The Camden 28: Standing Against The Vietnam War

Last Updated by Lori Walsh on
Frank Pommersheim and Anne Dunham were members of the "Camden 28"

Over the past few months we've welcomed South Dakotans impacted by the Vietnam War to In the Moment, asking the question, again and again, "What is the legacy of the Vietnam War in South Dakota?"

I've listened to veterans who found their footing in the military and with others who carry the scars, deep and inescabable, of the inevitable transformation of war.

I've thought often of my father's service in Vietnam, and I've wished, again and again, that I could talk with him today about his experiences those many years ago. I doubt he would have ever agreed to speak "on the record" about his personal story, but I'd like to think he would listen to the show, quietly absorbing what others have to say.

I'd particularly like to know his take on the "Camden 28." I know he always admired those who acted on their convictions, even if those convictions were starkly different from his own. On the other hand, my dad enlisted in the Marine Corps. He honestly believed everyone should serve their country. What did he make of men and women who used nonviolent actions in a stand against mandatory service?

I think he'd like Frank Pommersheim and Anne Dunham. I think he'd like what they were willing to do for a cause they believed deeply in. I doubt he'd figure they had been on the opposites sides of history, or the opposite sides of anything. He'd most likely offer to share a beer with them and move on.

He was that kind of guy, my dad.

What I know for sure is this: No one who has joined the program to talk about Vietnam has arrived with easy answers to the tumultuous questions of war or trauma or finding peace more than 50 years later in America.

I doubt those answers exist, but I'm not exaclty sure.

I only wish I could ask my dad.

The following is an edited version of this conversation. If you would like to listen to it in its entirety, click here

Lori:

How far would you go to protest a war? South Dakota Public Broadcasting helps you prepare for the upcoming landmark television event, the Vietnam War. It's a 10 part, 18 hour series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It chronicles one of America's most turbulent eras, and it premieres on SDPBTV on Sunday, September 17th. This summer, we've been talking to Vietnam War veterans and others impacted by the war. Today, we welcome Frank Pommersheim and Anne Dunham. The two are part of an August 1971 raid on the federal building in Camden, New Jersey by a group of anti-war protestors. They broke into the offices of the draft board to remove draft records. They were met by 80 FBI agents and arrested. The subsequent trial is considered to be one of the great trials of the 20th century. They believe themselves to be the conscience of America. The government called them the Camden 28.

They join me today in our studios in Vermilion.

Frank, let's start by putting this into the historical context. 1971, what's happening in the anti-war movement at this time that makes this action make sense?

Frank:

Well I think the anti-war movement was growing significantly. The particular part we were part of known as the Catholic left, where basically people came from a Catholic tradition who believed in non violent resistance to the ongoing war in Vietnam. We were just in that stream. There had been many, what were called actions before we did our thing in Camden. That's the context we were acting in that we felt more n more that direct non violent action was required to get the full attention of our government.

Lori:

Is this something you came to through church? Through an education, through friends? Anne, tell me how you first became part of the movement?

Anne:

I think it was all of those things. I too, grew up Catholic, went to Catholic schools, and as Frank said, we were part of a group called the Catholic left, and there was a very strong social justice component through the civil rights era, through concerns about things happening in central America. I think I certainly was a great admirer of Martin Luther King and Gandhi and that whole non violent action.

It was gradual that I became more and more, when I was in high school, was involved to some degree with civil rights, and then in college became more and more involved with anti war activity until finally I think it was after Kent State in, I guess that was '71 then, just dropping out of college, and just said I wanted to put myself full time to working to end the war because I felt it was wrong, that it was being done in our name, and was an illegal and unconscionable war.

Lori:

That's a big step, leaving college behind.

Did you get support from your family for that, or were there questions about that choice?

Anne:

No, they were not happy about that. I ultimately went on to finish school and go to graduate school, and that also evolved over the years that it was very difficult for my family at the beginning, Frank's family as well. I do remember after we were arrested my mother saying nobody in our family had ever been in jail before, and it was just very hard for them to understand. Ultimately, I can remember a number of years later my mother saying that she thought that actually what we had done, she understood it, and that she may not have agreed with the means but that ultimately she saw it was an act of conscience. Eventually, that evolved and came around, which I think it did for many Americans, that in hindsight viewed the war differently. But it was during that whole period, I think opinion across the country was getting more and more against the war as the death toll climbed.

