The Milwaukee Fourteen: striking a match

[This is the draft text for a chapter in the autobiography I’m writing, Writing Straight With Crooked Lines. Comments and corrections would be helpful to me.]

Daniel Berrigan had just been released from prison on bail and theologian Jim Douglass, a co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, was in town. We decided to visit Dan at the Jesuit parish in the Bronx where he was then staying. Sitting on wooden chairs in the weedy backyard of the rectory, we discovered that Dan, usually remarkably upbeat, was depressed. The reason quickly became apparent. Several months had passed since the nine had put Catonsville on the map and, so far as Dan knew, no one was preparing a similar action. Both Jim and I were dumbfounded. We had both seen the draft-record burning in Maryland as a one-of-a-kind happening, not a prototype. It hadn’t crossed our minds that Catonsville Nine was intended to presage a parade of raids and that just not a few hundred draft files were to be destroyed but tens of thousands. We were speechless. On the subway back to Manhattan, we both talked about reasons we couldn’t do anything that was likely to cost years in prison. At the top of the list was the fact that we both were parents of young children. Yet I was troubled by my hesitations. Should not peace-making be as costly as war-making? Should so much be asked of soldiers and so much less of ourselves?

Soon afterward I was in Washington to attend the annual meeting of the National Liturgical Conference, a group dedicated to renewal of worship in the Catholic Church. Dorothy Day was the principal speaker. (Martin Luther King was to have been the main lecturer but had been murdered in Memphis four months earlier.) After being greeted by a standing ovation, Dorothy began her address by confessing she was “more at home washing a batch of dishes than standing before such an august audience.” She spoke about the connection that had long existed between the Catholic Worker and Benedictine monks working for liturgical renewal. “It was the liturgy,” Dorothy said, “which led us to pray the psalms with the Church, leading us to a joyful understanding in prayer. It was the liturgy which brought us close to scripture.” Coming to know many of the psalms by heart, she said, had helped sustain vigils for peace and justice as well as times in jail.

Dorothy referred to the “hard sayings” in the Gospel — love of enemies, forgiving seventy times seven, refusing to respond to violence with violence, turning the other cheek, going the second mile. She named various people in the Catholic Worker movement who were in prison that very day because they were attempting to shape their lives around the “hard sayings” of Jesus — Tom Cornell, David Miller, Bob Gilliam, Jimmy Wilson and others.

She drew particular attention to Phil and Dan Berrigan and the witness of the Catonsville Nine and their “revolutionary act of destroying draft records.” Their motivation, she stressed, was “love of brother and compassion for men conscripted and dying in Vietnam and other countries of the world to which we have sold arms and planes.” She was aware that some had judged the destruction of draft records as an act of violence. Dorothy disagreed. “It was a nonviolent act” she argued, “in that it was directed only against the symbols of man’s present-day enslavement and not against man, and at the same time it was the violence of the Lord Himself when he overturned the tables of commerce in the Temple.”[1]

I was deeply moved by what Dorothy had said. Afterward, walking the streets of Washington side by side with George Mische, one of the nine, George told me that a second Catonsville-like action that was taking shape and asked if I was interested in taking part in it. Without hesitation, the word “yes” emerged from my mouth. I was astonished at what I had just said.

When and where the event was to take place, George said, was as yet unknown. He told me that several people, including two priests, had expressed readiness. He was adding my name to the list.

My next stop happened to be Milwaukee where Dan Berrigan and I had both agreed to speak at a conference of Franciscan teaching nuns. For the several days we were there, we stayed at Casa Maria, the local Catholic Worker house of hospitality. Our hosts were Michael and Nettie Cullen. Michael was an enthusiastic Irishman, with a brogue thick as potato soup, while Nettie was, with her mid-western accent and practical manner, as American as pumpkin pie.

On our second night at Casa Maria, Dan and I found ourselves drinking beer in a crowded kitchen in which several of those present, Michael among them, made clear they were eager to follow the Catonsville example. All Milwaukee’s nine draft boards were conveniently located in adjacent offices on the second floor of a downtown office building in front of which was a small park dedicated to America’s war dead. It was, Michael pointed out, “the ideal spot for burning draft files.”

George Mische’s list had quickly enlarged. The next step was a weekend gathering of the twenty or so potential volunteers on August 23-25 at St. Paul’s Abbey, a monastery in northwest New Jersey. Paul Mayer, coordinator of the Catonsville Nine Defense Committee, made the arrangements. The gathering was shaped liked a retreat, with Mass each morning and a period of Bible study later in the day. In addition there were sessions at which we got to know each other, discuss our motives and backgrounds, and to make decisions about who would take part in the action, who would form a support team, and which of several cities being considered should be chosen.

