Peter Coyote: Voice of the Vietnam Generation
Clara Bingham Asks a Counterculture Legend About Narrating a Hard History
Halfway through episode five of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ten-part The Vietnam War documentary, the smooth, sonorous-voiced narrator Peter Coyote describes how 50,000 antiwar activists marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon 50 years ago on October 21st, 1967. Les Gelb, who was working inside the Pentagon then tells viewers that his secretaries were scared of being attacked, even raped by the protesting peaceniks. “It was a sense of revolution,” Gelb pronounced. After Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and their band of Yippies tried to meditate the Pentagon into full “levitation,” and others clashed with police, the protest ended with an unprecedented 682 arrests. The war at home had officially kicked off in full force. The peace movement, frustrated with years of being ignored, shifted in attitude and tone from protest to resistance.
October 1967 was also a moment when our trusty narrator Peter Coyote (nee Cohon from Englewood, New Jersey by way of Haight-Ashbury and the Black Bear commune) was at the top of his counterculture game, as a bad-ass motorcycle-driving hippie who was one of the leaders of San Francisco’s legendary guerilla theater group, the Diggers.
I first met Coyote three years ago when I interviewed him for my book Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost its Mind and Found its Soul. I tracked him down because he is one of the most iconic, articulate members of his generation’s tribe, and he had written candidly about his adventurous life in two memoirs, Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle (Counterpoint 1998) and later The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education (Counterpoint 2015). Coyote (he adopted the last name with the guidance of a Paiute-Shoshone shaman named Rolling Thunder) and the Diggers shunned private property and capitalist culture and ultimately became the de facto hosts to thousands of youth who streamed into Haight-Ashbury for 1967’s Summer of Love. The Diggers distributed free food, set up a free medical clinic, opened a Free Store, and found free crash pads for hundreds of young hippies (as they were first labeled that year by the mainstream media). The Diggers became the counterculture’s mad cap den mothers and fathers. Coyote was the wildest, toughest, sexiest hippie of them all.
As the hours of Burns’ sober, even-handed series ticked by, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like for Coyote, of all people, to narrate this, his seventh Ken Burns PBS documentary series. In the mid-to late Sixties, Coyote was living in a separate, parallel universe from the stars of this documentary—vets like John Musgrave, and Tim O’Brien (author of The Things They Carried)—who volunteered to fight in Vietnam only to return home and join the movement to oppose it. When these vets were fighting in muddy, deadly battles near the DMZ, Coyote was plotting a cultural revolution in San Francisco. “I was interested in two things,” Coyote once said about his life in 1967. “Overthrowing the government and fucking. They went together seamlessly.” Now at age 76, Coyote has of course mellowed. He is a Zen Buddhist priest and a prolific, successful actor.
I reached Peter Coyote on the phone the day after fires destroyed parts of the city of Santa Rosa, just 13 miles from his home in Sebastopol. “I’m ragged but alright,” he assured me. “The winds have died down and they don’t seem to be moving this way. If I were a biblical person, I would say God is angry.”
Clara Bingham: While I watched the Vietnam series, I wondered what it must be like for you to narrate 18 hours of this heartbreaking, maddening story that describes a time when you were actively rebelling in your own way against the system.
Peter Coyote: When I narrated The Roosevelt’s that was my parent’s time, and it was something I was conversant with, and it brought up a lot of emotion. But when I did The Vietnam War, that was my time and it really did bring up a lot of emotion—it was very strong and powerful for me to do. But I’m a Buddhist priest, and the thing is that you don’t really select what you like and you don’t like. You actually look at the world the way it is and the world is an infinity of beauty and miracles and it’s also an infinity of horrors. And if you can’t stare at both unflinchingly you’re off balance. A couple of people have commented on how I treated the disasters [in the series] the same way I treated the joys, and that’s true. That’s a conscious practice on my part.
The heavy lifting was done by Ken [Burns] and Lynn [Novick] and Geoff [Ward] the author, and my job is to read the script coherently so that you can follow all of the clauses and sentences so it makes sense. If I add emotion, I’m seducing you to pay attention to me and not to the text. My job is also to be transparent so that your attention goes through me to watch what’s on the screen. I don’t want anyone thinking, oh my god, the narrator was so moved when he did this. That would be terrible.
CB: Can you talk about what it brought up for you and what you learned?
