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In Memoriam: David McReynolds, the Gay Socialist Pacifist Who Twice Ran for President, Dies at 88

StoryAugust 20, 2018
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Image Credit: Ed Hedemann

Longtime pacifist and socialist David McReynolds died Friday at the age of 88. Known to historian Howard Zinn and many others as a “hero of the antiwar movement,” McReynolds was a staff member with the War Resisters League from 1960 to 1999. There, he focused on counter-recruitment and helped organize one of the first draft card burnings. He went on to play a key role in some of major demonstrations against the Vietnam War and campaign for nuclear disarmament. McReynolds ran for president in 1980 and 2000 as an openly gay man. For more, we speak with two of his close friends. Ed Hedemann worked with McReynolds for decades at the War Resisters League. Jeremy Scahill is an investigative journalist and co-founder of The Intercept.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show remembering the life and legacy of David McReynolds, longtime pacifist and socialist whom historian Howard Zinn and many others have called a “hero of the antiwar movement.” McReynolds died Friday at the age of 88. For nearly four decades, from 1960 to 1999, McReynolds was a staff member with the War Resisters League, where he focused on counter-recruitment, helped organize one of the first draft card burnings, went on to play a key role in some of the major demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He also campaigned for nuclear disarmament. In 1980 and 2000, David McReynolds ran for president as an openly gay man on the Socialist Party USA ticket. It was while he was campaigning in 2000 that he spoke about his life of activism during an interview on Democracy Now!

DAVID McREYNOLDS: I joined the Socialist Party at UCLA in 1951. I joined the War Resisters League about the same time. I was arrested for refusing induction during the Korean War, not the Vietnam War—won that case on a technicality. Went to work for Liberation magazine in 1957 under A.J. Muste and Bayard Rustin, Dave Dellinger, Roy Finch, Sid Lens. I went on the staff of the War Resisters League in 1960 and worked for that until January of 1999, when I retired. And I’m now running as the Socialist Party’s candidate.

My history, I’m afraid, does not include any dramatic military service, but a number of arrests over the years and, in the course of the Vietnam War, a visit to Hanoi and Saigon, and, in the course of the Gulf War, a visit to Iraq, shortly before the main assault there, and other visits to other parts of the world, the Soviet Union during the period when it was about to break up. I was in Prague, by sheer good luck, during the invasion. You don’t often get a chance to be there during that kind of thing. So, that’s the summation of my history.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Dave, How do you respond to those who would say that your quest for the presidency is even more quixotic and irrelevant than Ralph Nader’s or Pat Buchanan’s? And what do you hope to gain by running?

DAVID McREYNOLDS: Yeah, and let me add one thing to that record, so I’m not accused of avoiding it. I came out as a homosexual in 1969, so I think that was one of the first open statements.

Look, the presidential election is a referendum on ideas. That’s really all it is. I’m trying to present the concept of socialism, put it back in the American dialogue. I think it has a right to be in. I’m tired of hearing we’re anti-imperialist, anti-racist and so on, and not know what we’re for. And I am for democratic socialism, an idea as old as 1901, when the party was founded, goes back to the last century. It’s not rooted in Moscow or Lenin. …

The real struggle is at the congressional level, at the legislative level, and it’s in the streets. We’re not—I don’t think people really are aware. Many of those who are backing Nader, for example, I don’t think are aware of the power of the structure they oppose and the cost it will take to change that structure. If you look at any really serious social change, from India under Gandhi, which I take as my example and my methodology, there were large numbers of people killed, and there were massive arrests. And Gandhi spent a large part of his adult life in British prisons. If you look at the Southern movement, you’re looking at a trail of blood and horror, and children killed in their schools, and beatings and brutality, that only if you were in the South during that time can you understand the slogan that said that many atheists went to the South, but none returned as atheists, because of the impact of the Black Baptist Church. But those struggles were not won in the courts. They were not won simply by votes. That was part of a dialectical thing. But they are won on the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: That was David McReynolds, speaking in 2000 on Democracy Now!, when we were broadcasting from the Republican convention in Philadelphia. Dave McReynolds died Friday at the age of 88. He had fallen days before in his home, in his apartment in the Lower East Side. When he was found, he was rushed to the hospital.

