While Howard Zinn taught at Boston University, the administration began reporting male students’ grades to the Selective Service System, which contributed to determining their draft status.
In an undated letter (probably in 1966), Zinn said that he would not allow the grades he gave to play a role in helping the United States wage immoral wars. He announced that for students with a moral opposition to the war, he would keep two sets of grades. One set of grades would be submitted to the university administration, presumably all A’s. He would keep the other set for himself in case students needed recommendations for graduate school or for other purposes.
The policy of colleges submitting grades to the Selective Service System is explained in “LBJ Wants Your GPA: The Vietnam Exam” in the Harvard Crimson:
By the fall of 1965, the U.S. military began to draw from a new pool: college men . . . the Selective Service System (SSS) instituted a system of academic evaluation under which local draft boards would defer students based on “intellectual ability.”
This “ability” was determined by two factors: class rank, and score on a national aptitude test known as the Selective Service Qualification Test. Undergraduates with a high class rank, or a test score above a certain cutoff, were draft-exempt. Everyone else could be sent to the front. Continue reading. [Quotation marks added by HowardZinn.org editor.]
Zinn was not the only professor opposed to having grades play a role in determining which students were drafted. At the University of Chicago, in February 1966, radical sociologist Richard Flacks denounced such military use of grading, which he viewed as converting “the university into an arm of Selective Service.” Three months later Jesse Lemisch, who like Zinn was an antiwar activist and author of people’s history, echoed Flacks in his speech at an SDS-led sit-in at the University of Chicago, which was the first major campus anti-rank civil disobedience.
Like-minded antiwar faculty at the University of Michigan supported a student referendum on this issue in November 1966, which attested to strong student opposition to university grades serving as a sorting device for the war machine: the vote was 6,389 to 3,508 against compiling class rank for the military. A similar vote at Harvard, in October 1966, found that 72% of the student body opposed the use of class ranking for the military draft.
But most campus administrations ignored such student and faculty opposition, and continued to submit academic rank information to the federal government. This included Boston University, where Zinn taught, paving the way for his act of resistance — explained in the letter below where he declared his non-cooperation with his university’s and the Pentagon’s use of his grades for the military.
The letter by Howard Zinn was submitted to HowardZinn.org by historian Robert Cohen. Cohen found and scanned the document at the Howard Zinn Papers, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive, New York University.
Read a transcript of the untitled letter below and see the original, typed version.
By Howard Zinn
Whatever a grade is or should be, I know that the grades that I, an instructor, give to my students cannot be instruments of our government in pursuit of war — aims that I disagree with on the most fundamental human, legal, moral, political, and even military grounds. I cannot allow my teaching to be so brutalized that it becomes merely another expression of our war efforts in policing the people of the world, people whose wishes and political desires are quite often in marked contrast to our own desires of stability, throughout our “free” world.
There is a quite good case that can be made for not deferring students from the draft in the first place: the effects of this are with great injustice to place the burden of our military conscription on the lower classes and the non-whites in our society. The middle class boy can usually escape the burdens of conscription merely by becoming a college student, a step that is normally a necessary part of his career anyway. By his role as a college student he becomes a vital resource of our society, one whose sacrifice to the ravages of war is not in the “national interest.” Such an arrangement is, to say the least, unjust, and there are good reasons for questioning a system that calls upon the lower classes and racial outcasts of society to bear the burden of its defense needs. Nonetheless, this is the existing system, and within the near future, there is little chance of changing it.
But the crisis is now. General [Lewis B.] Hershey, head of the Selective Service, has announced that within the near future we could expect students to become subject to the draft; not all students, however: merely those who are not able to rank sufficiently high in their class standing and on an examination. My course and its grades are then to become a part of the induction process; I am to confront my students with the fact that their failure to do well in various aspects of the course requirements will demonstrate that they are not vital to our national interests, and so, with their lower-class and non-white colleagues, must join the rest of our military in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam in policing the world.
I refuse to allow the grades I assign to students in my course be made their guarantee that they will not be part of our war effort. There is little realistic hope of my convincing the college where I teach that they should not give over to the government the class standings of their students: our colleges are far too married to the military needs of our society to take such a bold and responsible action. But I, an individual, can refuse to allow my grades to be so used and abused.
I can and do announce to my students that if they are opposed — for any reasons they feel to be legitimate, based on their moral or political opinions — to fighting in the present wars of our nation, I will treat their grades accordingly; that I will have two sets of grades for each of them that so informs me, one which I personally will refer to if I am asked to pass upon his future qualifications to go on for graduate education or to teach, and another one which will serve the official record — the official record which is now to become a part of our Defense Department.
Will there be misuses of this, will there be students who claim to be opposed for legitimate reasons when they are only trying to avoid burdens on their time or on their courage? Quite possibly there will be. But I am far more willing to see such a misuse of my conscience and trust than I am to see the other, far more odious misuse of the purpose of my education. I believe that the enlightenment of our colleges should remain totally divorced from the enforcement of our military aims.
Untitled • undated • Source: Howard Zinn Papers, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive, New York University
Essays by Howard Zinn from 1962 to 2006 that examine specific wars, wartime incidents, and the force of non-violence to move beyond war, if we are to survive. Introduction by Marilyn B. Young. Read more at Seven Stories Press.
In this slim book written in 1967, Howard Zinn offers a compelling case against the Vietnam War. He includes a powerful speech that President Johnson should have given to lay out the case for ending the war. Read more at Haymarket Books.
In this film clip, Zinn recounts his role an expert on civil disobedience in the trial of the Camden 28 and other Vietnam war protesters and what his job was as an expert witness. Watch online.
While new U.S. history textbooks mention the Pentagon Papers, they do not grapple with the actual import of the Pentagon Papers. Read more at the Zinn Education Project.
Visit the Zinn Education Project for resources on Teaching the Vietnam War: Beyond the Headlines.