Frances Crowe

 Frances is in her ‘80’s and has been an activist for over 50 years. She lives in Northampton, MA. She is married to a local doctor and has three children. She continues to protest against war and is now counseling people about the War in Iraq.

Prior to the escalation of the Vietnam War, I was a full time mother, housewife, and homemaker with three kids, two of whom were adolescent boys. The kitchen seemed always to be filled with young men after school talking about what they were going to do about the draft. After hearing their stories I decided when they went off to school, I would go off to CCCO, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Philadelphia, where you could take a week’s draft counseling training course, which I did. I came back and visited some draft centers like the AFSC one at the Friends Meeting House in Cambridge, one in New Haven, and various other places, but I didn’t see draft counseling, I saw angry young men conducting interviews, mostly resister types who were very angry and were telling other men about their options, mostly illegal. Things like how they could throw protein in their urine samples or gain weight or lose weight or cut off their index fingers – crazy demonizing things that were very disturbing to me.

I came back and went to UMASS, the School of Education, and took a course in Group Counseling. I decided to take what I called the feminist approach to draft counseling, which meant I would do it in groups. We were living at the time in a big house up on Round Hill Rd. in Northampton and our kids had all gone off to school by that time, to residential high schools. We moved to this house, which had a good lower floor where I could have a draft center. I decided that Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Friday nights I would do groups from two to five and seven to eleven or something. I went to the Daily Hampshire Gazette to see about putting an ad in the paper and they said it would be illegal. I asked them to check with their lawyers – here I was already telling people about their legal options under selective service. They checked and found out that, yes they could put the ad in, but it was a little ad in the classifieds. “Young Men, are You Conscientiously Opposed to Participation or Is There Any Warrant Facing You? If so, come to a draft information session”. Nobody came.

Now remember this was before there were Xerox machines. I had big old mimeograph machine. It was very hard to cut stencils and grind out copies, but I prepared flyers. In those days we didn’t have a 5-College bus and everybody hitchhiked. I decided the thing I should do—and I always picked up hitchhikers—was to drive back and forth between Amherst and Northampton picking up hitchhikers and giving them the flyers with information about the counseling sessions. The first Monday morning I went out and managed to fill up the car with young men going to Amherst. As soon as they got in the car, I asked them,” What are you going to do about the draft?” and oh, they had crazy ideas about going to Canada or Sweden or failing physicals, and I talked fast and drove slow and kept handing out material to them that I had stenciled with maps to my house and the invitation to my first session the following Tuesday at 2 o’clock.

I did that all day, and by Tuesday afternoon I had a roomful. We sat in a circle. I had studied the draft law carefully and I had materials and I had forms for them to fill out. I was prepared. The first thing when they came in we went around the room with each young man telling his particular story. Eventually it ended up that there were people in the military as well as people trying to decide how to not go into the military or whether they would go. There were girlfriends, mothers, wives, even at one point, a father of a potential draftee who was chairman of the Holyoke Draft Board, who said that he really wanted to understand the law. I had all the legal books. I even subscribed to the Law Reporter. We went around and they all said what they were objecting to and they gained confidence by hearing one another. They could identify. “Yes, that’s the way I feel.” We asked them questions like, “What’s the basis of your belief and where does it come from,” and “What do you think are the seeds for these ideas of your conscience in your background,” and they shared stories about maybe they had accidentally killed a squirrel once with a bb gun when they were young and their feelings, their emotional response to taking a squirrel’s life. Or maybe it was a book they had read like JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN.  We talked about books or music or films and we all shared and then those who didn’t know about those things tried to go out and get in touch with them to better understand them and see if they were helpful.

We also began counseling the high school drop-outs from some depressed areas.  They heard about us. One comes and then they bring others. We had a very diverse group of people, totally diverse. We had Amherst College students with Chicopee youth. The Amherst College students were often very articulate, but out of touch with their feelings. The Chicopee youth were really in touch with their feelings but maybe lacked the competence to express it and they helped one another, and out of that came a support. They all filled out a form when they came in and I never had anyone who objected. They were very confident students. They gave their name and address and their draft status and whether they knew of any physical exemptions and a little bit about what other exemptions they might qualify for and where they thought they wanted to go. I kept those forms so that if they were on vacation and the draft law suddenly changed and they called me from Montana, I could look at their record and say, yes, I think you should do this.

