On Wednesday, August 4, 1965, Representative Edwin E. Willis of Louisiana, the 60-year-old Democratic chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), set aside his usual reluctance to speak on the House Floor to issue an urgent warning to his colleagues. In a matter of days, he explained, a group of protesters “will march on, and attempt to take over, the chamber of the House.”
The protesters, members of a coalition of anti-war groups called the Assembly of Underrepresented People, had scheduled four days of demonstrations in the nation’s capital against the government’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. Just days earlier, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration had moved forward on a vastly expanded troop commitment, marking a decisive turning point in the conflict, that would require calling up tens of thousands of young Americans to fight in Southeast Asia.
According to Willis, the participants in this “counterfeit assembly” were no ordinary protestors. Convinced they were all either Communists or co-conspirators, Willis said the rally would “constitute a direct, conspiratorial challenge to our government and especially to the House of Representatives.” As part of the multi-day demonstration, Willis claimed, the protestors planned to burn their draft cards in opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Less than a week later, in response to Willis’s dramatic warning, the House Committee on Armed Services passed an amendment to the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1951 that made knowingly destroying draft cards a federal crime. The committee’s chairman, Democrat Mendel Rivers of South Carolina—an advocate for defense funding who was once called the “military’s best friend”—condemned the protestors and bragged that “this bill places these birds where they belong—behind bars.”
On August 9, when the demonstrators arrived at Congress’s door, the police arrested 291 people who “defied orders to leave the Capitol grounds.” Contrary to Willis’s allegations, there was no coordinated draft-card burning. Nevertheless, a day later, the House passed the Armed Services amendment criminalizing the destruction of draft cards by a vote of 393 to 1. The Senate passed the measure on August 13 and President Johnson signed the legislation into law on August 30.
The anti-war protests and Congress’s bipartisan, nearly unanimous legislative response intended to stifle such dissent occurred amid a growing cultural, ideological, and generational divide over the Vietnam War. For the first 20 years of the Cold War, Republicans and Democrats in the House had been unbending in their support for America’s efforts to stop the spread of communism. In their opinion, anyone who deviated from that course was radical. But as the war in Vietnam grew increasingly unpopular nationwide, cracks emerged in the long-standing Cold War consensus. Setting draft cards on fire may have sparked outrage on Capitol Hill in 1965, but within a matter of years a new generation of lawmakers offered a far more sympathetic audience.
By the time Chairman Willis had come to believe that peace activists were about to overthrow the government in 1965, the United States had been directly involved in the affairs of Vietnam for more than a decade. In 1954, after waging a years-long, bitter war against Communist insurgents in the hope of preserving their colonial rule in Indochina, French forces capitulated. In the peace settlement that followed, several Indochinese provinces were partitioned, forming North Vietnam ruled by a Communist government in Hanoi, and South Vietnam, with a government in Saigon backed by western allies. Over the next decade, the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars on military equipment and training to shore up the South Vietnamese against subversion by Communist guerillas.
In early August 1964, following an alleged attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on two American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, the House passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution 414 to 0. When the Senate also approved the resolution by an overwhelming majority, Johnson had complete control of future U.S. responses to such provocations.
As Communist guerillas stepped up their attacks in the South, they eventually struck U.S. facilities at Pleiku, leading the Johnson administration to launch reprisal air strikes which soon widened into a massive bombing campaign against the North. By July 1965, amid heightened conflict, President Johnson chose to commit 100,000 troops immediately to prosecute the war and another 100,000 in 1966. To meet the necessary manpower surge, Johnson ordered an increase in draft calls to at least 35,000 a month. In January 1965 the U.S. military drafted around 5,400 men each month; that December it drafted more than 40,000.
In response to the escalation, anti-war demonstrations became increasingly common throughout the United States, an outgrowth of mass political protests earlier in the decade. Burning draft cards quickly became a poignant and controversial form of civil disobedience. Beginning in 1948, draft-eligible men were required to carry two cards issued by their local draft boards: one that proved they had registered and one that identified their draft classification. For opponents of the war, draft cards were symbols of what they believed to be the federal government’s flawed foreign policy. To burn them was to refuse to participate in the conflict. One young man who burned a draft card in 1967 exclaimed: “We’ll never fight another war for you, LBJ.”
