The Milwaukee 14: Action, Trial, Prison

The following pages are three chapters from my autobiography, Writing Straight With Crooked Lines (Orbis, 2020).

>> The Milwaukee Fourteen

Dan Berrigan had just been released from prison on bail and Jim Douglass, a co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, was in town. Jim and I decided to visit Dan at a Jesuit parish in the Bronx where he was briefly staying before returning to his chaplaincy work at Cornell. 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 what happened at Catonsville was intended to presage a parade of raids. 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, but 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 Catonsville Nine, George told me that a second Catonsville-like action that was taking shape and asked if I was interested in joining it. Without hesitation, the word “yes” flew out of 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 first 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, 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. Doug Marvy took on the task of finding a way to open the doors to the nine boards half-an-hour after the staff left for the day. Others mapped 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 receive orders to report for 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. Homemade napalm, made according to a recipe found in the U.S. Army Special Forces Handbook, was poured on the files and a 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.

Here is the account of my role in the action that I gave in testimony during the trial:

“I would like to describe what I personally did when we went to the Bruder Building. I entered Board 47, a board on the right side of the building as you face it, second floor, halfway down the corridor. The door was already opened [by Doug Marvy] when I got there. There were several burlap sacks on the floor and a large screwdriver for forcing open file the locked cabinets so that we could remove 1-A files and other key registration records. One priority item was a large volume that had names, serial numbers, addresses and classification histories. I took the cross-reference book and several drawers of 1-A files. I also took some other files that were in a drawer marked ‘Delinquent’ — people who were in trouble with the Selective Service System.

“I dragged these sacks down to the front of the building. When the street was clear, I ran across the street to the little park. I then helped a couple of the other guys pull sacks. Others were piling the sacks together. The gasoline — homemade napalm — was poured on them and someone lit the fire. We knew that the fire posed a slight danger to other people — some of us were working to make sure nobody was too close. Then we stood on one side of the bonfire singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and then read from the Gospels and prayed.

“I should add that while I was in the building I heard a woman screaming in the hallway. I went out and saw Mrs. Pauline Gaydos, a cleaning woman, running down the hallway. My reason for stopping her wasn’t to prevent her from screaming, but because she was in a state of terror. My hope was that she could understand what was happening, what we were doing, so that she would know that she had nothing to be afraid of. I walked her backward into Draft Board  47 with one hand around her belly and one hand around her cheek. She was rigid with fear. I let go of her and started talking to her — in fact I had start talking to her while I was still holding her in the hallway. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but, as you have already heard her testify, it was something like ‘perhaps you have a son who is in Vietnam, or perhaps have neighbors who have sons in Vietnam, or perhaps you have friends whose sons might go to Vietnam and their parents are afraid.’ I was concerned about her fear and was speaking very softly. Suddenly I felt her body relax in the most beautiful way. It was like an iron bar turning into a pillow. A relaxed feeling just poured out of her. It was a very wonderful feeling. She looked at me and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that before ?’ We talked for a while longer, and then there was a knock on the door — Doug saying it was time to leave the building. We dragged all the sacks to the park and set them on fire.”

I doubt the police had ever arrested a more cheerful or cooperative, in fact elated, 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, embarrassment and astonishment, but at the same time I’m disturbed that it never occurred to me to back out. I still have mixed feelings about having been one of the Milwaukee Fourteen. I am still troubled by my unexpected encounter with Mrs. Gaydos. Thank God she didn’t have a heart attack. I am also disturbed that I left my son fatherless for part of his young life. It was one thing for celibates like Dan and Phil Berrigan 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?

The hardest part of preparing for the action was working out Ben’s care during the prolonged absence I anticipated. Jean’s sister, Mary Corchia, agreed to play a significant part, but the main role was taken by my mother. Thank God in the end it all worked out remarkably well — Ben has many 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.” Perhaps I should have been less so.

>> Trial

One doesn’t have to be have undergone arrest to know what happened next. The ritual has been endlessly and accurately reenacted in countless TV crime dramas: handcuffs, transport by police car or paddy wagon to the nearest police station, the emptying of pockets and removal of pens and wrist watches followed by finger printing and the taking of mug shots. The same had happened to me six years earlier when I had been among those blocking the entrance to the Atomic Energy Commission in New York. I felt as if I were playing a familiar role in a crime film.

seven-bunk cell in the Milwaukee County Jail — a perfect fit

As night was falling, we were delivered to at the Milwaukee County Jail where we were briefly deposited in a “drunk tank” and then moved to a dormitory with seven bunk beds — a perfect arrangement for the fourteen on us. The County Jail was to be our home for a month.

In court to be arraigned the next day, we found we charged with three felonies: burglary, theft and arson — burglary for breaking into the nine draft boards, theft for removing draft files, and arson for burning the files.

