Francesco Da Vinci is a lifetime advocate of peace, nonviolence, and social justice. From his first action as a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War draft, he’s consistently–and with relentless optimism–responded to the call of conscience. He introduces us to his biography, I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the 1960s (www.irefusetokill.com) and inspires others to take action.

“Well, it’s scary. I had never participated in a march, I’d never taken any really public stand. It was all philosophical. So I was a bystander all the way. And then slowly, I became politicized. I felt that I had to take a stand.

“I think we have to face the reality of what Eisenhower warned us against about the military industrial complex. There are people benefiting from these wars at the expense of we, the people. And I think it’s time to stop the blank checks for military systems that have constant cost overruns.”

Vietnam Full Disclosure

This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” We mark about 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Production assistance by Stephanie Atkinson. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.

“I want your listeners to…not to be overwhelmed by the system. It’s like we can all do something in our microcosm….we showed that what people can do, we showed the power of nonviolence, the power of the individual to stand up to these systems and realize there’s more people out there that want to change than we realize, it’s a ripple effect.”

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Transcript

Francesco Da Vinci:
And I feel basically, and I felt then, and I feel now, the draft is basically a form of involuntary servitude and that goes against everything America stands for. Facing that for eight years, the message you get is your life is not your own.

Matthew Breems:
Welcome to the Courage to Resist Podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire. I’m your host, Matthew Breems. This episode brought to you in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort [of Veterans For Peace]. Photojournalist and activist, Francesco Da Vinci is the guest on this episode of the Courage to Resist Podcast. In his recently released book, I Refuse to Kill, Francesco chronicles his time as a conscientious objector and peace activist during the Vietnam conflict.

His convictions against war and violence culminated in him facing prison time for refusing to be drafted. Since that era, he has continued to be an activist, speaker, author, photographer, and journalist. Well, Francesco, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast today and to share your story of activism. We are very excited to hear it and we’ve been waiting a long time to get you on here. So thank you for taking the time.

Francesco Da Vinci:
Thank you, Matt.

Matthew Breems:
All of our guests, we like to get to know you more personally and put a human face on your story. So why don’t you give us some background information on yourself? Just give us a little bit of a story leading up to the time that the Vietnam War started for you.

Francesco Da Vinci:
All right. Well, I was raised in a wealthy neighborhood that was completely segregated, even though my parents were very liberal and they were champions of civil rights and they were anti-war. But it was a slow awakening for me. I mean, I just didn’t have a drive to relate to causes. I was sheltered and I don’t think I saw one black student my four years of high school. I mean, that’s how sheltered it was. So it was a gradual awakening. I have a love of philosophy from my father.

Matthew Breems:
And for reference sake, what year were you talking about here?

Francesco Da Vinci:
Well, I graduated high school in 1963 in Virginia. You’re required to register by your 18th birthday and I was in denial and so I registered late. That put me in trouble. And at that time, they threatened you with a $10,000 fine or five years in prison.

Matthew Breems:
Okay. So you’re facing obviously some problems if you refuse the draft, walk us through what happened to you at that time.

Francesco Da Vinci:
Sure. Well, it’s scary. I had never participated in a march, I’d never taken any really public stand. It was all philosophical. So I was a bystander all the way. And then slowly, I became politicized. I felt that I had to take a stand. I started by speaking out in classes in college. But just to give you an example, the atmosphere at that time was so polarized even more than now in a class of over a hundred students, I would be the only student calling for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. And if you took that kind of a stand, you were looked at with hate as communist, coward, whatever, all those terms. And it was very difficult, I can remember sweaty palms and all that. I was very reticent about doing it.

But eventually, I developed more confidence and that began the process of me getting closer and closer to taking a stand as a conscientious objector. What you do if you’re a student, you have that deferment, you have the luxury of a deferment and a lot of people stall with that deferment. But when you apply as a conscientious objector, in effect, you’re tearing up your student deferment at the risk of prison. So a lot of people in the public are confused about conscientious objection, in their mind, they associate it with the easy way out or faking your way out of the draft. It’s just the opposite. As a CO, you face the draft and you risk prison.

Matthew Breems:
Yeah. That is interesting. Here you were sitting with a deferment because you were a student and despite of that, you decided to file as a CO?

Francesco Da Vinci:
Yes.

Matthew Breems:
So that made you eligible for the draft then?

Francesco Da Vinci:
What you’re eligible for? Prison, actually. The actor Richard Dreyfuss did that also he tore up his student deferment and risked prison to be a CO.