To House leaders, however, the protesters were a threat to domestic stability and American power abroad.
On Capitol Hill, the political backdrop to the summer of protests was framed by major domestic reforms. House Democrats, already in the majority, gained 36 seats in the 1964 election that also saw Lyndon B. Johnson decisively defeat Republican Barry Goldwater for the presidency. The 89th Congress (1965–1967) became best known for passing a slate of measures aimed at improving American’s social welfare, what President Johnson called “The Great Society.” As the House worked quickly to pass domestic programs, it also supported the president’s escalation of the war in Vietnam.
The House Armed Services Committee chairman, Mendel Rivers, was one of the war’s primary cheerleaders in Congress. First elected to the House in 1940, the South Carolina Representative, a segregationist who wore his hair long in the back much like his political idol John C. Calhoun, had just ascended to the chairmanship of the committee in 1965. Rivers was a fervent supporter of the U.S. military and the country’s fight against communism. For the South Carolina Representative, no measure was too extreme; he once suggested that “nuclear weapons could be employed” against North Vietnam. Though not as bombastic as Rivers, most House Members supported the administration’s policy in Vietnam, including Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts, Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma, and Minority Leader Gerald Ford of Michigan.
Since the advent of the Cold War in the late 1940s, many U.S. politicians believed there was little room for dissent, especially against the military. Political leaders often viewed protest as un-patriotic, and therefore as a threat to the security of America and its interests overseas. Through this lens, Willis, Rivers, and other Members saw the four-day Assembly of Underrepresented People’s protest in August 1965 as a significant escalation of anti-war activism. Draft-card burnings were still relatively rare. But on July 29, 1965—the day before the Johnson administration announced an increase in troops in Vietnam—several protesters burned their cards at a well-publicized demonstration in New York City. As John Blandford, chief counsel of the Armed Services Committee and primary author of the draft-card burning amendment, put it, “these bums that are going around the country burning draft cards while people are dying in South Vietnam have brought about this type of action on part of the chairman.”
The Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1951 had made it illegal to change or doctor military draft cards; Rivers’s amendment now made it unlawful to also destroy or mutilate them. Anyone convicted of intentionally destroying a draft card faced up to five years in prison and a fine “not to exceed $10,000.” The committee moved so quickly it held no public hearings and cleared the amendment 19 to 1. “The most important thing is, we take action. That is more important than any other consideration,” committee member F. Edward Hébert, a senior Democrat from Louisiana, told his colleagues.
When the committee sent the bill to the floor for debate, the House used a hurried-up process to move to a vote. Only Rivers and Republican William Bray of Indiana spoke during the bill’s consideration. Bray left no doubt where he stood. “Beatniks and so called ‘campus-cults’ have been publicly burning their draft cards to demonstrate their contempt for the United States and our resistance to Communist takeovers,” he lectured.
After Bray’s scathing speech, the House quickly passed the amended legislation 393 to 1. Even the lone dissenter, New York Republican Henry P. Smith III, “sympathized with the aim” of the law. Smith, who had served on a draft board for 15 years, opposed the bill because he believed the punishment was “far too excessive for this type of misdemeanor.” An editorial in the Washington Post noted that Smith deserved “honorable mention” because he alone knew “the folly of trying to promote patriotism by throwing people in jail . . . for an empty act of defiance.”
The near unanimous support for the amendment in the House, however, hid emerging disagreements among Members over the course of the war and the rights of anti-war protesters. A small, but growing group of Democrats had begun working to limit the scope of the war and challenged some of the federal government’s more punitive actions against dissent.