PC: I learned that both sides were murderous bastards. We had invaded that country and once you break down civil society all sorts of armed gangsters take over. Not that Ho Chi Mihn wasn’t a real patriot, but some of the people fighting on his side would come into a town and kill 3,000 people who were ideologically opposed to them, their own people. So it’s hard to hold a lot of reverence for them.
The second thing that was very clear was the absolute mendacity and shamelessness of our leaders. Guys who basically couldn’t get out of Vietnam because for personal and political reasons they couldn’t accept the loss. I mean Richard Nixon undercut Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks, telling [his emissaries] to instruct the Vietnamese that they’d get a better deal from him [than the Democrats]. They kept the war going five years longer, we lost another 5,000 American soldiers. I mean these people ought to have been taken out and horse whipped.
And then it also brought up this great sorrow about all these wonderful young men and women who leapt up to serve because they believed their leaders. I was very lucky when I was a kid, because a bunch of my relatives were socialists and communists and I watched them be excoriated by the McCarthy period and lied about. I was supposed to salute the flag of our government that was lying about my relatives and throwing them out of their jobs? I had an early education in the ruthlessness and lack of political courage of our government.
But I think about all of those 50,000 young men and women who died and the ones who were wounded just for an ideological chess game. That’s really all it was. An ideological chess game and we’re repeating the same mistakes, we’ve moved into another culture in the Middle East where we don’t speak the language, we can’t tell the cops from the killers, the people there have nowhere to go and they will fight and suffer intolerable losses, and we’ll eventually get tired and leave. So how can you respect leaders like these?
CB: One of the criticisms of the series is it didn’t give the antiwar movement, the six million people who hit the streets and tried to force the LBJ and Nixon administrations to be honest and to pull out of the war, enough time or credit.
PC: If I had made the series, I might have given that more emphasis. But I didn’t make the series. The thing is, there are lots of really brilliant left wing progressive documentaries that have been made about Vietnam, that make those points very admirably, and only the choir sees them. So, I think that Ken was trying to get a lot of valuable information out to a mass audience and he didn’t want to tip his hand. I mean it’s obvious that he was against this war. But even to say this war was done “by good people with good intentions”—my friend David Talbot went berserk at this line because he wants to believe that they are evil machinators pulling puppet strings. He was excoriating the series on Facebook and people were talking about how I had sold out and what a shithead I was.
Ken wanted to make a film that would be seen by the mass of Americans. And the mass of Americans would see American generals lying, presidents lying, massacres at My Lai and other places. He was even-handed. He showed the Vietnamese, he showed the Americans.
He once gave me a t-shirt that said, “Make Your Own Fucking Movie.” That’s kind of how I feel. The man dedicated ten years of his life in good conscience. He’s not selling soap or toothpaste, and he made his movie. I’m not going to quibble with whether or not the antiwar movement got enough (attention in the series) or whether or not the antiwar movement actually was responsible for ending the war. They don’t know that, and I don’t know that. Matter of fact, it was probably not until middle America and Walter Cronkite had enough that people had enough. Because the progressive movement represents a small fraction of the population. I know that eventually it got too expensive, it was costing too many lives, and the country as a whole turned against it. I’m proud that the progressive people on the left were out there first. I identified with them. That’s my community. But it would be a misstatement to overestimate our power.
CB: When I interviewed you back in 2013 you told me the Diggers helped the soldiers who wandered into the Free Store get fake IDs, and you even got arrested carrying some of those ID cards.
PC: I was riding my motorcycle one day and the cops pulled me over and had a warrant out for my arrest—traffic tickets or something. They took me in, and I had 50 blank draft cards in my pocket. That was quite nervous-making—that was a federal offense. We had gotten a number of the codes that were used to make draft cards. Let’s say your birth date is 10/10/41, then ‘41 would have to go in a specific box. In the next box, there’s a code for each state or city draft board, and we got that list of numbers. When soldiers would come into the Free Store, the word was out that if they were delicate and quiet enough, we’d make ID for them. It had a seal on it and everything would scan. We would make up a name and then we’d put either a deferment or a rejection code on it, and then they could use the draft card to get a driver’s license or a library card and build an entire identity. They’d take their uniform off, hang it on the racks and take up a bunch of clothes and leave with new ID. In 1967 and ’68 we probably made about 100 false draft cards.
CB: What role did the war play in the counterculture and your activities in ‘67 and ’68?
