Edwin Hastings, an attorney from Rhode Island, sent this letter to the United States attorney in 1968, after hearing about the convictions of Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., Michael Ferber, and Mitchell Goodman for conspiring to counsel evasion of the draft. The letter was recently discovered and scanned by teachers participating in a summer workshop at the National Archives in Boston.
While we sometimes think of the social movements of the 1960s as being the province of young people, this letter, written by a then-51-year-old attorney, in support of actions taken by other older men, shows that this wasn’t necessarily so.
Spock, author of the postwar bestseller The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, had joined activist Yale chaplain Coffin, Harvard graduate student Ferber, and author Goodman in counseling students in draft evasion. They were indicted in Boston because they had participated in an October 1967 rally in that city, where they had collected students’ draft cards, planning to hand them in en masse to the Justice Department.
Edwin Hastings’ 2008 obituary in the Amherst College alumni magazine notes that he was a lifelong activist and habitual letter writer whose words always “[throbbed] with political angst.” This letter follows that pattern. Speaking to the U.S. attorney as a fellow lawyer and using colorful, sometimes gory language, he condemns the hypocrisy of public opinion:
We express the compassion of a nation when a bullet enters the brain of a Kennedy or a King. We applaud when bullets and more fearful weapons tear out the entrails, guts and brains of countless thousands of Vietnamese …
Hastings weaves in references to the Bible, Alice in Wonderland, and recent Mob killings in Boston. In a refrain made the more dramatic by its repetition, he asks, three times, to be sentenced along with the offenders.
The convictions of the four activists were eventually overturned on appeal.
A transcript follows the letter images.
United States Attorney
Attn: Mr John Wall
Dear Mr. Wall,
I read today with sorrow the conviction of Coffin, Ferber, Goodman + Spock. I confess commission of the same crimes and request that I too be sentenced.
I am a member of the bars of New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island; a member of the Board of Bar Examiners of Rhode Island. I am ashamed that our profession could so use the law as you and your superiors in the Dept. of Justice have done.
True, an attempt has been made to counsel young men of killing age to avoid service under the Selective Service Act. The purpose of that act—I believe—is the defense of the United States. That act has been twisted these past three years to be used as the instrument to accomplish the violent death of a million Vietnamese (more or less — using Mr. Westmoreland’s body counts)
We express the compassion of a nation when a bullet enters the brain of a Kennedy or a King. We applaud when bullets and more fearful weapons tear out the entrails, guts and brains of countless thousands of Vietnamese defending their country against the armies of the United States as we kill in the name of Thein and Ky.
When a law has an honorable purpose it should be obeyed. When the law is diverted to the support of a massively dishonorable collective killing of an Asian people in their homeland it should not.
A grim Lewis Carroll effect indeed when your office can prosecute with equal enthusiasm a Patriarca for campaigning to kill Marfeo and, as Westmoreland would say, “forty or fifty other bodies,” and a Ferber, Goodman, et al., for conspiring to impede a law under cover of which hundreds and thousands are killed weekly by order of our government.
As Joshua said some 3000 years ago to his people before they entered Canaan, “Choose this day which God ye will serve —“
You, Mr. Wall have chosen your God — Mars — I choose the God of Ferber, Goodman, Coffin + Spock, and request the honor of being sentenced. Meshack, Abednego, Daniel, et al, conspired against Xerxes some years back. I too have conspired and should be sentenced.
Edwin H. Hastings