73, the last surviving member of the Boston Five who teaches English and humanities at the University of New Hampshire. “Dr. Spock was on the subway and he noticed someone reading one of the tabloids, which had a headline that said, ‘Spock Indicted.’ He told me he was dying of curiosity to read it over the man’s shoulders.”
By then, Spock had become a target of conservatives, who blamed what they considered his permissive child-rearing advice for the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll culture of the ’60s. He was denounced by Vice President Spiro Agnew, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and minister Norman Vincent Peale for encouraging the country’s moral decline. “And now Spock is out in the mobs, leading the permissive babies raised on his undisciplined teaching,” Peale said.
The Boston Five faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison, plus $10,000 in fines. The indictment accused the men of participating in a scheme to interfere with the Selective Service System, which oversaw the draft. Prosecutors relied chiefly on two events to build their case: the Oct. 16 rally at the Boston church and the Oct. 20 draft card turn-in at the Justice Department in Washington.
Spock, along with Coffin, embraced the limelight. In late January, the doctor and the chaplain appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” They said they would use the case to put the Vietnam War on trial and attack the conflict’s legality. Around the same time, Spock and Ferber appeared at a rally in New York with thousands of people giving them a standing ovation, according to the New York Times. The political left was raring for the legal fight. According to the Foley book, Ramparts magazine, a bible of liberal intellectuals, declared: “[The] Spock case will undoubtedly be one of the most important political trials in American history.”
When the trial finally got underway in May 1968, the judge, Francis J.W. Ford, a former federal prosecutor, barred Spock and his co-defendants from contesting the war’s legality, ruling that such questions were irrelevant.
In the packed courtroom, the defendants argued they barely knew each other, and didn’t covertly orchestrate their plans — and thus were innocent of the conspiracy charge, which they contended was more fitting for gang cases.
When Spock took the stand, the six-foot-four retired pediatrician, a former member of the Yale crew team, seemed to exert superiority over the prosecutor with his mannered style, according to the New Yorker’s Daniel Lang. Every day, Spock wore a dark blue suit and a light blue shirt with a high white collar. Spock was unflappable under cross-examination:
“When [Spock] was asked whether there was any connection between his beliefs about the war and the field of pediatrics, he replied, ‘What is the use of physicians like myself trying to help parents to bring up children, healthy and happy, to have them killed in such numbers for a cause that is ignoble?’”
Spock also made it clear from the witness stand that he rejected certain antiwar measures. He denounced draft dodgers fleeing to Canada, which he said might help certain individuals but wouldn’t help end the war. He also didn’t approve of destroying Selective Service files and said he was motivated by a love of country.
During his closing arguments, the prosecutor, John Wall, a former paratrooper during the Korean War, gave Spock a backhanded compliment to the jury, according to the New Yorker. “I submit to you, you’d be warranted in finding that if he goes down in this case, he goes down like a man, with dignity, worthy of respect,” Wall said.
On June 14, Spock did go down, along with Coffin, Goodman and Ferber, each of whom was convicted of conspiring to counsel young men into evading the draft. Raskin, who just died Dec. 24 at the age of 83, was acquitted.
The next month, Judge Ford sentenced the four men to two years in federal prison.
“Where law and order stops, obviously anarchy begins,” the judge said, before imposing the punishment.
By July 1969, though, an appeals court overturned their convictions. Spock and Ferber were acquitted and new trials were ordered for Coffin and Goodman.
The next month, the Justice Department announced that it was dropping the case against Spock and Ferber and would not ask the Supreme Court to reverse their acquittals. And by April, 1970, the government abandoned its pursuit of Coffin and Goodman.
Spock continued protesting long after the troops returned from Vietnam. He turned again to nuclear disarmament and ran for president in 1972 on the People’s Party ticket. He got just 75,000 votes. But when he died in 1998 at the age of 94, “Baby and Child Care” had sold more than 50 million copies.
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