I take it from your questions that you are used to talking to people a little younger than me -- people who got involved in politics in the late 60's. That's really a full political generation after mine. I was born in 1944, old enough to remember my mother listening to the Army-McCarthy hearings on the radio. But the really important thing is that I grew up in New York, and my high school culture was full of politics. I went to the Bronx High School of Science. The major social division among my friends was between kids with Socialist Party families and those with Communist Party families. They sent their kids to different summer camps and after-school activities, so different friendship networks formed. Some of my first political activities, in the late 1950's, were: protesting civil defense drills (ie, refusing to duck under our desks, and having demonstrations outdoors when everyone was supposed to be hiding in shelters); a "youth march for integrated schools" to Washington DC on the 4th or 5th anniversary of the Brown vs Bd of Ed supreme court decision; Easter Peace Marches, modeled after the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in England; and refusing to salute the flag in school -- some of us on general principles, some because they objected to the "under God" clause which had been added in the 50's; and boycotting Woolworth's in support of southern sit-in's. I also joined the Harlem branch of the NAACP, which was near where I lived in the South Bronx. A lot of my friends attended the Ethical Culture Society.
If you want to know about my own personal political development, as I remember it went like this: I could see that segregation and nuclear bombs were wrong and stupid. That wasn't hard. However the only other people who seemed to agree, and to want to do anything about it, were socialists and communists, so of course I became a socialist too.
Around the time I started college [at Columbia, in New York, in 1961] I joined the Student Peace Union, which had been initiated by people in or close to the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL, or yipsl), which meant it opposed both sides in the cold war, as well as war in general. We were also close to folks in the Fellowship of Reconcilliation and the War Resister's League (WRL) who were more strictly pacifist. Bayard Rustin was one of M L King's close advisors till he got red-baited out. It was Rustin who organized the 1963 March on Washington out of the FOR/WRL office on Beekman Street. A J Muste was still alive at that time too.
What you need to understand is that for us -- and for me still -- the issue was peace and justice, or socialism. The anti-war, peace, civil rights, labor, etc movements were never seen as single-issues, they were just part of the overall struggle for peace and justice. This also meant that my friends and I in this part of the movement, and in NY in particular, were not very interested in the early stages of the "new left" and SDS, because they seems very politically underdeveloped to us: populists and liberals, not socialist.
Of course there were uncountable doctrinal disputes and splits -- between trotskyists, democratic socialists, social-democrats, stalinists, stalinoids, you name it.
The other thing I should say about this period, roughly from 1960 till 1965, is that "we" [by which I mean me and the circles I travelled in] were very self-consciously in the "vanguard", on the cutting edge of social change. Here's what I mean by this: All of the cultural and political things that we were among the first to do became extremely popular nationally and internationally in the subsequent years. By this I mean the music we listened to [folk and jazz and early "world beat" like Ravi Shankar and Olatunji], the books we read [beat poetry, Marcuse, C Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, James Baldwin], the way we wore our hair, the movies we watched [from "foreign films" like the French New Wave to Andy Warhol and new American cinema], the drugs we took [Leary's slogan was "LSD in '63, even more in '64"], the way we dressed, and the way we made love. New York, with it's combination of beatnik culture, left politics, and racial mixing, was a really exciting place to be. Art D'Lugoff's Village Gate sponsored a benefit concert with Pete Seeger for striking miners in Harlan County; City College CORE had a folk benefit with the New Lost City Ramblers, the Greenbrier Boys, and a little-known named Bob Dylan. Amos Vogel, who owned the New Yorker theater, helped make the anti- apartheid documentary "Come Back Africa", filmed illegaly in South Africa, with then-unknown Meriam Makeba, and we showed it at mid-night screenings and at campus film clubs. Stokely Carmichael was a year ahead of me at Bronx Science, and when we did anti-war marches to Washington he and other Howard U students organized/joined us to do sit-in's at still-segrated highway diners in Maryland. And I could probably remember a lot more if I tried. Malcolm X spoke on street corners in Harlem.
