Anti-Vietnam War activist author speaks at library

Johanna Pugh

The walls of the University Library Gallery are lined with paintings depicting veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some figures are hunched over as shadows surround them, while others are drawn recalling memories of their time on the battlefield.

At the front of this room stood anti-war activist Bruce Dancis.

Dancis was invited to speak on Nov. 20 as part of the “Friends of the Library” author lecture series. The 66-year-old author and retired arts and entertainment editor from The Sacramento Bee spoke of his experiences resisting draft for the Vietnam War and his subsequent 19 months in federal prison.

This is the subject of his book, “Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War”, which was published in March.

Dancis said he became aware of and was influenced by issues like the Civil Rights Movement. He recalled watching African-American high school students on his television facing adversity just to be afforded the same rights he had as a white middle-class male. He then participated in the March on Washington.

“I remember it was 1963 and I was 15 and I was about the same age as them and I thought, ‘Here I am a middle-class kid living in Bronx, New York. How can I stand up?'” Dancis said. “When you see something wrong, you must stand up for it. And sometimes that includes taking risks.”

These risks, for Dancis, shaped most of his life.

When he was 18 years old, he stood in front of a crowd and tore his draft card into four pieces and mailed it back to his draft board. He was the first Cornell University student to do this.

Although he qualified for student deferment, he saw this as an unfair privilege. Instead of accepting it, he resisted the draft out of protest — which he said differs from ‘dodging’ the draft — and was subsequently put on the FBI’s radar.

“He embodied the unity of thought and action naturally found in activists,” said History Professor Joseph Palermo, who also attended Cornell and introduced Dancis. “He put his freedom on the line with his anti-draft actions, which was no small sacrifice.”

While Dancis disagrees with war itself, he emphasized this means no disrespect to the people who enlist.

“I always had tremendous respect for men who enlisted. It takes tremendous courage,” Dancis said.

The crowd, consisting mostly of members of Sac State’s Renaissance Society [RS], found Dancis relatable. There were veterans and others who lived through the events Dancis discussed.

When Dancis expressed sadness in his belief that the anti-war movement did not have as big of an impact in ending the war promptly as he had hoped, an audience member was quick to correct him.

“I think you’re being hard on yourself,” said Bob Seyfried, 74, a former naval officer and active seminar leader for RS. “So many of us were naive when you were politically aware from a young age. You really started something.”

Seyfried said he was proud to enlist as a naval officer in the early 1960s until he became politically conscious and disagreed with how the American government handled the Vietnam War and how it communicated with its citizens. He resigned after 1966.

“Even if your efforts didn’t end the war when you wanted it to, it should have,” Seyfried said.

Seyfried said while this event was very positive and drew in a specific audience, he believed there to be a disconnect in the way young students relate to anti-war and civil rights issues today.

“I wish there were more students here,” Dancis said. “I love talking to students and hearing what’s on their minds.”

Dancis said “Resister” delves into what it was like being a student in the anti-war movement of the ’60s and his time in prison for resisting one of the longest and most controversial wars the U.S. has been involved in.

“His story is an important one,” said Palermo, who discussed how this book is not solely an autobiography, but well-researched as well. “I would recommend this book to any college student searching to expand their political self-expression. It is my honor to introduce him.”