Lori:

Take me behind the scenes a little bit to some of those early conversations, Frank, about the break in itself, as you plan what you're going to do, how you're going to do it.

Frank:

I think there was a general evolution within Catholic left circles within the resistance that there had to be more resistance. I think initially people, which made great impression on me, people burned their draft cards. People publicly gathered to burn draft cards, and that didn't seem to be having an effect. There was a notion that maybe people from the Catholic left should go into federal buildings where there were draft boards and try to get the files. When we were involved, it had evolved to that stage at that next step of resistance was actually to go into federal buildings, to go into draft offices, to take the files. The goal of taking the files at that time was not really to burn them or to destroy them, but to actually take them and to mail them back to the registrants.

So those registrants would have a new choice if they wanted to still be part of the draft. They could re-register and send their cards back in. If they were okay with their records being removed, and at that time there were no digital files. That was the record. They would have that choice. That was the goal not to act on anyone's behalf except our own and to provide choice for people.

Lori:

Did you have an awareness what was at stake for you personally because this is illegal, you're breaking into a building, you're removing federal records? There must be tools for the break in. You have to plan a crime here essentially, right?

Frank:

That's what they say. Since I also teach-

Lori:

Acquitted, you should say, acquitted.

Frank:

Yeah, there was planning. The notion was that building, by members of the group and others, put the building, we used the term under surveillance. We used to case it to make sure it would be safe because one of the commitments on the Catholic left was never to engage in violence. In planning, one notion was we never wanted to enter a building where there would be a person there, a guard, someone we would have to have some encounter with.

Part of the surveillance would be to see, there usually would be one person late at night that was there, just to try to make sure we could time our movements accordingly so that we would never have a physical contact and the risk of violence by encountering anyone during the action.

Lori:

Anne, are you frightened at some point? You're making a commitment that if you get caught, you could spend an awfully long time in jail, up to 47 years, is what I read, was the potential results of the charges. Did you have an awareness of that?

Anne:

I did have an awareness of that, and there were people in previous years who had been arrested for draft board actions, and had gone to jail for upwards of two years. I was aware of that, and I can't say that I was really frightened. Maybe I should have been. I think some of that was the somewhat just being young and feeling somewhat invulnerable. Also feeling very committed. I think realistically, we didn't think it would be anywhere near those number of years, that many people before had been convicted just of conspiracy. As I said, at the time, I think I thought that I'd be with a group of people, wouldn't be by myself. We'd be in a federal prison, and we'd even sort of joke about it some.

I guess just the overall commitment was stronger than that deterrent of fear or facing that many years.

Lori:

What were you willing to give up?

Frank:

Well it's hard to know. One thing I think it's important to keep in mind that we weren't really acting as individuals, as a community of resistance. I think to people in the resistance, it was important to be a part of a community that we weren't just following our own idiosyncratic reactions or our own ego trying to react within the context of a community and within a non violent tradition.

So the calculus is a little bit different when you're younger, but the notion is I need to take this risk because you believe the injustice that you're trying to combat merited that, and I think that's how most of us thought. Most of us were relatively young, but there were people in our group who were married, had families, had children. So people were on a wide range of a continuum where they were in their personal lives, but people were willing to step forward and take a risk.

I mean we didn't think that we were doing anything special because a lot of people were resisting the war. We just felt that we had to follow individual and collectively what our conscience was asking or requiring us to do.

Lori:

There is an informant amongst you, though, which turns out to be fairly important in the trial itself. Tell me about that, and when did you find out that someone within your group was really working for the FBI or informing for the FBI?

Frank:

Well, yeah, I think all along, some people had some suspicions about this individual, Bob [Hardy 00:09:40], because he just didn't seem to really fit the mold of people who were resisting. But he was an informant. He was played out by the FBI. They took advantage of him as they usually do, and that's how it played out. I mean I was actually with him that night, not knowing that. We were out driving around, and he said I have to call my wife, and so we stopped at a payphone. He allegedly called his wife, and he came back and said to me, Frank, my wife is sick, I've got to go, and he just left me on the street.

So as I walked back to one of the houses, as I turned the corner, all these vehicles rushed up to that house, and FBI agents got out, and they were armed and stuff. Something just went off in my mind that he didn't really call his wife. He had actually called the FBI and told them that it was time to come.

