To Whom Should I Write A Letter?
Thoughts on Raising the Stakes
John William Ward became president of Amherst College on July 1, 1971. He had been a professor of American History there for the preceding seven years. Twice, he had taken part in peace marches in Washington. He had participated every Sunday for a pear in a peace vigil sponsored by a local Quaker group in Amherst. In May 1972 after President Nixon announced the mining of North Vietnam harbors, Ward and his wife were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace for nonviolently obstructing access to Westover Air Force Base.
President Ward’s lawbreaking was of grave concern to the Amherst Board of Trustees. After much discussion, they voted to respect his right to protest. Still, there was much concern among students. The following letter was written for the students and was printed in the New York Times on May 13, 1972.
…Night before last while I was in the Red Room, a student called my home and left word with my wife that he and other students hoped I would write a letter. Write a letter! To whom? One feels like a child throwing paper planes against a blank wall. I might write such a letter and you might cheer and, if the world goes on, you might think me a pleasant and sympathetic fellow. But the mines are laid, and for the next few days we wait. God knows, I hope Nixon is right. God knows, I hope it works. Not for his sake, not even for the sake of the United States. For the sake of all those I have never seen. For mankind’s sake.
We have lived with this bloody war for eighteen years. I was only ten years out of another war and most of you in this room were babies. Who has the strength to raise all of the arguments again? I said on this campus three years ago that I think the “Vietnam War is a cruel and foolish mistake, that we got into it on a false ideological premise, that we are so hung up in our own cant we cannot admit that we are wrong, that we are wasting lives because of foolish pride.” I still think that. To whom shall I say it in a letter? Voices louder than mine have been saying it for a long time. What are we protesting?
…[S]o now we have the mining of harbors, the bombing of railheads, the interdiction of all supplies to North Vietnam. Mr. Nixon has ruled out withdrawl; the only way to negotiation again is through the application of greater and greater force…
What I protest is not what has been done. What is done is done. No word of mine, no word of yours will change it. What I protest is what may come next. What I protest is there is no way to protest. I speak out of frustration and deep despair. John Dos Passos once wrote, “We only have words against Power…” I do not think words will now change the minds of men in power who make these decisions. I do not. Since I do not, I do not care to write letters to the world. Instead, I will, for myself, join in the act of passive civil disobedience…