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Interview with David Victor Harris

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Harris, David, 1946- ; McKiernan, Stephen


David Victor Harris is a journalist, author, and activist. He was an anti-war activist and the first person arrested for refusing to register for the draft in the late 1960's. He was the student government president at Stanford University.
David Victor Harris is a journalist, author, and activist. He was a leading opponent of the draft during the Vietnam War, which began during his college days at Stanford University. As a young college student, he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement where he joined students from all over the country in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) 1964 voter registration campaign in Mississippi. In 1966, he became president of the Stanford University student body, and as a leading critic of the draft, he formed a group called the Resistance. Harris was the first person arrested for refusing to register for the draft in 1968. In his later years, Harris has received journalistic praise for his non-fiction books on his experiences in the sixties and seventies along with other books connected to personalities or issues in those times.

Harris died from lung cancer at his home in Mill Valley on February 6, 2023, at the age of 76.




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McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: David Victor Harris
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: REV
Date of interview: 6 November 2009
(Start of Interview)

SM (00:00:04):
Good. Are you ready to go?

DH (00:00:07):
I am ready.

SM (00:00:10):
Okay. When you think of the (19)60s and the early (19)70s, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

DH (00:00:18):
Well, it is too much territory to really have a specific thing that comes to my mind, but being out there on the edge, as far as the feeling, I guess.

SM (00:00:37):
Is there a specific event when you were young, because you are the front edge of the boomer generation, as they define it, from 1946 to (19)64?

DH (00:00:47):
Pretty close to the first.

SM (00:00:50):
Yeah. And actually, I think some people are eligible for social security this year.

DH (00:00:56):
I was born in February of (19)46. So right there at the start of the curve.

SM (00:01:03):
What was it in your particular life, at what point in your life did you know that you had to speak up about something, whether it be in high school? Because a lot of people never had the courage to speak up, and they always followed authority, but was there one specific incident, the first time that you knew you had to speak up about an issue?

DH (00:01:26):
Oh, I suppose when I attended a public meeting during the fall of my freshman year at Standford, where they were recruiting volunteers to go down to Mississippi and help the-the Mississippi Project, fall of (19)63. At that point, I heard a call. I did not go to Mississippi right at that moment, but within a year I was in Mississippi.

SM (00:01:55):
Yeah. Talk a little bit about that experience in the South, and being around those other young people who had the same caring attitude that you had. Did you feel that they were a rare breed within the boomer generation?

DH (00:02:12):
Well, certainly. I mean, at the time, Mississippi was an extraordinarily influential moment for the entire generation, and certainly for me. I think you are absolutely right when you describe it as a caring response. There really was not an ideology at that point. People were there because they thought Black people had the right to vote without being lynched. I mean, it was as simple as that. It was really a value based proposition, far more than it was a politics based proposition. And I felt like, when I went to Mississippi, that I was participating in the great adventure of our time, and I did not want to miss it.

SM (00:03:07):
When you were young also, who would you consider to be your, this might be an overused term, role models or people that inspired you? But most importantly, someone who may have been older, who believed in you?

DH (00:03:22):
It is a different category. As a political figure, given when I started out in the Mississippi Project, the man was Bob [inaudible]. And to this day, I still have enormous respect for that. And he was slightly older than me, but I had no contact with him. I would follow fish to the circles that he read from afar. I thought he was enormously captivating, and a lot of what I first learned about organizing, just came from listening to him. And so, I would list him as a big influence. The older people who had faith in me, from my experience, were teachers. I had three teachers that I would put in that category. One, who I [inaudible] from in high school, one from my freshman year at Stanford, and one from my sophomore year on. Those were the big persons that supplied me not only with the intellect stuff, but...

SM (00:04:57):
You want to list those names, just for the record?

DH (00:04:59):
Sure. Well, in high school was a man named Alan Amond, who taught the honors humanities program and world history at Fresno High School, which was a three-year-high school. And I took his world history course my first year at high school, and I was in his honors humanity class [inaudible] and it was one of these five... English and history. It was a big deal at Fresno. And Amond was a guy who had been, during the great Red Scare, had inspectors from school board sitting in classrooms, monitoring what he said [inaudible], and that is what he was, Quaker. But in any case, he rooted all things in me. And then my freshman year at Stanford, a man named Richard Grafton, was instructor in our [inaudible] history of Western civilization, freshman fourth. And he was also the faculty president of [inaudible] and he has been a lifelong friend. And yeah, really hope he makes the transition to president.

SM (00:06:30):
And the third?

DH (00:06:32):

SM (00:06:33):
Was there a third?

DH (00:06:33):
A guy named Charles Breckmyer.

SM (00:06:35):

DH (00:06:35):
He was in the poly-sci department at Stanford, and ran the special honors program in social processes.

SM (00:06:39):
Very good.

DH (00:06:39):
I studied with him the last years at Stanford.

SM (00:06:51):
You have seen this over the years, particularly in the 90s, Newt Gingrich would oftentimes, especially when the Republicans came into power in (19)94, Newt had a lot of comments about the (19)60s generation and the boomers. And George Willis, whenever he gets a chance, he gets a shot at writing about him as well, and really cutting him in many different ways, in a negative way. What are your thoughts on critics of the boomer generation, who say that all the problems that are currently happening in our society today, with the breakdown of the American family, the differences between people of color, the confrontational victim type mentality, be blaming this generation for all of the excesses, the drugs? And just your thoughts on this criticism.

DH (00:07:45):
Well I mean, I think they are way off the mark. I think quite the contrary. As far as I am concerned, saved the country from itself, at a time when it desperately needs. America has become a far better fight by virtue of our country. The problem here, was not our country. My question to a lot of these guys is what are you so goddamn upset about? What exactly is it that make you describe us as a syndrome? And I think the fact of the matter is, is that we exposed the way of doing business in the United States that contradicted everything the United States is supposed to stand for. And that they do not think that citizens ought to have the power to do that, and we did it. And come on, we are the ones that put the end to desegregation. And we stopped a war in which more than two million people were killed for no good reason. And none of these critics of us, have come up with a good reason for having done all that stuff. Not yet. Not after all these years, they have not come up with something. We stood up in the face of power when somebody had to do that, because we were engaging in wholesale madness, and that was immoral. For my generation, you have to remember, the formative intellectual experience was the Holocaust and the aftermath of the West judgment of Nazi Germany, and the Nuremberg prescient. And the intellectual issue when I was a freshman in Stanford, was framed by Hannah Arendt.

