Honoring all victims of war, including those who resisted

I have wished there were a memorial for those who resisted war. It was disconcerting to live in Indianapolis where there are blocks of war memorials downtown. The city streets are laid out from the Circle in the center of the city, where the Soldiers and Sailors Monument stands. Ironically, I have taken many photos over many years of anti-war and other demonstrations that have been held at the Circle.

Anti-war demonstration on the Circle, downtown Indianapolis

I’m grateful that a Quaker friend sent me this article in Bleeding Heartland.

By an act of Congress in 1954, the name of the holiday (Armistice Day) was changed to Veterans Day. Some, including the novelist Kurt Vonnegut and Rory Fanning of Veterans for Peace, have urged the U.S. to resume observation of November 11th as Armistice Day, a day to reflect on how we can achieve peace as it was originally observed.

It is in that spirit that we honor the original intent of Armistice Day this morning by honoring all victims of war, including those who resisted war, those who have advocated for peace.

Those who advocate for peace may do so in ways that challenge us. I would like to take the next few minutes to share with you stories of three advocates for peace, all associated with the University of Iowa over the past century, but each one following his own conviction in his own way.

Honoring all victims of war, including those who resisted by David McCartney, Bleeding Heartland, Nov 15, 2022

Steve Smith burns his draft card during “Soapbox Sound Off” in the Iowa Memorial Union on Oct. 20, 1965. Image from the 1966 Hawkeye yearbook, University Archives (RG 02.10), Department of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.

Steve Smith, a slight 20-year old sophomore English major, took the speaker’s stand Wednesday afternoon and spoke quietly of what he believed. He then burned his draft card.

The audience of approximately 200 persons had known what was coming. Comments, encouragement and laughter greet Smith. An emotional debate on the virtue of U.S. policy in Viet Nam had preceded his appearance. But Smith was very much alone in his act of defiance. He said he was “sick to my stomach” at what he was doing.

“I feel,” Smith said, “that now is the time, because of my own sense of dignity, my own sense of morality, to burn my draft card.” He took the card from the pocket of his sweater and ignited it.

U of Iowa Student Burns Draft Card During ‘Sound Off’. Steve Smith, 20, Says His Action Moral Decision by Paul Butler, The Daily Iowan, Oct 21, 1965

By the following summer (1964), Steve grew restive. He became a political activist, speaking out against racial segregation and participating in local marches calling for an end to racial discrimination. In July 1964, while in Canton, Miss., to help register African-Americans to vote, he was detained by a sheriff’s deputy and beaten brutally while in custody (The Des Moines Register, July 18, 1964). He was 19 at the time.

Steve’s attention turned toward the escalating U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. During 1964 and early 1965, there were scattered but growing antiwar protests around the country, including instances of draft card burning. The cards, issued by the Selective Service System to draft-eligible men between the ages of 18 and 35, became a symbolic target of antiwar protestors. Alarmed by the trend, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, a law in August 1965 criminalizing the destruction of draft cards: a maximum five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

For nearly two months, the law had its intended effect. But the silence ended on Oct. 15 when David J. Miller burned his draft card near an induction center in New York City. Five days later, on Oct. 20, Steve Smith became the first in the nation to do so on a college campus after the law’s enactment.

He did so during “Soapbox Sound Off,” a weekly open-mic session in the Iowa Memorial Union. Reaction from those in attendance was reportedly mixed: some cheered, others jeered. Smith was steadfast. “I do not feel that five years of my life are too much to give to say that this law is wrong,” he said at the forum. The next day’s newspapers reported that his father was unsympathetic and highly critical of his son’s action.

Two days later, FBI agents arrested Steve at an Iowa City apartment, where he was charged with violating the Rivers-Bray amendment to the Selective Service law. He left the UI after the fall 1965 semester and, while under arrest, married his first wife in Cedar Rapids the following February. For the charge of willful destruction of his Selective Service registration card, he was tried and convicted in U.S. District Court in 1966 and sentenced to three years’ probation. The Eighth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld his conviction later that year.

Old Gold: Steve Smith, following his conscience. UI archivist seeks info about the student who burned his draft card in 1965 by David McCartney, Iowa Now, 7/30/2012

Today we honor the good work of people like Steve. We honor his patriotism, his willingness to question our government’s actions. We honor his desire for a more just and generous and peaceful society. And we honor his legacy of courage that bloomed on our campus 57 years ago.

The University has taken steps to acknowledge this act of civil disobedience, and it has done so by recently installing a plaque in the Iowa Memorial Union. The plaque was unveiled last month and it recounts Steve Smith’s antiwar protest and its historic significance, an event that prompted further debate about the war not only on campus, but across the state and across the nation. I invite you to visit and view the plaque, which is located on the lower level of the Iowa Memorial Union near the south entrance.

The debate over war is never-ending.

What can we do? How do we respond, when our government engages in these practices? What can we do, individually or collectively?

