Claremont, Calif. (April 3, 2023)—The events depicted in the anti-Vietnam War documentary The Boys Who Said NO! may have taken place more than 50 years ago, but the lessons are timeless.
That’s what Sara Wood Smith ’66 believes. One of those lessons, she says, is that every person truly can make a difference.
“Just using your voice for what matters to you and to say what you think is really important. If you are trying to help change so that it happens, you have to build relationships with people. That’s what we learned, and that still matters today,” said Smith, one of the documentary’s associate producers. “We anti-war protesters helped end the war in Vietnam.”
A screening of The Boys Who Said NO! will take place April 4 at 6 p.m. in Benson Auditorium on the Pitzer campus.
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with Smith and Bob Zaugh, one of the film’s executive producers and a draft resister involved in the formation of the Los Angeles Resistance, which was a key group in the draft resistance movement. Today he serves as president and board member of Peace Press Inc, a worker-owned, democratically managed printing and publishing company.
The event is free and open to the public.
Smith hopes students who attend the screening will come away with a deeper realization about the importance of being open to unexpected opportunities and making connections.
“Being open to grow and learn when the opportunities come to you is good, and helping make opportunities for others to grow can help create a bigger impact,” she continued. “Making connections was the bottom line when it came to organizing successfully then, and it’s still true. That’s something I hope younger generations of activists will take away from watching this film — their voices matter. The connections you make in college can last a lifetime.”
Inspired by the Words of David Harris
Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Judith Ehrlich, The Boys Who Said NO! explores the anti-Vietnam War movement and the lives of the people who used nonviolent resistance and risked arrest to end the draft and U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.
Those people included David Harris, an activist and journalist who became a national figure in the draft resistance movement (and is featured in the documentary). Smith said she attended an L.A. speech in 1969 given by Harris, and it changed her life.
“He looked out at the audience, and I felt like he was pointing at me. He said, ‘You women need to understand this isn’t just a men’s issue,’” Smith recalled. “He told us that we each had to think about our own roles in making a difference. That sent me on a wholly unexpected path to figure out my personal responsibility and what I could do.”
Smith and Harris would go on to become lifelong friends. Smith—who arranged as a Pitzer undergraduate to study at Stillman College (one of the HBCUs) in Alabama and witnessed harrowing civil rights clashes firsthand—went on to assist lawyers who were helping draft resisters, visit imprisoned resisters, help with a sanctuary for three men who went AWOL from the military in protest of the war, and, much later, helped the film team as they struggled to finish The Boys Who Said NO!
Her efforts included problem solving to get the final pieces together to finish the film, and fundraising to help cover the costs of the rights to historical film footage, music, and other material included in the film. Her work on behalf of the documentary earned Smith the title of an associate producer.
“It was a real honor to be appreciated in that way,” she said. “I just wanted to make sure that this film was finished. We all did. We all wanted to make sure it happened and that meant doing whatever we could.”
From Simple Idea to Documentary
Smith said the idea for the documentary originated in a 2013 reunion held at Harris’ home in Mill Valley. At the time, a camera was set up to capture attendees’ memories of the resistance movement and create a video archive.
But soon this idea grew into a much bigger vision that involved adding more historical and cultural context to the members’ memories—for example, the way that the resistance movement’s approach was inspired by the civil disobedience strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually Ehrlich (who created an acclaimed documentary about Daniel Ellsberg) was brought in to weave everything together.
Part of the impetus behind hurrying to finish the documentary was the news that Harris had been diagnosed in 2019 with cancer. Smith said everyone wanted to make sure that Harris would see the finished film (Harris did; he passed away this February at the age of 76). Other resisters featured in the film who died before being able to view it include Christopher Jones, who first had the idea of making the documentary.
Smith said the documentary received help from many supporters including Harris’ ex-wife, folk musician and songwriter Joan Baez, who donated the cost of using her music and any footage of her included in the film. Ellsberg also supported the film in appreciation for the influence the resisters had on him and explains how they helped him decide to release the Pentagon Papers.
During the anti-war protests, Smith said that she and other protesters learned a powerful lesson from Harris that was based on a simple idea: Don’t engage in fighting or name-calling even if your opponents do.
“He wanted us to be careful and mindful,” she said. “He told us, ‘Don’t call anyone jerks. They can call us whatever they want, but we want to be thoughtful because these are the people we want to reach. We want to build a bridge to get through to them.’”
Looking at U.S. politics in recent years—and the role social media has played in pitting Americans against each other—Smith said the way Harris wanted protesters to act is desperately needed today. Harris, she added, wanted people to walk the talk.
“When you look around now, it’s all about whoever’s the loudest or comes up with the best slogan for people to get behind,” she said. “Not enough focus is on building connections, on showing that there are some things that we all need to work on together. That’s why the nonviolence we practiced was so important. As a tool it showed the depth to which we were ready to go to take a stand, and that’s so important. That’s something I hope students will take away from watching the documentary now.”