The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

David Harris, activist jailed over Vietnam draft resistance, dies at 76

David Harris with folk singer Joan Baez at a news conference in San Francisco in March 1968. They were married later that month. (Jacob Harris/Associated Press)
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David Harris, an antiwar activist and writer who became a symbol of Vietnam-era draft resistance by refusing conscription and serving 20 months behind bars after virtually demanding a jail sentence, died Feb. 6 at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. He was 76.

His daughter Sophie Harris said the cause was lung cancer.

Mr. Harris often recounted his personal evolution: Raised in a politically conservative California home with visions of careers in the military or the FBI, he was jolted into a new perspective during his sophomore year at Stanford University while helping register Black voters in Mississippi in 1964.

“Afterward,” he said, “I didn’t look at America in the same way.”

Amid the many fronts in the opposition to the Vietnam War, Mr. Harris developed a powerful voice calling for mass civil disobedience in speeches at college campuses and at concert-and-protest events along with his future wife, folk singer Joan Baez.

Mr. Harris asked young men facing the draft to refuse to register with the Selective Service or return draft cards to authorities. For Mr. Harris, defiance at home was a stronger statement than fleeing to Canada or other countries to avoid service.

Inspired by Mr. Harris and others, tens of thousands of people joined protests to burn draft cards or reject the process from the beginning. In one of the most publicized rebuffs to the war, boxer Muhammad Ali was convicted in 1967 after refusing induction into the military. (The Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction in 1971.)

At an antiwar rally in 1967, Mr. Harris told crowds at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium that U.S. policies in Vietnam would not change until the country was “confronted by young men who will not murder.”

Mr. Harris’s stature in the antiwar movement was perhaps less prominent than national figures such as Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, Yippies co-founder Abbie Hoffman or future California state lawmaker Tom Hayden.

Yet among young men facing conscription, Mr. Harris became a champion for his fiery oratory against the war and the economic inequities of the draft — which allowed deferments for college undergrads and skewed conscription toward less privileged and minority recruits.

“I dodged nothing,” Mr. Harris wrote in a 2017 essay in the New York Times. “I courted arrest, speaking truth to power, and power responded with an order for me to report for military service.”

Mr. Harris knew the showdown was coming. He left Stanford in 1967 before graduation. Then, for more than a year, he had been speaking out against the war in a roadshow that included Baez, a superstar in folk music who had helped launch the career of Bob Dylan and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1962.

When he was drafted in 1968, he refused to report for induction. He was quickly indicted. The next year — after Mr. Harris and Baez were married — he said he purposely rejected any options to avoid conviction, fearing his credibility would be shattered.

“So I ended up in court, standing up and saying, ‘I know that this case should be thrown out, but I’m not going to do that,’” he recounted in a 2008 interview.

He was sentenced to three years in federal prison. It was an unusually harsh punishment. The Selective Service referred 184,135 men to the Justice Department for prosecution during the Vietnam War. Of those, 8,756 were convicted and 4,001 were imprisoned, according to the 2020 documentary “The Boys Who Said No!”

At the federal prison in La Tuna, Tex., Mr. Harris spent a total of four months in solitary confinement for organizing inmate protests for better food and other improvements. Baez wrote “A Song for David” (1970) while he was incarcerated. “And both prisoners,” she wrote in the lyrics, “of this life are we.”

When he was paroled in 1971, however, he emerged a “different person,” he said. He returned to antiwar activism, but his passion and focus appeared to wane. He and Baez divorced in 1973.

About that time — with the Vietnam War in its final years — Mr. Harris reached out to Rolling Stone magazine to propose a series of antiwar essays. Publisher Jann Wenner instead gave Mr. Harris an assignment to profile Ron Kovic, a Marine who lost the use of his legs from injuries in Vietnam and returned to become an outspoken critic of the war.

The piece ran in 1973. Three years later, Kovic published his autobiography, “Born on the Fourth of July,” which Oliver Stone made into a 1989 film starring Tom Cruise.

Mr. Harris moved into a writing career, contributing further pieces to Rolling Stone as well as to the New York Times, and writing books that ranged in topics from the National Football League to California’s Redwood forests to the 1980 killing of peace activist and former New York congressman Allard Lowenstein. In 1976, Mr. Harris made an unsuccessful run as a Democrat against Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-Calif.).

His 1976 memoir, “I Shoulda Been Home Yesterday,” recounted his time in prison, and “Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us” (1996) looked back on how the 1960s divisions never fully healed.

“Did I have any doubts about what we were doing? You bet,” he said in 2019 about his antiwar activism. “Here was a bunch of 20-year-olds taking on the most powerful entity in the world, and all we had was a printing press out in the garage to make fliers.”

Gandhi as ‘hero’

David Victor Harris was born in Fresno, Calif., on Feb. 28, 1946. His father practiced law and was an officer in the Army Reserve.

In high school, Mr. Harris was elected “boy of the year” and said he had ambitions of becoming an FBI agent or going to the U.S. Military Academy. “I was absolutely straight. Fresno had no radicals in those days,” he told Marin magazine.

During his sophomore year at Stanford, he begged his parents to allow him to join the “freedom riders” heading to the Deep South. One night in Lambert, Miss., Mr. Harris said, a White man aimed a shotgun at his face and warned he had five minutes to leave town. Friends loaded Mr. Harris into a car and drove off.

Back in Stanford, he immersed himself in the works of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., political philosopher Hannah Arendt, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and Mahatma Gandhi, who became his “personal hero.”

Mr. Harris wrote that joining his first antiwar protest in March 1965 was like emerging “from dark into light, from forest into clearing.”

One dorm resident, future U.S. senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), was not part of Mr. Harris’s social circle, but Mr. Harris made at least a few attempts to bring Romney into the antiwar camp. Romney would not budge.

In his senior year, Mr. Harris was elected student body president and became the subject of national headlines when he had his head forcibly shaven by students in favor of the Vietnam War.

In 1977, Mr. Harris married Lacey Fosburgh, a journalist and author who died 1993. He married Cheri Forrester in 2011. Survivors also include a son from his first marriage; a daughter from his second marriage; a stepdaughter; a brother; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Harris said he was raised to accept an airbrushed version of the United States as a paragon of justice and rights.

“It was our assumption that America was the bastion of all things good,” he said in 1982 for a PBS series on the Vietnam era. “And it was precisely that assumption that made us the kind of disillusioned people we were at the end.”

Correction: A photo caption with this article incorrectly said David Harris and Joan Baez were married in 1969. They were married in 1968.