PC: We felt that the war was the inevitable byproduct of a culture that was based on private property and profit. The Diggers were cultural revolutionaries. We began to analyze the situation more deeply and realized that the entire culture was producing the Vietnam War—this wasn’t a political aberration. If you accepted the premises of profit and private property, you wound up in Vietnam.
In 1961, I was invited into the White House. I was part of a group of protesters from Grinnell College called the Grinnell 14 and we did a three-day fast outside the White House protesting the resumption of nuclear testing and supporting Kennedy’s peace race. Kennedy had just been beaten up by the John Birch Society, so he invited us into the White House. It was the first time in history that protesters had been invited into the White House. We were on the cover of the New York Times, and we used that to contact every college in the United States. Long story short, that eventually became the first 25,000-student demonstration in Washington in 1963. Tom Hayden called it the beginning of the student peace movement.
Kennedy had been flying to Phoenix when he heard about us, so he got McGeorge Bundy, his National Security Advisor, to meet with us. I took one look at Bundy and I had an epiphany. I realized that we thought we were coming from the hinterlands with vital information for our leaders that they would want to know to govern wisely and justly. Well this guy did not give a shit about anything we were doing, and the policies had already been put in motion. The ship had already left and we were no more important than people on the dock waving goodbye to the Queen Mary.
This guy was never going to be stopped by people walking around in the streets holding signs. So that was the last time I walked around on the street carrying a sign. I realized that if you were going to get this guy’s attention you were going to have to come back with an army, and I honestly thought the counterculture was going to be that army. So, my work was not so much protesting the war, as trying to change the entire culture and trying to create theater events that would reveal truths about the culture to people. Our direct antiwar work was sort of incidental.
CB: Do you think that Vietnam played a role in the counterculture and was part of the reason why so many kids were dropping out of their conventional lives and flocking to Haight-Ashbury in ’67?
PC: I do. Remember, there was a draft. And so the people who ran away and disappeared, that has to be counted as a kind of draft resistance. These people weren’t cowards. These people weren’t idiots and miscreants. They just didn’t believe it. The war didn’t mean anything to them. They had not been attacked. They didn’t want to play on the chess board of the great game of the Cold War and global competition between communism and capitalism. They were kids from Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio, they had just discovered grass, they had just come into their lives and they didn’t want to kill anybody and they didn’t want to be shot to pieces. [Bob] Dylan has this wonderful thesis about how all of rock and roll was related to the creation of the atom bomb and I think he’s right. All of this frenzy to be alive was parallel with the nuclear scares in the 1950s.
CB: What is your own draft story?
PC: I was first called up in 1959 when I was about to go to college, and I applied for conscientious objector status and I wrote an essay that I could have written today. It honestly expressed my religious beliefs, and said I would only go as a medic, that I would not carry a gun and shoot people. They turned me down and I did not get CO status. But when I quit graduate school, I was called up again in 1965 or ’66. I’m not stupid. I told the truth the first time and that didn’t work. I was not going to go to Asia and kill people, so I lied. I said I’ll go, but I’ll keep what I catch. I told them I was a homosexual. I told them I would kill anybody who tried to get me hurt which could have been officers, and they gave me psychologically unfit status. They decided I was crazy.
But here’s the thing. I admire the people that served, and I admired the people who refused to serve. They are heads and tails of the same coin. They are different reactions to the war. I grew up in a very political, progressive, left wing family and I had a lot of political acumen and analysis in my life. Kids from Nebraska and Ohio, not so much. And when the country goes to war for whatever reasons, they stood up and I admire them for that.
CB: You’ve said that you think the counterculture has had a lasting impact on our country. Do you still feel that way?
PC: Yes, I think it’s fair to say that politically, we’ve lost every battle. We didn’t end racism, we didn’t end war, we didn’t end neo-liberalism, we didn’t end capitalism. We just didn’t. But if you look at the cultural front, we won everything. There’s no place in the United States you can go today where there isn’t a woman’s movement, where there isn’t an environmental movement protecting a local resource, where there’s not alternative spiritual practices: yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Indonesian Buddhism. Where there’s not alternative medical practices, homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, where there’s not a slow food movement, where there’s not an organic food movement, and these are deep in the culture now. These are the ways people are actually living. You now have huge industries based on organic food. I consider these big victories that are far deeper than politics. The winds of politics are like the frothy white water on a choppy ocean, but culture is the deep water that rarely moves. I think that my generation can take a lot of credit for really moving the markers. We made some mistakes, we had a lot of excesses, we were not always smart, but we moved the bloody markers.