Fifty years after antiwar activist Randy Kehler was jailed for refusing to serve during the Vietnam War, he has been featured in a new documentary called: “The Boys Who Said No.” The film, which includes interviews of Vietnam War-era draftees who went to jail instead of going to war, is currently making the rounds of film festivals worldwide.
For Kehler, resisting the military draft marked the start of a lifetime of activism. Standing up for what he believed also brought jail terms, the loss of a rural Colrain farmhouse, and a bit of fame known mostly to others who fought alongside him for the same causes.
But Kehler’s antiwar stance also inspired Daniel Ellsberg’s public release of the Pentagon Papers — which led to the end of the war. “I don’t regret anything,” Kehler says. “I’ve had an amazing and blessed life.”
In Kehler’s copy of Ellsberg’s book “Secrets” is a handwritten note by Ellsberg that says: “No Randy Kehler, no Pentagon Papers.”
At age 77, the soft-spoken Kehler lives in Shelburne Falls and is still inspiring nonviolent antiwar activism. Locally, he and his wife of 45 years, Betsy Corner, are possibly most remembered for their stand against the Internal Revenue Service, as “war tax-resisters” whose rural Colrain home was seized for non-payment of taxes in 1991 and sold by the IRS for $5,400.
Kehler grew up in affluent Scarsdale, New York, before enrolling at Harvard University in 1962. At 18, Kehler says he was a “gung-ho, all-American boy,” when he registered for the military draft, as required by law.
While in college, Kehler took a 15-month hiatus to teach Rwandan refugees in Tanzania, who were fleeing during a Tutsi genocide. He said he taught in a mud-brick schoolhouse and saw firsthand how little most people in the world had to live on. He saw the effects of war on the families of his students, which started to turn him against the Vietnam War.
“By the time I got back, the (Harvard) campus was up in arms against the war,” he said. “I had learned, in a very poor third-world country, what the effect of our weapons would be in such villages. From there, it was just a series of steps to disconnect myself from the war — especially as a draft-age young man.”
Ironically, Kehler probably wouldn’t have been drafted into the Army because of his history of nightmares and sleepwalking. He was given an 1-Y exemption during a required physical before going to Africa, after a doctor saw Kehler’s injuries from a sleepwalking incident, in which he had shattered a glass light fixture.
When Kehler came back from Africa, he returned his draft card to Selective Service as an act of nonviolent protest. Instead of bucking the system and facing arrest, Kehler could have waited out the draft, knowing he was unlikely to be called. Or he could have filed for “conscientious objector” status with the U.S. government — but that status was provisional and could be revoked for taking part in protests against the war, Kehler said.
Randy Kehler mit Joan Baez
“I thought (conscientious objector) status was a form of cooperation with the war effort — a way to siphon off young men, to silence them on their opposition to war,” he said.
For his act of civil disobedience, “my parents pleaded with me to cooperate, just enough to get (the government) off my back,” he said.
But Kehler still felt any form of complicity was wrong, even though he faced jail time.
When his trial came up, Kehler called his parents to testify as character witnesses.
“I remember my father, a lifelong Republican, in his suit and tie.” Kehler’s eyes well up as he speaks. “My father said, ‘If you have to put someone in jail, take me. My son is only doing what we taught him.’”
After Harvard, Kehler enrolled at Stanford University, but left college as he became active in the War Resisters League in San Francisco. War Resisters International is a global organization created in the 1920s to promote peace and social change through nonviolent action.
Kehler’s involvement resulted in his meeting Ellsberg, a military analyst who was convinced that continuing the war in Vietnam was a no-win situation. When they met, Kehler was already indicted for violating the Selective Service Act and was awaiting trial. Ellsberg heard Kehler give a talk about why he refused to cooperate with the Selective Service.
On his website, Ellsberg wrote that Kehler “was going to jail as a very deliberate choice — because he thought it was the right thing to do. There was no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger. Thousands of young men were dying each year.
“I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that,” he wrote.
Ellsberg was asking himself: “What could I do to stop the war if I wasn’t afraid of going to prison?”
