David Harris dies; ex-Stanford student led Vietnam draft resistance movement

By Clay Risen | New York Times

David Harris, an activist and journalist who in the late 1960s became a national figure for encouraging young men to resist being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War — and who went to jail after refusing the draft himself — died Monday at his home in Mill Valley. He was 76.

His wife, Cheri Forrester, said the cause was lung cancer.

Harris was an unlikely avatar of the anti-war movement. The son of a real estate lawyer and a religiously conservative mother in California’s Central Valley, he entered Stanford University in 1963 after being elected “boy of the year” by his high school, where he debated and lettered in football.

But a freshman year awakening, including a few weeks working in Mississippi at the end of Freedom Summer in 1964, persuaded him that his generation had a moral obligation to fight injustice, including what he saw as the unfolding disaster in Vietnam. Over the next several years, he used his establishment standing to rise to national prominence, calling on his fellow students and other young people to confront the draft head-on.

Although he was sometimes labeled a draft dodger, he was very much the opposite. He advocated resistance, not avoidance, urging his fellow students to return their draft cards to the government in protest.

Doing so was a felony, and when Harris himself was drafted, in 1968, he refused to report for induction. He was almost immediately indicted by federal authorities.

“I dodged nothing,” he wrote in a guest essay for The New York Times in 2017. “I courted arrest, speaking truth to power, and power responded with an order for me to report for military service.”

A few months after his indictment, he married singer Joan Baez, whom he met through the anti-war movement. The two had been touring the country for 16 months, with her singing and playing guitar as a warm-up to his anti-war stemwinders.

“There wasn’t any question to me that this guy had enormous talent for speaking,” Baez said in a phone interview. “We’d go around, do this dog and pony show, and I would open up for him, singing, and people would all get together to hear David Harris talking about how we’re going to change the world.”

Harris was convicted in 1969 and sentenced to three years in federal prison, of which he served 15 months. Soon after his sentencing, Baez wrote “A Song for David,” in which she lamented, “The stars in your sky / Are the stars in mine / And both prisoners / Of this life are we.”

He was released in 1970, but life out of prison was a tough adjustment for him, both personally and professionally. The war was beginning to wind down, as was the anti-war movement. He and Baez divorced a few months later, though they remained close friends the rest of his life.

On a whim, he wrote a letter to Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, offering to sell him a series of anti-war essays. Wenner demurred, but he liked Harris’ writing enough to let him try something else: a profile of Ron Kovic, a Marine whose battlefield injuries in Vietnam had left him unable to use his legs and who went on to be a prominent anti-war activist.

The article, “Ask a Marine,” ran in 1973. Three years later, Kovic published his autobiography, “Born on the Fourth of July,” and in 1989, Oliver Stone made a critically acclaimed film version of the book, starring Tom Cruise as Kovic.

The article also launched Harris’ second career, as a magazine journalist and author. He spent the next five years writing for Rolling Stone, then in 1978 became a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. A decade later, he left the magazine to write books full time.

His journalism often mined the legacy of the Vietnam War and the social tumult of the 1960s. It included a searching piece about one of his Stanford mentors, liberal activist and politician Allard K. Lowenstein, who in 1980 was murdered by Dennis Sweeney, another former Stanford student and a friend of Harris.

“Back in the early 1960s, dreams of making the world better were still envisioned as simple things,” he wrote. “No one yet had seen visions warp under the weight of the reactions they would produce.”

David Victor Harris was born Feb. 28, 1946, in Fresno, California, the son of Clifton Harris Jr., a rock-ribbed Republican lawyer, and Elaine (Jensen) Harris, a homemaker.

He grew up amid the affluence generated by California’s postwar boom. A top student at Fresno High School, he dreamed of going to West Point and becoming an FBI agent but ended up at Stanford.

He lived in the same dorm as Mitt Romney, the future Republican presidential candidate, though their social and political paths rarely crossed.

Harris was soon drawn to a group of students involved in the civil rights movement, and he begged his father to let him join them on a trip to Mississippi in the summer of 1964. His father insisted that he instead stay home and work.

“I came back for the start of my sophomore year afraid that I had missed the great adventure of my lifetime,” he said in a 2022 interview for this obituary.

But when he heard that some of the students were planning to go back to Mississippi for another round of organizing, he signed up immediately. Within three days, he was on the ground in Lambert, a Delta town about 75 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee.

The experience electrified him. He returned to school later that autumn and immersed himself in Stanford’s nascent movement against the Vietnam War. He spent long nights in his room with his dorm mates, listening to music (including Joan Baez records, long before he had met her) and debating the morality of America’s military involvement in Southeast Asia.

He attended his first protest in March 1965. The experience, he wrote in his book “Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us” (1996), “felt like an emergence, from dark into light, from forest into clearing.”

He centered his activism on draft resistance, because, he said, it was a way for him to make a personal, concrete difference — and, possibly, a sacrifice. In 1966, he mailed his draft card back to the U.S. Selective Service, writing that he would refuse to carry it and would decline to serve if he were drafted.

“I sealed the envelope, walked down the block to the mailbox and put the envelope in,” he wrote. “I remember that summer afternoon, the dirt of the road nearby, and I remember feeling like I could have flapped my arms and flown back to my house if I had wanted. I felt like I was my own man for the first time in my life.”

A gifted orator, Harris was soon in demand as a speaker at anti-war rallies across California. Along the way, he encountered Baez, who had founded an organization called the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, in Carmel. One day, Harris drove down there looking for grant money.

“He was just this lovely cowboy,” Baez said. “And that was my introduction to what the resistance was all about. I mean, I knew a little, but he was certainly the best representative to have.”

At the start of his senior year, Harris was elected student body president on a platform focused on righting the unequal status of women at Stanford. He made national news when, a few months into the school year, a group of pro-war Stanford students grabbed him and shaved him bald as punishment for his activism.

He was unmoved, displaying a stoicism that he carried into the courtroom during his trial for refusing the draft.

“There comes a time when you have to prove who you are,” he told Alta magazine in 2019. “I had to stand up in court and tell the judge that I knew there were six technicalities in my record with the Selective Service system that were grounds for throwing the whole case out. But that I didn’t want to exercise them, because I wanted this to be decided on the issue.”

In prison, he led hunger strikes to improve conditions for inmates, first at a minimum-security camp in Arizona and then at a more rigidly controlled prison in Texas, where he had been sent as punishment.

Harris married Lacey Fosburgh, a writer and former reporter for The New York Times, in 1977. She died in 1993. He met Forrester in 1993, and they married in 2011.

Along with his wife, he is survived by his son with Baez, Gabriel Harris; his daughter with Fosburgh, Sophie Harris; a stepdaughter, Eva Orbach; and his brother, Clifton Harris.

After leaving The New York Times Magazine, Harris wrote several investigative books about sports, politics and the environment, including, most recently, “My Country ’Tis of Thee: Reporting, Sallies and Other Confessions” (2020), a collection of his newspaper and magazine articles.

“That golden age of journalism I was blessed to participate in is over now,” he wrote at the beginning of that book, “but my faith in that lost era’s tenets remains. Hopefully this look back over those decades will help in its own small way to seed another golden age in which Truth outranks all comers.”

Distributed by NYT Licensing.

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