David McReynolds wrote extensively throughout his life, including a collection of essays in 1970 titled We Have Been Invaded by the 21st Century. We have that paperback book here.

For more, we’re joined by David’s longtime friends. Here in New York, Ed Hedemann is with us, a close friend of David McReynolds. Starting in the '70s, the two worked together for decades at the War Resisters League on counter-recruitment and disarmament campaigns and more. Ed is the author of the _War Resisters League Organizer's Manual_ and also their book War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support from the Military. In 1982, Ed co-founded the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, which still exists today. Also with us, via Democracy Now! video stream, is Jeremy Scahill, investigative journalist, co-founder of The Intercept, author of a number of books, including Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ed Hedemann, talk about your longtime friend David McReynolds and his significance.

ED HEDEMANN: Well, his significance was he was really the symbol of the War Resisters League from the 1960s through the 1990s. He was the most visible spokesperson. He was a very articulate speaker. He was an organizer, terrific writer. His specialty was more, probably, position papers. He wrote a lot of that. I mean, he did have that one book, which is a collection of essays. But he was also a terrific organizer. He had some clever ideas against the Vietnam War, and he helped organize the first demonstration in the United States against the Vietnam War in 1963.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about his participation in the legendary draft card-burning protest against the Vietnam War in Union Square. It was November 6, 1965. About 1,500 people came to watch as McReynolds and others burned their draft cards, as he recalled in this clip from a PBS documentary series called The Draft.

DAVID McREYNOLDS: They were saying it is illegal to burn your draft card. They made it a federal offense if you burn your draft card. And basically, we said, “[Bleep] that. The war is a profoundly evil thing going on day after day.”

COUNTERPROTESTER 1: Why do you let those people over there picket in front of the United States recruiting office? Why don’t they go to Vietnam and fight? It’s a disgrace to the United [inaudible] scum picketing over there.

NARRATOR: Hundreds of protesters face off in one city block.

COUNTERPROTESTER 1: Aren’t they pro-the United States? Are they a punk or what?

COUNTERPROTESTER 2: [inaudible] over to Vietnam.

DAVID McREYNOLDS: Yeah, of course, we were tense. You have counterdemonstrators everywhere screaming, “Burn yourselves, not your cards!”

NARRATOR: As the cards ignite…

REPORTER: There goes the first one. They’re burning the draft card, first, of Thomas Cornell.

NARRATOR: …fear flares up.

TOM CORNELL: Someone had infiltrated the crowd, carrying a pressurized cylinder.

REPORTER: And now from the crowd comes—ooh!

TOM CORNELL: We didn’t know what was happening after this. A jet of fluid comes, and we don’t know: Is this volatile?

DAVID McREYNOLDS: Is it gasoline?

TOM CORNELL: Are we going to be just going up in flames with our draft cards?

REPORTER: As the pacifist audience breaks into freedom songs, the fires get bigger and bigger. Five men are smiling.

NARRATOR: A few pieces of burning paper spark resistance to the draft.

DAVID McREYNOLDS: We weren’t shooting anybody. We were not breaking any windows. We were burning a card, which was being used by the government to send young men to Vietnam by the tens of thousands.

AMY GOODMAN: That was David McReynolds and Tom Cornell, speaking about this draft war resistance action of 1965, Ed Hedemann.

ED HEDEMANN: Draft card, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Draft card resistance.

ED HEDEMANN: Yeah, yeah, 1965, right. The first draft card was burned in 1964. And it was sort of like burning the American flag back then. It created a lot of reaction from the government especially. They were very unhappy with the concept that draft-age men would not have their draft cards, especially burning them publicly. That was just an outrage.

AMY GOODMAN: And he joined with Dorothy Day, the legendary Catholic Worker activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, against the civil defense drills.

ED HEDEMANN: Yes, yeah.