They came back week after week after week and they clarified their conscience. They also began to write their answers slowly and they took notes and then as they wrote their answers new people were coming in and they were helped by the experience of people who were further along in the process. We went over their applications together and people strengthened their forms in hearing the ideas that other people expressed saying, “Yes, that’s the way I feel.” I showed slideshows about Vietnam and they were pretty political. It really helped them to get in touch with what was going on in Vietnam. I showed Don Luce’s “Remember Vietnam”, and the slideshow made the viewers think about Vietnam a lot. We had coffee and tea and people would bring cookies and cheese and crackers. We stayed up late, and sometimes it was hard, Friday night particularly, to get them to leave because they had developed a group. It was a community. We role- played personal appearances in front of the draft board and then, after those who got their 1-0 classification as conscientious objectors came back and shared their experience it was very exciting. We celebrated, and those who had been successful stayed and helped with the others. That first year that we did this counseling from ’68 through ’69, I had 1,776 office visits. That’s how many people came through the door; how many visits. It’s a wonderful number, don’t you think.

We went on for three years until the draft stopped and out of all those who came only one person went to prison. He was registered in New Hampshireand had his trial up there. We all went up to support him. It was like a Greek drama and we wrote to him and I picked him up when he got out of prison. So we saw him through his choice. Only one person went into the army. He went in as a 1-A0, as a medic, because his brother was in Vietnam. Everybody else ended up as a C0.We discovered that getting the draft board to give you a 1-0 classification was like getting the first olive out of the jar After that they gave up and I think this is an important thing to pass on to young men when they apply for the 1-0 classification. Whether you get it or not it reduces the local board quota by 1, so nobody goes in your place and, of course, draft boards always send you for a physical after you get the 1-0 classification and they would rather classify you as 4-F then 1-0. We tried to really help people find creative alternative service employment. We got churches and non-profit organizations to sponsor C0’s so that they worked for alternative schools, health care centers, food banks, and shelters. A lot worked in hospitals. We tried to make them useful. The law says it has to be something in the national health, safety, and non-profit organizations, endeavors which at least slightly disrupt your personal life, which usually means moving out of your local community. Now I frequently run into people in all walks of life who say, “I came to your session and it was the turning point of my life.” Facing the draft, taking control of my life, figuring out who I was and where I wanted to go with my life and why, and seeing that I had a conscience and that I could control it, that changed my life forever. They’re all doing wonderful things now. They’re principals of high schools, they’re working on all kinds of very interesting alternative things. I had all of the medical regulations, but I really urged them not to take a medical or illegal way out because I said, “It’s going to be on your record for the rest of your life. It may influence your health insurance coverage. It may influence a job you want to get if it says you are psychologically unstable. It’s hard enough to figure out who we are and if you’ve got this label of being unstable…There are times when you think well, maybe I am. And I don’t think it’s a good way to see yourself.” So, I really urged them, and I think it was a very positive experience for me and for the young people.

The lottery changed things for sure. There were more calls with men asking what they should do. The overall numbers I’m sure were not as great, but we still had people -a lot and more people who were already in the military contacted us and that was good. We had great success with people in the military and the only way we could tell was the haircut when they came in. We worked with the first CO in the air force. Donald Dawson was a pilot doing bombing raids in Thailand. He was home on leave when our Women Against the War group blockaded the entrance to Westfield Air Force Base. We dressed as Vietnamese women and Donald was back on in the States serving at the base. He was given an AK-47 and told to put on guard duty. He later told us that he looked at that group of women kneeling there and many of us were crying. We had been leafleting there for over three years by that time. That particular day we had been reading Vietnamese poetry and it was International Women’s Day. We just went out spontaneously and knelt down for the Vietnamese women. He said suddenly the hairlines, the crosslines that he had been looking at when he was bombing became real. He wasn’t aware of all of the conflicting emotion at the time, but that night he was watching “West Side Story” with his wife and he started crying and he couldn’t stop. The next day he was called back to Thailand. He thought very seriously and decided that he would never bomb again. He went to see the chaplain over there and I heard on the radio later that week that this Lieutenant Donald Dawson had refused an order to bomb and was condemned for his decision. He was being court martialed in Connecticut. I couldn’t get to the phone fast enough to get all the numbers of all the Dawson’s in Danbury, CT. I heard his mother on the radio say, “My son is not a CO. He would have fought in World War II.” I got her on the third call. I asked for Donald Dawson. She said he was in Thailand, and I said, “I want to talk to you. Your son does not have to say what he would have done in World War II. He will never know. He only needs to say how he feels about this war. I want to send him some material.” So she gave me the address and I ran downstairs and got all my best copies of things and sent them to him. He got the package just as he was getting on the plane to come home so he called me and we met and he got the help he needed. Now he’s a lawyer in Nashville, TN doing really good anti-death penalty work, but there were others. He was just one.