SM (00:09:34):
Oh, yes.

DH (00:09:34):
A philosopher who wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, which was supposedly an account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann after, and hiding in Argentina, and whisked away by the Israelis [inaudible] And the basic question that grabbed all of us in all that, was not, "What do you do about the Germans?" That they were clearly evil and had to be addressed to set. The issue was, "What do you do if you are a German?" And I think my generation spent a lifetime trying to answer that question. And I think that a number of us answered the bell when somebody in the country had to do so. And so obviously, I think the critics [inaudible] which continued to do so. And I would remind you, that these were largely guys who got through this entire period of history without having to pay any price. Say what you will about my position, I did not hide behind anything. I ended up in... Spent most of 20 months in prison in a maximum security institution. Four months in isolation cell. I paid my price, and I know my veteran friends paid their price. And where was Newt Gingrich's price in all this? How did he escape that, and how can he stand back now and call on us to endorse more innocent killing? Come on. By all the basic rules of the (19)60s, he passed, or failed to pass the debt. He did not stand up for what he supposedly was for. Fine, you like the war? Go fight it. They all had that option, and none of them took it. And so for me, a lot of that is just bullshit.

SM (00:11:55):
David, you raised a great point, because you paid a price. And if you remember, Dr. King would always say, when he was alive, that, "There is a price one has to pay for your beliefs." And he paid it by going to jail and everything. And a lot of people that had his side, he would say that, "Well, you may go to jail for this. You may have to stand up for what you believe in, and then pay a price." Do you feel that the boomer generation understood that there is a price one has to pay for standing up, and maybe this is why so few did in their adulthood? Your thoughts on some of your peers who may have, when they were young, stood up, but have not stood up since? And then the majority that may have never stood up.

DH (00:12:47):
Well, I think what to say about the generation, is that we were all, at the very least, witnesses to people paying prices. It is impossible to go through that historical experience without having encountered that information. There was just too much was being played out in too many places. And I am not in a business to make judgment about people's responses during the (19)60s, but I set out to be in a position so that when I got to 63 years old, I can look back on it and feel good about what I did, and I do. And I did something, and that shaped me for the rest of my life, and I am good with that. I am glad. But I do think the lesson we ought to have learned in all this, is that democracy goes no further than the citizenry will take it. And you believe in something, you have to act on it. [inaudible] is what you do. So either Andy up, or you are not a player, as far as I am concerned. I think that failure, on the part of America, to maintain that kind of intensity about their democracy, is one of the reasons we have got the load of band that we have got.

SM (00:14:28):
Is there one specific event that you think may have had the greatest impact on this boomer generation?

DH (00:14:34):
I think the most seminal and formative, was the assassination of John Kennedy. That turned the world on... For me, that is the day that [inaudible]

SM (00:15:01):
Do you feel that... When did the (19)60s begin, and when did it end?

DH (00:15:06):
Well, it ended, as far as I am concerned, there are two possible end dates. One is 1973 [inaudible] and one is 1975, when [inaudible] was evacuated, and Saigon fell for inmates. In the beginning, I think... I would begin the (19)60s maybe with the emulation of Buddhist Monk in Saigon, somewhere in [inaudible] kind of the Jeremiah, or teller of things to come. Unbelievable event coming from a place nobody imagined much about, would tell us all what was coming.

SM (00:16:16):
What was it about the 1950s? Because a lot of times, when we look at the boomer generation, we concentrate on the (19)60s and the (19)70s, and when they were in high school and college, and early adulthood and their twenties. What about those (19)50s? What role did that did? What was happening in the world at that time, shaped their lives? Because when you look at the... And I am only about a year younger than you are, and when I look at the (19)50s, I know we went through the fear of a nuclear attack all the time, and we heard all about the Cold War and the nuclear bomb destroying us all in one shot. But as children, we grew up watching Howdy Doody, Hop Along Cassidy, all the Westerns. We learned that Native Americans were always the bad guy. Mickey Mouse Club. It seemed like there was a lot of happiness going on in America, and whether it was hiding the bad things, we all knew what was going on in the South, what was going on with African Americans. And the civil rights movement was happening at that time. But what about the (19)50s, and its shaping of the psyche of this group of young people, that as they went into the (19)60s, everything changed?

DH (00:17:34):
Well, I was born two aspects of the (19)50s. And one is, I do not know that I would describe it as a lot of happiness going all around. There was a lot of formulaic living going on. I mean, remember, this is... America in 1956, the country with no options. So if you were a young man growing up in Fresno, California, who I was, who had a choice in John Wayne or John Wayne or John Wayne. It was a remarkably singular culture. And so part of the [inaudible] exploded out of my generation, was just the desire for options, that we had to go out and make ourselves. There was not just one way to live, and that there were lots of ways to live. Some people had lived thousands of different ways. And to continue to participate in a culture which assumed that there was only one way to live, was an enormous mistake. And I think that was the breakout. And there was that inner hook for a long time. People wanted something more. And I think the second thing, was the degree to which our generation believed in the (19)50s. My experience was, most people I was in the movement with, were people who got A's in high school. These were not people who did not buy in. These were people who bought in enormously. We believed that America would never go halfway around the world, to kill people to no good reason. No. I mean, that was an article of faith. I grew up watching people [inaudible] on television. My father was off in the army reserve the entire time I was a child, and my brother was a captain in the second air force, so I bought in. When I was in the fourth grade, I wanted to go to West Point. When I was in the eighth grade, I wanted to be an FBI agent. And I think my experience proved the entire generation. And it was the process of discovering that the bill of goods you had been sold, was a bill of good. We had been told, and believed, and placed our faith in an America that did not exist. I mean, for me, then I crossed the Mason Dixon line on my way to Mississippi, and saw my first black entrance and white entrance, and all that rigmarole certification. It was just, I mean, instantly clear to me that I had been fucking lied to. And I was somebody in my generation who had more contact with black people than almost all my peers, because my father had coached a little league baseball team on the black side of Fresno. Black Fresno, just anywhere West of that. And my father coached a team over there, and I went over for the baseball. And one of three whites. So I at least had a working relationship with black peers, though limited, but far more extensive than by other people [inaudible]-

