Looking Back on the Milwaukee 14: An Interview with Jim Forest
Editor’s Preface: Dyllan Taxman, an 8th grade student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was doing a research project for his history class and decided to look into an act of civil disobedience that had taken place in his city in September 1968. As Jim Forest has written, “The Vietnam War was raging. A group of fourteen people broke into nine draft boards that had offices side by side in a Milwaukee office building, put the main files into burlap bags, then burned the papers with homemade napalm in a small park in front of the office building while reading aloud from the Gospel. We awaited arrest, were jailed for a month, freed on bail, then tried the following year, after which we went to prison for more than a year; for most of us it was 13 months.” The interview was conducted in February 2006. Please see the note at the end for further information. JG
Dyllan Taxman: What made you do this?
Jim Forest: I had been in the military myself so didn’t have to worry about the draft, but as a draft counselor (a big part of my work with the Catholic Peace Fellowship) I was painfully aware of how thousands of young people were being forced to do military service in an unjust war about which they knew little or nothing, or even opposed. Anyone who knew the conditions for a just war could see this war did not qualify.
It seemed to me that people committed to the Gospel ought to offer some sort of witness against the war and conscription (really, a kind of slavery). I had been impressed by a similar but smaller action in Catonsville, Maryland, in which the priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan — both were my good friends — had played a major role. It seemed to offer a model.
Taxman: How did all fourteen of you meet?
Forest: Bonds of friendship. Many of us knew Michael Cullen, a founder of the Casa Maria Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Milwaukee. As I recall, the idea began to take shape when Dan Berrigan and I were staying with Mike and Nettie at Casa Maria while in Milwaukee to speak at a national conference of Franciscan teaching nuns.
Taxman: Who would you say was the leader of the group?
Forest: There was no leader. It was very much a group effort. I was a kind of press secretary (my background is mainly in journalism) and did the first draft for the group’s statement, but that too was something we all had a hand in.
Taxman: Were you scared?
Forest: You bet! I recall my knees shaking as Jim Harney and I walked together to the building where the draft boards had their offices.
Taxman: Did you tell your family about this beforehand? If so, did they approve? If not, were they shocked to find out? Did they agree with it or not?
Forest: A few people in the family knew. The ones I talked with approved.
Taxman: How long did you plan this out? Was it spontaneous or carefully planned?
Forest: There was very careful planning and several weeks of preparation.
Taxman: What do you think is the effect, now 38 years later, of the act that you, and the rest of the fourteen did that day?
Forest: I was amazed at the impact — more than I would have expected: a two-page photo in Life magazine of the action, front page coverage in newspapers across the country, reports on TV news programs nationwide, national press attention while the trial was going on, respected poets coming to Milwaukee to do public readings in our support, lectures given by various scholars, supportive mail from all sorts of people. One of the astronauts on the first moon trip sent me a photo he had taken of the earth from space. One of the “epistles” in Leonard Bernstein’s “The Mass” was a letter about visiting me in prison.
Now, 38 years later, of course it’s just one item on a long list of protest actions that occurred during the Vietnam War. What surprises me is that it hasn’t been altogether forgotten. I recently received a newly made Milwaukee 14 poster!
Taxman: Do you think that your actions that day had an affect on the draft?
Forest: Sure. For starters it closed down conscription for a time in a major US city. In Milwaukee for several months the only people who were sent to the war were volunteers. Judging from the mail we received, I think we helped more draft-eligible people decide that they would not take part in the war. More people became conscientious objectors. The fact that half our group were Catholic priests, and one a Christian Brother teaching economics at Note Dame, meant that our action had particular impact on the Catholic Church. It probably was a factor in the opposition to the war that was increasingly voiced by the Catholic hierarchy.
Taxman: Do you approve of more recent protests such as protesting soldiers in Iraq?
Forest: I’m not quite sure what the question is here. Do you mean protesting the war in Iraq? If so, I wish there was a great deal more protest. I am puzzled that the protest that has been going on hasn’t involved far more people. I see most of the soldiers in Iraq, even though volunteers for military service, as victims of the war who were driven to volunteer because of poverty and joblessness. Many of them, even if they come home alive and without physical injuries, will spend the rest of their lives battling with deep psychological scars and a haunted conscience.
Taxman: Do you think that your motives for this protest are/were completely understood by the public or do you think that your actions were in some way misunderstood?
Forest: There were a great many who understood. It was, after all, a very simple deed. The religious basis was clearly expressed. A major goal was to encourage more draft resistance and indeed there was more. But of course there were many people who were astonished or even scandalized to see Catholic priests and committed lay people putting their freedom on the line by such an act of civil disobedience, and couldn’t understand.
I think for most if not all of us, the trial was at least as important as the action. We hoped to make the trial not so much a trial of fourteen people accused of burning draft files but hoped to put an immoral and illegal war on trial. And that’s pretty much what happened.
