“We decided that we would burn our draft cards”: Interview with Mike Davis

Milvio Pérez

This year marks the 57th anniversary of the April revolution in the Dominican Republic and the subsequent US military intervention that defeated the popular revolt.

In a televised speech aired in the early days of April of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson admitted that the Vietnam War was “dirty and brutal and difficult.” Nevertheless, on April 28 of that same year, and while moving away from the moral compass that prompted his speech, Johnson sent a large contingent of US marines to Santo Domingo with the aim of crushing a nascent democratic revolution. The fear of “another Cuba” (in Johnson’s own words) in the Americas played a significant role in Washington’s decision to invade the small Caribbean nation that, since the fall of the Trujillo dictatorship in 1961, experienced a wave of widespread working-class mobilization which planted the seeds for revolt. 

In hindsight, Johnson and the US elites were desperately in need of a quick, winnable “little war” in the name of anti-communism as Washington feared the spread of the fire ignited by the Cuban revolution in 1959. On April 24 of 1965 ordinary people stormed the National Palace in support of a counter-coup led by radical, young military officers who sought to restore Juan Bosch to power after being overthrown in a Washington-backed right-wing military coup in 1963. By April 28, the US had invaded Santo Domingo under the guise of protecting American lives when in reality the US occupied Dominican soil to safeguard its economic interests and geopolitical reach.

According to historian and former revolutionary combatant Roberto Cassá, the 1965 democratic revolution and war of national liberation was one of the most important events of 20th century Dominican society. 

Indeed, Dominicans— like the Vietnamese people— showed the Colossus of the North that a people united could put up a stiff resistance in spite of military weaknesses. Such is the case today with the Ukranian people who are resisting Russian imperialism. On April of 1965, Dominican and internationalist fighters from Haiti, France, Spain and Mexico joined people’s militias known as comandos populares in the fight against Washington's arrogance, white supremacy, racism, military violence and the genocidal thirst of local allies. Furthermore, the invasion of the Dominican Republic stirred worldwide anger. Although the US crushed the revolt and installed a puppet regime, the 1965 Dominican revolution left an important legacy of struggle. At the same time, it fueled solidarity networks around the world while introducing a new generation to anti-imperialist and revolutionary politics.

Amaury Rodríguez: Do you recall any conversations among activists about the 1965 revolution in Santo Domingo and subsequent US military occupation?

Mike Davis: In the spring of 1965 I was an itinerant, non-student organizer for Students for a Democratic Society. I had come out to Berkeley from the New York national office to help set up a community project in west Oakland as well as lend a hand to preparations for the Berkeley teach-in against the war in Vietnam.  My partner in crime in this period was Roy Dahlberg who would later become the business manager for the San Francisco Mime Troup.  He and I had both read a book called The Question. It had been written by Henri Alleg, a French leftist who had sided with the Algerian resistance during the long war for national liberation.  We were particularly riveted by a section where he described French youth burning their conscription cards in protest. We decided that we would burn our draft cards in public at the first opportunity. 

The invasion of the Dominican Republic provided the occasion. Jim Petras, then a UC graduate student, organized a march in protest – I believe to the Berkeley draft board – and there a group of us burnt our draft cards. I recall Roy taking the initiative but it might have been Petras. This was the first time that a group of demonstrators had burnt their draft cards.  

To no one’s surprise there had been an FBI informer on the march who somehow managed to concoct a list of those whom he suspected had burnt their draft cards. A couple months later both Roy and I were visited by the FBI.  Both of us were MIA and ordered to appear for induction.

I won’t go into all the comic opera details; we weren’t on the bus to boot camp but ended in suspended animation while the feds debated whether to indict us.  The existing regulation against destroying or defacing draft cards was weak and we were ultimately cut loose. Congress quickly passed a new law-making card burning a felony and the next wave of protestors did face prosecution.  But this is only a footnote.

Do you remember any mobilizations in solidarity with the Dominican people in 1965 or afterwards?

When I protested in Berkeley I had only a sketchy understanding of why the LBJ had sent the Marines to Santo Domingo. I knew it was outrageous but was unaware of the larger historical context.  Then in July SDS sent to me to LA and I quickly fell under the spell of Tim Harding, a professor of Latin American studies at Cal State Los Angeles. He was a personal friend of Juan Bosch and a dynamic teacher and public speaker. Indeed, he tutored two generations of local activists - including some of the founders of the Chicano movement – about Latin American history and the importance of solidarity activities.  He was a profound influence on my own understanding.

It’s been more than fifty years since the second US military occupation of the Dominican Republic. Can you talk about its legacy and lessons for anti-imperialist activists today?

The lack of nationally coordinated and sustained protests against the intervention can be ascribed to three factors: the swiftness with which the invasion was carried out; the focus on building the anti-Vietnam war movement; and our ignorance about the Caribbean and Latin American progressive movements.  Few of us were aware in 1965 of the previous history of US occupations of the DR, Haiti and Nicaragua, not to mention the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala, so we didn’t recognize the return of gunboat diplomacy for what it was or connect the dots between Vietnam, the DR and the Congo. Again, I can only emphasize the seminal role of scholar-activists like Petras and Harding in turning the lights on for us.

Amaury Rodríguez is a US-based historian and digital archivist originally from the Dominican Republic. His work has appeared in The Black Scholar, Jacobin and NACLA.