SM (00:21:16):
Do you feel... Yes. Again, I am only a year younger than you, and I can remember when my dad won a trip to Florida. We went three straight years in (19)57, (19)58, (19)59, in April. Took two weeks off in school. And I remember, I lived up in the Ithaca Cortland area, and we all had nice homes, nice streets and everything. Then as we drove farther and farther South, we drove on these two-lane highways, that the roads that were... I saw all the poverty. I saw a different America, and it was kind of shocking to me. It was shocking. And so I am talking about, we were given a bill of goods. Do you think that many of these boomers had this false sense of security? And then when they got into the (19)60s, the reality of what America truly is, really hit them in the face, and that is why they wanted to make it better?

DH (00:22:11):
I think everybody that went through the (19)60s, had eye-opening experiences. I mean, of all different sorts, but they all amounted to seeing an angle on life, and on America, that we had never imagined growing up.

SM (00:22:33):
What if you were to list some of the strengths and weaknesses of the generation, some characteristics and qualities that you admire and maybe do not admire, what would they be?

DH (00:22:43):
Oh, well I think that we possessed courage and openness.

SM (00:22:55):
And David, could you speak up just a little bit too? Thanks.

DH (00:23:06):
I think on the list, on the plus list, I would put courage and openness, altruism, imagination, sincerity, curiosity. Negative list, I would put... Well, one of the things I would put, would be narcissism as an episodic piece. I think [inaudible] people got enamored.

SM (00:24:21):
Yeah. A lot of the boomers felt that they were the most unique generation in American history. I am sure you have heard this before. Some of my peers who were boomers, still feel they are. Your thoughts on just an attitude that many of the young people back in the (19)60s and (19)70s had, that they were the most unique, because they were going to change the world and make it better. No other generation ever did. And then some attitudes as they have grown older.

DH (00:24:48):
Well, I do not recall at the time, being caught up in making historical judgments about the generation. To me, that was part of overlay.

SM (00:25:07):
How important were the boomers in all the movements? We are going to get in a little bit more about the anti-war movement, and of course the civil rights movement was really happening as boomers were becoming in their late teens and twenties. But how important were the boomers in all of these movements, as it really came to fruition in the late (19)60s, early (19)70s, and have been ongoing today? And I say not... We are talking about the women's movement, the environmental movement and the Native American, Chicano, gay and lesbian movements. Just your thoughts on the issue of movements, and how important this generation was in their creation.

DH (00:25:48):
Well, I think it is one of our signatures.

SM (00:25:56):
Want to go into any detail?

DH (00:25:57):
Well, we were all tested by the notion of organizing. And organizing was one of the things people did in 1960, out of those that organized. But to me, the word boomer, is one of the things that defined the 1960s. For the entire time, I was part of [inaudible] state of political opposition, that at the beginning, had entered the civil rights. And full wide crane of uprising. So yeah, I think that... I suppose, if I try to look to how that inherited, the thirties were, of course, a big movement time as well. And that was our current generation.

SM (00:27:20):
There was obviously a very big generation gap going on at the time between boomers and their parents, the World War II generation. Your thoughts on the impact that the boomer generation has had on their kids, and their grandkids. And we are now dealing with two generations beyond the boomers. We had the generation Xers, that seemed to really have a problem with boomers, in many ways. I worked on university campuses, and we actually had programs where we brought them together. And then the millennials, which are currently today's students, seem to be very close to their parents, and there does not seem to be any generation gap at all. Just your thoughts on the generation gap at that time, and the impact that boomers have had on the lives of their kids and grandkids, if any.

DH (00:28:09):
Well, certainly I pulled things on my parents, as I was going to. And there was a generation gap on some level. It was a transition between worlds. So I felt bad. I did not feel it in much of a personal sense, although my father begged me not to do what I was going to do about that. [inaudible] taking on the government was easy, the hard part was telling your parents.

SM (00:29:02):
How about the influence that, what have boomers done with their kids? I am basically leaning toward the issue of activism, and whether they are...

DH (00:29:12):
Well, I have kids. One, who is currently 40, and one is currently 26 [inaudible] And while both of them have good politics that they care about [inaudible] neither of them became political organizers. Son is 40, my daughter is 26.

SM (00:29:36):
David, could you speak up just a little bit too, so I can catch? Okay.

DH (00:29:54):
Anyway, both my kids got good politics, but they did not become organizers and had no interest in it. And in fact, my daughter kind chose not to, kind of feeling it out for a while.

SM (00:30:14):
What do you think would be the lasting legacy of the boomers? They are now starting to reach senior citizen status, and so they got a lot of years left to have an impact on America. But what do you think history books will say about that era and that time, and that generation?

DH (00:30:33):
Well, I can only say what I think they ought to say, which is, I think they ought to give us credit for significant things. Not all of the same. First, is the end of segregation. For our generation, it was an enormous accomplishment that [inaudible]-

SM (00:31:06):
David, you are being cut off.

