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The first time I was arrested By Frances Crowe

  • Frances Crowe during a anti war rally in Northampton Monday morning.



Thursday, October 11, 2018

By the time my husband, Dr. Thomas Crowe, and I moved to Northampton in the 1950s, we had decided to oppose war after the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Eventually, I became director of the American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts, headquartered in Northampton.

By 1955, the United States had embroiled itself in a war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., memorializes 58,220 American lives lost during the war, which ended in defeat for the U.S. in 1973.

We rarely memorialize the more than 4.3 million Vietnamese civilians, soldiers, and Viet Cong fighters who died during the Vietnam War. We often fail to mention the more than 275,000 Cambodians and 20,000 to 62,000 Laotians who died during the Vietnam War as the result of illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos.

American opposition to the Vietnam War began to boil in the late 1960s, when I counseled some 2,000 potential U.S. soldiers in their applications for status as conscientious objectors. With the dawning of the 1970s, Cleo Gorman of Northampton and I organized a group called Women Against the War.

We decided to stage a peaceful demonstration at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee on March 8, 1972, International Women’s Day. Terrifying photos of civilian Vietnamese casualties had increasingly emerged since 1968. We protested at Westover because the Air Force trained B-52 bomber crews there for eventual bombing duty in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Some 30 of us dressed in black pajamas, traditional garb of rural Vietnamese women. We hoped bystanders would feel the suffering of Vietnamese women if we dressed like them. We also hoped that young men facing conscription or drafting into the U.S. military would see the humanity of the Vietnamese people and examine their consciences about entering the army. At the time, the U.S. had not determined that women were eligible for combat.

We proceeded to Westover’s gates, where a line of Air Force airmen stood between us and the base entrance.

We didn’t intend to risk arrest. We brought Vietnamese poetry to read. As we read it aloud, we found ourselves moved to tears. We conferred among ourselves and blocked the entrance. The airmen arrested us. We hoped that our radical action would encourage other Americans to oppose the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The judge at our trial sentenced me to community service, and I arranged to make a presentation about nonviolence at a local elementary school. I hoped that the children would understand that we can solve differences without resorting to violence.

We’ll never know for sure if our actions on International Women’s Day in 1972 influenced any Westover personnel or bystanders to oppose the war or refuse to be part of the U.S. military. For many years, as part of my work with AFSC, I had counseled young men on how to become conscientious objectors. You never know what may cause someone to turn his back on war.

According to the law, anyone conscientiously opposed to participation in war on moral or ethical grounds with the same degree of intention as religious grounds qualifies for designation as a conscientious objector.

Though I was one woman working out of a home office in the basement, I had a copy of the law and the help of Bill Norris, a dedicated lawyer. We wanted to help those listening to their conscience and saying, “War is not the answer.”

Let us work together to build a new society with health care, tuition-free education through graduate school, and healthy food for all. Let us build a new society in the shell of the old.

A 1977 Gazette article described Frances Crowe as “a long-time anti-war activist.” The founder of the American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts, Crowe continues her pioneering peace work.