In August 1966, following a HUAC hearing about supposed American support for the Communist North Vietnam forces, twelve liberal Democrats voiced their opposition to the committee’s hostile treatment of its witnesses. During the four-day hearing, 50 protestors had been arrested for disorderly conduct. Jerry Rubin, the leader of the irreverent anti-war group the Youth International Party, or Yippies, dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier to highlight how far he thought the committee had wandered from the Founding Fathers’ ideals. In response to the arrests, Democrats Philip Burton of California, William Ryan of New York, and 10 others released a “Statement of Principles” denouncing “any attempts to place restraints on constitutionally protected civil liberties.” “No committee of Congress,” they added, “has the power or authority to impugn the patriotism of any individual on the basis of his beliefs.”
As the Vietnam War continued through the late 1960s with no end in sight, anti-war demonstrations became more common. In the House, opposition to the conflict also grew louder. As more anti-war candidates won election, dissent gained more acceptance.
Although many rank-and-file Democrats opposed the U.S. policy in Vietnam, Republicans and House Democratic leadership continued to back the war. Democrat Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts, who became Majority Leader in January 1973 and who had publicly questioned the war as early as 1967, was the one significant exception. By early 1973, however, anti-war pressure had caught up to Speaker Carl Albert. In January, Albert threatened to cut military funding if President Richard M. Nixon, who was in negotiations with the North Vietnamese, did not agree to a cease fire. The House never had the opportunity to take that vote. On January 27, 1973, Nixon signed a peace treaty ending the war.
From September 1965, when Congress amended the Universal Military and Training Act, to the ceasefire in Vietnam in 1973, federal authorities indicted fewer than 50 people for destroying their draft cards, just a small portion of the hundreds of protesters who publicly participated in draft card burnings. Not only was the law ineffective at punishing protesters, Congress’s attempt to outlaw draft-card burning made the act of disobedience all the more salient among young people. One anti-war activist believed the only logical response to the law was to challenge it openly and “have a public draft-card burning soon.”
Occasionally a harsh sentence for a draft-card burner became national news. Michael B. Weissman, a college student from St. Louis, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison—the maximum penalty—for tearing up his draft card and handing it to a police officer in August 1968. Eventually, the judge gave Weissman a reduced sentence after he spent one summer in prison, but not before the ruling was rebuked in the press and in the halls of Congress.
On the House floor, William Hungate, a Democrat from Missouri, strongly opposed both the judge’s sentencing and the draft card burning law that allowed a five-year prison term for what many viewed as a symbolic act. Hungate had come full circle on the issue: he had voted for Rivers’s amendment in 1965, but by 1972 the politics of the war had changed, and he, like many others, had come to see the draft card burning bill as “congressional excess.”
Sources: Congressional Record, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (10 July 1969): 19223–19224; Congressional Record, 92nd Cong., 2nd sess. (19 January 1972): 472; Congressional Record, House, 89th Congress, First Sess. (10 August 1965): 19871; Hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services, Full Committee Consideration of H.R. 10306, To Amend the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1951, As Amended, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (6 August 1965): 3129–3132; United States v. David Paul O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968); Baltimore Sun, 10 August 1965; Catholic Worker, September 1965, 32 (no. 1); Chicago Tribune, 5 August 1965, 11 August 1965, 20 April 1968, 17 June 1971; Los Angeles Times, 6 August 1965, 20 August 1966, 29 December 1970; New York Times, 30 July 1965, 11 August 1965, 17 August 1966, 11 January 1967; St. Louis Dispatch, 15 March 1992; Washington Post, 2 June 1963, 23 August 1965, 3 October 1995; “Draft and Universal Military Training,” CQ Almanac 1948, 4th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1949): 235–40, https://library.cqpress.com; “Draft Developments,” CQ Almanac 1965, 21st ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1966): 689-691, https://library.cqpress.com; Beth Baily, America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978); Alvin M. Josephy Jr., On the Hill: The History of the American Congress (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975); Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2012); James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States 1945–1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Julian Zelizer, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (New York: Penguin Books, 2015); Britannica Academic, “Vietnam War," accessed April 3, 2020, https://academic-eb- com.proxygw.wrlc.org/levels/collegiate/article/Vietnam-War/75317#234636.toc.Follow @USHouseHistory