DH (00:31:08):
And has meant, I think more, to the shape of modern America than almost anything else. Second, I think that we opened up the university in ways that it was not before. Are now far and more open and original and imaginative way they approach learning, than they ever were at our time. And I think that was largely because of criticism that those... That era brought challenges to it. Third thing, I think that we gave America options. Certainly, if you look around us today, there are 400 television channels. They were all upstairs on my TV. Where we had basically three television options, they were now enormous. And we introduced the notion of spirituality, the notion of insight, of enlightenment, of a different kind of cultural approach that was responsible for making the lives of everyday Americans far more rich, fulfilling than they ever would have been otherwise. Fourth thing we did is, at a moment of the greatest challenge, the ethos of our democracy and one of the greatest abuses of power ever conducted by an American government, namely the Vietnam War, and something that stands out in our history as an obvious war crime, again, that, we stood up and stopped. Three enormous assumptions. And in so doing, changed the relationship between government and citizenry forever. Hey, that is a lot. That is a hell of a lot. And most of that was done before we were 30 years old. So there is something special about that, our particular relationship. But it was a generational thing, and that was not our choice. That was the society, defined by the fact that the only people who were ever asked, who were ever forced to pay a price for that war that demolished out generation, were all under 26. They were not going into anybody else's neighborhood, grabbing people and cocooning them into the military. I think that is a defining experience for the entire time.

SM (00:34:29):
That is interesting, David. I like your thoughts on this. When people of my age and your age talk about the Vietnam War in a college environment, with the current administrators or current students, it is as if... All we are trying to do, is we are nostalgic and we can never forget the times have changed, and let us move on, kind of an attitude. And what is interesting is, a lot of the people that run today's universities, are boomers who may have not been activists in their time, but they know what happened in those times and may fear the rise of activism again, on university campuses. I have experienced this at all the universities I have worked at. Move on. That was part of history, but it was not now. But just your thoughts on that kind of an attitude that seems to be prevalent in America today, that when they criticize-

DH (00:35:27):
The [inaudible] is that... The implicit assumption there, is that somehow caring about the lives lived by your fellow human being, involving yourself, trying to minimize suffering, somehow a commodity that limited a certain period of history. Come on. These are what the culture called eternal truth, when we were practicing them. And I think... I am sure nobody is trying to make the (19)60s happen all over again. Good God, no. I had enough of the (19)60s when I was in the (19)60s. The real point is, how to take those values that motivated us then, that motivated people for hundreds of thousands of years of history, and how to take those and act them out in ways that address the dilemmas facing us as a people, and a civilization. God. What we need to have happen now, is addressing a far different kind of phenomenon. We are about to lose the planet. Civilization is about to flop, and somebody has to be able to step out and start making a sacrifice. It will be required for this to survive in anything we recognize today, as meaningful. All of it is talked over the horizon, but there are serious scientists who are saying things like, by the end of this century, the Earth's population will have been reduced from 9 billion to 1 billion, as a function of climate. Well, I do not know whether that is accurate or not. Maybe he only got it half right, but that is still... I mean, try and visualize half the people in your neighborhood are not alive anymore. That is catastrophic.

SM (00:37:32):

DH (00:37:33):
And we are staring down the barrel of that, and paying no attention to it at all. The enemy here, is denial.

SM (00:37:42):
Yeah. It is interesting, because when you bring that up, and when people talk about Al Gore now, they talk about all the money he is making. I read about it. Oh, he is flying an airplane. He is not living his principles. They find any way they possibly can, to destroy an individual who may be trying to put his name out there to try to save the universe, or for a cause. They always try to find the Achilles tendon and the person who is making a plea, or being different than others in their thinking.

DH (00:38:14):
And I think it is also a function of a larger thing. Whatever political, whatever [inaudible] And that happened left, right, and sideways.

SM (00:38:37):
Right. This next question I want to ask, really deals with the issue of healing within the nation. Jan Scruggs, who was the founder of the Vietnam Memorial, wrote a book on, to heal a nation. That was the title of his book, When the Wall was Built. I am going to read this question to make sure I get it all correct, so that you hear it. Do you feel boomers are still having a problem from healing from the divisions that tore the nation apart in their youth? Division between black and white, divisions between those who support authority and those who do not, division between those who supported the tropes and those who did not. You hear that all the time today. Of course, what roles the wall played in... And I know it has played a lot with veterans, but I am not sure if it was done much for the rest of the nation. And do you feel that the boomer generation will go to their grave, like many in the civil war generation, not truly healing from these divisions? Am I wrong in thinking this? Or has 40 years made the statement, time heals all wounds, the truth?

DH (00:39:46):
No, I think there is all kinds of outstanding accounts in this war that we have managed to sweep under the rug, by labeling it as a mistake. Mistake is a genius way to talk about it, because it can be a mistake, because it violated [inaudible] precedent, or it can be a mistake [inaudible] when we had the chance. It covers everything, and allows us to kind of fluff it off without ever taking moral responsibility for what happened, and about ever going through the exercise of trying talk to each other about what exactly did happen. And so I think there is lots of stuff out there. We let ourselves off, and not digest the experience. So there has never been a format for us to talk about it, except these kind shots fired off from the right wing every now and then, about the syndrome. There is no serious discussion about the war and what communications of it were. And so that means all the divisions are still out there.

SM (00:41:21):
I can remember, during Reagan's presidency, his whole effort was to bring America back to what it used to be. And then when George Bush Sr. became president, he was the one that proclaimed that the Vietnam syndrome is over.

DH (00:41:34):
Well I mean, Reagan was certainly frustrated. [inaudible] So there was one war we saved the country from. I think that, certainly George Bush Sr. [inaudible] I mean, what really happened there, was not about any syndrome being recovered from. Really here, it was the kind of balance of power in the society, in which the forces of the military were being held at bay by the experience of Vietnam War. And I think, certainly that those forces got empowered by George Bush Sr. And he did not make the mistake of trying to extend them in place [inaudible] But his son, I think is absolute triumph of that kind of [inaudible] And I think that filter is going to become increasingly correct, by virtue of the forces. It is how it should be.

SM (00:43:17):
Dave, let me change the side of my tape here. Hold on one second.