Lori:

What did that do to you personally in that moment and in the months afterwards? How did you process that?

Frank:

It was awfully kind of surreal. I mean I was by myself, so I just kept walking around a bit on the streets of Camden. Camden was also undergoing some other urban turmoil. There was actually a time thing where it was no one on the street, and I was just walking around, and I began to see some cars driving on the streets of Camden. They were FBI vehicles with people in those vehicles. It really hit me that that's what happened. So I actually went back to New York.

I was actually working at the time, and I called my boss and said to make a long story short, I'm probably going to get arrested in a few days, and he said, I was a temp at the time, and he said, well that's okay, just take a few days off, and we'll see how this plays out.

Lori:

Anne, when are you arrested?

Anne:

The evening of the break in, I was actually one of the people right across the street that was watching the guard to make sure he had a set schedule. He'd be keeping that schedule or let people know that he had moved, and it was like Frank said, all of a sudden, the people were inside. They'd been inside for several hours, packing up vials. They had said they were getting ready to leave, and then all of a sudden, cars are rushing up and there's lights on, and we could hear footsteps running towards us. Then there were FBI agents with guns drawn telling us to drop everything. Of course, we had nothing to drop. We weren't armed or anything. Then was put in a car and then taken to the jail and arrested.

Lori:

Had you planned for that contingency? Had you talked about what happens if we get arrested, what do we say, how do we behave?

Anne:

We had talked about that. There again, there were other people in the wider community, that Frank's talking about that had been arrested. We always admitted from the beginning that we weren't trying to hide anything, that that's what we did. At the trial, too, we always said that we weren't pleading non guilty in terms of not having committed the action, but that the reason why was important. So when we were questioned, I mean they had partially from the informant, because they'd been watching us, a lot of names. There were some things almost were out of a TV show, that they'd be saying to us all your friends have talked, tell us who's really the leader.

That was another thing that I found somewhat insulting because some of us were young and many were women. There was this assumption that there was a man that was older that was the leader, and they'd be doing some of that, but we were ultimately jailed for a couple of weeks, with bails ranging from, I don't know, 25,000. This again, in '73, that was a lot of money, up to upwards of 150,000 or more, and at least the women in jail, and then the men, too. We were in different jails, agreed that none of us would be bailed out until the whole group was bailed out. And they did then significantly lower the bail.

Lori:

Let's talk about the trial because it turns out to be quite a significant trial. What's your argument then, if it's not that we're not guilty and we didn't do it? Frank, what's the legal plan?

Frank:

Well, I think the legal plan was sort of twofold. One is trying to speak to the conscience of the jury, that there's a long time theory in jury trials of jury nullification, going back that juries were originally the voice of the community. Part of it is we did these things, but we think that they were legitimate as a matter of conscience, and we're speaking to the jury to speak as the voice of the community. Obviously, that's not the kind of jury instructions they actually get, but that was part of it. Then the use of the informant was that that was kind of a government overreaching, that as Anne said, people always were quite clear that we did it, we would have done it without him, but the government clearly had gone too far here, and that the jury should be aware of basically those two things as Anne said, people never said we didn't do this, we didn't mean to do it. We wouldn't have done it without Bob Hardy. It was the exact opposite.

We did what we did, we're here to tell you the story, and we're here to take whatever the consequences might be.

Lori:

Do you each get time on the stand? Do you get to testify? It's a three and a half month trial, and something like 9,000 pages of transcript.

Anne:

It is very long. One of the things they did do is there were 28 people indicted to begin with, and then they severed some of those defendants so that there were only 17 on trial. It ended up that I was on trial and Frank because he later was not ultimately arrested in the beginning, was one of the ones severed. So I did get to testify. We were very fortunate in that the judge we had, a man named Clarkson Fisher, that he decided to let us talk about our motivation. Where in some previous trials, some of the judges would just say we're only talking about the facts of law, was there a break in or not, you can't talk about why. You can't bring in the war or other issues.

There had been some very fiery trials, the Chicago A trial was it, and somewhere there'd be outbreaks. I think he thought it would be better and that it would be fairer if we were able to talk about that. The trial did go on very long because we were able to bring in historians. There was some Vietnam vets against the war, a couple of Vietnamese people testified. Some parents. There was one particularly moving testimony of one of our friends, Bob Good. He came from a family of eight, and he had an older brother who had died in Vietnam, and his mother testified about how painful that was and her evolving feelings, how they changed about the war.

