Recalling the country’s most notorious, and least likely, draft raiders
(page 2 of 2)In January 1970, several of the Eight took part in a raid, dubbed the Beaver 55, that went beyond anything Berrigan had done. It was the largest draft raid of the war. The group broke into a St. Paul post office, where draft cards were stored, and left a pile of destroyed materials a foot deep. They made off with about 1,200 draft stamps, which, when affixed to draft cards implied that one’s service had already been completed. After the break-in, says Kroncke, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover dispatched 100 agents to Minnesota.
Other break-ins followed, culminating on July 10 in the Minnesota Eight’s raids on draft offices in rural Minnesota, where security was presumed to be lighter. Two men went to Little Falls, three to Alexandria, three more to Winona.
Around midnight, Olson, Simmons, and Beneke scrambled onto the roof of a Winona garage and through the unlocked window of a government building they’d previously cased. After cutting an interior window with an acetylene torch, the men proceeded toward the Selective Service System office, where the area’s draft cards were kept. They never got that far. Men in suits, guns in hand, emerged from an adjoining room. “Don’t move or you’re dead!” they declared. “It’s the FBI.”
At the jail in Minneapolis, the men were soon joined by the rest of the Eight. They had all been set up.
For three days after the men’s arrest, large rallies were held in downtown Minneapolis. Police crashed through the crowds, making arrests. The federal government, having recently endured the Chicago Seven case that made celebrities of Abbie Hoffman and other antiwar personalities, was determined to prevent the Eight from becoming heroes. Their charges were reduced from sabotage to burglary, ensuring that any questions or evidence regarding the war would be irrelevant or inadmissible.
The prosecutor denounced the men, recalls Kroncke, as “part of the international Catholic conspiracy started by Father Berrigan and funded by Castro.” In their defense, the men claimed a “higher allegiance” and summoned historians, political economists, and four theologians to testify regarding the concept of a moral high ground—and the immorality of the war. One of the Eight told the judge, “As American society is constructed today, it forces all responsible Americans to be criminals. You are either a peace criminal or a war criminal.”
Daniel Ellsberg, the government official who would eventually leak the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, asked to testify, seeking a forum to release the secrets. But the judge shut him down, sustaining prosecutors’ objections to any and all criticism of the government.
Andrew Glass, an editor at the National Journal, testified that 88 percent of all soldiers sent to Vietnam were draftees, and that their chances of survival were far slimmer than that of enlistees. In response, the head of Minnesota’s Selective Service agency simply replied, “Mankind has always been at war.”
“The violence has to stop somewhere,” Kroncke asserted in his final statement of the trial. “It stops with me.”
But of course it didn’t. The men were sentenced to five years in prison, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam continued until 1975. Disillusioned, Kroncke returned to society as a salesman.
TWO YEARS AGO, Kroncke came back to Minnesota. He gave the History Theatre in St. Paul a memoir he’d written in prison, Patriotism Means Resistance, and the theater commissioned a Los Angeles playwright to create Peace Crimes based on Kroncke’s reflections on his activism and trial. Though he remains convinced of the military’s willingness to draft young men into war—Don’t fool yourself, he declares on his website, You are a key part of the Military Selective Service System—he now takes a more philosophical tack toward resistance.
He’s launched a new initiative, called Peace and War in the Heartland, that is sponsoring discussions and exhibits to be held during the play’s run. One of his exhibits, created with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis, is a virtual draft lottery that asks young people to consider how they’d act if drafted into a conflict they considered immoral. Would they resist and go to prison? Flee the country? Or train to kill and be killed?
Back at Tilton’s house, the Eight recall their own naiveté. “We were up in Little Falls, crawling through windows, thinking we were ending the war,” Kroncke muses. But the bigger war, they now believe, is still going on. The fight was never just about Vietnam but America:How do we settle conflicts—with violence or without? The war on terrorism is just another battle. “I wish this was a play about old farts reminiscing,” says Kroncke. “But it’s the same war, culturally.”
As the government becomes savvier, resistance is painted as unpatriotic, and it’s more difficult to dissent. “The times are so much more serious now,” asserts Beneke. “Vietnam—that was nothing.”
They are glad, then, that they stood up when they did. And so are others. “Guys thank us today for getting them out of Vietnam,” says Simmons. “It really was saving lives.”
Tim Gihring is Minnesota Monthly’s senior writer.