“Fuck the Draft” (1968)
by Kiyoshi Kuromiya (1943-2000)
20.25 X 29.75 in., poster
Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Arguably one of the most iconic anti-Vietnam War posters ever created, it depicts a young man burning his draft card in a symbolic act of defiance. Designed by famed activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya under the pseudonym Dirty Linen Corp, this poster was distributed via mail order.
This copy is an unrestored original poster with bright color and a clean overall appearance.
On June 7, 1971, “Fuck the Draft” was ruled as protected speech in the Supreme Court case of Cohen v. California.
Robert Paul Cohen had been convicted of walking through the Los Angeles County Courthouse, on April 26, 1968, with the words “Fuck the Draft” on the back of his jacket as an anti-Vietnam War protest. The Supreme Court on this day overturned the conviction as a violation of freedom of speech.
Justice Harlan: “This case may seem at first blush too inconsequential to find its way into our books, but the issue it presents is of no small constitutional significance…The constitutional right of free expression is powerful medicine in a society as diverse and populous as ours. It is designed and intended to remove governmental restraints from the arena of public discussion, putting the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us, in the hope that use of such freedom will ultimately produce a more capable citizenry and more perfect polity…”
The ruling in Cohen v. California set a precedent used in future cases concerning the power of states to regulate free speech in order to maintain public civility.
Opposition to the Vietnam War was an issue that galvanized a generation of students and activists. The drafting of men became a major catalyst for opposition to the Vietnam War, especially among college students for whom burning the draft card became a symbolic act of defiance.
The language Kuromiya used in the poster was designed to shock the establishment and resonates with the ways in which 1960s American youth culture sought to challenge authority. In 1968, Kuromiya distributed this poster via mail order. In the accompanying advert he described it as ‘the perfect gift for Mother’s Day’ and ‘Buy five and we’ll send a sixth one to the mother of your choice’ listing a number of options, including the White House.
For this ad, Kuromiya was arrested by the FBI and charged with using the US postal service for inciting lewd and indecent materials, but this poster had already made its rounds and secured a place in anti-draft history. Later that year, Kuromiya defied the authorities and handed out 2000 of the posters at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Kuromiya procured—how is unclear—a photo of a hippie burning his draft card, looking almost religiously captivated by the flame, and set his slogan in the plainest possible type. It was a hit, but his mail order sales gave feds seeking to suppress its message a strong angle of attack—using the mails to send obscene materials over state lines. The designer spent three years fighting those obscenity charges.
Jason Schafer (Dangerous Minds) told the whole story in an article (October 2017), exactly five decades later, after an investigation.
Poster boy Bill Greenshields (2017) from the Dangerous Minds interview.
Schafer writes “A crucial part of that story has gone untold until now—
He’s only ever been publicly identified as the face of “Fuck the Draft” once before, practically in passing in a 1968 issue of an underground magazine. He’s agreed to tell his story for the first time to Dangerous Minds, to mark the 50th anniversary of his immortal rebellious action—the photo was taken on October 21, 1967, at the notorious war protest at the Pentagon, the one during which Abbie Hoffman famously attempted to levitate the building.
Dangerous Minds was put in contact with Greenshields by longtime Detroit art/punk provocateur Tim Caldwell. Caldwell has known Greenshields for decades, but only just found out about his friend’s connection to the poster. It’s a story best told in Caldwell’s words:
Tim Caldwell: I was at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit for this exhibit called “Sonic Rebellion,” for the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots in July of 1967. There are all these artifacts, like magazines, protest posters, books, and photographs, and people’s interpretations of all that in their artwork. And also there’s this idea of music as a force of expressive resistance.
And there was this poster of my friend Bill.
It was really weird, because he’d always told me he’d had a very different life before we met, and I didn’t really know what he looked like as a teenager—he’s almost 70 and I met him about 30 years ago, doing films and things like that. But so I saw this poster, in a case, and I was like “WOW, that’s him!”
