Why the First Amendment is First
by Paul Kerson
Feb 28, 2017 | 1722 views | 0 0 comments | 118 118 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The New York Times is currently running a series of articles called “Vietnam ‘67” detailing the experiences of those who participated in America’s most costly mistake.

The series focuses on the year 1967 – half a century ago – and is strangely unapologetic. The Anti-War Movement, the largest in American history, is barely mentioned.

More to the point, The New York Times’ role in the continuation of the war is omitted.

I tried to remedy this by submitting my own observations to The New York Times. As you might expect, criticism of the relationship of our national newspaper and national government was rejected. “Not enough room,” they said in an e-mail.

The interlocking story of the twin failures of our national newspaper and national government to act responsibly 50 years ago is an important story.

It is especially critical in our current year. We now have a national government that needs closer citizen scrutiny more than ever.

The Anti-War Movement of 1967-72 has valuable lessons to teach us today about citizen supervision of powerful malevolent interests. I hope it makes every reader think carefully about his or her critical duties as a United States citizen.

By telling the story of our anti-war efforts, I do not mean to denigrate or diminish the real suffering of our Vietnam veterans.

However, I am hopeful that everyone will understand how the combined energy of the music, television and motion picture industries, and college students at the time prevented even more suffering for our Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese people – suffering caused by a wrong-headed federal government in Washington.

From 1969-72, the federal government held a lottery with our very lives. If one’s birthday drew a low number, one was going to be sent to Vietnam with an M-16 rifle to shoot at people who were no threat to the United States and they would shoot back. Game over.

I “won” the lottery in 1970. I did not go to Vietnam.

In September 1968, I left my parents’ home in Flushing for Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland. I was 17 years old. The war in Vietnam was raging.

My father gave me his military flight jacket with the large brown fur collar and the red, white and blue U.S. Army Air Corps seal stamped on the sleeve.

He did not mention the faceless, severely wounded fellow soldiers and patients from World War II he saw while serving as a medic. He couldn’t. It was too emotionally devastating for him.

His message was clear: I was given his prized possession to cause me to remember his fallen fellow soldiers and the very high price of war, a price to be paid only if absolutely necessary.

When I was in college, the prevailing social ethos was everyone was expected to participate in as much anti-war activity as possible, writing articles, attending demonstrations, teach-ins and workshops as often as one could.

We had a saying in those days about the Vietnam War and the draft and the federal government’s obtuse continuation of both: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

I was determined to be part of the solution.

In mid-February 1970, CWRU hosted the National Student Mobilization Committee (SMC) Conference. Delegates from student governments at every major university in the country descended on CWRU to figure out exactly how we were going to end the draft and end the Vietnam War.

I was then 18 years old, one week from my 19th birthday. If you can believe it, adult supervision of our federal government was being conducted by 18 year olds. We had a saying back then about this inverted state of affairs: “Do not trust anyone over 30.”

Had my classmates and I not vigorously organized and supported the Woodstock Anti-War “Music and Art Fair” of August 1969, the Great Washington March of November 1969, and the SMC Convention at CWRU in February 1970, finally ending the drafting of young men as cannon fodder for old men’s delusions of power, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan military death tolls would be much higher.

This is why the First Amendment is first. Vigorous use of the freedoms of speech and of the press and of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is what we did to stop the madness in Vietnam.

Those 1791 founders had wisdom beyond our understanding.

Paul Kerson is a founding partner of the law firm of Leavitt & Kerson and past president of the Queens County Bar Association.
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