My uncles and cousins tolerated my liberal impulses because my social and political leanings did not negatively affect the business’s bottom line. But that was before the war in Vietnam heated up.
American involvement in the war in Vietnam, a fact since the days of Eisenhower, grew enormously in 1964 under President Lyndon B. Johnson. By 1966 or so, the war had become a quagmire for the United States. I opposed the war, and generally wore a peace symbol. This, of course, drove my uncles up a wall. I wrote letters to important people that I knew, mostly the liberal Democrats such as Senator Robert F. Kennedy, urging them to take stronger public positions that would lead to a cessation of bombing in Vietnam and to de-escalation of the war. In October of 1967, for example, I wrote to several senators, “Simple logic would require every responsible senator holding your opinions to take a positive and vocal stand on this ‘number one’ issue, and to use every means at your command to persuade your colleagues and the Administration to first cease the bombings and then to withdraw from this conflict.” Recently, during the war in Iraq, I found that letter in my files and considered sending it to our current senators, with only a few words changed principally substituting Iraq for Vietnam.
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Vincent McGee, a former Catholic seminary student, was the director of the 6,000-member Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace, and he became a friend. At the time I met Vinny, in 1969, he had already done something unusual. A few years earlier, upon receiving a draft notice he had decided to protest the war by refusing to be inducted. He didn’t attempt to flee to Canada, as many other young men did, or to claim the status of religious conscientious objector. Rather, he publicly burned his draft card in Central Park and allowed himself to be arrested, tried, and convicted. While his case wound its way through the legal system toward the Supreme Court, he worked with the businessmen’s group. The New York office was in a cubicle at Random House.
I first met him when he called me for a “loan” to the group to support a mailing. I was willing to put up the money, and almost as a joke asked him to sign a note for it. So I was astonished a month or two later when he came by my office again with a check, a repayment of the loan from the proceeds of the mailing.
I was so impressed that I asked him what I should do next to assist him. He requested that I give a small lunch for friends who were antiwar. I agreed to do that if he could produce two speakers for that lunch, a senator and a retired general. He did, and we had a successful lunch. Then Vinny asked me to co-chair a much larger antiwar lunch gathering, with Random House chief Bennett Cerf as the other co-chair.
As we prepared to set up this event, we understood that it sort of overlapped with the political efforts of New York’s mayor at the time, John Lindsay a Republican liberal who had become a Democrat, due in part to his opposition to the war to run for president, mostly on an antiwar platform. Senator Frank Church, who was the most visible senatorial opponent of the war, was willing to be our main speaker.
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