Matthew Breems:
Well, give us a little bit of information on that, that process. How do you tell the Army? “Hey, even though I have deferment, I want to file to become a CO.”

Francesco Da Vinci:
Yeah. That’s a great question. Because the process is like, Alice in Wonderland. Wherever you’re from, you have that draft board permanently. So that’s an inherent unfairness about the draft. If you are from say like the Bay Area of San Francisco, much more liberal community than where I was in Virginia–Virginia was a very tough draft board pro war, very conservative. So that’s an inherent unfairness about the draft. So you request the CO form from your draft board and then they want you to articulate your beliefs on paper. Well, that’s one of the silver linings, the good things about the draft for me is because I never really gave it serious thought about putting these philosophical views in paper and codifying my beliefs. It made me that much stronger when I did that. And my role models were people like Gandhi, Dr. King, Einstein, and Cesar Chavez, but my draft board and being in Virginia, they wanted to hear the likes more like Robert E. Lee. They didn’t really approve of any of my role models.

And it’s very hard to get your beliefs across. You’re talking to people that are of a complete, different generation. And usually they’ve served in war, they’re pro war in Virginia, certainly. So another complication on my part was I didn’t belong to any traditional organized religion. That made it that much difficult because my draft board openly said they were Christian. It was really my application was outside the box by saying it’s a personal set of ethics based on the principles of nonviolence. That was totally bizarre to them. So that’s the process. And then you get letters of reference, letters of support from people that know you, their job, really of a draft board, is to see that you’re sincere. That’s their job, they’re not supposed to agree with you. That shouldn’t matter.

But in reality, political reality was when I went in for my face to face interview later on appeal of their rejections of my claim, I saw in five minutes that they didn’t care if I was sincere. And that happens with a lot of draft boards and especially for minorities, I mean, at that time–talking in the ’60s–vast majority of draft boards were all white and that was a factor we have to face of the racism in America. So in my case, it was prejudice against that I didn’t belong to an organized religion. My parents would say, my dad, he would say, “You have an Italian last name. Why don’t you temporarily become a Catholic?”

My chances would be better, but I said, “I didn’t want to do that”. And I thought it was ironic to use religion to get out of the draft too. When I won my case in 1971, the same year that Muhammad Ali won his case. This was after three years on appeal. That was the year that it opened up to personal beliefs, personal set of ethics, 1971. And my case helped set a precedent.

Matthew Breems:
So three years of appeals, what does that process look like? And then what’s happening to you? What are you doing during that time of appeal?

Francesco Da Vinci:
Well, it was pure hell for my family and for my fiance’ because they were ostracized just for the fact that I took that stand. I mean, all the labels, “Draft Dodger”, “Pinko”, “Commie”, “Shirker”, they question your manhood that you just apply as a CO, all that stuff they had to deal with and I had to deal with. So it was a huge pressure and strain.

Matthew Breems:
Why don’t you tell us about when the appeal was finally approved for you? What was that moment like for you personally?

Francesco Da Vinci:
It was one of the greatest moments in my life. I had faced the draft for eight years and I feel basically, and I felt then, and I feel now the draft is basically a form of involuntary servitude, and that goes against everything America stands for. So facing that for eight years, the message you get is, “Your life is not your own”. And so your future is every day you’re thinking about it. Your future is clouded. And my case when I did apply in 1968, my draft board rejected my claim by a vote of four to nothing. And then I became a prominent activist and they again, rejected the claim four to nothing.

So I had one last appeal and my attorney said, my draft lawyer said that, “Because you’re so active in the peace movement, they’re going to make an example out of you. And I think it’s virtually certain, you’re going to get a five year prison term the maximum,” which is what Muhhamad Ali faced. And so at the last moment, the state director of Selective Service overturned in my favor, he got it. And he went against his own system to do it. And I’d like to pay tribute to him by mentioning his name he’s passed away. But his name was Ernest Fears, Jr.

Matthew Breems:
So of all the options to stay out of the war, you could have moved to Canada, you could have done A, B or C. Why for you was that the path that you needed to choose?