DH (00:43:20):

SM (00:43:31):
All right, we are back. It is kind of a follow-up to that question on the healing. I took a group of students, about five, maybe six years ago, to Washington DC, before Senator Musky died. And he had just gotten out of the hospital, and these 14 students were some of the best student leaders on our campus. And we had a whole series of questions that we had picked to ask him. And many of them wanted to ask this question about the healing from the 1968 convention, because they had seen it on black and white tape and everything. And they wanted to know if we had healed as a nation from that. And we were waiting. And he had just gotten out of the hospital and he had been watching Ken Burns series on the Civil War. And when we asked the question, he kind of almost gave us a minute of total silence, and it was obviously a very emotional question for him. And then he finally answered, "We have not healed since the Civil War." And then he went on for about a 15-minute lecture on the Civil War and how the divisions in America at that time, were still part of the American scene. He was very upset for the loss of life, that over 400,000 people had died in that war, and was almost an entire generation of children that would never be born because of brother fighting against brother. Just your thoughts on that, as a person who was young in the early (19)60s, who went South and saw some of these terrible things of injustice in America in the 1960s. But if you go to Gettysburg, you still see a lot of things left at the tombstones. I go there four or five times a year, out of curiosity, just to see what is left. And on the confederate sides, there is still a love for the Confederacy. So just your thoughts on that.

DH (00:45:26):
Well, obviously that Civil War did not get resolved, because I was a 19-year old in order to try and clear that up again. That bondage has not ceased exist. And I resist strongly, the description of the Civil War, simply as brother fighting against brothers. Certainly that happened [inaudible] but not some random act where brothers felt they had to fight each other. This was because one set of people insisted on the right to buy and sell other people, as though they were cattle. That is why there was a Civil War. That is why 400,000 people died. And I consider it tantamount... I have been to South Carolina, where they fly that fucking stars and bars. As far as I am concerned, it is like walking in and seeing a swastika flag.

SM (00:46:34):
Yeah, you are right.

DH (00:46:37):
This is slavery we are talking about here. There is no great romantic Southern life. And I certainly feel that most retrograde parts of America are in the old Confederacy. And I am sure they do admire it, and I think that is much to the detriment of the country and the species of humanity. And I have a lot of friends South, who I certainly would not put in a lump with them, but that is what it was about. And let us not glorify this thing here. They have enough perspective to know now, just how obscene the jury segregation was, how much... We talked about terrorists. I mean, terrorists are people who walk into somebody's house, drag them out in the street and lynch them, because they are black. That is terrorism. And all those states South of the Mason-Dixon line, and a whole bunch of other ones who are not South, they try and nourish that and glamorize that. And they can go down to all the racetracks they want, with their stars and bars, but it does not make it any different than what it was.

SM (00:48:07):
Yeah. That is what is always intrigued me about when I go to Gettysburg, because I see so many cars from the South, and I know they love America and everything. But I drive on both sides, and the majority of the statues and monuments are on the Northern side. But it is the Southern side where things are left, and I am amazed there is still something going on here. And I think we know, even with President Obama in the White House, that we still got a long way to go in this country.

DH (00:48:42):
Well, it is not the jury segregation anymore. We have come a long way. But absolutely, I think that there are a lot of people still in the country, who cannot accept the notion that people who are not white, are just as valuable and just as important as people who are not.

SM (00:49:03):
One of the qualities... Another other big issue, beyond healing, is the issue of trust. There were so many leaders that lied to us when we were young, and of course, the leaders have lied probably throughout our history. But we all remember Eisenhower lying about the U2 incident on national television. We know about the Gulf and Tonkin with LBJ. We know about Watergate and all the lies and the enemies lists and everything that Nixon did. I have even read in recent years, about Kennedy and Vietnam, even though Sorenson's recent book basically states that he had nothing to do with the coup there. He encouraged the coup, but he did not want them to die. But still, there has been so many lies that come through, just about all the presidents. Just your thoughts on the shaping of the boomers as a not very trustful generation, and whether they have passed this quality of lack of trust onto their kids and their grandchildren. And I preface this question with one other item. I can remember being in... I went to Binghamton University, (19)66 to (19)70. And I can remember in my intro class in psychology, the professor saying to us in a lecture on trust, that if you cannot trust, you will not be a success in life. You have got to be able to trust somebody. Trust is a very important quality in a human being. Just your thoughts on whether maybe a quality within the boomer generation, is that they do not trust.

DH (00:50:37):
Well, I would not make that generalization. I think it is not that people lost their capacity to trust, it just became quite clear that, that trust was not an automatic. Issue is not whether we are willing to trust government, and somehow become a character flaw that cannot get around the issue of the process. No. I think what has happened, is what the process of trust is doing to trust. You do not get trust, simply because you have got a majority of people who would show up on November, the first Tuesday in November, in your congressional district. Simply because you do that, does not give some kind of automatic way over what the country is supposed to be. And they cannot simply hand over power. There is some things that you do not trust anybody, other than yourself, but that you have to trust yourself. So I would define it a little differently than that. I do not feel like I am not a successful person, but I think once burned... How many times do you have to go through that process, before you assume that it has a given, and not the other. So how many times do you have to be lied to before you start worrying that people are doing? I mean, I think it is a totally rational position, not the incapacity to trust. Trust each other [inaudible] some of my closest friends from those days.

SM (00:52:39):
As a history political science major, which I was years ago, I can remember that trust being a quality that... Not trusting your government is actually a good quality, because it keeps them on their toes. So that kind of feeling. I got a question here, because you are a great writer, by the way.

DH (00:52:58):
Thank you.

SM (00:52:58):
You are a great writer. I first came upon your writing when I bought the book Goliath, way back when it first came out. And then of one of your recent books, Our War. And of course Dreams, the one on Allard Lowenstein. Yeah, great books. And I wanted to ask a question on these three books. How do the three books, combined in your own unique way, define the boomer generation in their times, when you were young? Everyone has quality. And to me, when I have read them... And I have to reread your, Dreams Die Hard, because I read it years ago. But when I lived... Actually, I lived out in California, and I lived in Berlingame from (19)76 to (19)83. And I remember I bought the book, I think it was (19)82 when it came out. So I brought it there, and I read it there. And of course, I had Goliath already. But those books are really classics. They-they should be required reading, to me, in the classroom, some of them. Just your thoughts on how all three of them kind of define your generation.

