Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with John Braxton, September 13, 2022

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Braxton's background and Quaker heritage

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Partial Transcript: All right. My name is Thomas Wood and it is September 13th. And I'm sitting with John Braxton about an interview on his activism during the Vietnam War.

Segment Synopsis: Thomas Wood introduces the interview with John Braxton. Braxton provides a brief personal history, starting from childhood and ending with his choice of college. He says his family members were Quakers, and he grew up with Quaker values. Braxton briefly mentions conscientious objectors being in his community growing up.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Anti-war movement

Subjects: Conscientious objectors.; Peace movements; Pennsylvania; Quakers; Swarthmore College; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: William Penn Charter School, Germantown, Philadelphia
Map Coordinates: 40.02252, -75.18688
00:07:30 - College, ecology, and biology mixing with activism

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Partial Transcript: What was your major when you went to--you said you started at Swarthmore, correct?

Segment Synopsis: Braxton discusses choosing to go to Swarthmore College, and his choice to major in biology, specifically ecology and botany. He speaks about blending his educational knowledge with his activism.

Keywords: Activism; Activist; Anti-war movement

Subjects: Botany.; Ecology.; Peace movements; Pennsylvania; Quakers; Swarthmore College

GPS: Swarthmore College
Map Coordinates: 39.90392, -75.35285
00:13:06 - Early in the war / The fight for democracy

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Partial Transcript: This is a delightful rabbit hole.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton discusses what he heard about the Vietnam War in school. He touches on French colonialism and that particular pushback among the Vietnamese people. Braxton talks about the United States and its blocking of a democratic vote in Vietnam, based on winner projections.

Keywords: Anti-war movements

Subjects: Cambodia; Democracy.; Hồ, Chí Minh, 1890-1969.; Philadelphia (Pa.); Quakers; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; William Penn Charter School

GPS: William Penn Charter School
Map Coordinates: 40.02241, -75.18688
00:18:27 - Catholic anti-Communism

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Partial Transcript: I think it's interesting that you identify Dr. Dooley and the Catholic anti-Communist sentiment is as a outside force compared to your, your growing up as a Quaker.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton discusses his experience learning about Communism, which was rather minimal growing up. He says the Quaker sentiment he grew up with was that no one, including the Soviets, were the enemy, even if communism was “really bad.” He briefly discusses Catholic anti-Communism propaganda and the tension between that position and Quaker sentiments. Braxton mentions that he did not know much about Catholicism during the 1950s, and describes his mother's thoughts about ending the war, and her faith in the United Nations.

Keywords: Anti-Communism

Subjects: Catholics; Communism; Quakers; United Nations

00:22:03 - Political Quaker Action

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Partial Transcript: So when did you make the transition from to to political action?

Segment Synopsis: Braxton says that while still in high school he attended a demonstration against the war in Washington, D.C. Braxton talks about his first experiences with political protests and activism, mentioning the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) among others. He discusses tension among Quakers in matters of action versus in-action. Braxton touches on the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and what they have encouraged, mentioning how Quakers work with consensus, which is not an efficient means of conducting activism, but this process allowed everyone to be heard. He also mentions that they worked with non-pacifists to get points across, including collaborating with anarchists, communists, socialists, and others who shared the belief that the Vietnam War was wrong. He recalls the myth of soldiers and veterans being spat upon.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); Anti-war movement; Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (SANE); SDS; Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

Subjects: Anarchism; Communism; Quakers; Socialism; Students for a Democratic Society (US); Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Washington (D.C.)

00:27:16 - American Friends Service Committee & the Boat to Nam

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Partial Transcript: Did your, did your, your big action, or, sorry. Let me rephrase that. When did you or did you get involved with the American Friends Service Committee?

Segment Synopsis: Braxton describes a Quaker camp he attended, where they discussed civil disobedience. He discusses the American Friends Service Committee and its formation, as well as other Quaker activist groups. Braxton spins the story of how he signed up for the Phoenix boat trip to North Vietnam, where they were attempting to deliver medical supplies to soldiers in North Vietnam.