ED HEDEMANN: Yeah, well, the United States required, once a year, that people take shelter for 10 minutes or half-hour, something like that. This is in the early '50s. The Catholic Worker, along with War Resisters League and other organizations, tried to protest at City Hall Park. They refused to take shelter. And in 1955, 29 of them got arrested. It wasn't David. He hadn’t moved to New York then. But David later helped organize very large protests in 1959, 1960, ’61, in opposition. And eventually the government gave up. I mean, there were just too many people out refusing to take shelter, and they gave up on the whole program.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, you have known David McReynolds for more than two decades. Talk about his influence on your life and why he made such a difference to you.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, Amy, the United States is a country that is fundamentally built on lies about itself. And, you know, both David McReynolds and the late Berrigan brothers, Phil and Dan Berrigan, said that the biggest lie of America is that nuclear weapons keep us safe—the biggest lie of modern times. And if you look at who gets eulogized and endless hours of cable news—I mean, when Henry Kissinger dies, I think all the networks will just shut down. And, of course, the greatest liars, the greatest warmongers are the greatest individuals when it comes to celebrating their lives when they die.

If we lived in a just society that was based on truth and facts and actual history, all of the cable networks would be covering the life and legacy of David McReynolds. I mean, here you had—he was really the first secular revolutionary that I met. I came from a leftist Catholic family. I was very much influenced by the Catholic Worker and the Berrigans. And, you know, David McReynolds was an openly gay socialist pacifist who really cast his lot, for the bigger part of his life, with faith-based organizers, under the auspices of the War Resisters League, which, of course, is not a faith-based organization, but, rather, an ecumenical organization of people of all faiths and no faiths.

David McReynolds was, as Ed said, a master tactician. I remember one of the early events that I was involved with with David was in 1997, at the height of Bill Clinton bombing Iraq on average once every three days, under the auspices of the so-called no-fly zones in the north and south. And David had arranged a meeting with the deputy ambassador, U.S. ambassador, to the United Nations. And he had actually known her as a protest organizer during Vietnam, and here she was now arguing and helping to make the case that the United States should overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein and escalate its military action. And David made a remarkably brilliant, tactical, technical case against the war. Yes, he could make the moral case, but where David really excelled among activists is that he could argue with the so-called sophisticates of the war party. And he really left them speechless. They couldn’t look David in the eye and say, “You’re wrong about this.” They could only say, “We’ll see.” And David was right about every single U.S. military operation in his lifetime. And it’s very telling that all of the people who have been so wrong for so long are now talking heads on cable news, including some of the most risible neocons in our history.

So, you know, ¡Presente, David McReynolds! You were always right about U.S. wars. And may young people study your example, because we need it so desperately now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a fake flier that Ed Hedemann shared with us, that you believe was written by the FBI’s COINTELPRO office in 1971 to sow dissension among antiwar groups. It’s titled “The Third......What?” And it appears to be a fake flier from Black Power activists that is meant to gay-bait David McReynolds and other leaders of the antiwar movement just before the massive 1971 demonstration in Washington in April. It begins, quote, “According to Chief White Fag Dave Mc Reynolds of the lily-white War Resisters League…” Ed, you also shared with the—also shared the FBI memo authorizing the production of the flier, that notes it should be, quote, “prepared on unwatermarked, commercially purchased paper and all efforts made to protect Bureau as source of leaflets.” Before we talk about this, though, I wanted to go back to David McReynolds talking about his life as an openly gay activist, in an interview he did with his friend Anthony Giacchino.

DAVID McREYNOLDS: 1949 was a very significant year for me, partly because that was the year that I had met Alvin Ailey in the men’s room at UCLA and decided that I was homosexual. I was 19, and Alvin Ailey was 18. He was not famous. He was not yet a dancer. We met in a bathroom, which was a gay meeting place at UCLA. And I became involved with Alvin. I wish I could say we had had a long love affair, but we did not. But I got to know Alvin very well. I would go over to his house in—about once a week and talk about poetry. He introduced me to the poetry of E.E. Cummings, of William Carlos Williams, of Kenneth Patchen. I certainly was very much in love with Alvin. And Alvin then went on, of course, to become a major choreographer, founded the Ailey dance company.

But I owe him an enormous debt. Alvin helped me accept being homosexual, because he was not guilty, he was not nervous, he was not ashamed. And I had viewed the whole business of homosexuality as very deeply shameful and very, very wrong. And Alvin was the first person I met who was sweet, charming, good-looking, but absolutely seemed free of guilt, and that was very liberating to me. That in itself was remarkably liberating to me.

