David Dellinger

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David Dellinger

An unwavering nonviolent pacifist, David Dellinger (born 1915) devoted his life to the promotion of peace through his writings, his organizational talents, and his personal acts of courage. He spoke up for what he believed and remained an active speaker well into the 1990s.

David Dellinger was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts, on August 22, 1915. His father was a lawyer, a Yale law school graduate, and a Republican. In high school David was an outstanding athlete, long distance runner, and tournament-level golfer. He was also a superb student and already a confirmed pacifist. He graduated from Yale University as a Phi Beta Kappa economics major in 1936 and was awarded a scholarship for an additional year of study at Oxford University in England.

On his way to Europe he went to Spain, then in the middle of its civil war. Dellinger was so moved by the spirit of brotherhood among the Loyalist communist troops that he nearly joined them. Instead, he spent his year at Oxford, then returned to America for graduate work at Yale and religious training at the Union Theological Seminary.

In 1940 the U.S. government instituted the military draft in preparation for entering World War II, and David Dellinger became one of its first conscientious objectors. He refused to serve in the army. War, he said, was evil and useless. His alternative to war was brotherhood and the abolishment of capitalism. He served a one-year prison term, again refused to enlist, and was jailed for another two years. Upon leaving prison he married Elizabeth Peterson and embarked upon a career as a printer, a writer, a peace organizer, and, above all, a radical pacifist. Far from being the austere, serious prototype of a pacifist, Dellinger was a husky, happy man whom friends often described as a "cheery elf." He was a genial person of boundless energy and uncommon good sense.

Dellinger, A. J. Muste, and Sidney Lens became the editors of Liberation in 1956. It was a radical pacifist monthly magazine which stood for economic justice, democracy, and nonviolence, and it continued publication for 19 years. Its subscription lists grew as young Americans started to protest the nation's treatment of Black people and the U.S. military incursion into Southeast Asia. Now, as one of the spokespersons for the American radical left, Dellinger made two journeys to Cuba in the early 1960s, reporting enthusiastically on what the Castro revolution had done for the Cuban people.

In April 1963, Dellinger participated in a "peace walk" in New York City during which those who favored peace clashed with other marchers over the Vietnam War, and Dellinger was cast into the forefront of anti-Vietnam politics. He worked in 1964 with Muste and two radical Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, to produce a "declaration of conscience" to encourage resistance to the military draft. A year later (August 1965), with Yale professor Staughton Lynd and Student Nonviolent Organizing Committee organizer Bob Parris, Dellinger was arrested in front of the U.S. Capitol leading a march for peace and was jailed for 45 days. Two months later Dellinger became one of the organizers of the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam—the group which staged the huge anti-war marches in Washington D.C. in 1970.

Dellinger made two trips to China and North Vietnam in the fall of 1966 and the spring of 1967. In America he helped in the production of the famed March on the Pentagon of October 1967, which would later be memorialized by author Norman Mailer in his prize-winning Armies of the Night. Dellinger spent much of 1968 travelling to Cuba and preparing for demonstrations at the Democratic party national convention in August. When the Chicago police attacked the demonstrators, the federal government indicted all demonstration leaders (Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner) for conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot.

In July 1969 North Vietnam decided, as it had twice before, to release a few U.S. prisoners of war, and Vietnamese leaders requested that Dellinger come to Hanoi to receive them. He and three others, including Rennie Davis, his co-defendant in the aftermath of the Chicago riots, flew to Hanoi in August and escorted the Americans back to freedom.

The 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven (known officially as U.S. vs. David Dellinger et al. ) was one of the most celebrated court cases of the 1960s. In order to disrupt the proceedings in Judge Julius Hoffman's courtroom and to attempt to place the Vietnam War itself on trial, the defendants wore outrageous clothing, carried anti-war signs, and replied bluntly to the court's capricious rulings. They were all found guilty by Judge Hoffman and, in addition, given innumerable contempt citations. But the entire trial was, on appeal, found to have been irrevocably tainted, and all "guilty" judgments were nullified.

By 1971 President Richard Nixon's planned withdrawal "with honor" of U.S. troops from Vietnam was lowering dissent on the home front. Dellinger was skeptical that there could be peace with honor because, as he saw it, the entire war had been without honor. He helped to plan the giant "Mayday" march on Washington, D.C. in spring 1971. But the next year American attention turned to the Watergate break-in, and Dellinger returned to his writing. Liberationceased publication in 1975, and for the following five years he was the editor of Seven Days magazine. In the 1980s he moved to Peacham, Vermont, to teach at Vermont College and to write his memoirs, cheerfully referring to himself as a "failed poet, a flawed feminist, and a convinced pantheist."

Despite remaining an active protester and frequent public speaker, Dellinger found time to finish his memoirs and From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of A Moral Dissenter was published in 1993. In 1996, Dellinger and other activists who demonstrated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention had an opportunity of sorts to reprise the event. The 1996 Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago and attracted about 500 demonstrators protesting a host of causes. Dellinger was among them. He remarked to a reporter, "The numbers of people who came and the energy they had made it very successful. We made it clear there would be no violence."

Further Reading

The best sources for material on the life of David Dellinger are the files of Liberation and two of his books: Revolutionary Nonviolence (1970) and More Power Than We Know (1975). Fred Halstead's Out Now contains many references. A brief article that might be of interest appears in the March-April 1997 issue of The Humanist. Dellinger is writing his own Autobiography in the Form of a Novel.