Shortly before Memorial Day, when those sixteen million Americans who obeyed Presidential orders in 1941 to kill or be killed in World War II had a national monument dedicated to them, David Dellinger died. He didn't obey. He saw no goodness in the "good war." As a pacifist, Dellinger's type of moral bravery in the early 1940s was not hailed on Memorial Day. For his dissent, he spent nearly four years in federal prison.
At the time of his conviction, Dellinger was twenty-five years old and studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. As a divinity student, he was exempt from the draft. "All I had to do was register [as a conscientious objector]," he wrote in his 1993 biography From Yale to Jail. "But I saw the draft both as a coercive militaristic intrusion into the lives of the country's young males and as a calculated preparation for U.S. entry into a war that I didn't believe in."
Dellinger adhered to this choice of conscience over conformity his whole life. Although he said his dissent against World War II was "the most controversial stand I have ever taken," it was his five-month trial as part of the Chicago 7 in 1968-'69 that earned him the most national attention. There he was, a 1936 Yale graduate charged with inciting a street riot during the Democratic Convention in August 1968. Not only did Dellinger have to deal with a screwy and hostile judge, but his co-defendants were anything but a dream team. On tactics, he frequently tangled with the headstrong Tom Hayden, who dismissively said of Dellinger: "Dave's a pacifist, and pacifists don't have much sense of reality. So he can do what he wants, but the rest of us have to act more responsibly."
Dellinger's Chicago 7 celebrity did go to his head at times, but the irresponsible Dellinger kept on. I saw his grit in 1987 in a District of Columbia courtroom. Dellinger, with seventeen others in a five-week trial, would be given suspended sentences for unlawfully demonstrating in the U.S. Capitol. In the rotunda where Ronald Reagan recently lay in state, the group was protesting Reagan's support of the killing the Contras were doing in Nicaragua.
During the trial recess, Dellinger, smiling, told me that he was assuredly a recidivist. How many jailings? "Oh, about fifty times, I've lost count." He thought the peace movement of the 1980s was vibrant: "More people are arrested every year for nonviolent resistance to the country's military insanities and domestic cruelties than during any year in the '60s."
Dellinger's books include Revolutionary Nonviolence, More Power than We Know, and Vietnam Revisited, but he didn't dedicate all of his life to the movement. Unlike some other, more famous peace activists in the twentieth century, who were often cruel to their spouses, Dellinger maintained a long and caring marriage.
When Dellinger's Yale class of 1936 held its fiftieth reunion, the reunion book carried the thoughts of the class's leading rebel. "Lest my way of life sounds puritanical or austere," he wrote, "I always emphasize that in the long run one can't satisfactorily say no to war, violence, and injustice unless one is simultaneously saying yes to life, love, and laughter."
-- Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C.