The judge who arraigned us had the remarkable name of Christ Seraphim, a notorious foe of Milwaukee’s civil rights movement and a past president of the Eagles Club, a whites-only fraternity. He set bail that would have been more appropriate for kidnappers, rapists or bank robbers: $430,000 in toto — approximately $3,000,000 in today’s money. It took a month but, after the amount was reduced by a different judge and thanks to generous loans from supporters (one couple mortgaged their house), we were set free pending trial the following May. This gave us half a year to prepare our defense as well as to organize all sorts of public meetings and events, from discussion forums to poetry readings to helping people who were organizing new draft board actions.[3]

There was a major surprise at the end of the second day behind bars. Hearing loud cheers outside, we looked out our third story window to discover a large crowd led by the comedian and civil rights leader Dick Gregory had gathered on the streets below. Earlier in the evening Gregory had given a talk at Marquette University and then led his audience and many more to the jail to say thank you to the fourteen. “You’ll receive better treatment from the government if you cheat on your income tax than if you burn your draft card,” Gregory told the crowd. At his side was Fr. James Groppi, an often-arrested leader in the local battle against racism. Soon after he became co-chairman of our defense committee.

The time together in jail proved to be a great blessing — a month in which we really got to know each other. Each day there were seminars led by one or another member of the group. Doug Marvy told us what it has been like, while in the Navy, to live in the Antarctic and to closely follow the lives of penguins. I recall Basil O’Leary teaching us the basics of economics, in the course of which he commented, “Everything, every institution, is to be weighed in terms of its effect on people.” Bob Graf, who had been a Jesuit for seven years, introduced us to the life of St. Ignatius Loyola. Tony Mullaney did sessions on the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Larry Rosebaugh focused on the parables of Jesus. Mike Cullen talked about Irish history and culture. I led a discussion on the history of the Catholic Worker movement. We all shared life stories — events in our lives that had finally led us to the nine draft boards of Milwaukee. Discussion of the forthcoming trial was, necessarily, a major topic. Local priests managed to visit and celebrate Mass with us.

Several lawyers volunteered their services — Percy Julian, William Kuntsler and Mark Stickgold — and did a great deal to help us prepare our defense, but in the end we made a decision to represent ourselves rather than have lawyers speaking on our behalf. This gave us greater leeway to express our views. Mark Stickgold, a professor of law at Wayne State University in Michigan, stayed on as legal adviser.

By the time the trial began we were down to twelve — Mike Cullen and Jerry Gardner had opted for a separate trial with representation by their own attorney.

One of my main stops during the half year between being free on bail and the trial was at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Thomas Merton had died a few months before, on the 10th of December 1968. I felt orphaned by his absence. While I knew he hadn’t fully approved of the sort of action I had participated in, I also knew he would have been supportive of me personally and would have helped in any way he could. His many letters had played such an important role in my life for more than six years. I thought one useful thing I might do while in prison was to edit his letters to me with the goal of making available, in a booklet, extracts potentially helpful to others. “Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers” was the title I had in mind.[4]

The trial began in the Milwaukee County District Court on May 5th, 1969, with Judge Charles Larson presiding.[5] Larson, in his sixties, was Republican, the Wisconsin Commander of the American Legion, father of Vietnam veterans, and a devout Roman Catholic. Having five Catholic priests and one Christian Brother in the dock for protesting war was not an experience he could ever have imagined or wished for. Surprisingly he was a kind and relatively patient man who allowed testimony many other judges would have muzzled, albeit rarely with the jury present.

Two lawyers from the District Attorney’s office carried on the prosecution, both of whom, we discovered, sympathized with our anti-war views if not our methods. One was white, Deputy District Attorney Allen Samson, the other black, Harold Jackson Jr. Both were twenty-nine. “The immorality of this war bothers me more than its unconstitutionality,” Samson said in an interview. “We’re using Vietnam the way Russia used Hungary and Czechoslovakia. If I were boss I’d have our boys home by tomorrow noon. I’m more anti-war than anyone in the courtroom, but I don’t burn draft records. It’s bad for the peace movement.” Jackson agreed. “I’m as anti-war as anyone in the courtroom,” he said. “Our draft laws are obscene. But these draft-file burners are the worst thing that could happen to us liberals. They’ve polarized the community so much I thought I would have to resign.”

We sat on the left side of the court room at a long table heavily laden with law volumes and others books. We looked like “a graduate seminar at a respectable university,” Francine du Plessix Gray wrote in a lengthy essay about the trial published in The New York Review of Books.[6] A local sheriff told her that we were “the classiest bunch of defendants ever.”

The first day was taken up with jury selection. We took turns interviewing the candidates. After I had asked one potential juror too abstract a question, Judge Larson advised me, “Not everybody is a philosopher like you, Mr. Forest. You have a doctor of philosophy degree, is that correct?” I confessed I had no degrees at all — “I am a high school dropout, your honor.” But it was good advice. Afterward I stuck to simpler questions.