DH (00:54:12):
Well, I think that they certainly... first, thanks for all the kind words. I feel that they are all great books, and I think they should be required reading. And each of them was, for me, an attempt at different times, and in different ways, to come terms with what that experience was. And so Goliath was obviously contemporaneous. That was me writing from the middle of it all. Basically, I wrote the book in the last three months before I went to prison. And Dreams Die Hard was a book that I could not-not write, when I got a phone call saying that Dennis Sweeny had shot Allard K. It was like, oh, God.

SM (00:55:20):

DH (00:55:21):
There was a kind of triangle, a life triangle there, between me and [inaudible] I write for a living, and there is no way I could pass that one off. And I felt the kind of obligation to do so, that it should come to this so many years later, needed an explanation. Only explanation was to go back to where it all started. And Our War was a kind of conscious effort, at age 50, to look backwards at the war that had defined my life, and try to talk about it as clearly as I could. And I think all of them framed part of the kind of overlap play, part of that experience of the generation. Absolutely.

SM (00:56:19):
Do you feel... I would like your thoughts on today's university. You made a comment on it, and I want you to respond to something that I feel very strongly about. And that is, that universities today, whether they be state universities or Ivy League schools or community colleges, or technical schools, I do not care where it is, are afraid of activism. They propose and love volunteerism, they love... And most students are in volunteer activities. But I have always felt that activism is the step beyond volunteerism. Activism is 24/7, whereas volunteerism may be a requirement, or doing something once a week or once every two weeks. And I say this, because we had an activist series at our campus, and Tom Hayden came, and we had the Bergen Brothers and we had a really good series. And people above us, said that this is not what our university's about, and encouraged us to stop the activist lecture series. From that point on, I figured there is something going on here. And I started thinking that maybe today's universities are run by boomers, or young people that are younger than boomers, that are afraid of a revival of what could happen again on university campuses, which is protests against the Afghan War, or any kind of an issue. They are afraid of them, of bringing back memories of disruption of classes and the university shutting down, students asking more questions than they should be asking. As Tom said when he was on our campus, understanding the difference between empowerment and power, and the students were shocked, but the administrator’s kind of said, oh, he should not have said that. And so just your thoughts on the universities today, and whether they fear activism.

DH (00:58:17):
Well, I think volunteerism, first, is an admirable activity. I probably would not want to come down against it, but I think that activism, I associate with more, rather than exercising altruism. It was obviously a good thing to do. It was really an attempt to exercise power, which is a very different kind of thing. And anybody who is in power, is going to have problems with the people who think that, that power ought to be shared out. Nobody likes to give it up. And I think certainly that most... I assume, amongst college administrators, there is this boogeyman, which is the 1960s. [inaudible] authority of college administrators, which shall never before. And the modern university has become increasingly incorporated. And so I think everything gets determined on the basis, largely, of how it is going to affect fundraising. And retired political organizers are not doing great a source of funding for-

SM (00:59:35):
Yeah, you are darn right.

DH (00:59:45):
And so I think it is a character of the modern university. And on one hand, it has become a far better and more responsive institution, in that it has opened its intellectual horizon in ways... Were not the case when I was... I mean, nowadays [inaudible] can basically write their own majors, on any subject they can make a case on. God, you would kill for that in my era. That was one of the things I spent hours with administrators, screaming back and forth about it, disagreeing back and forth, when I was student body resident at Stanford. And hey, when I got elected, part of my platform was equal rights for men and women students.

SM (01:00:35):
Go into that a little bit. Tell me a little bit about your student experience at Stanford.

DH (01:00:38):
Well, I was there as far as Stanford pushed to open itself to the middle class, to take a leap from finishing school for California [inaudible] to Harvard and West. And to do that, they made an opening for the middle class [inaudible] For example, at my high school in Fresno, California, public high school in Fresno, they took seven members of my graduating class. That is unheard of. You never heard of people going to Stanford the year before that. All of a sudden, they started opening up. I was part of it, had the scholarship on there. And I felt that the university at the time, was a real high bound kind of institution. My election as student body president of Stanford, was remarkable on many fronts. First of all, I did not want to run for president, and someone approached me to run for president, saying I had all these things about education [inaudible] why do not I run for student body president? [inaudible] they gave me a guarantee that I would not get more than 500 votes. And we went out and talked about student regulations, about the University of Scholars. And there were [inaudible] administrators and faculty [inaudible] And cooperation for Vietnam, to get the legalization of marijuana in there. But we had a whole list of things, and right at the top, was the rights for students. Woman stayed out all night, and men stayed out all night. [inaudible] And so I ran for student body president, I talked about some stuff, and if I had won the election in Berkeley, nobody would have noticed. But a place like Stanford, from conservative, for someone... They called me radical, was what I was called, in work shirt and Levis, vest mock, barrel in my ear. If I could feel like Stanford National News. And I spent the next year having discussions with faculty administrators who were bizarre, to say the least. I can remember in the discussion with a group of faculty administrators, [inaudible] five faculty, five students all met. And we started arguing about women having the same rights as men. Essentially, the English department... And basically said, "Hey, if we do this, do not start having sex." And I said, I am sorry to tell you this, but that horse is already out of the barn. It happened. But can you imagine that discussion today?

SM (01:05:10):
Geez. Oh my gosh.

DH (01:05:13):
We have learned something. But by and large, the issue of empowerment and who are the legitimate members of the community, and how should their interest represented the decision making, has basically progressed not one width. Lots more options available, but students still do not make great choices.

SM (01:05:45):
David, what were the books that students were reading when you were a college student, and maybe in the early part of the movement too? Were there books written by authors that really influenced you and some of your peers?

DH (01:06:01):
Yeah, it is funny. I mentioned Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Well, for entertainment, we all read Fonica.

SM (01:06:14):

DH (01:06:14):
And Richard Brodigan, he had a lot of [inaudible] civilization. Yeah [inaudible]-

SM (01:06:14):

DH (01:06:14):
A big one for me, and a lot of people I knew, was also Gandhi, an autobiography.