Keywords: A Quaker Action Group (AQAG); Activism; Activists; Earl Reynolds; Export Control Act; George Lakey; George Willoughby; North Vietnam; Peace in Vietnam; Phoenix (boat); The Golden Rule (boat); Trading with the Enemy Act

Subjects: American Friends Service Committee; Quakers; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

00:37:40 - On the boat / Missing college

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Partial Transcript: So I saw a few different sources that talk about this boat and this boat trip.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about writing a passionate essay in order to apply for the boat trip to Vietnam chartered by the Quaker Action Group. He says that after doing door-to-door canvassing against the war, he was invited to join the next boat trip, which entailed missing his fall semester at Swarthmore in 1967.

Keywords: A Quaker Action Group (AQAG); Activism; Activists; Anti-war movement; Medical aid; North Vietnam

Subjects: Boats and boating.; Friends Peace Committee (Philadelphia, Pa.); Peace movements; Quakers; Swarthmore College; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
Map Coordinates: 39.90399, -75.35270
00:41:07 - The Phoenix Boat in Hiroshima & Remembering its History

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Partial Transcript: Tell me about the door-to-door canvasing you did.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton briefly discusses doing door-to-door canvasing to share info about why the Vietnam War was wrong in Chester, Pennsylvania. He goes on to talk about the boat Phoenix docking in Hiroshima, Japan, and his visit to the Peace Park there.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Atomic bombs; Hiroshima; Peace Memorial Park (Hiroshima); Phoenix (boat); WW2; WWII; World War 2; World War Two

Subjects: Chester (Pa.); Hiroshima-shi (Japan); Japan; Nuclear warfare.; Quakers; World War II

GPS: Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima, Japan
Map Coordinates: 34.39278105270752, 132.45223079505485
00:46:53 - The boat trip in the media

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Partial Transcript: The story is obviously rife with symbolism, and I use the word story very intentionally.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about how there were rumors of violence and media coverage surrounding his boat when it was in Hiroshima, Japan. He says that the United States was using anti-personnel weapons, and extensively bombing these areas. He discusses the media covering his yacht trip, and names the news outlets with a presence there at this time, such as the New York Times, Time Magazine, and CBS News.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Anti-personnel weapons; Hiroshima; New York Times; Phoenix (boat); Time Magazine

Subjects: CBS News; Japan; Quakers; United States; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Hiroshima, Japan
Map Coordinates: 34.42953, 132.42150
00:51:26 - Life on the Boat

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Partial Transcript: So tell me about life on the boat.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about life while he was on the yacht traveling to Hong Kong, the work he learned how to do, what they ate, and general daily life tasks. He discusses knot tying and rope rigging, the astronaut-type food they had to eat, and how they spent their leisure time. He talks about what they did in storms, and how primitive life on the boat felt.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Hong Kong; Phoenix (boat)

Subjects: Quakers; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Hong Kong
Map Coordinates: 22.33216, 114.15786
00:55:56 - Barred passage to Haiphong Harbor

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Partial Transcript: Did you go on tour when you were in Hong Kong?

Segment Synopsis: Braxton says that they went on tour in Hong Kong after arriving, and says that the North Vietnamese did not want them to leave to go to their country yet due to intense bombing. They then got permission to sail to Da Nang in South Vietnam, but were barred passage before docking and intimidated with gun boats and other weaponry.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Da Nang; Gunboats; Medical aid; South Vietnam; South Vietnamese Red Cross; United Buddhist Church

Subjects: Quakers; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Đà Nẵng (Vietnam)

GPS: Da Nang, Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 16.057055489212033, 108.20258271387112
01:00:53 - George Lakey jumping overboard in protest

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Partial Transcript: And incidentally, anchored in that harbor all night long, they would they would lob mortar shells from one side of the harbor over to the other, because the South Vietnamese and Americans couldn't hold any territory for any length of time.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton says that, while attempting to enter Haiphong Harbor, the Phoenix was intimidated and harassed by Vietnamese soldiers from their gunboats and that George Lakey, a known practitioner of civil disobedience and a member of the crew on the yacht, jumped overboard to prove a point to the South Vietnamese soldiers that were attempting to tow them out. He mentions that a high-ranking general gave the reasons why they were not permitted.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Civil disobedience; George Lakey; Nonviolent acts; South Vietnam; United Buddhist Church