By the time the retreat ended it had been agreed that Milwaukee was the best option, in part because four of the participants lived there. Fourteen people committed themselves to take part: Don Cotton, Michael Cullen, Fr. Robert Cunnane, Jerry Gardner, Bob Graf, Rev. Jon Higgenbotham, Fr. Jim Harney, Fr. Al Janicke, Doug Marvy, Fr. Anthony Mullaney, Fred Ojile, Brother Basil O’Leary, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh and myself.[2] Twelve were Catholics, five of them priests. The oldest member of the group was a professor of economics, another was a Benedictine monk. Few of us had met each other before the retreat. A date was set— the 24th of September, just four weeks away. We decided to gather in Milwaukee two days beforehand.

I agreed to draft a group declaration. Here are extracts from the final document:

We who burn these records of our society’s war machine are participants in a movement of resistance to slavery, a struggle that remains as unresolved in America as in most of the world. Man remains an object to be rewarded insofar as he is obedient and useful, to be punished when he dares declare his liberation. Our action concentrates on the Selective Service System because its relation to murder is immediate. Men are drafted — or “volunteer” for fear of being drafted — as killers for the state. Their victims litter the planet. In Vietnam alone, where nearly 30,000 Americans have died, no one can count the Vietnamese dead, crippled, the mentally maimed.

 Today we destroy Selective Service System files because we need to be reminded that property is not sacred. Property belongs to the human scene only if man does… Property is repeatedly made enemy of life: gas ovens in Germany, concentration camps in Russia, occupation tanks in Czechoslovakia, pieces of paper in draft offices, slum holdings, factories of death machines, germs and nerve gas….

In destroying these links in the military chain of command, we forge anew the good sense of the Second Vatican Council: “Human dignity demands that each person act according to a free conscience that is personally motivated from within, not under mere external pressure or blind internal impulse.”

Others worked on an action plan — how to open the doors to the nine boards (our plan was to break in at 5:30 PM, half an hour after the staff left for the day), and to map the boards, locating the cabinets in which the files of people in the 1-A category were stored — those who had passed their physicals and would soon be ordered to begin military service.

Amazingly the action came off as planned. The fourteen of us walked in pairs from a variety of starting points, converging at the office building that housed the draft boards. My knees shook every inch of the way. The nine doors were successfully opened, the many burlap sacks we had brought with us were filled to bursting with 1-A files — 10,000 of them, it was estimated during the trial — and dragged out to the park across the street. The one wrinkle in the action involved a cleaning woman who found us stuffing papers into burlap sacks and became hysterical — thank heaven she didn’t have a heart attack. Homemade napalm, made according to a recipe found in the U.S. Army Special Forces Handbook, was poured on the files and the match struck. The fourteen of us lined up on one side of the bonfire and prayed the Our Father and sang “We Shall Overcome.”  The police and fire department were slow to arrive. Had we wished, we could have quietly walked back to Casa Maria, but the trial to follow was as important to us as the destruction of the files.

I doubt the police had ever arrested  a more cheerful set of prisoners. We had set out to declare nonviolent war on military conscription and to do our bit to impede the war in Vietnam and had achieved all we had dreamed of.

I recall these events with gratitude, pride and astonishment, but at the same time I’m puzzled that it never occurred to me to back out. I still have mixed feelings about having been one of the Milwaukee Fourteen. It was one thing for celibates like Dan and Phil to go to prison, another for the parent of a five-year-old child. My defense was that soldiers were being sent to Vietnam who would never see their wives or children again, or who would return home with appalling injuries, physical, mental and spiritual. Was I unwilling to make a much less costly sacrifice?

By far the hardest part of preparing for the action was working out Ben’s care during my prolonged absence. Jean’s sister, Mary Corchia, agreed to play a significant part, but the main role was taken by my mother. In the end it all worked out remarkably well — Ben has happy memories of that period of his life and is proud of what I did — but it still troubles me that I put work for social change ahead of family responsibilities, much as my father had done during my own childhood. Dad had often remarked that I was “a chip off the old block.”

* * *

[1] In the weeks that followed, Dorothy had second thoughts about the tactic of property destruction as a means of protest. We ought not do to others what we would not have them do to us, she said. She also worried that less dramatic efforts to end the war would be denigrated and judged less valuable than actions that were likely to result in long prison sentences. Early in 1969, she reminded Catholic Worker readers that peacemaking most often took quite ordinary forms: “The thing is to recognize that not all are called, not all have the vocation, to demonstrate in this way … to endure the pain and the long drawn out, nerve-wracking suffering of prison life. We do what we can, and the whole field of the works of mercy is open to us…. All work, whether building, increasing food production, running credit unions, working in factories that produce for human needs, working in the handicrafts — all these things can come under the heading of the works of mercy, which are the opposite of the works of war.”

[2] Information about each of the fourteen can be found here: .