We might feel powerless, we might feel hopeless, but we can start with ourselves. And we can do so on our terms. At age 18, in 1974, I registered for the Selective Service as a conscientious objector. It was a symbolic act, as the draft had been suspended by that time; I nonetheless found it necessary to commit myself to doing so. Yet as a U.S. taxpayer I realize I am complicit in the activities recounted in the Brennan Center report. Increasing charitable donations, in lieu of taxes, is perhaps one way to address this.

There is no single answer. But a common thread is hope. Rebecca Solnit writes,

I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.

Rebecca Solnit

This of course is easier said than done. But if we recognize that the decisions we make come from our truth, as Steve Smith had done in 1965 in the face of hostility, we may find peace with ourselves. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhaur said, All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

In closing, I would like to share this from Kristen Suagee-Beauduy:

Resistance is not a one lane highway. Maybe your lane is protesting, maybe your lane is organizing, maybe your lane is counseling, maybe your lane is art activism, maybe your lane is surviving the day. Do NOT feel guilty for not occupying every lane. We need all of them.

Kristen Suagee-Beauduy

Honoring all victims of war, including those who resisted by David McCartney, Bleeding Heartland, Nov 15, 2022

I am grateful to learn about Steve Smith’s story and that he was a student at the University of Iowa.

I began as a student at Scattergood Friends School, a Quaker boarding high school in 1966, not far from the University of Iowa. While a student at Scattergood, in 1968 I attended the national conference on the draft and conscription, held at Earlham College. https://jeffkisling.com/2019/10/05/richmond-declaration-on-the-draft/

Friends Coordinating Committee on Peace has announced a national conference on the draft and conscription to be held at Earlham College (Richmond, Indiana), October 11th through 13th. It is primarily planned as a working conference, with about 180 representatives from Yearly Meetings, Friends schools and other Friends’ organizations and seventy to a hundred additional Friends appointed at large. A detailed program and other information may be obtained from FCCP, 1520 Race Street, Philadelphia, 19102.  

Friends Journal 8/15/1968

When I was a Senior, during one of the days of the Moratorium to end the war in Vietnam, Oct 15, 1969, the entire student body (about sixty) walked from the school into Iowa City, to the University of Iowa (about 12 miles). During another of the Moratorium days, Nov 15, 1969, we held a conference about the war and the draft at the school.

October 11, 1969  School Committee Day

From the Scattergood Friends School committee minutes:

A group of students attended Committee meeting and explained plans for their participation in the October 15 Moratorium. The Committee wholeheartedly endorses the plans. The following statement will be handed out in answer to any inquiries:

“These students and faculty of Scattergood School are undertaking the twelve mile walk from campus to Iowa City in observance of the October 15 Moratorium. In order not to detract from the purpose of the walk, we have decided to remain silent. You are welcome to join us in this expression of our sorrow and disapproval of the war and loss of life in Vietnam. Please follow the example of the group and accept any heckling or provocation in silence.”

Scattergood Friends School students’ Peace Walk from the School to the University of Iowa on the Moratorium to end the war in Vietnam

I turned in my draft cards but was not prosecuted. Unfortunately, my schoolmate, Daniel Barrett was imprisoned for his draft resistance. Our stories can be found in those collected by (Quaker) Don Laughlin, Young Quaker Men Facing War and Conscription.

My friend and mentor, Don Laughlin (Quaker) collected stories of Quaker men facing war and conscription.

David F. McCartney, University Archives

david mccartney

McCartney is a dedicated archivist ensuring access to University of Iowa history and highlighting voices that are underrepresented in the archives. McCartney has developed relationships across campus, working with classes or faculty in every department. After publishing an award-winning article on the life of UI student Stephen Smith, a young man from a small Iowa town who found his voice through civil rights activism in the 1960s, McCartney organized the Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network to bring together related repositories and collections from across the state. He also established the Stephen Lynn Smith Memorial Scholarship for Social Justice. He has served as a consultant for many smaller archives and libraries in Iowa and volunteers with smaller nonprofit organizations. He has held many positions in the Midwest Archives Conference, including president, and makes invaluable contributions to the Big Ten Academic Alliance University Archivist Group and the Consortium of Iowa Archivists.

UI honors recipients of 2020 faculty, staff awards by JACK ROSSI, Iowa Now, 11/17/2020


The Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network uncovers, preserves, and shares the stories of Iowans who participated in Civil Rights-related activity or the African American experience. HICRN  is made up of community members, archivists, historians, librarians, former Civil Rights workers, and others from across Iowa who seek and preserve photographs, diaries, scrapbooks, letters, personal memoirs, and oral history interviews. https://dsps.lib.uiowa.edu/hicrn/

Although not exactly a memorial for war resisters, my dad, Burt Kisling, and Chuck Day, both Quakers, worked to have this sculpture of three intertwined doves, the “Path to Peace”, installed in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.

“Path to Peace”, Des Moines, Iowa

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