Dellinger, David

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David Dellinger

Born August 22, 1915
Wakefield, Massachusetts

American peace activist; Chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE)

David Dellinger is a traditional pacifist who opposes war on moral grounds. The son of a prominent Boston family, Dellinger graduated from Yale University and then spent the next few years in prison for resisting the military draft during World War II (1939–1945). He went on to become a leader in the protest movement against the Vietnam War. As chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), Dellinger helped organize a number of large demonstrations against the war, including the one that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The demonstration turned into a violent confrontation between protestors and Chicago police. Afterward, Dellinger and seven other activists—who became known as the Chicago Eight—were put on trial for causing the riot.

Yale man opposes World War II

David Dellinger was born into a wealthy and prominent family in Wakefield, Massachusetts, on August 22, 1915. Both his father, Raymond Pennington Dellinger, and mother, Marie Fiske Dellinger, traced their ancestors back to families that arrived in the United States before the American Revolution. As a boy, Dellinger spent most of his time playing sports and chasing girls. But he also made friends with children from poor, ethnic neighborhoods and began to question class and racial discrimination.

Upon graduating from high school, Dellinger went along with his family's expectations and enrolled at Yale University. While there, he supported a group of janitors and other university employees who went on strike in an effort to obtain higher wages. After earning a bachelor's degree in economics in 1936, Dellinger received a scholarship to attend Oxford University in England for a year. He then studied religion at Yale Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary. When he graduated in 1940, he became associate minister at a church in Newark, New Jersey. A short time later, he married Elizabeth Peterson, with whom he eventually had five children.

During his religious training, Dellinger gave a great deal of thought to his personal values and his direction in life. He decided to dedicate himself to pacifism—actively opposing war and working for peace. By the time Dellinger completed his education, nations around the world were being drawn into World War II (1939–45). In this conflict the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union fought to prevent Germany and its allies from taking control of Europe. Many Americans felt that fighting the Germans was a worthy cause, and large numbers of young men volunteered to serve their country.

But Dellinger believed that war was morally wrong. "I couldn't believe that armed struggle, with the bloodshed and hatred it would generate, was the way to build a better world," he wrote in his autobiography, From Yale to Jail. As a minister, Dellinger could have avoided military service by filing for a deferment (an official delay in military induction). But he refused to file a deferment request. Instead, Dellinger's pacifist philosophy led him to believe that he should resist the military draft as a way of voicing his opposition to the war.

In 1940 Dellinger was sentenced to a year in prison for illegally avoiding the draft. In 1943 he received another three years in prison for organizing a demonstration against large-scale bombing attacks on German cities. During his time in prison, Dellinger continued to fight against what he viewed as unjust policies. For example, he was put in solitary confinement for refusing to sit in the white section of the racially segregated prison dining hall.

Dellinger soon discovered that he found standing up for his beliefs to be very satisfying. "I had gone from freedom to jail, from regular jail to solitary confinement, from solitary confinement to a damp, black dungeon they called punitive isolation—and I never felt so free before," he wrote in From Yale to Jail. "For the first time in my life I had nothing. And for the first time in my life I had everything."

Protests against the Vietnam War

By the time Dellinger was released from prison, World War II had ended. Over the next twenty years, he concentrated his efforts on fighting discrimination and poverty in American society. In the 1950s he started a printing cooperative with a group of other peace activists. He also founded a journal called Liberation that was intended to inspire readers to think critically about issues and take action according to their beliefs. In addition, he published books and articles encouraging people to join social protest movements.

In the early 1960s the United States became more and more involved in a conflict in Vietnam. The Vietnam War pitted the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its secret allies, the South Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Cong, against the U.S.-supported nation of South Vietnam. North Vietnam wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunite the two countries under one Communist government. But U.S. government officials felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to join the fight on the side of South Vietnam. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war turned into a bloody stalemate. The American public became bitterly divided about how to proceed in Vietnam, and antiwar demonstrations took place across the country.

