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Armed for Profit
No More Prisons
Resisting the Vietnam War
Interview with Grace Paley
Realities of a Booming Economy
War Resisters League
The Nonviolent Activist
An Interview with Grace Paley
By Phyllis Eckhaus and Judith Mahoney Pasternak
uring 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
did you get involved with the Peace Center?
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.
So what about the war in Vietnam?
what did you do?
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?
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.
looking back now, 25 years later—
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
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?
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
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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