By Paul E. Kerson
Special to the Eagle
I was at Woodstock in August 1969, 50 years ago. I still have my ticket, framed on the wall of my home study, right next to my draft card and both my 2-S and 1-A “Notice of Classification” from the U.S. “Selective Service System” Local Board #65 then located at 41-25 Kissena Blvd. (at Main St.) Flushing, NY 11355.
I graduated from Bayside High School in June 1968. My classmate Thomas Bayes from the Class of 1967 was killed in Vietnam and included in our yearbook with a big black border around his picture.
Our Federal Administration today is very distasteful, but in 1969, our Federal Administration was INSANE. This was their plan for all the men in my high school class nationwide: Here is an M16 rifle. Go to the jungles of Vietnam for no good reason, shoot people and be shot at. In 1969, there was no possible way Vietnam could threaten the United States.
Amazingly, both Republicans and Democrats thought this was a good plan. The Defense Secretary who designed it, Robert McNamara, wrote a book about it 26 years later, in 1995. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” he wrote in In Retrospect – The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. “We owe it to future generations to explain why.”
That’s not what happened.
We explained to Mr. McNamara why it was wrong at Woodstock, 50 years ago today. Our national leader was a songwriter and singer named Country Joe McDonald, and he had the lead song and lead band at the “Woodstock Music and Art Fair.” This was no Music and art fair. It was the largest citizen protest in American history, set to music.
His band was named “Country Joe and the Fish.” Their leading song was called “I feel like I’m fixin’ to Die Rag” and it went like this:
“Well come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again,
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lot of fun.
And it’s one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And its five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why.
Whoopee! We’re all gonna die…”
A total of 58,212 American men my age died in Vietnam. The vast majority were draftees. If called, one had to go. Eight women also died. The draft only applied to men. Three million Vietnamese died because Secretary McNamara was “wrong, terribly wrong.”
I was not among the dead. Later, in 1970 and 1971, there was a National Draft Lottery. Each birthday was given a priority. My birthday got priority 228. They only got up to 125 that year. I had no bone spur or family connection to the National Guard (a good way to avoid mandatory service in Vietnam).
I have lived life knowing I won my life in a lottery. Thus, I never buy lottery tickets. I already won the Big One. My classmate Thomas Bayes was not so lucky.
You can Google Country Joe McDonald’s “I feel like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” and hear hundreds of thousands of my national high school classmates sending a very strong message to Washington from Woodstock in August 1969, 50 years ago today.
And oh, they heard us loud and clear. The draft was ended. Now we have an all volunteer army, and no President or Defense Secretary has sent massive numbers of American high school men into a military adventure since then. We send volunteers. We send machines. We send soldiers from allied countries.
Thus, 50 years on, Woodstock has a lesson to teach. The lessons of 1789 were tested in 1969, and passed the test.
The First Amendment’s “right of the people to peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” was used at Woodstock to send Mr. Nixon a message. He got the message.
Woodstock proves that the United States is a great nation: The people, acting peacefully in concert, can change the direction of the government.
I remain proud to have sung along with Country Joe McDonald at Woodstock in August 1969. In other countries, he would have been arrested. In our country, he was and is a hero.
Paul E. Kerson served as president of the Queens County Bar Association in 2015-2016. A total of 58,220 Americans his age and three million Vietnamese died in the Vietnam War.