Following jury selection — eight men, four women, eleven of them white, eight of them Catholics, none of them critical of the Vietnam war — the prosecution proceeded to make its case. It wasn’t hard. Evidence presented during the first five days of the trial included charred draft records, screwdrivers, gasoline cans and photos of files being burned. Witness testimony was given by policemen, two cleaning women, a photographer, journalists, passers-by and Selective Service employees. Two days were spent in arguments concerning the value of the draft files and what purpose the files served. We argued, unsuccessfully, that the material value of the documents destroyed was not great enough to qualify as a felony.

On our side, we readily admitted we had done what we were charged with doing but contended that our actions were intended to prevent greater crimes and thus were legally justifiable. We were attempting to impede a war that was, as expert witnesses would testify, illegal, unconstitutional and immoral. Our purpose was to save lives. We sought permission of the court to argue the protection of “defensive privilege” — statute 939.48 in the Wisconsin legal code — which declares that actions normally punishable under the criminal code may be considered privileged, that is non-criminal, if the action is taken with the “reasonable belief” that it may prevent bodily harm to another party. A classic example: a driver running a red light to get a gravely injured person to the hospital. We were prepared to show that we had earlier tried a wide range of legal methods of stopping the war and that our act of civil disobedience was a last resort.

To prove that it was reasonable to believe that our actions were justifiable, we sought the court’s consent to present as exhibits scholarly judgments contained in books, documents, and legal journals testifying to the illegality of the Vietnam war. We also hoped to demonstrate that our action was in accordance with Christian doctrine. The exhibits we offered — all rejected by the Judge Larson — ranged from the Congressional Record’s list of the war dead and Pope John’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” to Gordon Zahn’s book on the Catholic Church in Hitler’s Germany, and the New Testament. (Remarkably the prosecution was willing to admit the New Testament as an exhibit, but Judge Larson ruled that “to admit [the New Testament] into evidence may create substantial danger of undue prejudice or of misleading the jury.”)

It was not always easy to connect Judge Larson’s rulings with the life-and-death issues being raised by our trial, but at least Larson at times wrestled with the implications of our “justification” defense. “Mr. Forest,” Larson asked me in one exchange, “I want to ask you a question. Was John Wilkes Booth justified when, believing he was acting for the welfare of the Confederacy, he shot and killed Abraham Lincoln?”

“I would simply point out,” I replied, “that the only charges against us are damage to property, not to persons, and that, in fact, we were trying to prevent people from getting killed. So, the direction is the opposite. I’m not saying that the jury should find us innocent. I’m simply hoping that the court will allow us to try to demonstrate [to you and to the jury] the reasonableness of our belief and to decide for themselves whether, in fact, it was reasonable. The jury must determine whether the threat was apparent … whether we could reasonably believe as we do. Therefore all the evidence relevant to establishing either one of these points we believe must be admitted into evidence so that the jury can decide these points…. In Weston versus State 28 Wisconsin 2nd, 136 of 1964, the court agrees with this analysis. The court in this instance allowed evidence to be introduced under 939.48, the justification defense, and then gave an instruction to the jury explaining that theory.” (“Well, Jim comes from a family of lawyers,” one of my co-defendants audibly remarked.)

“Let the record show,” said Larson, “that while these defendants are in court without counsel, time and time again they have cited law which is very pertinent and relevant, law which requires a learned legal mind to ferret out…. The Court therefore wants the record to show that although it does not appear so in the courtroom, clearly they are receiving legal assistance.”[7]

Continuing my exchange with Larson, I pointed out that I was not saying that the jury was obliged to find us innocent, only that the jury be allowed to hear the argument that we broke the law in the reasonable hope of saving lives. As jurors they could then decide whether or not our action could be regarded as justifiable. “The jury may not be the ideal representative of the community,” I said. “Nonetheless we would like the opportunity to let the jurors decide, with all the facts before them, and not just the fact that doors were opened, papers removed and files burned… I realize that we’re on untrod paths as far as legal precedent is concerned, but it seems to me that when boys are literally dying every hour, American boys, Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, women, children, the old, the young, that it’s certainly imminent peril that we’re speaking of…. We would like the jury to decide whether the peril is imminent or not…. By analogy, consider the situation of a Jew in Nazi Germany. He didn’t have to be walking into the ovens to be in imminent danger. He was in danger if he was a Jew and could be found.”

“Mr. Forest,” Larson responded, “why have you assumed the heavy burden of making [such determinations]?”

“I think I stand on fairly solid ground in American tradition,” I answered, “although I admit there are many who would question whether I’m right. It may well be that the jury will decide I’m wrong. I am prepared for that. But it seems that many times in the history of this nation small minorities have had to act…. It was only a small minority that first sought to establish these United States. It was, at first, only a small minority that believed that slavery was wrong.”

“You call this civil disobedience, Mr. Forest?”

“Yes, your honor, in the same sense that it was civil disobedience, in the 1850s, to help prevent an escaped slave from being forcibly returned to slavery.”

