This week in history: Indictments for conspiracy against draft laws
Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. King, and Monsignor Rice of Pittsburgh march in the Solidarity Day Parade at the United Nations Building, April 15, 1967 / Benedict J. Fernandez

Fifty years ago, on January 5, 1968, Dr. Benjamin Spock, America’s most influential pediatrician, the man whose 1946 child-rearing handbook The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care gently coached millions of post-World War II parents to trust their own instincts and common sense while raising their children, was indicted on charges of conspiring to counsel young men to violate U.S. draft laws.

It was the height of the Vietnam War and resistance to the war and the draft was widespread. The previous year, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous anti-war speech at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City. President Lyndon B. Johnson could not travel anywhere without mobs of protesters chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” Later that year he declined to run again for the presidency.

Along with Dr. Spock, four other “co-conspirators” were indicted: the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., chaplain of Yale University; Michael Ferber, a Harvard University graduate student; author Mitchell Goodman; and Marcus Raskin, co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a private research organization in Washington, D.C.

Attorney General Ramsey Clark announced the indictment. A federal grand jury in Boston would hear the case. The “co-conspirators” could be penalized with five years in prison and $10,000 fines if convicted.

The five men were accused of conspiring to counsel, aid and abet young men to refuse to serve in the armed forces, and to refuse to carry draft registration cards at all times as required by the Selective Service law. Several of the actions cited in the indictment took place in Boston, including the collection of draft cards to be turned in to Selective Service offices and disruption of military induction processes in various cities.

By the early 1960s, Spock had expanded his interests beyond parenting and into politics, devoting himself to the antiwar movement and fighting for nuclear disarmament. “There’s no point in raising children if they’re going to be burned alive,” he argued.

Dr. Spock turned into a peace activist in 1962 because of something President John F. Kennedy said. In May 1968, he told Life magazine, “The thing that did it was actually very small, a matter of wording. It was when President Kennedy decided to resume nuclear testing in 1962, after Russia resumed. He said that his experts told him we were way ahead of the Soviet Union in everything, but if we didn’t resume testing they could conceivably catch up sometime in the future. It made me realize that if a country can’t stop testing when it’s behind and can’t stop when it’s ahead either, then every excuse worked for more bombs and none for less. That was my turning point.”

Spock was quoted as hoping that “100,000, 200,000 or even 500,000 young Americans either refuse to be drafted or to obey orders if in military services.”

In April 1967, Spock, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and entertainer Harry Belafonte led an estimated 300,000 people on a march to the United Nations headquarters in New York City, the largest antiwar demonstration to date.

Also cited was the distribution by Dr. Spock and Rev. Coffin of the statement “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” signed by 373 persons. In those years the memory of war crimes trials in Germany was still fresh. The trial of the captured leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem had taken place just a few years earlier, in 1961. The Nazi defendants’ claim that they were “just following orders” was ringing in the anti-war protestors’ ears as young American draftees were being commanded to murder innocent Vietnamese civilians.

The trial began on May 20 and lasted 19 days. It was the first major prosecution of the Vietnam War period. The five stressed that they were motivated by moral concern over the Vietnam war and the constitutionality of the draft. Among those testifying for the defense was New York Mayor John Lindsay. It came out in the trial that the five defendants had never met each other before the indictment, which made the conspiracy charge questionable.

The trial was a study in prosecutorial overreach. Prosecutor John Wall claimed the defendants conspired with “diverse other persons, some known and others unknown.” The defense lawyer asked the prosecution to identify those people, so Wall showed three hours of television footage of mass meetings, church services and news conferences. Wall later told a reporter that a man who claps and cheers like mad when Spock speaks is a co-conspirator, but the man who sits glum is not.

On June 14, 1968, the all-male jury found four of the men guilty of counseling draft evasion. Only Marcus Raskin, 34, was found not guilty. Sentencing was set for July 10 by 85-year-old Judge Francis J. W. Ford, who had served on the federal bench since 1938. Dr. Spock was sentenced to two years in prison. In a press conference after his conviction, Spock said, “I say to the American people, Wake up! Get out there and do something before it’s too late. Do something NOW!”

He never did time, however, as the convictions were overturned on appeal in 1969. The defendants continued their anti-war activism. In 1972 Dr. Spock was the presidential candidate of the People’s Party, a coalition of left-wing organizations.

In November 1968 Richard Nixon won the presidential election against Johnson’s Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. After his re-election in 1972, Nixon defused the student protest movement by finally ending the draft. The last man to be drafted entered the U.S. Army on June 30, 1973.

Following his term as Johnson’s attorney general Clark became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement himself and visited North Vietnam in 1972 as a protest against the bombing of Hanoi. At 90 he remains a powerful voice on the left, lending his name to many causes.

Co-defendant Marcus Raskin died at 83 on December 24, 2017. He was the father of Jamie Raskin, progressive U.S. Congressman from Maryland.

Sources: New England Historical Society, The New York Times and other sites.


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.