Like many other Americans, Dellinger felt that the U.S. government's actions were wrong. As the U.S. involvement increased to all-out war against North Vietnam, he emerged as a leader in the growing antiwar movement. In contrast to other prominent antiwar activists—who tended to be young hippies or college students—Dellinger was in his fifties and often wore business suits. Still, he spoke on numerous college campuses, calling for an immediate withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. He urged people to protest against the war using various methods of nonviolent resistance, such as marches and sit-ins.

In 1965 Dellinger joined a group of antiwar activists in visiting North Vietnam. While there, he met North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh (see entry). During this visit, Dellinger became convinced that the majority of the Vietnamese people wanted U.S. troops to leave Vietnam and allow them to settle their own disputes. He also accepted the word of Ho and other Communist leaders that American prisoners of war (POWs) were being treated well.

Afterward, many people criticized Dellinger for spending time with America's enemy and for believing what Ho Chi Minh had to say. In fact, some people called him a traitor. But he felt it was important to establish ties between North Vietnamese leaders and the American antiwar movement in order to reach a peaceful settlement to the conflict. With this goal in mind, Dellinger visited North Vietnam several more times over the next few years.

Member of the Chicago Eight

By 1967 Dellinger had become the chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE). This antiwar group organized rallies and demonstrations against the war throughout the United States. One of the best-known events sponsored by MOBE was the 1967 March on the Pentagon, which attracted 100,000 protesters to Washington, D.C.

At this event Dellinger spoke with several other well-known antiwar activists—such as Tom Hayden (see entry) and Rennie Davis of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—about staging a major protest in Chicago the following summer. They wanted the antiwar demonstration to take place during the Democratic National Convention, when the Democratic Party would formally choose its candidate for the presidency. They knew that this event would attract a great deal of attention from political leaders and the media, so it would be an ideal opportunity to get their message across.

When the Democrats met in the summer of 1968, thousands of protesters showed up outside the convention hall. Dellinger repeatedly asked the members of the various antiwar groups not to resort to violence. But as the protests went on, some of the demonstrators began throwing rocks and bottles. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (see entry) sent his police force to control the protestors, and the situation quickly turned into a riot. Scenes of fights between antiwar activists and police officers dominated television newscasts and overshadowed the convention. As the convention continued, many reporters, demonstrators, and other observers charged that the police used excessive force against the protestors. In the end, more than one thousand protestors and two hundred police officers were injured in the fighting.

A year later, Dellinger and seven other organizers of the demonstrations—known in the media as the Chicago Eight—were put on trial for conspiracy to cause a riot. But the antiwar activists refused to cooperate with the justice system. Instead, they used their appearance in court as an opportunity to present their political views. The six-month trial turned into a media circus. Dellinger and the other activists disrupted the proceedings with frequent outbursts. They even draped a Viet Cong flag over the table where they sat.

At the end of the trial, Dellinger was found guilty of causing a riot and contempt of court. Facing another prison sentence, he made a defiant final statement before the court: "I think I shall sleep better and happier with a greater sense of fulfillment in whatever jails I am in for however many years than if I had compromised, if I had pretended the problems were less real than they are, or if I had sat here passively in the courthouse while justice was being throttled and the truth was being denied." A year later, a higher court overturned Dellinger's conviction following an appeal.

Continues working for peace

With the publicity of the Chicago Eight trial, Dellinger became even more prominent in the antiwar movement. In 1969 he helped organize the Moratorium Day demonstrations, in which thousands of people participated in antiwar events in cities across the nation. Dellinger remained active in MOBE, which was eventually renamed the People's Coalition for Peace and Justice, until the war ended in a North Vietnamese victory in 1975.

Dellinger remained a committed pacifist after the Vietnam War ended, turning his attention to ending war in other parts of the world. In the 1980s, for example, he led demonstrations against U.S. military involvement in Central America. In 1993 Dellinger published a book about his life as an activist, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter. In a review for The Progressive, Samuel H. Day, Jr., called the book "a key to understanding what's wrong with American democracy and a model for those who would pursue solutions."


Day, Samuel H., Jr. Review of From Yale to Jail. The Progressive, September 1993.

Dellinger, David. From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter. New York: Pantheon, 1993.

Farber, David, ed. The Sixties: From Memory to History. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Robbins, Mary Susannah, ed. Against the Vietnam War: Writings byActivists. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

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