Not all the exchanges in court had to do with issues of historical importance. A nice moment occurred after I saw clear indications that District Attorney Sampson was suffering from an overfull bladder. He had asked Larson for “a very brief recess” but been told to be patient. However when I seconded Sampson’s request, Larson grasped the urgency and gave us a ten-minute break. Sampson gave me a grateful smile and a thumbs-up as he hurried out of the courtroom.

We brought three expert witnesses to Milwaukee prepared to testify on the reasonableness of our views on the war and the place of civil disobedience in American history: Howard Zinn, professor of government at Boston University and author of A People’s History of the United States, war crimes expert John Fried, and Marvin Gettleman, author of Vietnam: History, Documents, and Opinions.

Zinn came first. With Dan Berrigan, he had recently played a major role in obtaining the release of three U.S. pilots being held in Hanoi.

“The tradition of civil disobedience in this country goes as far back as the colonial period,” Zinn testified, “reaching a height during the American Revolution. It has been enunciated by the Fathers of our country, written into the Declaration of Independence, carried on in the movement to end slavery, and carried on in the movement to win decent conditions for laboring people. The tradition of civil disobedience goes back as far as Thomas Jefferson and it comes right up to today… People distinguished in the field of law and philosophy recognize that there’s a vast difference between a person who commits an ordinary crime and a person who commits an act which technically is a crime, but which in essence is a social act.”

Zinn was beginning to answer a question about acts of civil disobedience committed against the fugitive slave laws in the 1850s when Judge Larson stopped him. “We are not here to consider the fugitive slave laws. Such testimony is inflammatory and immaterial.”

The only fragment of a substantial comment that Zinn was allowed to make was in response to a question concerning the relationship of civil disobedience to democratic process. “Whatever progress has been made in the United States in eliminating social evils,” he responded before being cut off, “has been due in part to the courage of some people in committing acts of civil disobedience. If these acts were considered ordinary crimes, this country would be far worse off than we are today.”

After a hail storm of attempted questions and forbidden responses, and after a warning of arrest from Larson, Zinn left the witness box.

John Fried was the next witness. He had been chief consultant to the American judges at the Nuremberg war crime trials of leading Nazis as well as a United Nations Adviser on International Law and also an adviser on international law at the Pentagon. We hoped he would be allowed to testify on “a hierarchy of law in the international world order.”

The prosecution and Judge Larson objected that testimony drawn from such documents as the U.N. Charter and the Nuremberg Principles concerning the U.S. violations of international law would be irrelevant to charges of burglary, arson, and theft. Amazingly, after heated argument, Fried was allowed to answer a number of questions though in the absence of the jury. “I say with a very, very grave heart and after very, very careful study that the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam,” Fried said, “that it does violate essential and basic provisions of the United Nations Charter, and this is not an isolated opinion of myself.”

“What recourse does a citizen have,” Basil O’Leary asked Fried, “when his country pursues war in violation of international treaties which the citizen holds have been violated?”

Expecting an objection, Larson looked toward the prosecution table. “No objection,” said Jackson; “if he can answer that, God bless him.”

Fried replied, “The International Tribunal at Nuremberg, at which the United States was represented, stated that it is the moral choice of the individual if he feels that for him obedience to the higher order — to the world order — is more important … then he has to take the moral choice and do the things which he considers morally proper. That is the great ethical and moral method of Nuremberg.”

He added: “The United Nations Charter does not give the rules for conduct during war time. There are other treaties, like the Hague Treaties of 1907 long preceding the Charters of the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and 1949. In the hierarchy of law, international world order as stipulated in treaties … is the highest. If, then, a dichotomy develops between international law and domestic law, the dilemma for the government and for the individual is great.”

“No more questions,” said Basil.

Our last witness was Marvin Gettleman, an expert on the history of the Vietnam war. He was questioned by Doug Marvy. Upon Doug’s first question to Gettleman — whether, on the basis of his expert knowledge, he was aware of the United States ever being attacked by North Vietnam, Larson dismissed the jury, then asked Doug what he intended to prove. Doug replied, “I have no reason whatsoever to speak outside the presence of the jury on any matter …. I am not interested in speaking to the Court.” “It makes it difficult to proceed,” said Larson. Doug agreed. “I’m merely following court procedure,” Larson responded. “I’ll speak when the jury is in the room,” Doug insisted. The twelve of us went on strike for a brief period, refusing to do or say anything in the jury’s absence.

Finally Larry Rosenbaugh broke the silence by describing how Gettleman’s testimony would show that the war in Vietnam was crippling the nation’s war on poverty. Larson predictably interrupted Larry to declare such testimony as irrelevant. Unpredictably, prosecutor Samson asked Larson to be patient as because “everyone knows that the war is taking money away from urban planning.”

At last Gettleman was dismissed. He had not been permitted to answer a single question.