I was always saying look at the law. Read the law, you are qualified. I said the government doesn’t want anyone who is conscientiously opposed to the war. Under those circumstances you are actually violating the law if you go in. That’s what the draft board in Holyoke had no idea about. There was this landmark case during World War II. Dan Seeker, who I know in New York now was not religious but he held a moral, ethical, philosophical objection to participation in war. He declared his beliefs with the same degree of intensity as one would hold a religious belief. He was in prison when the Supreme Court took his case, and said he’s right. Belief in a supreme being, if you hold the moral, ethical, and philosophical objection, is not essential. It took them a long time before the Supreme Court heard that case, into the ‘60’s actually. It was really THE turning point and I keep saying that. In fact I have a letter explaining the role of this case because most people don’t understand its significance. One of the things that we did, there was a family over in the Belchertown/Granby Area that had three sons. The Northampton Draft Board had turned down the oldest one as a CO. He had gone to Canada and when his younger brothers understood the law, they said, “Our brother shouldn’t have been denied. There was no reason for him to have to refuse induction.” We brought him back from Canada and they dropped the indictment against him. An important part of the draft information work we did here was that I monitored this draft board. They met on Monday nights and I would go down Tuesday mornings where they posted the draft card minutes to be sure that they were drafting people in the right order and they weren’t skipping over people who had political connections. They knew I knew so I didn’t challenge them on it, but they were more careful. I don’t know whether they fudged their minutes to the meeting, but we watched them. We monitored them and when they knew that we were monitoring them it made a difference, and I even parked out in front of the draft board. They met there on Main Street where the Chocolate Emporium is now, upstairs. I would park there and observe who went in for a personal appearance and who went out. I could check to see how honest they were, but it took that kind of vigilance and I think most draft counseling centers didn’t put that kind of energy into it.

I think the experience of being counseled was transformative. I don’t think humans are made to kill each other and once you get some insight and support you see how crazy it is for the government to train you to be a murderer. For me personally, I didn’t care if I was taking risks. I was acting on my conscience. I knew the government watched me. They even sent someone in who was very bumbling with a tape recorder and I knew he had a wig on. So I said, “Look, take off your wig. It’s too hot in here. Put your tape recorder away.” And he bumbled and fled. It wasn’t always easy. My neighbors objected to all the motorcycles and the kids coming in with jeans torn at the knees and there were lots of people. One Saturday night we had 79 people, and we had to break up into small groups all over the house and the yard.

There were women, too. We had Victoria Safford who went on to become the minister at the local Unitarian Society. She came with Ross who would later become her husband. She was very lost. They both were and they’ve really gone on to do great things with their lives. She came and she stayed and after a while she said, “I want to help you.” She volunteered and she ended up doing an action with us down in Groton, CT against the Trident submarines. She served her time in jail and went on to work at the alternative school in Vermont that our son had gone to, then to Yale divinity school, and now they’re doing great things, but there were others like Victoria and mothers and fathers. Some were very skeptical. “What are you doing?” “Who are you?” “What’s this all about?” But we were just right out there. Honest and trusting and they trusted us. It was just a wonderful open process, but there was no media coverage of what we were doing. Now there’s a little bit. They let me tell the story, but people are still so socialized into this artificial patriotism which is just filled with lies. Advertising, propaganda – it’s just unrelenting so that people’s minds are totally paralyzed and fearful, and only people like Amy Goodman and her show, “Democracy Now”, are breaking through that awful inertia and trying to wake up people. People need to pay attention and listen. That’s what I want to tell people, what the law is, and the GI Rights Hotline number where they can get help so that we don’t have to have other soldiers committing suicide like the one that happened this summer in Belchertown. The Gazette won’t even print the GI Hotline number. I have a letter I have written to the newspaper, but I held it up for a week because I wanted to have Jo Comerford’s (head of the local American Friends’ Service Committee) permission to use the AFSC hotline number in the letter to offer assistance to people facing this war in Iraq.
I feel that parents have a lot of responsibility to really level with their kids about their feelings and not to say, “It’s your life. You have to decide.” Parents are responsible when our kids are growing up, to promote their moral and philosophical lives. I have a son, Tom. He was away at this farm high school in Vermont. He was trying to be very objective and his mother was so deeply involved in this thing so he was a little skeptical. Eventually he said, “I think I’m going to go into the army and find out what its really like.” My husband and I felt very strongly about this and I called him and said, “Tom, you’ve got to come home and spend a day with us and we’ll talk this through because we feel this is not you. Come on a Wednesday when I don’t have a group and we’ll take the phone off the hook. I won’t answer the door and we’re there totally for you.” He came and we talked all day. We sat here and we really talked it through, and at the end of the day he said, “I will apply for a CO on environmental grounds.” It’s interesting that for him it was to protect the earth. War damages the earth and animal life and endangers species and so he applied for his CO, but it was where he was. He said, “I’m not a Quaker,” but you know it was his belief system that he tapped into. Then he got a number that didn’t put him at risk and I was very glad and since he said, “That was really important what you did. If I had waited to go or volunteered it would have been a big mistake.” So I think parents should be encouraged to get actively involved.