So there were many different voices, and I think it really gave a context to what was happening in the country, and just like how many lives the war's touched, and how many other effects it had. The question of whether we were guilty or not was much larger than did we technically break in to this building.

Our aim was to talk about not the destruction of paper files but the destruction of lives, the destruction of a country, and I think that was obviously was very powerful, and had an effect on the jury and also it was the time that by the time we were on trial was 1973, and the war was winding down by that point, and so I think that made quite a difference.

Also, as Frank said, this whole idea of jury nullification. We had decided that a lot of us, we had a few attorneys advising us, but a lot of us were our own attorneys, spoke for ourself, and we also told the jury they were free to ask questions. That doesn't normally happen, so they would submit some written questions to the judge, and so I think that certainly made a difference, too, and also with the informer, just one other question about him, as Frank said, he felt he'd been used by the FBI. He was a friend. He was from Camden, was close to the Parish priest who was involved, Michael Doyle, and when he went to the FBI and informed, he said I don't want to see my friends go to jail, but I don't agree with it, I think it's wrong what they're doing, and the FBI kept telling him, we will arrest them before it all happens, but the arrest didn't happen until two hours into the actions.

So as Frank said, the government overreached. They were allowing this to happen because they wanted to have a strong conviction of us in the act. It was very complex.

Frank:

I think one of the things in the trial, which was a three-month trial was just the education process. I think the judge made comments, subsequently, Judge Fisher, that he'd learned a lot during that, after the verdict of acquittal, we met with the jurors, and it was just interesting to listen to the jurors, how much they had been educated and taken by the testimony that they heard, who the defendants actually were.

I mean we were just ordinary people, and I think that's an important thing because sometimes movements are just identified by their leaders, and I think on the Catholic left kind of thing, we tried to minimize the notion of leaders, that every person has a conscience and needs to respond.

Lori:

Tell me about the moment you hear the first not guilty, are you in the court room then, Frank?

Frank:

You know, they did it alphabetically as I recall, and the first defendant was Anderson because the case was actually US versus Anderson, and he was only named, as I recall, one of two of the counts, and so you heard him, and then they went to the next person, and I think at some point, the judge just asked whether there were any different verdicts because there were a significant number of people on trial. The counts were six or seven, so all told the jury sheet would have had almost over 100 kind of thing, and at some point it was clear that they're all going to be not guilty, and the place just went, it went nuts.

Lori:

The New York Times called it pandemonium.

Frank:

That's pretty close.

Lori:

Is that how you recall it?

Anne:

I don't know, to me, it's more just exuberant joy and relief and feeling of vindication. I mean I don't know that pandemonium, seems like it's a little out of hand. There were a lot of family and friends there. There was certainly press, and I just think even the defendants and the jurors and everybody else that it was just, we just, it was just unbelievable, felt this great joy, and as I said, vindication that we had made our point, as Frank said, educating that we had this group of 12 jurors kind of see that what we were saying about the war was right.

Lori:

And singing.

Frank:

Yes.

Then we had to figure out what we were going to do the next day.

Lori:

What did you sing?

Anne:

I'm not sure if I even remember. Was it something like Amazing Grace?

Lori:

According to the New York Times in 1971, you broke into a chorus of Amazing Grace.

Anne:

That's what I ... Okay. That's what I was remembering. I thought that was it. I'll have to go back and look at the Times again.

Frank:

But I think it was sort of relief and vindication, and it just ... Amazing because there had been no acquittals in the Catholic left trials.

Anne:

And there'd been over 30 actions, and I'm not sure how many trials. Probably more than that. We were one of many. Yeah.

Frank:

So I think people just expected that we would be convicted. I think people in the Catholic left, all those trials, generally after it became clear that for the most part, people were going to be convicted, so I don't think our expectations were any different. That's why I think the celebration exuberance was incredibly powerful and kind of just spread through the whole anti war community and began to feel that in a small way some kind of turning point had occurred and maybe the war was going to actually end.

Lori:

Many Vietnam veterans have set in these chairs this summer and told their story of Vietnam, and some of them have brought real guilt and sorry to the table. Some have brought real pride. The criticism against an action like this is of course that the people who are being drafted are replacements, so other people can come home. Do you feel a sense that there were casualties in Vietnam because of the action that you took? Do you carry any regret or guilt?

