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NONVIOLENT ACTIVIST: The Magazine of the War Resisters League


March-April 2000:
Armed for Profit
No More Prisons
Resisting the Vietnam War
Interview with Grace Paley
Realities of a Booming Economy
Letters
Activist Reviews

Homepages:
War Resisters League
The Nonviolent Activist

25 Years Later
The Movement Against the War in Vietnam

An Interview with Grace Paley
‘Every Action Was Essential’

By Phyllis Eckhaus and Judith Mahoney Pasternak

During the decade-plus of the Vietnam War, in the New York City community that coalesced around the Greenwich Village Peace Center, writer Grace Paley [The Little Disturbances of Man, Later the Same Day, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] found her other calling: activism. She had already joined City Hall Park protests against air-raid drills and had helped organize opposition to re-routing buses through Washington Square Park, where her children played. But, in the war years, activism became her other vocation, in addition to her writing. She was part—of course—of the big demonstrations, the mass antiwar mobilizations in Washington, where she began to amass her now-formidable arrest record. And as she became an antiwar leader, she represented the movement outside the U.S. borders, negotiating the release of POWs in Vietnam and attending international conferences and meetings in Europe. But her base remained in Greenwich Village, and her identification was as a member of that community. Closely associated with the War Resisters League, the Greenwich Village Peace Center took on ever more radical tasks, eventually counseling flat-out draft refusal. Never a draft counselor, Paley preferred street actions; this is her account of those years, related in a conversation that took place last December on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

When you found out that the United States was in a war in Vietnam, what were you doing with your life?
Well, I had had an extraordinary piece of luck, having a book published in 1959. I was still astonished by it, [although] I wasn’t making any money from it. My main activity was the PTA—I had kids, and we were interested in what was happening in Washington Square Park. I had also gone to antinuclear demonstrations and protested the bomb drills in school. Nora [Nora Paley, Paley’s daughter] was very young, about nine. She wouldn’t put her head under the table—she was terrified. And I had just become a member of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.

How did you get involved with the Peace Center?
In 1961, we—people from different activities—were invited by the American Friends Service Committee to meet to establish the Peace Center. The Friends were establishing Peace Centers all over the country. Mary Gandall [a co-founder of the Greenwich Village center] and I were from the PTA, and we knew Bob Nichols [poet and playwright who became Paley’s second husband] from Washington Square Park. (Later he did a lot of street theater for the antiwar movement.) Mary Perot Nichols, his wife, was from local politics and the Village Voice.

We wrote up a very short statement. We said everybody who believed in nonviolence could work with us. Somebody said, “What about Communists?” We said we were not going to exclude anybody, as long as they made a commitment to nonviolence in any action we took—and kept filling up envelopes.

The Peace Center was founded on what everybody talked about later: “Act locally, think globally.” When we started we were doing very local stuff. We liked it because it was simpler, you didn’t always have to be taking trains. It seemed natural to work where you lived—the Village was a basic community of various kinds of people. (What was missing was people of color, which was true in any white community at that time.) I also felt better about it because some of the earlier big demonstrations seemed to have too much relation to the Soviet Union—you know, no matter what was happening you had to think about what was good for the Soviet Union. It was like, “What’s good for the Jews?,” except it was “What’s good for the Soviet Union?” So it meant a lot to me to meet the people I met after the Peace Center was established.

Like—?
Well, I met a bunch of pacifists—I’d never known pacifists before. My parents were very peaceful people and socialists, and they were always against all wars, but pacifism was not a Russian socialist idea. Somebody invited [peace and civil rights activist and WRL staffer] Bayard Rustin to talk, and Mary Gandall and I listened to him with our mouths open. We were both so impressed—it was like the good news, as they say about Jesus. We were getting very good news about how to think about the world.

So what about the war in Vietnam?
Late in ’61, Otto Nathan [executor of the estate of pacifist physicist Albert Einstein], who was a friend of the Peace Center, came to us and said, “You have to do something. Something terrible is happening in Vietnam,” some little country we had never heard of. We set up a teach-in almost immediately, mostly to inform ourselves. But we were a little annoyed, because we wanted our global work to be antinuclear—we thought [Vietnam] was going to get in our way.


Paley (center) with fellow activists (l-r) Erika Weihs, Virginia Eggleston, Molly Wilson and Sybil Claiborne at the Greenwich Village Peace Center weekly antiwar vigil.
Photo: Ruth Sondak

Then what did you do?
Part of the local work was theater and art work. We often worked with artists’ organizations. The artists did very fierce murals in [New York University’s] Loeb Center, and poets went out on trucks—sometimes people threw tomatoes, and sometimes they listened. We helped start Angry Arts, [a week-long series of events expressing artists’ opposition to the war]. It lasted only a week, but organizing it took weeks and so did deorganizing after. Angry Arts included every art—for instance, at concerts musicians stood up and talked about the war.