He looks kind of goofy and crazed in it, because that’s just the moment they caught him, he wasn’t posing or anything. I hadn’t seen him in about five or seven years, so I called a mutual friend who’s a musician who he knew Bill from film societies going back to the ‘80s. And he confirmed that it was Bill in the poster, and I asked if he was OK with talking about it, since he’d never mentioned it. So finally I called Bill and, yeah, it’s him! And every time we talked after that he’d have more and more crazy stories about stuff he did in the protest era that I’d never heard about before, he had this whole secret life before I met him—I started to wonder how well I’d really known him for those 30 years!
Greenshields broke his decades-long silence on his experience in a phone conversation last weekend.
Dangerous Minds: So let’s start at the beginning—the protest itself. What were the circumstances, and do you know who shot the picture?
Bill Greenshield: I have no idea who took the picture or how I was selected to be on a poster. There were some people around with cameras, some of whom I thought were probably government spooks.
DM: Some of them probably were!
BG: There were friendlies too, with cameras, though. This occurred at the Pentagon on October 21, 1967, and it was part of the march on the Pentagon.
DM: This was the day that Yippies tried to levitate the Pentagon?
BG: Yeah, that occurred at the same time, you might say, around sundown. The march started at the Lincoln Memorial. People were bussed in from all over the country, and it was kind of a virgin thing, the first really big national march. If you’ve been to the Lincoln Memorial, you know there’s a giant long reflecting pool between that and the Washington Monument obelisk.
At that particular time, I was part of a group of draft resistors in the Detroit area, and one of us had made a mock-up of a sign, a really large draft card. The name on it was “Loony Bird Johnson,” because LBJ was president at the time. Another fellow and I took off our shoes and socks and walked into the reflecting pool, which was slippery as hell. So we’re slipping and sliding, trying to be really careful, taking this gigantic draft card out into the middle of it, and suddenly everyone looked a lot smaller, except Lincoln, who was still very imposing. We got out a butane lighter and tried to light it, and it took a while, because there was a breeze and it was poster board. But we got it lit and immolated the whole thing. Then slid all the way back and put our shoes on to go hear all the speeches.
Then there was a march across the Potomac to the Pentagon. I don’t know how many miles it was, but it was slow going. I don’t know how many people were there but it was a long line of them, and the first people there went to where the public entrance was, that large staircase, and they went up there and got stuck up there, surrounded by Federal Marshals, who were not very nice [laughs], with billy clubs and whatnot, and Federal troops, who were our age, and were very nice. They were armed, but you could talk with them. It was starting to get dark, and like I said, they were stuck up there. Then some of the Yippies were doing like an invocation to levitate the Pentagon…
DM: So did it go up?
BG: Well, WE levitated! [laughs] Anyway, what happened was someone threw a rope up to the next level, because the stairs were blocked, and nobody was grabbing it to climb it, and I thought “what the hell,” and I started to go up. And as I’m going up I’m thinking various things, like “I hope someone up there keeps holding the other end of this,” and “A sniper could pick me off pretty good right now.” And when I got all the way up some people saw me and helped me over the ledge. People were pretty crammed together, and about 50 of them had put their draft cards in a soldier’s helmet and burned them all, and I had just missed it. So I took mine out and lit it up individually, and it lit a lot better than the big cardboard one.
That was when someone took my picture.
And that picture somehow got to Kiyoshi Kuromiya who made the poster.
I had no knowledge of the poster until an article in May of 1968, in The Fifth Estate, an underground paper that still exists, by the way. Harvey Ovshinsky was the editor. I was a childhood friend of his, all the way through junior high school, and he recognized me on the poster right away, and even named me in the article (a copy of the article appears at the end of this transcript).
DM: The look on your face in that poster is a little demented, like you’re some kind of twisted fire-worshipper.
