Massachusetts protest against the Vietnam War

April 1, 1970: The Massachusetts Legislature challenges the Vietnam War

On October 16, 1967, over 5,000 opponents of the Vietnam War rallied on Boston Common and marched to the the Arlington Street Church. At the end of a service broadcast to the crowd, over 280 men turned in or burned their draft cards. On January 5, 1968, indictments were handed down to Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Marcus Raskin, Mitchell Goodman and Michael Ferber for conspiring to “counsel, aid, and abet Selective Service registrants to evade military service and refuse to carry draft cards.” All five were signers of A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority and members of the anti-war collective RESIST. The judge disallowed testimony about the illegality of the war and the draft; the “Boston Five” were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Their convictions were overturned by an appeals court a year later. (Read more at Mass Moments.)

On April 1st, 1970, both houses of the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill known as the “Shea Act,” challenging the legality of the Vietnam War. The act declared that no inhabitant of Massachusetts inducted into or serving in the armed forces “shall be required to serve” abroad in an armed hostility that has not been declared a war by Congress, under Article I, Section 8, clause 11 of the United States Constitution. The bill was signed into law on the following day by Governor Francis W. Sargent, a Republican, who declared it to be ”the grave question of whether and under what circumstances an individual can be required to serve in an armed conflict that lacks a formal Congressional declaration of war.”

Governor Frank Sargent
Governor Frank Sargent

The law directed Robert Quinn, the state’s attorney general, to file a lawsuit testing the war’s legality before the Supreme Court as a matter of original jurisdiction regarding the legality of the war. The suit asserted that citizens are denied their constitutional rights when the President of this country forces those citizens to fight in an undeclared (and thereby unconstitutional) war.

In November 1970, The Supreme Court, by a six to three decision, declined to hear the complaint. The Pentagon’s opposing brief said Massachusetts lacked standing. In his dissent, Justice William O. Douglas asserted that the court should uphold its constitutional duty to resolve questions of conflicts between branches of governments. Federal District Judge Charles E. Wyzanski Jr. dismissed a similar suit filed by Massachusetts in 1971.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which preceded by nine months the Articles of Confederation, declared that no Massachusetts inhabitant could be forced to fight in a war external to the Commonwealth unless he had either consented, or consent was specifically given by the Massachusetts legislature. In ratifying the United States Constitution, Massachusetts expressly preserved the basic rights of the inhabitants.

The Grateful Dead, Kresge Plaza, MIT, Cambridge, MA May 6, 1970. A free concert played to a protest rally against the Vietnam war and the killing of four students by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio two days earlier. 2y Corinne Simone Corinne Simon
The Grateful Dead playing to an anti-war protest rally in Cambridge, May 6, 1970
Troopers assaulted demonstrators at a Cambridge anti-war rally.
Troopers assaulted demonstrators at a Cambridge anti-war rally

John Kerry testifies against the war

One year later, on April 22nd, 1971, 27 year-old former Navy Lt. John Kerry of Massachusetts testified against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War as a member of “Vietnam Veterans Against the War”. Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas) chaired the committee. Referring to the stories he had heard from other soldiers, about ”the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do…they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.” This event was filmed by NBC News.


Boston protest against the war

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