Francesco Da Vinci:
Yeah, it was a lonely path because I was following the principles of nonviolence. I really researched principles of Gandhi and nonviolence. And one of the core principles that we certainly could apply on an individual level and our country could follow on a national level is making the means harmonious with the ends, means and ends. Make the way you do something just as important as what you want. And really that’s why I was a CO and I didn’t deviate from that. I just wanted to take a stand. I felt the draft in the war was so wrong and you’ve got to remember the horrors of that war. Of course, every war is filled with horrors and is essentially, as Hemingway said, “murder in one form or another”. The horrors came broadcast into our living room through TV. It was the first time we saw the realities of war rather than simply the PR glorification.

Matthew Breems:
Okay. And since the time of the Vietnam era, you’ve remained a very active activist. What are some of the ways that you’ve continued to promote peace and nonviolence?

Francesco Da Vinci:
Well, I was in San Diego at the time, and then I formed a peace group that I called Nonviolent Action. And the reason I called it that was there’s so many people thought of nonviolence as just not being violent or they think of peace as just no war, but really it’s an active process. It’s like act of love. You’ve got to show it. You’ve got to live it. And you make your thoughts, your words, and your accents harmonious. And then you take a stand for it. And so this peace group that I called Nonviolent Action was amazing. There were so many peace hungry people at that time I formed it in 1970 in San Diego. And it started with four people. And I remember our first meeting was humorous because they looked at each other and they looked at me and they go, “Well, this is great, Francesco, but where’s everybody else?”

And I said, “Well, they’re on the way, but they don’t know it yet.” It was a leap of faith. I just thought it’s going to attract. And sure enough, it grew to over 250 people. They came from over the country to join that group. And Joan Baez supported it, the folk singer, and she raised the money in two benefit concerts for us to conduct our peace activities, our campaigns. I was already working with Caesar Chavez and the farm workers. And then it grew to the draft project out of the farm workers project. Everybody was a volunteer at Nonviolent Action and we’d leaflet let every induction call in San Diego, every single one for one year. And we’d give them leaflets that have the numbers of draft lawyers who would counsel them for free on their rights because the vast majority were going on…they had no idea what their rights were, especially minorities. So we gave them that information and it saved, it ended up saving a lot of lives.

Matthew Breems:
And so for how many years was that organization active?

Francesco Da Vinci:
It was one and a half years. And it culminated with was called the Constellation Project. And it was a beautiful project because what we did was we conducted a citywide vote and asked the population of San Diego, “Do you favor…?” The USS Constellation was an aircraft carrier that was docked in San Diego. And so it was going to perpetuate the heaviest bombing war in the history of the world in Vietnam. And so we asked people, we said, we’re going to conduct a vote, and we’re going to ask you, “Do you think this carrier should go back to Vietnam and continue the bombing? Or do you think it should stay home for peace?” And it was amazing, the vast majority voted, and even in San Diego, they voted that the carrier should not continue the war. And what’s really amazing is we also let the sailors–voted not just on the Connie, but just sailors in general in San Diego–

And the majority of the military men voted that the carrier should stay home and not perpetuate the bombing. So it made it ABC and CBS national news. And it was a real wake up call. Got together with my peace group. And we sent letters to Congress. Senator McGovern was so moved by what we were doing, that he intervened on behalf of our peace group. And he spread the message through the halls of Congress. And he contacted the Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird and President Nixon. And our campaign reached the White House. And he said, “They’ve got a great valid point here. You’re not winding down the war and you have to be accountable to the people of America.”

I think we have to face the reality of what Eisenhower warned us against about the military industrial complex. There are people benefiting from these wars at the expense of we, the people. And I think it’s time to stop the blank checks for military systems that have constant cost overruns. And you can imagine with the billions that lead to trillions of dollars for weapons of war, what we could have done and what we could do now with just some of that, those resources for people needs.

Matthew Breems:
Right, and unfortunately the military industrial complex has not changed one iota since the time of the Vietnam conflict. And if anything, it’s escalated.

Francesco Da Vinci:
Yeah. So it starts with the consciousness though. I want your listeners to think that not to be overwhelmed by the system. It’s like we can all do something in our microcosm. And I think what we did with Nonviolent Action, the peace group in San Diego, is we showed that what people can do, we showed the power of nonviolence, the power of the individual to stand up to these systems and realize there’s more people out there that want to change than we realize, it’s a ripple effect.

Matthew Breems:
And as you moved out of the time of the Vietnam conflict, what did your activism start to look like after that?