Subjects: Haiphong (Vietnam); Quakers; United States; United States. Navy.; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Haiphong Harbor, Haiphong, Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 20.85884, 106.67592
01:05:42 - Boat Intimidation / Regret in Vietnam

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Partial Transcript: And they said, so now we're going to tow you out, because they stopped towing us when all this happened.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about the various intimidation tactics that were used on the passengers of the Phoenix. He says that they used flags to communicate, and the soldiers regretted treating them roughly, but they were towed out anyway.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Intimidation tactics; South Vietnam

Subjects: Quakers; Soldiers; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Haiphong Harbor, Haiphong, Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 20.85884, 106.67592
01:09:41 - The Prince of Cambodia / Refueling on a tropical island

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Partial Transcript: So we tried community, we did manage to communicate by radio.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton's boat arrives in Cambodia, which also has some tensions due to the war. The Prince and the Cambodian government told them they could not come into the country, but directed them to a small island off the coast. There, they had a break and refueled.

Keywords: Cambodia; Cambodian embassy; North Vietnam; Prince Sihanouk; Tet Lunar New Year; Tết Nguyên Đán

Subjects: Cambodia; Norodom Sihanouk, Prince, 1922-2012.; Quakers; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Vietnamese New Year

01:12:55 - Elderly Ho Chi Minh

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Partial Transcript: In one of the sources, I forget which one I read that this was specifically Ho Chi Minh’s decision.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about the aging Ho Chi Minh, who, at this point, had become more of a figurehead than an actual leader making decisions. He describes being welcomed by officials.

Keywords: Government officials; Ho Chi Minh; North Vietnam

Subjects: Hồ, Chí Minh, 1890-1969.; Public officers.; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:14:10 - The Tet Offensive & Braxton's Two Days in North Vietnam

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Partial Transcript: And, um, so, yeah, so clearly we were, we were welcomed. They, they treated us like, like heroes, really--

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about his two days in North Vietnam, and how welcoming the people of the country were. He mentions the Lunar New Year festivities, and how the crew of the Phoenix were "welcomed as heroes." Braxton explains how hard life looked, pressure on cities and pressure on rural areas. He talks about the bombing the United States was doing over North Vietnam at the time.

Keywords: Hong Kong; Lunar New Year; National Liberation Front; North Vietnam; Saigon; South Vietnam; Tết Nguyên Đán

Subjects: Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam); National liberation movements.; Tet Offensive, 1968; Vietnamese New Year

GPS: Former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 10.97952, 106.62358
01:18:32 - Braxton's response to the Tet Offensive / Return trip to Vietnam

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Partial Transcript: You're well versed in the Vietnam War and the history of it.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about the different tactics that the militaries used during the Tet Offensive and the overall Vietnam War, including guerilla warfare and chemical weapons. He talks about his most recent trip to Vietnam in 2014, where he visited museums and saw the primitive but deadly military technology that was used.

Keywords: Guerilla warfare; Military tactics; Military technology; North Vietnam

Subjects: Chemical weapons; Napalm; Tactics.; Tet Offensive, 1968; United States; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:20:41 - Haiphong & the Vietnamese people's acceptance of Braxton

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Partial Transcript: So you went to Haiphong. And Haiphong Bay isn’t too far away from that.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about his days in North Vietnam, focusing on how welcoming the people were. He tells a story about children calling him a "Yankee."

Keywords: Haiphong Bay; North Vietnam; Saigon; Yankees

Subjects: Haiphong (Vietnam); Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam); Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 10.97952, 106.62358
01:24:56 - Communism / Braxton's return trip to Vietnam

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Partial Transcript: I think it was a way--I think they believed it, you know, as communists--

Segment Synopsis: Braxton explains his definition of Communism. He talks about how the people of Vietnam did not hate the American people, and saw the people as separate from the United States government. He also mentions Nixon briefly, how he could no longer escalate the war even though, as we know now, he had plans to, because the American people were not behind him.

Keywords: Americans; Anti-war movement; North Vietnam

Subjects: Communism; Nixon, Richard; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:30:41 - Missing college, the draft, and conscientious objection

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Partial Transcript: So you, you leave Hanoi and not Hanoi--sorry, Haiphong, you head back to Hiroshima from there, right?