BG: Yeah, like there’s this GLEE of some kind! That’s probably why it was selected, but you gotta remember, I had just climbed this rope after walking from the Lincoln Monument to the Pentagon, and so I probably WAS really enjoying burning that card at the time.
DM: So after the poster came out, the Federal obscenity charges came up against Kuromiya. Did the feds try finding you, too?
BG: Yes, they did. Here’s what happened: under the U.S. Code title 18 section 1461, postal code, it was considered an obscene, indecent and crime-inciting poster. The ACLU defended Kuromiya, who was arrested on April 11, 1968. He was handcuffed at both his hands and his waist, and forced to walk seven blocks down Martin St. in Philadelphia to the Federal Building where bail was set at $500.
And if I remember my facts correctly, the case was overturned in 1971. The ACLU used a precedent: some guy had “FUCK THE DRAFT” hand written on his jacket, and was arrested and indicted for obscenity. The defense was that the statement is Constitutionally protected and cannot be used to convict because no-one could possibly believe that the defendant was suggesting sexual intercourse with the Selective Service System.
DM: [laughing] So the context of the “fuck” was non-sexual and so not obscene? Is that basically what it came down to?
BG: Yes. That was the basis of the whole argument, suggesting sexual intercourse— which of course is impossible—with the Selective Service System! It’s not something you could literally do.
DM: I’ll bet some people got high enough to try.
BG: I’m sure they did.
DM: So wait, now, you said the article in The Fifth Estateappeared in May of 1968, but the poster artist got arrested in April of 1968? Was the obscenity case the topic of the article in which they named you as the subject of the photo? That seems jurisprudentially ill-advised.
BG: Right! Like I said, as soon as they had knowledge of the poster and the arrests, May 1st was when the paper came out and April 11 was when the artist was arrested. Now I saw, in early May, the article. It had a picture of the poster, which I hadn’t seen before, and they printed it backwards so the “FUCK” wouldn’t be obscene, it would say “KCUF.” My parents, friends of mine, my employers, places I frequented, were all approached by the FBI. But where I was living, that was pretty ambiguous, or they probably would have come straight to me. So I said well, discretion is the better part of valor here, so I decided to get out of Detroit, hitchhike out west and keep moving around. A moving target was less likely to be hit. I just didn’t want to deal with these guys after what they were doing to Kuromiya.
So I wandered around Indian reservations, like the Navajo nation, Zuni Pueblo, later a Lakota reservation, then became a migrant worker with a lot of Mexicans, who were mostly Yaqui Indians who didn’t speak Spanish. I wandered all up and down the West Coast, up to Washington, down to Los Angeles, of course spent time in the Bay Area, and I finally wanted to make my way back to see what was going on, and I got news— two couples who’d visited New York had come to see me, and they told me they saw me in New York. I go: no I haven’t been to New York… you didn’t see me. But they said oh, no, you were IN New York!
They smile and tell me there was this area where they were building these huge buildings, and there’s a baffling fence around all these blocks so you can’t get into the construction site, and the poster with me on it was all the way around it for blocks and blocks. You couldn’t miss it. Those buildings were the World Trade Center Twin Towers.
There were other incidents where I came across the poster, of course. I never had a copy because I never felt I needed one, I was in it. Anonymity of the subject was kind of what the poster went for, and Kuromiya said in an interview that he thought the person in the poster was from Detroit, but that he was either in jail or dead, neither of which happened, thank God!
You can only imagine putting yourself in my place, this thing you had nothing to do with—and of course I did what I did willingly and I’d back it up today, and if someone had asked me to voluntarily be photographed burning my draft card for a poster I would have said “sure”—but nobody asked me, it was just done, so it was a surprise, and I’ve kept it under my hat for many years. It’s nothing to brag about, really, I was just committed to the cause, and it took years after that for the war to finally be over. So many people died, I had friends who went, some all gung-ho and some against it, some didn’t make it back, so I felt it was worthwhile doing what I did in opposing it.