“Randy Kehler never thought his going to prison would end the war,” Ellsberg wrote. “If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy (the Pentagon Papers). His actions spoke to me as no mere words would have done. He put the right question in my mind at the right time.”
For five counts of violating the Selective Service Act, Kehler was given a two-year prison sentence. Among other draft resisters who were serving jail sentences was Joan Baez’s former husband, David Harris. Both Harris and Kehler were jailed at the Spofford Detention Center in the Bronx for a while and are still friends, Kehler says.
Ellsberg und Randy Kehler
Stewart Burns, a civil rights historian and author of the Martin Luther King Jr. biography, “To the Mountain Top,” was another draft resister who met Kehler in 1968 and visited him in prison. Today, they are still friends, and Kehler has spoken to Burns’ college students at Williams College and online for the Union Institute and University.
“We weren’t draft dodgers in any sense of the word,” Burns says. “We weren’t fleeing to Canada; we were being very open about (refusing to be drafted). We were willing to face the consequences.”
“He’s the most extraordinary role model of the best a person can be,” Burns says of Kehler. “He is devoted to social justice and peacemaking — almost to a fault, as he will put that ahead of his own health.”
After serving 22 months of his sentence, Kehler was released from jail and became national director of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, based in St. Louis, in 1971. Bill Ramsey, who now lives in Shelburne Falls, organized a local nuclear weapons freeze campaign and the two men became friends.
“I was taken right away by his insightful mind, his skills as a community organizer and by his large heart,” Ramsey says. “When Betsy and Randy’s house was taken by the IRS, there were five of us from St. Louis who came out to spend a week in the house, to support them.”
‘Refusing to pay for war’
Kehler moved to Deerfield to become co-director of the Woolman Hill free school, from 1973 to 1976. He and Corner were among the founding members of the Valley Land Trust, and lived on land trust property for roughly 40 years.
In December 1991, their home was seized by federal marshals for the couple’s nonpayment of federal taxes. On the grounds of “refusing to pay for war, they filed annual tax returns but donated the equivalent tax dollars amount to charities, as an antiwar protest. About half their tax value went to local charities and half went to medical charities helping war victims and soldiers.
Kehler was arrested for trespassing in his seized home, while Corner stayed with neighbors. From December through April 15, the house was occupied by groups of antiwar and tax resisters in shifts. But when the support groups left for a tax protest on April 15, the couple who bought the house, Danny Franklin and Terry Charnesky, moved in.
The protests and vigils against the government seizure continued outside the house, which stood on land owned by the land trust that was leased to Kehler and Corner. The months of vigils and protests at the house were documented in a 1997 feature-length film called “An Act of Conscience.”
Kehler had hoped to give “an act of conscience” as grounds for a show-cause court hearing on why he had violated a judge’s trespass order. But Kehler was not allowed to speak; instead he was jailed for contempt of court and spent 2½ months in a federal prison.
Eventually, the Valley Land Trust bought the house from Franklin and Charnesky, though Kehler and Corner lived in another home on land trust property. In recent years, they moved to Shelburne Falls, closer to friends and family.
For many years, they’ve avoided paying taxes by living on as little as possible, and by working as consultants for social change agencies. Betsy Corner has a master’s degree in landscape architecture and worked for the town of Brattleboro, Vermont before the seizure of their home. She has also worked in mediation, she said.
When asked how her husband’s activism affected her life, she said, “Given all that’s going on in the world, I’m very glad to take a stand with Randy and not pay for war and killing. It’s more important to focus on what we want our communities to be than spending more money on wars.”
“Betsy and I didn’t take the easy way out,” Kehler says. “We could have easily saved our house, but we were resolute.
“Without standing up for your convictions, we are implicated in all the things we oppose,” Kehler says. “If we are silent, if we don’t speak out against what we don’t believe in, we are complicit. Until we understand what our own complicity is, we can’t stop being complicit. Just raising your voice is one way. A letter to the editor is one way. It doesn’t mean you have to go to jail. Just stand up and be counted.”
To watch excerpts of the film “The Boys Who Said No” online, go to www.boyswhosaidno.com.