After days of passionate endeavor on our part, Larson ruled that we had failed to prove that military conscription constituted an “imminent” threat to anyone’s life and thus we could not argue that, in destroying draft records, we were protecting lives. Larson ruled that section 939.48 of the Wisconsin penal code regarding privilege was “not applicable in this case.” He added, “I shall not permit any testimony about the fairness of the draft or the fact that it discriminates against some, and as far as the Vietnam war is moral or anything else, it is not relevant here.”

Prohibited from presenting evidence on the illegality and immorality of the war in Vietnam, our only way of communicating to the jury what lay behind our destruction of draft records was through our own testimony. In the course of several days we took turns cross-examining each other.

One of the high points of the trial were the three hours in which Tony Mullaney, a Benedictine monk, explained what had brought him to interfere with the work of the Selective Service System. He proceeded to identify several aspects of his state of mind.

The motto of the Benedictine order has always been Pax — peace. The vows of the monk can be summed up as a single vow to set up the conditions whereby man can be fully human. The monk is supposed to be a sign of hope, he is supposed to be a sign that history can be moved in the direction laid down in the Gospels, and therefore a sign that we are responsible for history and the direction that history takes.”

Tony described the justifiable anger “that stems from a correct assessment of a present moment in history. My anger on September 24th was based on first-hand evidence that I had that the draft was doing violence to the consciences of young men, doing real psychological damage to young men.” No less important were the experiences he had in Roxbury, an area of Boston “where poverty is perhaps at its worst. In Roxbury, your defenses are shattered the day you arrive.”

Another element was “fear of a very deep and very pervasive polarization that is going on in the United States…. We are a nation that’s very seriously divided … black-white, rich-poor, young-old … the growing gap between the powerful and the powerless. My participating in the burning of draft records was my attempt to say something about the polarization, which, if it is not checked, is going to lead to great disaster in this nation.”

Finally Tony read aloud the 1500-word statement which the Milwaukee Fourteen had handed to reporters at the time of our action. Notwithstanding some objections from the Court that Father was giving “an oration on social matters” he was allowed to read through this entire document.

“Tony, reverend doctor,” Fred Ojile asked in his cross-examination, “when does the question of who determines destruction of property become pertinent in the decision-making process?”

“The decision to destroy property,” Tony replied, “has to be confronted whenever the person has reasonably concluded that there is no longer any relationship between that property and the enhancement of those values to which he is committed, through his membership in various communities such as the American community, the family of nations, and so forth. In other words, when property no longer enhances the dignity of the person. Property is an instrument, it does not have substantial value, it has instrumental value.”

When it was my turn to describe my intentions, I stressed that breaking a law does not necessarily imply contempt for the law: “One aspect of our action was the idea that our action would not add to an atmosphere of lawlessness in this country, but, on the contrary, help restore law and order in our society. You have heard it said, and it was my belief at the time as it is today, that our public officials are failing to take proper cognizance of the Constitution of this country and the law of the land. Our leaders we’re paying a great deal of attention to small laws, but overlooking the very big laws which are the most important ones to this country and its future.”

I also emphasized our commitment to nonviolence: “One of my main concerns was to reopen the possibility of protest being nonviolent in our society. Many people have said ‘when Martin Luther King died, nonviolence died with him.’ We don’t believe that. We wanted to keep open the possibility of people undertaking their protests in the context of nonviolence, with respect for life, and to keep people from becoming so frustrated that protest would simply become destructive.”

I spoke about the influence on my life of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: “I spent three months last year traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh to campuses throughout this country. Thich Nhat Hanh is the founder of the Van Hanh University in Saigon and also of the Buddhist Youth for Social Service movement, which in this country would be something like a blending of the Red Cross and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — that is it undertakes both the works of mercy and is involved in nonviolent methods of change and resistance. Thich Nhat Hanh has worked closely with Christians in Vietnam and has helped to restore a peaceful atmosphere between Christians and Buddhists. He created in me a deep feeling for the culture of Vietnam — the awareness that we are destroying a culture — a culture far older and, in many respects, more beautiful, more serene, than our own.”

I also tried to describe the climate of our action: “It was my hope that day — perhaps this is the hardest thing to describe — it was my hope to encourage in this movement for renewal of our society not only something we call nonviolence, but a style of action which could be called celebrative, coming out of the word “to celebrate.” We believe that such actions should be a kind of celebration — that they should speak not only to the minds of other people but to their hearts as well. We believe that imagination should be involved. When you look at the film of the Milwaukee Fourteen burning the draft files, notice we’re singing. It was our hope that that people would see not just a fire but our joy — see that this was a celebration of life. It was a new style of protest — not a model for others to imitate like echoes, but a qualitative sort of thing where people put their lives on the line, not sadly and not in mourning, but in hope. As you look at the film, I think you will see that in our faces.”

Several times we attempted to inform the jury that they were free to ignore the judge’s instructions as to the limits of their responsibility. We cited a famous case in colonial America in which the jury found a printer named Peter Zenger not guilty of sedition. Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, told the jurors that each of them had the right “to see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears, and to make use of his own conscience” no matter what the judge may say to the contrary. But it was not an argument the court wanted our jurors to hear.