Francesco Da Vinci:
After that I started using the media since I became a journalist and a photojournalist. So I became a public speaker. And then I used my platform as a journalist to support causes that promoted nonviolence. And I did a lot of photography for UNICEF, helping the children of the world and not just in America, but the global problem of people getting clean water, of helping children’s rights all over the world was very important. And one thing that comes to mind if you’re listeners and they say, “Well, you know what? I want to do something too.” There’s an organization called volunteermatch.org, and they’ll help you line up according to your own interest and they can plug you into doing something. And you know, when you give you get, it’s not like you’re just helping other people, you’re helping yourself.

Matthew Breems:
Well, Francesco, I wanted to ask you a bit about the book that you just released here in November of 2021. It’s recounting the events that we’ve talked about here on the podcast just now. Why did this feel like the right time to write and release this particular book?

Francesco Da Vinci:
Well, thank you. It’s called, I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the 1960s. And what I wanted to show was how an individual can go from being an oblivious bystander to taking action. We can all do something in our own realm, in our own microcosm. And with the division, divisiveness now, and with our violent culture, I wanted to show a combination duality, kind of like social psychology. I wanted to show the individual going through the entire ’60s, which as you know, is one of the most significant eras in American history. And the first time that a young generation has been able to stop a war is so important that we look at the ’60s and the progressive accomplishments that were made. That has been distorted for political agendas. And now I wanted to counter it with my book and show the positive things that were accomplished and how we can each do something, not be overwhelmed by all the divisiveness by COVID, et cetera.

So that was the purpose of the book. And another important contribution. I think the book makes is that it honors conscientious objectors. It’s long overdue, conscientious objectors have taken a brave stand. They’ve been slandered, if you look at the history of COs, they’ve been tortured, they were shackled, they were sent to the worst prisons that we had, like Alcatraz and Leavenworth, and they were even killed. So this book honors them and it’s dedicated to COs throughout history.

Matthew Breems:
And what else does the book, I Refuse to Kill, touch on? Is it just purely about your time in the Vietnam conflict or…?

Francesco Da Vinci:
Not at all. It’s the bigger picture of the Civil Rights and the Peace Movement. It centers really on the Peace Movement. There have been a lot of abstract sociological books about the ’60s, and I didn’t want that. I wanted somebody to feel on a gut level, the personal struggle of somebody who takes a stand for peace and the price they pay–individually, with one’s loved ones, the family, fiance’–and go through that whole journey. It has the Civil Rights, the larger picture of the Civil Rights movement and the Peace Movement. And lots of really interesting behind the scenes, things that are not in your history books. If you thought you knew the ’60s, believe me, you pick up this book, you’re going to go reexamine it. And like I said before, the ’60s have been so distorted or omitted from our history books and conscientious objectors have been omitted or distorted also.

Matthew Breems:
If someone wants to purchase the book, where is the best place for them to find it?

Francesco Da Vinci:
Irefusetokill.com is the best website. Irefusetokill.com altogether. And I know that Barnes & Noble carries the book. So those are two good sources. And if you go to Irefusetokill.com and you see my own email there address, I would encourage your listeners, feel free to make comments to me directly.

Matthew Breems:
And if you had a reader who is a college age or in their ’20s, what would be the main takeaway, the nutshell takeaway that you’d like them to get from this book?

Francesco Da Vinci:
That you are not powerless. That we shouldn’t give up. That the system and the Corona and everything thing we’re faced with, the polarization, we can face it. We don’t feel good when we’re in silent complicity with problems. And we look the other way, what we need to do and what the book, I hope it not only entertains because the ’60s is such an incredible period and the great music that came out of the ’60s and the great social movements that came out, but it also inspires. The reader can take away, “What can I do in my life that will make me feel better about myself and make a contribution?” The ’60s issues are the prime issues today. So we’re talking about raising those issues of conscience–the police brutality that we’re faced with, Black Lives Matter, the Civil Rights that we still have a long way to go.

Women’s rights, gay rights, et cetera, all these things we’re still faced with today. The two main things like our invasions, whether it’s Afghanistan or Vietnam…Is the Congress doing its job? And are we demanding that the Congress do its job? The Vietnam War went a span of 10 years. What did we learn if we go into Afghanistan and double the time for 20 years? Let’s recognize the need to transform our culture to a non-violent culture. So it starts one person at a time and adds up. Gandhi once said, “I won’t try to convert the whole of society to my point of view. I’ll straight away make a beginning with myself.”

Matthew Breems:
Well, Francesco, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast, to share your story, to inspire us and to give us a burst of positivity. And thank you so much. This podcast is a Courage to Resist production, recorded and edited by Matthew Breems, with special thanks to executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.