This inspiring and long-overdue documentary explores a decisive era in recent American history: the youth-led nonviolent resistance to America’s participation in the war between communist Chinese-backed North Vietnam and the capitalist U.S.-backed South Vietnam (1964-1973).
Resistance to the U.S. Army’s draft began in 1964 with a trickle of young men who courageously refused to fight in what they felt to be an unjust war. They openly and illegally burned their draft cards; many were sentenced to prison due to their actions. As public sentiment turned against the war, their courageous stance motivated millions of others to join the growing antiwar movement. Using many of the nonviolent tactics employed by the Civil Rights Movement and later, in combination with Black leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Muhammad Ali, this informal band of young men and women changed U.S. history.
By 1972, with the war and the draft escalating, the number of induction-refusal legal cases had steamrolled to 200,600 young men, overwhelming draft boards and making enforcement by the federal courts unwieldy and nearly impossible. In 1977, on his first day in office, President Jimmy Carter offered a full pardon to any draft resister who requested one.
Director Judith Ehrlich’s “The Boys Who Said No” concentrates on lengthy interviews with the now-aging leaders of the draft resistance to document the chronological history of their war opposition. The juxtaposition between the archival footage of their young and boyish faces and their current visages is startling. In fact, two of those interviewed in the film have since died. The romantic love story of renowned folksinger/activist Joan Baez and David Harris, co-founder of “The Resistance,” adds a touch of piquancy to what is at times a rather dry recitation.
The Vietnam antiwar movement is a big story — too big for one feature-length film. So Ehrlich had to pick and choose which aspects to include. But two important parts of the story were left out. First, the film assumes that the audience is familiar with the history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, but many of those living today know very little about the war. Second, to better humanize the interviewees, it would have been interesting to learn about how their young draft resistance impacted the remainder of their lives. Yes, a few discussed their prison experiences, but what happened after that?
For this writer, the tension brought about by the Vietnam War, and how friends and family behaved in response to it is still vivid and fresh. My husband, who was draft-eligible then, is an investor in “The Boys Who Said No.” Many families were torn apart as the anti-Vietnam War generation, and the World War II generation often maintained different opinions. Lives were changed inexorably. It is sobering to realize that those days are now relegated to history.
Director Judith Ehrlich (co-producer and co-director, the Oscar and Emmy Award-nominated and Peabody Award winner, “The Most Dangerous Man in America, Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”) has done history an excellent service in memorializing this enduring portrait of America during an earlier time of momentous inner conflict.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2020 All Rights reserved