On May 26, the eleventh and last day of the trial, Larson gave the jury its charge: “The law does not recognize political, religious or moral convictions, or some higher law, as justification for the commission of a crime, no matter how good the motive may be…. People who believe that the Vietnam war is illegal or unconstitutional or morally wrong have the right to protest in various ways but not to break the law.”

The jury deliberated for only seventy minutes before returning its verdict. All of us were guilty as charged.

Dozens of spectators rose and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

“I pity the nation that fears its young!” said Tony to Judge Larson.

As the trial drew to its end, it was remarkable that Assistant District Attorney Jackson, who so often had raised objections to what we were trying to say, confessed to a journalist how shaken he was by the trial. “I’ve been more torn by this case than at the beginning. I saw nothing but honesty and intelligence here, depth of perception and integrity, an atmosphere that I can only describe as very loving.”

After the trial was over, Jackson resigned from his job in order to concentrate on black civil rights cases. “Negroes in this country are being sent to jail like Jews to Auschwitz,” he said in his office on his last day. “There’s not enough legal talent around to help them.” He explained that the trial of the Milwaukee Fourteen had been’ a turning point. “That trial tore me up,” he said. “I’m still not sure what they accomplished politically. But whatever religion is, they’re where it’s at…. I suppose the essence of religiousness is to break rules at the proper time…. What the hell do you expect when a great priest like [Tony] Mullaney leaves his monastery after nineteen years and to see what  life is like in Roxbury, Massachusetts?”

>> Sabbatical

After the trial, I spent just over a year under lock-and-key in Wisconsin, more than half of that time at Waupun, a prison that closely resembled the penitentiaries Hollywood used in classic black-and-white crime movies starring such iconic gangsters as James Cagney and George Raft: castle-like walls, barred cells four tiers high with metal catwalks, metal staircases, metal bunkbeds, metal toilets, metallic slams as steel gates and cell doors were opened and closed. The smallest sounds reverberated in metal echoes.

Waupun, opened in 1851, was Wisconsin’s oldest and most guarded lockup — a “maximum security” prison. The population of convicts housed there was a thousand or so, mainly men convicted of the most serious crimes: murder, manslaughter, armed robbery, rape and child molesting. It was an odd environment for a young writer who had a principled objection to war and other forms of violence, but in many ways I gradually came to find being there a blessing. I have ever since referred to it as my sabbatical year. My monastic side came to the rescue, but also the good luck of being locked up in Wisconsin. In the seventies, Wisconsin and California were regarded as having the best state prison systems in the U.S. If I was a long way from paradise, in most other states it would have been much worse.

My first seven days were spent in 24-hour-a-day isolation — similar to solitary but not as grim — while a decision was made about what work I would be assigned to. I felt like a caged squirrel. My main human contact was with an elderly prisoner-trustee delivering a tray of food three times a day. This was the hardest week for me, a week of fear. Fear was not unreasonable. I drew on years of reading stories about prison brutality, drugs, gangs, racial rivalries, and rape. I was full of dread. But when I was finally assigned to a cell block and released into the general prison population my anxieties quickly receded. Waiting in line in the cafeteria, a huge man with battered features standing behind me tapped my shoulder. I expected him to say, “What are you doing standing in front of me?” Instead he quietly asked, “Would you like a caramel?” Assuming my terrified silence meant yes, he pushed a cellophane-wrapped candy into my hand and told me his name was George.

my cell at Waupun

I was initially assigned to the laundry. Six days a week truckloads of sheets, pillowcases and clothing from various state institutions, including mental hospitals, orphanages and other prisons, were sorted, washed, ironed and folded. Especially in the summer it was work with an outhouse smell as the sheets were often smeared with feces. Flies by the thousand were drawn into the delivery area.

Eventually I was moved into the section where ironing was done with industrial steam presses. Here my first prison friendship took root while working side-by-side with a man in his mid-sixties — I’ll call him Thomas Jones. He was then in his eleventh year of serving a life sentence for murder. Though as kind and caring a man as I’ve ever met, Thomas had the handicap of being black and near the bottom of the economic ladder — not helpful when it comes to police, lawyers and judges. I asked what led to his conviction. The story he told was simple and tragic. He had rented a back room of a neighborhood bar for a celebration with family and friends of his wedding anniversary, the 25th as I recall. Two aggressive drunken young men crashed the party and behaved toward his wife in an insulting way. Thomas, who also wasn’t sober, went out to his car, took a handgun out of the glove compartment, and returned to the anniversary party. “I swear to God,” Thomas told me, “I didn’t mean to hurt no one. All I wanted was to scare them. I was just waving the gun around. But somehow I pulled the trigger. If I had any target in mind, it was the ceiling, but that one bullet hit one of those boys in the head and he died of the wound. Biggest mistake of my life.” Thomas was not convicted of accidental manslaughter, as a white man with a good lawyer might well have been. He was doing time for premeditated first-degree murder. He may well have died at Waupun.