We had one young man who was totally out of the system. He was a drop-out who was living out in the woods in Chicopee. He had trouble expressing himself, but he was a very good wood carver and the way he decided to express himself, and the group encouraged him, was to use his art. He made this beautiful box, and on one side of it was Gandhi and Martin Luther King on another side, Dorothy Day on another and César Chávez on another – all of the non-violent heroes and he took that into the draft board to show, and of course, they were sure that there was a bomb in it (Frances laughs heartily). He got a CO.

A few years ago, I got an honorary degree at UMASS and afterwards one of the people ran up to me and said, “Jesus Christ! I can’t believe you’re still here doing this stuff. I was one of your CO’s.” His son was graduating and he said, “I’m so happy you’re here.” Last winter I got this. Someone emailed me saw something on one of the listserves or websites about me, somebody in New York and he wrote me and said, “I want to see you. I was one of your early people when I was a student at UMASS.” Apparently he became very active in the US-China People’s Friendship Association and he went to China and participated in talks. Now he’s an immigration lawyer in New York City working with the Chinese immigrants. He came to visit on his way through town with his wife and children and we had a nice visit, but the most important thing is they all felt good about themselves.

Some of the most difficult sessions involved those who were serving. They came and we helped them and some had to go back. There was one who was AWOL and we helped talk it through for him about what he needed to do. I didn’t consider myself a military counselor, so I sent him off to get military counseling to help him sort through the issues. I remember at one point he turned himself in to go back to apply for a CO discharge, and of course, we helped them with their letters of reference and we had certain ministers in town who we knew would be willing to talk to these people and help them search their conscience if they felt they were sincere. Then they’d write them a letter of support. We helped him figure this stuff out. He went back and refused to wear a uniform. He told us later that at one point he was standing there in this wooden barracks someplace down south and he refused to put on his uniform and he had only his undershirt on. They threw a gun at him and said, “You pick that up or we’re gonna kill you.” And he didn’t do it. He didn’t pick it up. He later said, “The group was with me and I was there.” They tested him and he used his feeling of solidarity to withstand their pressure tactics and we used that in later trainings to help people in our role plays. We rehearsed people with the crazy questions that the draft boards would ask them, like, “What would you do if someone tried to attack your grandmother?” And we coached them to respond, “That’s not war and my grandmother locks her doors. She doesn’t have guns and I don’t have a gun.” We also talked through the vegetarian issues. Some people are vegetarians and some people aren’t, but we talked a lot about the crystallization of your conscience, that it’s a slowly evolving thing, that you take one step and you decide how comfortable you feel and where you’re moving helps you take another step. People asked, “What if the draft board says that you pay taxes so you obey the law?” We would counsel them to say, “It’s illegal to not pay taxes just like it’s illegal for me to go into the army if I am a CO.” So, we were helping by doing the legal thing. After a draft board hearing the young man would come back and tell us and we took turns being Chairman of the Board and members of the board, reenacting and that was fun stuff. They loved that and we helped prepare them for their personal appearance. We kept records. I knew the draft boards in Long Island and draft boards in New Jersey, in Vermont, New Hampshire, all around. With that information we were better able to be of service and that’s what we were all about…