SM (01:07:20):
Do you remember the books, the Greening of America, by Charles Reich, and The Making of a Counterculture, by Theodore Roszak?

DH (01:07:26):
I remember Theodore Roszak's book, and that was [inaudible] around the time. Greening of America was never a book that...

SM (01:07:42):

DH (01:07:42):
If I recall, right at the end of the 1960s.

SM (01:07:49):

DH (01:07:50):
Oh, Paul Goodman [inaudible]

SM (01:07:53):
Oh yeah, that is a big one. Yep. Who were the favorite musicians, and how would you define how music defined the boomer generation, or vice versa? Because when we are talking about the music of this period, we are not only talking about rock and folk, we are talking about the Motown sound. They are all kind of combined here. But when you think of the (19)60s and you think of the boomer generation, who are the musicians that you most admired, and you think had the greatest impact on the generation?

DH (01:08:29):
Well, there is one, hands down. [inaudible] Dylan was a poet at the time. Not like that.

SM (01:08:37):
Who was that now?

DH (01:08:41):
Bob Dylan.

SM (01:08:41):
Oh, yeah.

DH (01:08:42):
And he was poet at the time. And so what he came close to... Influence that Dylan had on everything. All of us have grown up in [inaudible] The first concert I ever went to see was when Ray Charles came to Fresno. And part of the identification people had with black people, was the music and all the big [inaudible]

SM (01:09:41):
Yeah. I tell you. Was there a rock group that was your favorite?

DH (01:09:45):
Well, there was... I love the Beatles. How could I not? They were phenomenal. And I was on more intimate terms with the San Francisco band. And so when I was a freshman at Stanford, [inaudible] right off campus, and [inaudible] and one of his regular acts was this Jerry Garcia.

SM (01:10:28):
Oh, yeah.

DH (01:10:29):
Then became Warlock [inaudible] and then became the Grateful Death.

SM (01:10:43):

DH (01:10:43):
And when I ran for student body president, we had a rock concert, a local stamp stand, and to get the amplifiers speakers that we needed to do the concert [inaudible]

SM (01:11:00):
Oh my gosh. Great slicks. Yep.

DH (01:11:05):
That was all done. That was 1966, for that stupid, going to San Francisco with a flower in your hair song.

SM (01:11:16):
That is Lee Hazelwood.

DH (01:11:19):
Haight-Ashbury got discovered.

SM (01:11:20):

DH (01:11:21):
And that little episode got [inaudible] But before that [inaudible] when I got into it, in my first kind of... At the same time I was listening Bo Diddley, I was also listening to Joan Baez.

SM (01:11:50):
Yeah, of course, you were married to her. Yep.

DH (01:11:52):

SM (01:11:54):
Yeah, I got a lot of her albums.

DH (01:11:58):
Yeah. So all the music passed through me, but Bob Dylan was the man. I mean, he is the only guy who I was waiting.

SM (01:12:12):
What was really interesting, is that three weeks ago, my brother went to physical therapy over in Bucks County, and I just accompanied him. And I am sitting out in the hallway, and there is this old couple, older couple, they were in their (19)80s, that came in. And the gentleman walked right in, and I got to talking to the lady, and I was wearing a Kent State shirt. And she started talking about Kent State in 1970. And then she said, "Oh, by the way, my son was married to Grace Slick." I did a triple flip. Her son was married to Grace Slick for I think 11 years. And he was the sound person for that particular group. And now, I guess he is the sound person for a hotel in Atlantic City and the Wacovia Center here in Philadelphia. But he was the first husband of Grace Slick. What a small world. She said, "Oh, Grace was so nice. We had her over to dinner." So it is a very small world at times. You have obviously been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, when you saw it for the first time, what feelings were going through your mind?

DH (01:13:27):
Say that again.

SM (01:13:28):
The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, what impact really, has that had on healing the nation, in your thoughts? And secondly, what was the impact when you first saw it for the first time, that it had on you?

DH (01:13:43):
Well, I do not think it healed anything, but the first step towards healing is recognition of what the experience was. And I think it is a remarkable memorial for that. Recognizing had a kind of fundamental [inaudible] I consider it beautiful, and extraordinarily impressive.

SM (01:14:19):
What does Kent State and Jackson State mean to you?

DH (01:14:24):
Well, probably less than they do to most people, because I was in the isolation cell block when Kent State happens. So word of it... And things like the Cambodia demonstrations and [inaudible] they were remote.

SM (01:14:54):
How about Watergate? And then when I say these terms, the influence you think they had on the boomer generation, you personally, but mostly the boomer generation.

DH (01:15:07):
Well, Watergate was enormous. And the experience of it, whether it impacted or not, is another question. But the experience of it, was that we had finally won one. [inaudible] And I was up, dealing with... Of course, tried for war crimes. And Henry Kissinger was one of the worst people ever.

SM (01:15:38):
How about Woodstock?

DH (01:15:42):
Another one of those really remote things to which I have become associated, basically because when my wife, in her song on Woodstock, dedicated to me off in prison. And that made... That cut made the movie. So to me, Woodstock was so far off, not a particular interest.

SM (01:16:07):
How about the year 1968?

DH (01:16:09):
The year (19)68? Well, I was here when things started to come apart. And that is when they really... Of course, dominated by the [inaudible] Particularly, Martin Luther King.

SM (01:16:31):
When you think of these two terms, what do you think of the hippies and the yippies?

DH (01:16:39):
Well, hippies, I think of Haight-Ashbury, and the first time I walked down Haight-Ashbury in late [inaudible] So that is what I think of hippies. Yippies, I think [inaudible]

SM (01:17:00):
Right. Students for Democratic society and the weatherman.

DH (01:17:08):
Well, I always have big feelings about SDS, on the one hand. And SDS is kind of an umbrella organization that was different at every campus [inaudible] But a lot of the SDS national organizers who operated in California at the time, had a real problem. [inaudible] So I have an unmixed feeling about the weathermen.

