Whatever Happened to Americans’ Moral Compass?

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David Harris. Art by Mr. Fish.

The Vietnam War is one of many heinous stains on American history that to this day often is told through a revisionist lens or outright ignored. Yet the truth remains beneath the layers of whitewashing that the U.S. government sent thousands of Americans to slaughter and be slaughtered over a conflict that had everything to do with Cold War ideologies and nothing to do with justice or freedom. The death tolls are still shocking to read: it is estimated that 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed during the war, along with 1.1 million  North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters and 58,220 American soldiers.

The conflict also inspired an anti-war movement described as “one of the largest and most successful youth-led resistance movements in American history” in the 2020 film “The Boys Who Said NO!” Approximately 570,000 Americans, many of whom were conscientious objectors who refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, a refusal that led to  up to five years in prison for  3,250 resisters.. One such anti-war activist and anti-draft organizer was David Harris, who became a prominent journalist  after two years in prison, during which he became estranged from his wife, Joan Baez.. In this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Harris joins Robert Scheer to discuss the movement they were both a part of as well as “The Boys Who Said NO!,” which features Harris, and a recent collection of the journalist’s works, “My Country 'Tis of Thee: Reporting, Sallies, and Other Confessions” published by Heyday Books.

“[The Vietnam War] was not just a matter of mistaken policy,” says Harris. “This was going 10,000 miles from home and killing three  million people for no good reason. It's the textbook definition of evil. And that confronted everybody who came of age during that time, with the question of, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” 

Harris criticizes Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Vietnam War for “pretty much [ignoring] the central fact that it was the uprising of [millions of] citizens that made this war impossible to continue,” and  he bristles against former government officials who irrationally blame activists for prolonging the conflict. The journalist also talks about the Rolling Stone piece he did on veteran and anti-war activist Ron Kovic, which, Scheer relates, “changed [Kovic’s] whole life.”

Scheer and Harris go on to discuss the moral implications of 1960s activism and the very real personal costs activists faced for upholding their values. This causes Scheer to lament that, although the U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for just shy of two decades, there is no comparable anti-war movement in the U.S. today. Scheer holds up the courageous example of Harris, who came from a military family and left his undergraduate studies at Stanford, where he was student body president, to help lead the anti-draft movement, as the kind of valiant activism that is largely absent in today’s America. 

“The main thing is we don't ever take ownership for our history,” says Scheer. “There you were, on the path to great financial success [and yet] you were part of a generation that thought not selling out was an important consideration. That integrity might matter. That is kind of lost now.”

Listen to the full discussion between Harris and Scheer as they consider why Americans have by and large lost the urge to dissent despite atrocities that continue to be done in their name daily, as well as talk in more detail about Harris’ extraordinary life and work.  



Joshua Scheer