I think my real commitment to pacifism occurred when I heard Bayard Rustin speak in 1949. He was, in many ways, an essential part of the civil rights struggle, along with A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. He worked with them both very closely. Bayard was an absolutely essential figure of the two people in my own life that I owe my thinking and my analysis to, and A.J. Muste was the other. And my relationship with A.J. was that of one of his lieutenants. He was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. He was the figure around whom the Vietnam movement coalesced. But these were the two men who meant the most to me personally and did in fact change my life and direct it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s David McReynolds, talking about his relationship with Alvin Ailey and with Bayard Rustin, the openly gay black pacifist who helped, with A. Philip Randolph, to organize the 1963 March on Washington with Dr. King. Ed Hedemann, you have this flier that was put out and an FBI COINTELPRO document. Explain.

ED HEDEMANN: COINTELPRO was set up—Counterintelligence Program—by the FBI to try to disrupt the antiwar and left movements in general. And they had produced this flier because of an upcoming massive demonstration in Washington, which turned out about 500,000 people. But they gay-baited him. They gay-baited Dave Dellinger and a number of others, in part to sow dissension. But they produced other fliers. This is one that mentions David up top.

And they talk about—their memo is kind of amusing. I don’t—if you can pass it? They wrote this. They said, “It is noted the leaflet is written in excellent fashion in typical language of the New Left and, as such, contains profanity and vulgarity, which are inseparably associated with adherents of this movement. We are approving inclusion of the profanity because to do otherwise would render the leaflets suspect.” So, you know, this is how they thought the movement spoke. It didn’t speak like this, of course. But…

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jeremy, as you listen to this, this attempting to undermine, pit different movements, Black Panthers, War Resisters League, against each other?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, well, you know, one of the things that I think was remarkable about the life of both David McReynolds and, you heard Ed mention, Dave Dellinger, the legendary pacifist, the oldest member of the so-called Chicago 8 conspiracy trial that arose out of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, was this ability not to be paralyzed by the tactics of authoritarians. David was, to his core, an anti-authoritarian, on big issues and on small issues. And he was at times controversial within social justice and peace movements. You know, David took pacifism very seriously and, during the Vietnam War, would condemn the torture of American prisoners of war by Ho Chi Minh’s forces. And he also believed that his primary purpose in this world, as someone born into privilege in the United States of America, was to hold his own government accountable.

And, Amy, the last time I saw David McReynolds was at a gathering of our mutual friend’s house, Matt Daloisio, and there were activists there like Kathy Kelly, the founder of Voices in the Wilderness, who spent the majority of her life with people in war zones, and Carmen Trotta, who’s now facing trial for this Plowshares action and was recently on Democracy Now! And that meeting was called together with David sort of as the elder, wise counselor, who tried to discuss how to take direct action against the U.S. genocidal war in Yemen. And, of course, I think it’s somewhat fitting that you now have CNN and other networks naming the corporations that makes the munitions that blew up, for instance, a bus full of dozens of innocent Yemeni children. It’s fitting that this media honesty, finally, after—the United States has been bombing Yemen since 2002, Amy. Barack Obama was bombing Yemen at times almost daily, and now, under Trump, it continues unabated under the auspices of some Saudi-UAE coalition. David was always clear: This is a U.S. massacre ongoing. And his last organizing effort was in fact aimed at stopping the genocidal U.S. involvement in the destruction of the poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Ed Hedemann, David died as his—and his beloved cat, who he injected with insulin twice a day—


AMY GOODMAN: —also died, as David was taken to the hospital.

ED HEDEMANN: Yeah, after David was taken to the hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: His cat, Shaman.

ED HEDEMANN: Shaman died, yeah. It was tragic all around, but at least David never knew that Shaman had died.

AMY GOODMAN: They were very close.

ED HEDEMANN: Oh, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we’re going to wrap up this part of the discussion. But, Jeremy, I’m going to ask you to stay on, and we’re going to do Part 2 and hear David McReynolds talking about pacifism and why he was a socialist. Yes, David McReynolds ran for president twice on the Socialist USA Party ticket, longtime pacifist with the War Resisters League. Ed Hedemann, his colleague at the WRL, and investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill both knew him for decades. That does it for our show. Check our Part 2 conversation at under web exclusives. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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