SM (01:17:52):
Could you speak up again, David? Because I cannot hear you very good.

DH (01:17:54):
The weatherman, I do not have mixed feelings about the weatherman. My feelings about them are very clear. I think the guys' full of shit. That they distorted the movement, and they represent... The worst part of that is, I resent them being somehow a symbol of any sort of the movement. It had nothing to do with it.

SM (01:18:26):
Yeah. Yeah, I know President Obama is getting criticized because of Bill Ayers and the links to him. The Vietnam veterans against the war?

DH (01:18:37):
Well, I organized with the PVA After I get out of prison, to put together several projects. One of our partners. I had a lot of close friends.

SM (01:18:55):
The Richard Nixon's enemies list.

DH (01:19:02):

SM (01:19:05):
I have had some actual... A couple interviewees who said, "I am honored to have been on it."

DH (01:19:09):

SM (01:19:15):
The last part of the interview is just responding to some of the personalities of the period.

DH (01:19:21):

SM (01:19:21):
And some of the terms. Your thoughts on Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

DH (01:19:28):
Abbie Hoffman was one of the funniest guys I ever met, and I thought he was the real deal. Jerry Rubin, con-artist, phony.

SM (01:19:39):
Timothy Leary.

DH (01:19:41):
Another con-artist [inaudible]

SM (01:19:57):
How about Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern?

DH (01:20:04):
Well, I think they are both terribly flawed, but in the right place.

SM (01:20:12):
John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.

DH (01:20:17):
Well, John Kennedy was my childhood, so associated with him. And Bobby Kennedy, I associated with 1968.

SM (01:20:30):
How about Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew?

DH (01:20:38):
Despicable pairing.

SM (01:20:42):
How about the Black Panthers? Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Kay Leever, Angela Davis, that group.

DH (01:20:51):
Well, I have the advantage, having covered them as a journalist, when I started working [inaudible 01:21:03] and I think that they were also phonys. And not that they could back up some of what they did [inaudible] Yeah, so I am not a fan of the black panthers.

SM (01:21:30):
How about Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey?

DH (01:21:35):
Well, I think of Lyndon Johnson as a big mistake, with a capital M. Hubert Humphrey [inaudible]

SM (01:21:48):
Robert McNamara.

DH (01:21:50):
Tragic guy, on the one hand. [inaudible] But having said that, my other feeling [inaudible]

SM (01:22:08):
I did not quite get that last sentence.

DH (01:22:23):
A lot of kids went off to dive, because he did not speak up at the time.

SM (01:22:27):
Yep. George Wallace and Ronald Reagan.

DH (01:22:34):
Well, George Wallace [inaudible] Ronald Reagan, second coming of [inaudible]

SM (01:22:51):
How about Dr. Benjamin Spock and Daniel Ellsberg?

DH (01:22:56):
Well, I knew both of the guys, and I think both of them were right on, and both of them were played incredibly [inaudible] in turning the country around. Take my hat off to them.

SM (01:23:14):
Daniel and Phillip Berrigan.

DH (01:23:15):

SM (01:23:16):
What about Barry Goldwater?

DH (01:23:27):
Looking back on him from this point, he seemed like such a benign conservative, that I wish [inaudible]

SM (01:23:35):
What about Dwight Eisenhower?

DH (01:23:35):
Everybody's daddy.

SM (01:23:42):
And then the other two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

DH (01:23:48):
Well, the last one was a loser from the get-go, and first one became more of a loser [inaudible] become a big winner as an expert.

SM (01:24:05):
How about the women leaders? Gloria Steinem, Bella Abk, Betty Friedan, leaders of the Women's Movement.

DH (01:24:18):
[inaudible] Yeah, of course.

SM (01:24:22):
Yeah. Couple other terms from that period, because they were important to youth. Tet.

DH (01:24:30):
Well, great moment. Revelation.

SM (01:24:46):
How about people like Walter Cronkite and the news media at the time? How important were they to the boomers?

DH (01:24:55):
Well, Walter Cronkite, of course, had all the information. [inaudible] As for the rest of them, they learned as they went along. By the time it came, printing [inaudible]

SM (01:25:30):
How important were the college students in ending the Vietnam War, and what do you think was the number one reason? I know the helicopters went off in 1975, and for all intents and purposes, in 1973, we were out of there. But what was the ultimate reason why the Vietnam War ended?

DH (01:25:56):
Because it became impossible to continue. That is why it did not. The combination of public sentiment and military collapse. Remember, [inaudible] one out of four were killed. [inaudible]

SM (01:26:26):

DH (01:26:26):

SM (01:26:50):
If you were before an audience of college students today, and I am sure you probably still go out and speak.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Stephen McKiernan


David Harris

Biographical Text

David Victor Harris is a journalist, author, and activist. He was a leading opponent of the draft during the Vietnam War, which began during his college days at Stanford University. As a young college student, he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement where he joined students from all over the country in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) 1964 voter registration campaign in Mississippi. In 1966, he became president of the Stanford University student body, and as a leading critic of the draft, he formed a group called the Resistance. Harris was the first person arrested for refusing to register for the draft in 1968. In his later years, Harris has received journalistic praise for his non-fiction books on his experiences in the sixties and seventies along with other books connected to personalities or issues in those times.

Harris died from lung cancer at his home in Mill Valley on February 6, 2023, at the age of 76.





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Binghamton University Libraries

Digital Format


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Interview Format


Subject LCSH

Journalists; Authors; Political activists--United States; Harris, David, 1946--Interviews

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Role models; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Assassination of John F. Kennedy; Cold War; Nuclear warfare; Saigon; Army reserve; Mason-Dixon line; Civil War; Slavery; Women's Rights Movement.


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About this Collection

Collection Description

Stephen McKiernan's collection of interviews includes more than two hundred interviews with prominent figures of the 1960s, which were collected between the mid-1990s and 2010s. The collection provides narratives of people who were actively involved in or witnessed events in the 1960s, an era which spurred profound cultural and… More

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“Interview with David Victor Harris,” Digital Collections, accessed May 28, 2024,