AT THE TIME OF THEIR ARREST in 1970, about the only thing the Minnesota Eight agreed on was the value of raiding draft boards: Breaking into government offices and destroying draft cards so that young men might be spared from fighting in Vietnam. After serving their time, the activists went their separate ways.
Frank Kroncke, for instance, left Minnesota for a life in sales and marketing—for a time he was selling encyclopedias door to door. Bill Tilton became a St. Paul attorney and prominent Democratic supporter. Brad Beneke headed for Los Angeles and a career in rock music, but soon returned and is now in high-tech software sales. Don Olson helped launch the Minneapolis food co-op movement and hosts a weekly talk radio show, on KFAI, about politics.
But lately the Eight—or seven, actually, as the only member to plead guilty got out of jail time and didn’t stay in touch—have been reunited, brought together by a play about their draft-raiding days, called Peace Crimes, staged this month by the History Theatre at the University of Minnesota.
From right to left: Don Olson, Brad Beneke,
Frank Kroncke, Mike Therriault, Bill Tilton,
Chuck Turchick, and Pete Simmons.
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville
It’s a snowy evening in November, and five of the Eight have gathered at Tilton’s home to swap war stories. Apart from Olson, who sports a bushy gray beard, the men have collectively shed about eight feet of hair since the raid that put them behind bars. Tilton, a garrulous outdoors type who recently spent six weeks kayaking around Greenland, sets out bottles of wine, and soon the group is excitedly discussing President Bush and Iraq as though working themselves up for another raid.
“The culture of violence has only gotten stranger,” says Pete Simmons, who now works with Peace in the Precincts, a political group advocating national security through nonviolent means. “When people believe militarism is the same as patriotism, they give up their liberties in hope that the military will protect them.” Everyone guffaws in agreement.
“It’s essentially American to dissent!” cries Kroncke, and his fellow raiders hoist their glasses in solidarity. With a clarity they never had while burglarizing the government—“sabotage of national defense materials” would be the charge in a trial that attracted the attention even of President Richard Nixon—they are certain now of their rightful place in history, if on the wrong side of the law. “Young people resisting illegitimate authority,” says Kroncke, “that’s the American story!”
In early 1970, before the Kent State killings, before Watergate, before the release of the Pentagon Papers detailing America’s conduct in Vietnam, it was much less obvious who was in the right.
Back then, Kroncke was nobody’s idea of a radical. A former monk and seminary student, the son of New Jersey Republicans, he believed in the goodness of God and government. He was the program director at the Newman Center—the Catholic student organization—at the University of Minnesota.
Kroncke was fascinated by Father Philip Berrigan, the pacifist priest who led draft board raids along the Eastern seaboard and once even defaced Selective Service records with a red liquid made partly from his own blood. Berrigan’s organization, the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives, inspired the parent group behind the Minnesota Eight: the Minnesota Conspiracy to Save Lives. Yet for a long time, Kroncke considered Berrigan an extremist, and limited himself to counseling U students on how to avoid the war.
Most of the Eight were similarly conflicted. They were ages 19 to 26 at the time of their arrest—athletes, graduate students, “sons of the Establishment,” according to Molly Ivins, who covered their trial as a cub reporter for the Star Tribune. They looked less like revolutionaries than fraternity brothers. In fact, several were. “I was middle class in a middle-sized city in the Midwest,” says Tilton, who served on the Inter-Fraternity Council at the U and as vice president of the Student Association. He cooled several confrontations on campus between protestors and police. But he also tended bar at a college hotspot. “It was sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” he says of his life then. “Politics was just on the side.”
If there was a ringleader among the Eight, it was Olson. He had gone from president of his fraternity, headed for a diplomatic career in Washington, to full-time activist. At the Twin Cities Draft Information Center, he helped advise hundreds of inductees as well as draft resisters every week. He had connections throughout the radicalized West Bank of Minneapolis—“hippiedom,” as Tilton puts it—and soon enough drew Beneke, Simmons, and others into the fold.
By early 1970, after Nixon had secretly ordered the bombing of Cambodia and a friend of Kroncke’s—a leader of the Chicago Black Panthers—was brutally shot to death by law enforcement, Kroncke was convinced that resistance to the government was not just patriotic. It was a good Catholic’s obligation. Though they couldn’t even agree on whether the draft should exist, the Eight began crossing over to real radicalism. “We had done everything a concerned citizen could do,” says Kroncke. “Then we moved into moral outrage: ‘Shut the system down!’ It was the best we could do.”
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 naivetÃ©. “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.