To get a little closer to your subject: The first time I remember hearing about Vietnam was from the Student Peace Union. My memory is poor on this, but it must have been in '61 or '62, about JFK's escalation. We even had a DC anti-war demonstration that prominently featured Vietnam; I think it was in the winter of '63, but I'm not sure. It's hard to believe we would have had a demo in the winter, but that's how I remember it.
Also, sometime while I was an undergrad -- maybe '63, the dragon lady herself, Madame Nhu, came to Columbia for some reason. We were really pissed. A few of us bombarded her with eggs and made the front page of the tabloids; but I'll have to say that most of the campus, and even more of the world, couldn't figure out why we had done it.
Which reminds me: There was also an active "Fair Play for Cuba" movement; lots of interest in Fidel and Che; and a growing Maoist section of the left -- like the Progressive Labor Party.
I took a year off from school in 1994. I still had a deferment while I worked as a merchanct seaman, but when I stopped to go back to school I got classified 1-A. I got called for my physical shortly after I had gone back to school, in early 1995, the same month the US started bombing the North. I took that as a personal insult. This is a good story, so I'll tell it all:
I went to the WRL and talked to Ralph DiGia about what to do at my physical. I ended up writing a letter [I'll append it below if I can find it], making multiple copies, and taking some WRL leaflets. I distributed them outside the induction center till we went in, and inside too till they made me stop. I gave a copy of my letter to the desk officer to be put in my file. He said, "You bet we'll put this in your file, sonny." I then went through the standard routine, including filling out the long questionnaire which asked, among a million other things, "have you ever had a homosexual experience", to which I answered "yes". After a while they sent me to sit on a bench outside the psychiatrist's office. He looked at my papers and said "Where do you cruise?" I said "What?" We went around a few times until he figured out I wasn't an active homosexual, then he told me to leave. I said, "Look, they're just going to send me back anyhow. Why don't you read the letter I wrote." He read it and said, "I don't get this. Are you a conscientious objector or not? If you are, why don't you just apply for CO?" I said, "Let me explain it to you. I am not a CO. First of all, I don't believe in God. Second of all, I don't oppose violence." Him: "Then what is this letter about?" Me: "I'll spell it out: I don't oppose violence, but I'll be damned if I'll let the US government tell me who to shoot. If you give me a gun, I'll use it, but it will be against officers, not Vietnamese", or something like that. Anyway, he went bullshit and started stamping things all over my file. I sat outside another few hours, then they sent me home. With a 4-F. So I didn't have to worry about what most of my generation had to worry about for the next years.
My patience is running out, so I'll summarize, and maybe at some later date add more. I went to the SDS march in 65 or 66 where they "named imperialism". Spend 66-7 in London, striking the London School of Economics and being part of an expatriate anti-war group called the Stop It Committee [no, I didn't know Slick Willie]. From 68-75 I was mostly at Harvard, involved in SDS and it's aftermaths, with a trip to Cuba in about '70. The modern women's movement started around that period and changed us all for the better. Since the early 70's I've worked with a loose network of people that now goes by the name National Coalition for Independent Political Action [NCIPA]. We specialized in coalition building; put together the first huge multi-racial event since the civil rights movement [in Philadelphia, 1976], did a "people's convention" in the South Bronx at the time of the 1980 Democratic convention. With them, I worked in the Rainbow Coaltion in the 80's, and was active in Mel King's mayoral and congressional campaigns. Sure, I remember the Moratorium, but I remember better the attempt to levitate the Pentagon; and even better the May Day demo in DC in 1971, when the local headlines the next day were "Government still in operation". I was never active on the national level in the Mobe or the NCPJ [my memory is failing me], but did lots of local stuff. All of this was mixed in with tenant organizing, Chile solidarity, Native American Support Committees, and dozens of other things. I've had a checkered carreer.