If you have time to go to the Library Archive at Marquette University [in Milwaukee], my friend Phil Runkel can show you what they have regarding the Milwaukee 14. Probably they have a copy of the essay Francine du Plessix Gray wrote about the trial for the New York Review of Books, and was included in the book, Trials of the Resistance (ed. by Murray Kempton, New York: Random House, 1970).
Taxman: Do you still keep in touch with other members of the original fourteen?
Forest: Yes. I’m most often in touch with Bob Graf, who still lives in Milwaukee. I hope you have occasion to meet him. Thanks to Bob and Pat Graf, we had a Milwaukee 14 get-together in Milwaukee a few years ago.
Taxman: Did you feel during your stay in prison that you were a political prisoner?
Forest: I didn’t think much about myself in terms of such a label, but certainly we were seen as such by other prisoners, the guards, wardens, etc.
Taxman: Did any of you end up going to Vietnam?
Forest: One of my regrets is that, for all the traveling I’ve done, I’ve never been to Vietnam. I lived in France for a time with a Vietnamese community and so am used to Vietnamese culture, food, music, etc., but I wish I might have visited Vietnam.
Taxman: Would you do the same actions today if the same situation presented itself?
Forest: My present health being as it is — because of kidney illness I have to be at the local hospital three times a week for dialysis, which is an artificial kidney used to filter my blood — major acts of civil disobedience would be quite problematic. [Postscript: In October 2007 a kidney donated by Jim Forest’s wife was successfully transplanted.]
Also I think property destruction is not the ideal model of nonviolent protest — it’s on the borderline. I am still troubled by the cleaning woman we had to restrain when we entered the draft boards. What if we had caused her to have a heart attack? There is also the problem of secrecy. To plan actions of this type requires secrecy — and that in turn inspires distrust and suspicion. Also some of the actions that followed made me question what we had done. We stood around and took full public responsibility for what we did, welcoming the trial. Later on, the draft board actions tended to become “hit and run” — actions often done anonymously. These had their value but in my view lacked the impact of actions in which those responsible said, “I did it, I’m glad, and here’s why.”
Taxman: In the Constitution it states that when a government fails to protect your natural rights (one of which being life) you have the duty to overthrow it and form a new one. Then again, John Locke, one of the major influences on the framers of the Constitution stated that you have to follow the laws and rules of the government in exchange for the protection of these rights (this is called the Social Contract). That situation seems to create a paradox in the situation you were in. What is your opinion on that? [NOTE: Dyllan Taxman is here referring to paragraph three of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which reads: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” JG]
Forest: My main text is the Gospel. The example of the saints is also important. I saw what we were attempting as being similar to what Jesus did in driving the moneychangers out of the temple. No one was injured or killed, but he made a protest, which is recalled in each of the four Gospels. In the process he signed his own death sentence. His action surely had a great deal to do with the decision made by the religious leaders of the time that Jesus would be better dead.
Taxman: Regarding Civil Disobedience, when do you think it is appropriate to break the law? And who should decide that? Also, when (if ever) is it considered all right to infringe on other peoples rights?
Forest: I’m not an anarchist. Laws may not be perfect but most of them exist to help us live together peacefully. Most of them are like barriers along the edge of a dangerous road that help keep us from driving into a ravine. But when a law is socially destructive, then we are obliged, as St. Peter said, “to obey God rather than man.”
Taxman: What do you think the impact of this act was on your life specifically?
Forest: Every choice you make has consequences in your life and the lives of the people around you. Even little choices matter. If you’re in a bad mood, it will affect each and every person in your family. If you do something helpful — even a small thing like volunteering to wash dishes — that has a positive effect on the people you live with.
Being in prison was, for me, not without blessings. It gave me time to do some extremely valuable reading. I read books like The Brothers Karamazov, which Dorothy Day had so often urged me to read. I became a more prayer-centered person. I spent time every day reading the Gospel and thinking about it. I got to know my fellow prisoners and their stories — amazing lives. Some of them were not guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted — others were certainly guilty — but from each of them there was something to learn.
The very worst thing about prison was not seeing my 6-year old son Ben for more than a year. When I think back on that, this still causes me great anguish. But I think too of soldiers who went to Vietnam and never saw their wives or children again, or came home with terrible injuries. My losses, and my son Ben’s, are hardly worth mentioning compared to that.
Taxman: Thank you, Mr. Forest, for the interview.
Forest: Thanks, Dyllan, for your probing questions.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Forest has contributed regularly to this site. His many books include All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day and Living with Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton. His most recent book is The Root of War Is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, which we shall be reviewing. His biography of Daniel Berrigan is scheduled for a fall 2017 release. His own website has a list of his publications, and more of his essays. Please see his Authors Archive page for other of his articles posted here, via the link at the top of the page.