Dr. Benjamin Spock was a card-carrying member of the Eastern Establishment until a presidential remark set him on a different path. It ended with his criminal conviction for opposing the Vietnam War.
He started out as a WASPy pediatrician who wrote a best-selling book. Then he began to rail against the Vietnam War and got himself indicted by the federal government.
Just before his trial, he told a reporter, “It sometimes seems as if my friends are shooting by me to the right while they see me as sky-rocketing to the left.”
Benjamin Spock was born on May 2, 1903, the son of a prominent New Haven lawyer. He followed his father’s academic path: Philips Academy and Yale University. He belonged to Scroll and Key, the secret society for future CIA directors and secretaries of state. Benjamin Spock even won a gold medal for rowing in the 1924 Olympics.
He graduated first in his class at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and started practicing as a pediatrician. He came across as gentle and dignified in his Brooks Brothers suits.
In 1946, he wrote Baby and Child Care, which instantly became the bible for new parents. For 52 years, no other book sold more copies except for – well, the Bible.
A Matter of Wording
Dr. Benjamin Spock turned into a peace activist in 1962 because of something President John F. Kennedy said. In May 1968, Spock told Life magazine:
The thing that did it was actually very small, a matter of wording. It was when President Kennedy decided to resume nuclear testing in 1962, after Russia resumed. He said that his experts told him we were way ahead of the Soviet Union in everything, but if we didn’t resume testing they could conceivably catch up sometime in the future. It made me realize that if a country can’t stop testing when it’s behind and can’t stop when it’s ahead either, then every excuse worked for more bombs and none for less. That was my turning point.
Then at age 59 he joined the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. As the United States got more and more involved in the Vietnam War, Dr. Benjamin Spock got more strident opposing it. He urged young men not to register for selective service, burn their draft cards and skip their physicals.
On Dec. 5, 1967, he was arrested for protesting the war. A month later, U.S. Attorney General Ramsay Clark indicted him and four others for conspiring to counsel young men to evade the draft.
It was the first major prosecution of the Vietnam War and it pretty much backfired. Alan Dershowitz later called it ‘a national disgrace.’
The men had never met each other, which made the conspiracy charge questionable. Dershowitz speculated the government brought a weak conspiracy charge because it would have the greatest impact on discouraging organized opposition to the Vietnam War.
The trial, held in federal court in Boston, was a study in prosecutorial overreach and judicial bias.
Prosecutor John Wall claimed the defendants conspired with ‘diverse other persons, some known and others unknown.’ The defense lawyer asked the prosecution to identify those people. Wall showed three hours of television footage of mass meetings, church services and news conferences. Wall later told a reporter that a man who claps and cheers like mad when Spock speaks is a co-conspirator, but the man who sits glum is not.
The judge, 85-year-old Francis Ford, appeared to be biased against the defendants. After the prosecutor made a cutting remark, Ford was heard telling his clerk, “Tell that son of a bitch to cut it out! He’ll blow this case if he keeps this up, and get us all in trouble.”
At one point, the prosecutor asked one of the defendants whether he applauded William Sloane Coffin out of politeness or agreement. The defense attorney objected, saying, “I didn’t know applause was a crime.” Judge Ford threatened the attorney with contempt.
Nonetheless, the jury convicted all but Raskin; Dr. Spock was sentenced to two years in prison. He never did time, as his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1969.
In a press conference after his conviction, Dr. Spock lost his composure. “I say to the American people, ‘Wake up.’ “ he shouted. “Get out there and do something before it’s too late. Do something NOW!”
He continued to speak out against the war on college campuses and at peace rallies. He was received warmly. “It’s worth being a criminal to get this kind of reception,” he said.
But he paid a price. Sales of Baby and Child Care dipped. His political enemies said the book promoted the permissiveness that caused the turmoil of the 1960s. Conservative minister Norman Vincent Peale said ‘the U.S. was paying the price of two generations that followed the Dr. Spock baby plan of instant gratification of needs.’
The criticism spread and took hold.
Spock dismissed it as politically motivated. But 25 years after the trial, reporters were asking him if he was still permissive. “You can’t catch up with a false accusation,” he said.
Dr. Benjamin Spock died on March 15, 1998, in La Jolla, Calif.
With thanks to America on Trial: Inside the Legal Battles That Transformed Our Nation by Alan Dershowitz.
This story about Benjamin Spock was updated in 2019.