We also organized Vietnamese Life. Vietnamese Life was like a teach-in through artists and writers. Everybody did something that would teach about Vietnamese life. Wally Zuckerman, who used to make harpsichords in the Village, did a Vietnamese forest symphony. Writers like Hortense Calisher read Vietnamese stories. [Avant-garde playwright] Maria Irena Fornes did The Vietnamese Wedding, which later became a play.

But there were more radical actions too, weren’t there?
Yes. We—me and Eva Kollisch [of Sarah Lawrence College] and Sybil Claiborne [novelist and Paley’s closest friend]—would walk up and down at the draft center at 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock in the morning with signs that said “I support draft refusal.” We always tried to say something illegal.

And we started Support In Action. Karl Bissinger [photographer, now on WRL staff], Paul Goodman [anarchist philosopher and writer] and I wrote a statement called Support In Action. We decided that we needed to get famous people to say they were against the war, to put their names down, and we wrote a statement of resistance saying that we would support anybody who refused to go to the war. We wrote it in such a way that we could get five years [in prison]. Then we had a big meeting at [the Manhattan concert and lecture venue] Town Hall, and we had an easel and our statement of support on the stage, and we asked everybody in the audience to support it. Everybody was there, talking about whether they should really go up there. Then the young fellows who were resisting the draft got up and said why they were not going. They were wonderful. And then we said, “Now this audience has to show support.” And little by little they did. They pulled themselves together and they went up feeling quite embarrassed and shy, and signed their names on the sheet.

So looking back now, 25 years later—
I learned one thing: You can work in an organization where you begin to really love the people, but if you don’t love the people, you can’t work there, without something hateful in yourself—or in them. But, you know, we—especially us women—got to really love each other quite a bit. And of course I got to love Bob Nichols quite a bit.

The political is personal? But we also wanted to know, if the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a losing battle, as it appears it was—then what do you think the peace movement accomplished?
Well, I think it did two things. It acted as an education in resistance and nonviolence. And probably the education in nonviolent direct action couldn’t have been learned without a war. It had to take a war for people to learn that things could be defied and resisted. I think that was a very important legacy of the peace movement.

But also I think that the guys who attacked the demonstrations and say the U.S. was held back—that without the peace movement they could have won the war, are right. It’s funny to say that, because certainly Vietnam was bombed more than Germany and Japan were bombed, but still the U.S. forces could’ve really destroyed the whole place. I think that we prevented even worse things from happening. I really think that at a certain point they would have nuclear-bombed Vietnam.

And I think that our resistance to the war was very helpful to the Vietnamese. Even recently, when I went to Vietnam I would say, “Sometimes I want to apologize to you, to say we didn’t do enough. We knew how you were suffering, and we didn’t do enough.” And the Vietnamese say to me, “But you have no idea what it meant to us that, that so many people resisted the war, how it helped our morale.” So in that sense we in the peace movement were culpable. If I was on a stage with [a Vietnam hawk], I’d say “You’re absolutely right. We gave them courage.”

How do you assess the role of the small radical peace movement in relation to the mass movement, to the large demonstrations of half a million people?
The most radical action was essential—I don’t mean the violent actions, I mean the people who destroyed draft cards and broke into draft boards, that kind of stuff. I even mean [antiwar organizer] Walter Teague carrying a National Liberation Front flag at big demonstrations, which drove everybody out of their minds. But one day he said to me, “Grace, you know why we have to be there,” and all of a sudden I did know. Somebody had to carry the [NLF] flag. I wouldn’t do it, but somebody had to, there had to be that recognition of that flag, of who these people were.

They had fights about these things, and it was so ridiculous. Every big demonstration was absolutely essential. And every local operation was absolutely essential. There’s no argument about it, it seems to me. If there were no big demonstrations, we would never have known how many people in Minneapolis felt like us—I mean the joy of being in Washington and meeting people from Idaho, what greater sense of unity could you have? On the other hand, whenever we did something, whenever a draft card was burned, whenever one of the Berrigans [Dan and Philip, brothers and Catholic priests who founded the Plowshares movement by destroying draft board files during the war] or Women Against Daddy Warbucks [which also raided a draft board] took an action, they would say, “You’re turning people against us.” But that was ridiculous because the people were not turned against us, the people were interested. So I think they were both absolutely essential.

Is there anything else you want to add?
Yes. People say the Vietnamese won the war. They did not win the war, the U.S. won the war, just by leaving and starving them to death. You don’t say somebody won the war in a medieval town which is under constant siege. Until the U.S. is certain that the Vietnamese lost the war, until they’re absolutely certain that their condition is totally hopeless, we’re not gonna help them. So it’s not over yet? It’s almost over, but it’s not quite over.

Phyllis Eckhaus is a free-lance writer and a member of the War Resisters League Executive Committee; Judith Mahoney Pasternak is a free-lance writer and the editor of this magazine. The authors thank WRL staffer Karl Bissinger, who worked with Grace at the Greenwich Village Peace Center for many of the war years, for facilitating this interview, and Freeman Intern Molly Oudkerk for transcribing it.

 

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