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about the end of his journey and flying back to the United States. He talks about going back to college and seeking Conscientious Objector status.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Anti-war movements; CO status; Draft boards; Hong Kong

Subjects: Conscientious objectors; Quakers; Swarthmore College; United States

01:35:54 - CO Status / Being arrested for dodging the draft

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Partial Transcript: Hmm. So you have the CO status, and you said you sent them a letter after being granted CO status.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton recounts how he sent the draft board a letter stating that he would not cooperate with them or be apart of their system. He talks about the protest in front of his draft board, and that he was arrested and sent to prison.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Anti-war movements; CO status; Draft boards; Draft dodgers; Protests

Subjects: Conscientious objectors.; Draft; Draft resisters; Prisons; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:39:01 - The good and bad of prison / Meeting Jimmy Hoffa

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Partial Transcript: So they never prosecuted us. Theoretically, they believed they could.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton recalls his time in prison, talking about the different types of people and understanding these men as human beings. He mentions that he met Jimmy Hoffa in prison. Braxton briefly describes his opinions on the United States prison system.

Keywords: Anti-war movement; Federal Correctional Institution; Jimmy Hoffa

Subjects: Hoffa, James R. (James Riddle), 1913-; Peace movements; Prisons

01:44:37 - Inmate council / Being a threat to security

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Partial Transcript: Did you continue your anti-war activism from prison?

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about his creation and part in an inmate council at the Allenwood facility. He recalls an incident where the prisoners, including Braxton, stood up to guards, resulting in him subsequently being moved to solitary confinement.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Allenwood (Pa.); Anti-war; Federal Correctional Institution; Protests

Subjects: Peace movements; Prisons.; Riots.; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Federal Correctional Institution - Allenwood, Allenwood, Pennsylvania
Map Coordinates: 41.12844593410628, -76.93082460389884
01:51:23 - Life in solitary confinement at Lewisburg Prison

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Partial Transcript: So tell me how their, their strike breaking compares to something like U.P.S.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about how he was able to keep himself occupied during his time in solitary confinement. He talks about playing games, singing, and other ways to feel less isolated and alone. He then talks about his interest in labor unions resulted from his time in prison.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Anti-war movements; Federal Correctional Institution; United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg, PA

Subjects: Labor unions.; Lewisburg (Pa.); Prisons.; Riots.; Solitary confinement.

GPS: United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania
Map Coordinates: 40.98687519547193, -76.91520892215947
01:57:25 - Solidarity, Activism, Ideology, and Quaker Values

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Partial Transcript: I have a few more questions, but I want to start winding down the interview.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton talks about his Quaker values and other influences that fuel his drive towards solidarity in his activism. He then goes into these values, describing which piece came from where, and his philosophies for each aspect.

Keywords: Activism; Activists; Solidarity

Subjects: Quakers; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

02:00:37 - Socioeconomic views & Quaker complicity

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Partial Transcript: You seem like a person who has stood by your convictions your whole life, but has there ever been a moment where something you believed in strongly or just believed in in general was proven to you to be?

Segment Synopsis: Wood asks Braxton a question about things challenging his views and beliefs. Braxton talks about his pacifism and how that has changed over the years, and how his opinions and beliefs grew as his perspective and experiences broadened.

Keywords: Complicity; Nonviolent

Subjects: Nonviolence; Pacifists; Quakers

02:04:46 - Braxton's classless system, environmental ideals, and intersectionality

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Partial Transcript: And I mean, it's--it strikes that interesting conundrum of complicity in a system.

Segment Synopsis: Braxton says that one cannot completely withdraw from the system if one expects to change it. Braxton also discusses an argument for environmentalism and anti-war beliefs. He also mentions the class system and the issues it brings, including violence and pollution of every kind. He argues that intersectionality is important in changing society's system, which means utilizing different disciplines to solve the problems that he lists.

Keywords: Anti-war movements; Complicity; Environment

Subjects: Ecology.; Intersectionality (Sociology); Quakers; Socioeconomic status; War