I was to meet quite a few men who were inside the walls for their inability to hire a good lawyer. Many others that I came to know were convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. Wrong skin color — racial factors so often played a significant part. Drugs were another common factor leading to years in the penal zoo. I would estimate that less than ten percent of the prisoners at Waupun posed a danger to anyone.

In many ways I was so much luckier than my fellow inmates. For starters I had many caring friends on the outside providing a network of support. One of them, Francene de Plessix Gray, who had written a detailed and engaging account of the Milwaukee Fourteen trial for The New York Review of Books, gave me a typewriter — a handsome red-and orange Italian-made Olivetti portable.  Equipped with a copy of the trial transcript borrowed from the court, over many weeks I typed up a 250-page abridgement of the huge text.[8] I also used my beloved Olivetti for correspondence, writing projects and for helping illiterate prisoners who needed assistance with letters home, or, in the case of more literate convicts, in their efforts to obtain a retrial or parole.

Letters to Ben, now seven years old, were more graphic than verbal — water-colored pen drawings with text written around the illustrations. Each page was a kind of children’s story. (Obtaining permission to have a drawing pen — a Rapidograph — and a set of water colors in my cell had not been easy.)

Ben’s drawing of his dad in prison.

Ben responded in kind. Of all the communications I received while locked up, the most cherished is a crayon drawing Ben made for his Sunday School class at my mother’s church. The topic that week was St. Paul. The teacher leading the group mentioned that St. Paul had been imprisoned for his faith. “So is my dad — he’s in jail right now,” Ben announced with pride. The drawing he made that day showed me behind prison bars with victoriously raised arms and a big smile. Framed, it now hangs in our house.

The other major treasure that made its way to my cell was a photo of the planet Earth that an astronaut had taken on the historic Apollo 11 Moon voyage in July 1969.

There is a back story. Most people at the time watched the moon landing on television. In my case, I listened to it via a pair of aging, low-tech earphones provided in each Waupun cell by the State of Wisconsin. I wonder if it wasn’t more exciting listening to the landing on the lunar surface than seeing it in blurry images on TV? Radio’s great advantage has always been enlisting one’s own imagination for all the visual effects. Having seen so many science fiction films made in the fifties and having read so many volumes of science fiction, I had plenty of props to assist my imagination. It wasn’t hard picturing the crew of three crossing the dry and airless sea of space, then actually landing and standing on the Moon’s dusty surface.

But the biggest surprise was yet to come: the delivery of a packet from NASA containing an  8-1/2 x 11-inch color photo of the Earth made from the actual negative. I doubt the photo could have reached the White House many days sooner than it reached my prison cell. The same image was to appear a few months later on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, but even in that case didn’t have the richness of color and detail of the original photo.

Whole Earth – Apollo 11 photo – July 1969.

The prison administration made it difficult for me to receive the photo — it hadn’t been sent by an “authorized correspondent.” I was given a form to sign that had two options: authorization to destroy the packet or to return it to the sender. After a struggle with the prison bureaucracy and an appeal to the warden, the packet was delivered to my cell and for the rest of my time in prison it rested on top of my book-laden table. It has been a treasured icon for me ever since. I often carry the photo (now plasticized) with me when I travel. It has been held by thousands of people.

How did this remarkable photo come to me? As there was no letter in the packet, I could only guess. My theory: The Milwaukee 14 trial had received a great deal of press attention. Perhaps something I had been quoted as saying about our world as God sees it had been read by one of the astronauts and lingered in his memory during the voyage to the Moon and back. Many astronauts have said that it is a life-changing, soul-deepening experience to see the borderless globe we live on through a window in space. I could only guess that his sending me a photo of our astonishingly beautiful planet could have been his way of saying thank you.

If I am right about the sender being one of the astronauts, the donor was a career officer in the U.S. Air Force saying thank-you to an anti-war protester locked in a small cell in middle America. How good it was to feel the bond between us.

Later on I came upon this statement from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth human being to walk on the moon:

“[Looking at the Earth from the moon] you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

My sabbatical year was also a year of reading. Dorothy Day had urged me time and again to read Dostoevsky’s greatest work, The Brothers Karamazov. There is no better place to give such a book the unhurried attention it deserves than prison. I went on to read Crime and Punishment. Next came Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Curious to know more about Tolstoy, I read a brilliant memoir about a visit with him written by Maxim Gorky, which in turn led me to Gorky’s e enthralling autobiographies: My Childhood, In the World, and My Universities. In them I met Gorky’s saintly grandmother, whose vividly described prayer life left a lasting impression. One Russian author led to another — Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov, and, from the Soviet era, Solzhenitsyn, a fellow prisoner. I had no idea at the time that my reading was laying a solid foundation for work I would later be doing in Russia.

There were other books and authors that left a mark on me, not least J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. And poetry was important: Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder and Galway Kinnell sent book after book. My cell was hard pressed to hold them all.