Frank:

For me, I mean absolutely not. I mean because we were trying to do, as I said at the beginning is to just a very small compass to give people a second chance. If they wanted to be drafted, if we had been able to follow through, they would have gotten their draft registration forms back, and if they wanted to be drafted or be eligible for the draft, they just had to refile it. I think our thinking was that we believed in non violence. We wanted to end the killing on all sides in Vietnam and I think that's what we were committed to, things that our government was doing, the use of Napalm and Agent Orange. It just seems like that's a very difficult kind of thing to ever justify.

Lori:

Anne, did you have a sense that other people would not be allowed to come home if new draftees did not arrive?

Anne:

I'm not so sure that I was so aware of that or was sure that that was actually the case. I think the war was winding down by that time, and our goal was always to end it and end, as Frank said, the killing on all sides. I think for all of us, at least the people that I was involved with during the war, we never had any criticism or bad feelings towards any of those men that were drafted. I had a brother in the Army at the time, another one in the Reserve, and the Coast Guard. It was that we feel like many of them, that there were certainly some that were victims. There were many that were unwillingly drafted, that the draft was really unfair in terms of, and that was one of the reasons we chose Camden was that it was the community of Camden is like a bombed out city.

It was very very poor, but it also included to the north, some much richer suburbs, but the vast majority of men drafted were those that were on the lower economic scale. I think there were, and I know people who served admirably in Vietnam and people who went in, they were believing what the government told them and doing their duty, being patriotic, being brave and courageous. I feel like that's a separate issue, and I would certainly look more into that question of whether the number of draftees being lowered meant those men would stay longer.

But I think generally, the numbers were winding down at that point.

Lori:

What's the legal legacy, Frank, of this trial? What are the legal implications, even today, 50 years, some, later?

Frank:

I think for me, it's just the notion that a trial can be a vehicle for conversation and communication about important things happening in your country. I think it's important to always keep that in mind. I think one of the commitments of the resistance was like conversation and openness to people, willing to say who you were and why you did what you did and listen to other people. So I think the verdict in the trial was just sort of the end point. I think the history is that there can be a community of resistance when your country's doing something that you believe is wrong and the way to resist or a way to resist, the way that we chose was the way of non violence, never attacking anyone, never accusing people who were in the military because as Anne indicated, many people in the Camden 28 had members of their own family in the military. We're just like working class people.

So many people might think we're just a bunch of educated people, and that's not who we actually were.

Lori:

What's been the long term impact on you personally? On your marriage and on your life, after that having been such a significant part? You're 23, Anne, when this happens, and Frank, I think you're 28? How's it changed your life since then?

Anne:

Well I feel that we've been interested in social justice throughout our lives, and that was certainly, it's probably hard to even measure how much effect that had on us. We met first with the initial planning for anti war resistance, and we were married just a couple months before the trial. We still have many close friends from that at that time. I feel if anything, it probably cemented our relationship and that we were both committed to a larger purpose and have certainly tried to, throughout our lives, different work. Not involved in resistance the whole time, but do want to lead lives that can make a difference, that can help others be good for the country, be good for ourselves.

Lori:

Frank, how did it change your life and your career really?

Frank:

Well, it's actually hard to say because you only have one life and one career, so it's hard to say. I think because we were acquitted, it didn't have any adverse impact whatsoever on my career so to speak, so I'm grateful for that. It just deeply influences in some way below the surface, I think, how I teach, that I want law students to be not only the best lawyers they can be, but other be people of conscience. I think that's an important thing that has carried me forward.

I mean at the time, we just weren't thinking about the future because the future was now, and just play it how it lays.

Lori:

Frank Pommersheim, Anne Dunham, you can find more Vietnam stories at SDPB.org/Vietnam. Thank you so much, both of you for being here and telling your story.

 

 

 

 

 

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I have always been a devoted scribbler in the margins of books. As a reader, I underline and highlight. I add questions marks and exclamation points. I argue with the author. But where are the margins in a radio program like In the Moment? 

You have to create them. 

Welcome to In the Margins. It’s a place for behind-the-scenes. It’s a place for expanding the conversation.

It’s a place for just one more question.

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Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.