Website of the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1969

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Martin Chalfie '69


            As I assume it was for most of my classmates, the War in Vietnam was an ever-present aspect of my growing up. For me it was a sad but distant problem. I grew up in suburban Chicago, so the War was something to watch on TV, something to think about in the abstract. I had strong feelings about the war, but I think these initially came from my general upbringing and not as much as a reaction to the war. My great grandfather had been a “career soldier” in 19th century Russia, a term applied to Jews who were conscripted into the tsar’s army for a period of 25 years. The story I was told was that my grandfather, not wanting to share his father’s fate, emigrated first to England and then to the United States. And the way my father talked about his time in the navy in World War II, he seemed to spend most of his time talking with his friend John Truman (the nephew of then-senator Harry Truman) about how John could influence his uncle to get them out of the war. In other words, I came from a background if not of pacifism, at least of a great dislike of war.

            Thus, I was not inclined to be for a war, such as the one in Vietnam, that seemed so obviously flawed. Until my last year at Harvard, however, I talked about being against the War, but did little else to protest. In the terms we used at the time, I was a liberal. Although with increasing concern about the War and the draft, I decided during my senior year to learn more about the Selective Service System (the “Draft Board”) and to train to be a draft counselor. For the most part I learned draft counseling by reading Arlo Tatum and Joseph S. Tuchinsky’s Guide to the Draft and literature provided by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), which documented the many changes to the draft laws and regulations, and by going to several training sessions. For the next couple of years, I counseled others on what their draft obligations were in Cambridge, my hometown of Skokie, IL, and New Haven, wherever I happened to be living.

            I now realize that this training had an unexpected influence on who I am and how I give advice. When I began draft counseling, I found that counselors took two different approaches, both stemming from an opposition to the war (or to war in general). Some counselors thought their job was to convince draft-eligible men to opt out of participating in the war; talking people into being conscientious objectors or even leaving the country was appropriate because the counselors felt these options were the correct choices and because it took these men out of the pool of potential fighters. The other group of counselors, exemplified by those in the CCCO, believed that everyone was entitled to all the available information, but no one should be talked into a particular action. Everyone was expected to make and take responsibility for their own decisions. Or as the back of the Guide to the Draft stated: “The authors make no attempt to persuade anyone to follow a specific course, but instead set forth the alternatives, explaining how to proceed, and what are the likely results of each choice.” For example, we were advised that we never wanted to have someone come back to us several years later and say that we had ruined their lives because we had convinced them to leave the country and while they were away one of their parents had gotten gravely ill and they had been unable to see them before they died.

            I felt much more comfortable with this latter approach and still use it today in my life as a researcher and a professor whenever I am asked for advice. I have lots of opinions, but I realized several years ago that I am still following the guidance I received when I was training to be a draft counselor. For example, I feel very strongly that graduate students often apply for postdoctoral positions incorrectly, and I often counsel them on what I believe is the correct way to apply. I do not, however, tell them where to apply. That is a decision that they have to make.

In addition, I have been fortunate to talk with students all over the world, and during these conversations, I am frequently asked for advice on which research area they should enter. I usually reply by telling students that I don’t truly know what will work out for them and that, in any case, I don’t want them to blame me years later for steering them in what they have come to feel was the wrong direction. Instead, I suggest that how they start does not really matter, because their own discoveries will generate the research areas of the future and that they should simply work in an area that excites them. Although some students are annoyed that I don’t tell them what to do, I hope that they are taking responsibility for their decisions just as I hoped that people seeking draft advice had done so many years ago. I am not sure that my current attitude toward advising would have developed without my decision to learn to counsel people on the draft as a response to what was happening in the country during the War in Vietnam.