Most important was the New Testament. Starting with Matthew, I read a chapter a day and then, when I reached the end, started over — much like the crew that is continuously repainting the George Washington Bridge.

Complementing the Gospels, there was the rosary. I discovered I needed no string of actual beads — the ten fingers I was born with served the purpose. After years of regarding the rosary as something mainly for pious ladies of modest education, I found myself praying “Hail Maries” as I was marched from building to building at Waupun or as I gazed through remote windows at the sky.

God and my guardian angel must have been laughing. Via an act of civil disobedience, I had stumbled off the conveyer belt that carries peace activists along at the same speed that corporation executives travel. I had once aspired to the contemplative life and, in a funny sort of way, found it in the company of convicts in a maximum-security prison.

My time at Waupun came in two slices that together added up to just over seven months. There was a brief in-between period at Camp Gordon, a minimum-security compound in northwest Wisconsin whose inmates did maintenance work at state parks and, when needed, fought forest fires. The forestry work inspired such poems as this:

Prisoner Forest
on hands and knees
thick grass, blooming clover.
He is supposed to be looking for
a needle valve fallen off the lawn mower
but actually he’s watching a bee
moving with Bolshevik determination
from blossom to blossom.
Not very much like Prisoner Forest.

And this:

In a woods of poplar, jack pine, birch,
knee-high ferns dripping with last night’s rain,
sixteen of us in orange and yellow helmets,
the bull gang.
Axe blows sounds like rocks falling into a stream.
“Just let me at these trees with a flame-thrower,”
says a blond, grey-eyed kid with instant-oatmeal skin.
“You ever seen a flame-thrower, kid?” Paisan asks.
Paisan comes from New York —
East 111th Street and 2nd Avenue, Little Italy.
He has World War II scars on his legs.
“150 feet of flame, kid? You make one mistake
with one them cocksuckers and your ass’ll be burned
from here to kingdom come, you goddam right.”
“You ever eat Vietcong flesh?” the kid asks.
Wind in the poplar leaves rustles like clothes
being taken off, like kisses.
Ferns sparkling with rain drops,
the sky soft enough to be sucked,
but eyes have been so long blistered
that all the tongue can taste
is burned brother’s flesh.

If the words were sometimes grim, the work was mainly pleasant, but the few redneck guards took sadistic glee in withholding mail, even such journals as Natural History and National Geographic. Finally, at my own request, I was sent back to Waupun. During my second stint there I worked in a factory that made metal furniture for state institutions.

My last four or five months were spent at Fox Lake, a medium-security facility in central Wisconsin that was, as prisons go, a remarkably decent place to be — attractive modern buildings, each prisoner with his own room, and guards and staff who seldom were heavy handed. After a short period working in a factory that made wooden furniture, I became assistant to the Catholic chaplain, Jim Koneazny, a priest who was outspoken in his support of the Milwaukee Fourteen. We became good friends and stayed in touch until his death from cancer a few years ago.

Were there no horror stories? In my case no. Two or three guys wondered if I might like to get to know them sexually — they accepted my negative response without protest or threats. At Camp Gordon I was once struck in the face by a Native American prisoner who had assumed I was his enemy. He apologized the same day and we soon became friends. I never felt in danger at Waupun, but this may be due in part to a black inmate who discovered I lived in East Harlem, his own neighborhood, and immediately appointed himself my bodyguard. He was a contract killer by trade who had been caught in Milwaukee with a dead body on the pavement  and a smoking gun in his hand. “Bad timing, man,” he explained.

When I was freed on parole in early August, a social worker who had become a friend gave me a going-away gift: a green dwarf parrot named Gandalf.

* * *

[1] In the weeks that followed, shaken by a Catonsville-style raid on the offices of the War Resisters LEAGUE, 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.” For more about Dorothy’s change of mind, see pages 365-367 in the collection of her letters, All the Way to Heaven, edited by Robert Ellsberg.

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

[3] By the time the war in Vietnam ended, nearly three hundred draft board raids had occurred. In addition the headquarters of the Dow Chemical Corporation, the infamous manufacturer of napalm, was targeted. The documentary film Hit & Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance by Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk provides an excellent overview. The DVD, produced by BRINKvision, can be ordered online.

[4] What I envisioned as a booklet finally evolved into a book, The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, published by Orbis in 2016.

[5] Quotations in the pages that follow mainly come from a 250-page unpublished abridgement of the trial transcript that I typed from the court record during the months I was in prison in Waupun. The pages are online at this URL:

[6] “The Ultra-Resistance: On the Trial of the Milwaukee 14,”, Francine du Plessix Gray, .

[7] He was correct. Law professor Mark Stickgold helped prepare us for the trial, taught us how to find and cite relevant case law, instructed us in courtroom etiquette, and attended the trial, meeting with us afterward to join in evaluating what has happened that day and to help us prepare for the next day.

[8] The pages are online at this URL: