Transcript for Conscientious Objectors - Jim Fleming & Friends

Jim Fleming: My college career pretty much sums up the changes of the late 60s. There was a panty raid in the dorms when I was a freshman. By the summer of my senior the so-called New Years Gang had planted a bomb on the University of Wisconsin campus, killing Robert Fassnacht, a promising young researcher who was working late that night. By the time that explosion occurred I'd joined protest marches. I thought long and hard about service and I had applied for status as a conscientious objector. When I got my CO status I did my required alternative service working as a psychiatric aid. Searching for answers about that time, I turned to two friends, Robert Cardinaux and Mark Peterson. They were both COs who worked with me at the Yale Psychiatric Institute. We sat down to talk about the war, about the draft, and about what it meant to choose to refuse, and, as Robert says, about the lottery.

Robert Cardinaux: My number was 76 so I didn't have long.

Fleming: I was 74. Same thing.

Mark Peterson: Oh, really? Wow.

Fleming: Yeah.

Peterson: Everybody knew what their friend's numbers were and what your status was and what was going to happen to you.

Cardinaux: Yeah.

Fleming: Do you remember listening to that? I listened to it on the radio. They gave one birthdate after another. It was so weird. Birthdate, after birthdate, after birthdate came up and all of a sudden, you know, each one you'd say, "Not me." But I still think, and maybe I'm just saying this from a distance, but that wasn't what made me decide to apply to be a CO.

Cardinaux: Well, I was slowly forced into a corner. First, I had a college deferment. Then I had another year of a college deferment because I got my masters in teaching at Oberlin, and then suddenly I was out of deferment. Then I tried to get a medical deferment because I did have a ruined foot from a motorcycle accident.

Peterson: But you had a beautiful gait.

Cardinaux: Right, that's what the doctor said. He told me I had a beautiful gait and I was fine. So then I actually did get my 1A. It was then that I decided, well, there's just no way I'm going.

Peterson: I remember going through a long period of disillusionment with the idea of the war in Vietnam. The idea of actually committing some violent act, just kind of out of the question.

Fleming: I remember talking to all sorts of people, some of them, you know, they ate too much so they were too heavy for the Army to take them and I still remember one guy who lost so much weight his pants fell off.

Peterson: Everybody had their plot.

Cardinaux: Yeah.

Peterson: The conscience part, I've always felt like it's slightly off-base. Part of the common sense idea of conscience is that your conscience is telling you to do something for the greater good that runs against self-interest and I never felt like being a conscientious objector, ran against my own self-interest in any way.

Cardinaux: I felt I was protecting something, actually.

Fleming: Yes.

Cardinaux: It was standing up for a line which I just felt I couldn't cross. Period.

Fleming: I'm curious how you, it was a personal decision for each of you. It was for me anyway, a personal decision, but I remember talking it over with friends. I remember going to the American Friends Service Committee and reading about others who'd applied for COs.

Cardinaux: Well, my grandmother was a Quaker and she probably would have patted me on the back but I didn't discuss it with her and my parents were overseas.

Fleming: So you were really on your own.

Cardinaux: So I was completely on my own and completely free.

Fleming: I had long exchanges with my parents. My mom didn't say much. I think she was sort of in support but my dad wrote me letters about how I had an obligation to the country and, that makes me laugh now, some discipline would be good for me.

Cardinaux: Wow.

Peterson: Well, we know that's true.

Fleming: I just, for the first time in 40 years, I looked through the files I've kept from applying for this.

Peterson: Oh, you're a braver man than I am.

Fleming: Well, I was astonished. I want to go back and hug all these people who wrote me letters.

Peterson: Oh, isn't that nice? You know, I hadn't thought about the letters, Jim. That's very interesting. You have to make the statement about why you're a conscientious objector and I wanted to be exact and truthful in the statement. I really wanted to not say anything that would sort of get me off the hook accidentally that wasn't what I believed, and after I wrote it I drove back from Indiana to Oberlin to give it to my favorite philosophy professor to, like, certify. It wasn't so important that it was legally going to get me off but I wanted to make sure that philosophically it was accurate.

Fleming: It's like wanting to be real.

Cardinaux: I share that completely because I was under the either misapprehension or apprehension that you had to claim the status based on religious grounds and because I had no religious affiliation at all, specifically said I'm not doing this on religious grounds. I'm doing this on ethical grounds and I felt that at least made me honest.

Peterson: Right. I don't know. I just had this funny feeling about this. We all thought it was absolutely a moral act to go and do violence to people of Vietnam under these circumstance and yet we didn't want to lie about getting out of it.

Cardinaux: Well, yeah, and it's somehow acknowledging your duty to the country somehow still, to not falsify your stand. Did you have to appear before the board?

Fleming: I did.

Peterson: Oh, what was that like?

Cardinaux: That's interesting.

Fleming: You guys didn't?

Cardinaux: See I always thought that was the model. No, I didn't even know where it was.

Fleming: I did go there. I turned in my application. I got a receipt saying, "We've received it. We'll consider it." I got a notice saying you have to show up for an interview, and I remember going to the interview and answering the questions and they said, "We'll get back to you," and I went home and sweated bullets. So you didn't have to go? You never saw the board?

Cardinaux: Was never called.

Peterson: Neither was I.

 

Cardinaux: Yeah.

Fleming: So you just sent in the application and...

Cardinaux: Yeah, and then I got some sort of notice.

Fleming: So you too, Mark, you just sent it in and...

Peterson: I sent it in. Months passed.

Cardinaux: Oh.

Peterson: So I don't know how I know this but what it meant for me, I must've seen a record of some kind of the five members of the board, three showed up. Two voted in my favor and one against, and I got the card and I was off.

Fleming: What sort of fascinates me about looking back at all of this is the realization that we were put in a position where we had to think about this.

Peterson: Yeah.

Fleming: And in some ways that's a good thing. I don't think the draft was a good thing but I think it may have been a good thing for me to have to decide I wasn't going to go.

Cardinaux: Yeah. I think once the decision to say, "No," then you're forced to do a little more thinking because you are taking a resistance route, and more than that you had to write it all down and explain why and rationalize it.

Peterson: If you were inclined to, I think the deal is that the vast majority of young men in our situation didn't have the tools, background, where they could...

Fleming: Well, there's that isn't there? I mean, there's this...

Peterson: And think about it and write clever statements that we all wrote and do all of that. They assumed that when they got the call that was it and they're off. We had a great privilege to be able to have a hand in the outcome in a certain way but I don't think realistically the majority of folks in our situation did.

Cardinaux: Yeah, we all went to Oberlin. We all applied for CO and we all went to YPI.

Fleming: We're not a representative group, are we?

Cardinaux: So when you gain CO status you then are given the right to go do alternative service. It's two years long. 24 months.

Peterson: Well, right. So the idea was there were some rules about it had to be for a public service organization of some kind. I don't know. Healthcare was always safe, and the Yale Psychiatric Institute, the primary mission was to treat adolescent schizophrenics.

Cardinaux: It's part of the Yale New Haven Hospital, a teaching hospital.

Peterson: Yeah, I was very grateful to have some useful work or be of some value to a bunch of people who were clearly in need of some kind of help. It was way better than going to Vietnam in terms of both your benefit to the world and your benefit to yourself.

Fleming: When I went back and looked at my CO, when I went back and looked at some of the stuff from YPI, I think, oh, my god. This is when I became the person I am.

Cardinaux: Yeah, there's no doubt that it's definitely a matter of identity.

Peterson: It was an abrupt detour in a way and so it was a bit of like being together in an outpost. A lot of emotional content that we needed to share with each other that was coming up for the first time because we'd never seen folks in this kind of trouble.

Cardinaux: Interestingly enough, thinking about it that way, I certainly don't have any regrets. I don't feel that I missed out on anything and the fact that I had to do the alternate service probably did me some good, which ironically sounds like the statement that your dad made about a little discipline wouldn't hurt.

Fleming: Yeah, and I should add that I found in my file a letter from my dad to the board which said, "I believe him." In many more words than that he said, "We don't agree but I believe him." Robert Cardinaux, Mark Peterson, and I all did alternative service as conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. We worked together as aides at the Yale Psychiatric Institute in New Haven, Connecticut. If you have comments about this hour, bring them to our Facebook page or send us an email through our website at TTBOOK.org.

Comments for this interview

nice (chat mctaggart, 01/20/2014 - 12:17am)

I'm thankful that I was too young to have to decide, but many times I've asked myself what I would've done. Thanks, guys, for honestly discussing what you went through.