William Davidon was a pleasant Haverford College professor, a theoretical physicist and mathematician, with a wife and children, a home. He was also a committed civil rights (he had taken part in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, for example) and Vietnam war antiwar activist, often arrested for visible and peaceful antiwar protests.
But under the surface of academia and public protest Davidon lived an extreme activist life, only detailed recently in Betty Medsger’s well- written and absolutely significant book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.” (2014). Davidon was the instigator of the 1971 break-in at the Media, Pennsylvania FBI office, where secret FBI files were stolen and sent to the press (Author Betty Medsger was the first reporter to receive the files) in a pre-Watergate action. The published files were the first step in confirming that J. Edgar Hoover was operating the FBI outside the Constitution with a secret civilian counterintelligence program, “COINTELPRO,” that sought to destabilize anti -war and civil rights groups.
It was a desperate time. In some months, more than 500 American soldiers were killed: by the end, 58,152 American soldiers, 1.1 million Vietnamese soldiers, and 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed. Nixon had just invaded Cambodia, extending the war further. During that time, the FBI was active in discrediting even Congress people who spoke out against the war. Even protesting the war peacefully could result in violence: 4 students were killed and 9 injured by the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State (Ohio) campus in April, 1970.
Medsger detailed the cruelty and pettiness of the FBI in the face of the civil rights movement, as well. The FBI treatment of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shows the harm the harm Hoover’s FBI was causing the nation. Office break-ins, informers, opening mail, wiretapping, and bugging the office and home and hotel room of King were some of the routine actions done over years. The FBI used information found about King’s extramarital affairs to threaten disclosure and suggested King commit suicide before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The FBI knew of threats against King’s life, but deliberately did not inform King of those threats. The details of the FBI’s deliberately induced paranoia and fear was not demonstrated in detail, though, until the Media FBI break-in.
Medsger said it was Davidon’s science-driven love of evidence that spawned the idea of breaking into an FBI office. He wanted proof the agency was spying on protesters, something many had suspected. It was a hunch that the bureaucratically-minded Hoover would document even the FBI’s illegal actions (Finley 2014)
Davidon approached committed activists he had worked with, and whom he thought likely to join him in a break-in of the local FBI office in Media as an act of resistance. Though all had worked with the Catholic Peace Movement, only one was Catholic, 3 were Protestants, 4 were Jews. They ranged in age from 20 to 44. There were 3 women and 5 men. Several were professors, one was a daycare worker, another a social worker, one a graduate student, one a cab driver. Several had put their careers on hold to deal with what they saw as a political crisis. He was proud of his team. (One member would drop out a few days before the burglary took place, and would later consider turning the other members in.)
Though they all worked with other equally-committed activists, they told no one of their plans. They picked the day- March 8, 1971- because it was the night of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight title match, and many, many Americans (including, they hoped, local policemen) would be tied to their television sets. They talked on the phone as if they were being listened to (and only found out many years later that most phone conversations were being tapped). For several months before the set date, they studied the movement of traffic and people on the surrounding streets, the movement of people in the offices, the local transportation access point, the closing times of stores and bars and restaurants, and more, and only then set the hours for the burglary. They learned to pick locks from library books. One of the members, Bonnie Raines, pretended to be a college student doing research on a local project, and visited the office, taking note of the location of closets, files, and doors, and to see if there was an alarm system.
The night before the burglary, Davidon rented a car (his wife needed the family car that night) and a motel room near the FBI office to use as a staging area. The next day, he and everyone else went to work, as usual.
Then they broke into the Media FBI office.
The break-in didn’t start auspiciously, for there were 2 locks, and one for which the group lock breaker had no tool. He left, and returned, with the burglary already off schedule, but still coordinated with the fight. 4 members went inside and loaded suitcases with files, with a decoy member and the get-away cars outside. The group still didn’t know if they actually had any worthwhile files. They transferred the files to another car, and met at a small Quaker conference center about 40miles northwest of Philadelphia. They read, analyzed, and prepared the files for distribution to the press for the next 10 days. They knew, within an hour, that they had the information they needed. In a newsletter prepared for FBI agents, they read that agents were advised “to enhance the paranoia..and…get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Medsger p 108
When it was time to notify the press, 2 members of the group read a press release to a reporter from a phone booth on the northwest side of town, near Chestnut Hill. The documents were packaged for mailing, and the day before the last package was prepared, the group met for the last time and agreed that none of them would tell anyone what had happened.
The packages were sent to various politicians and journalists and the firestorm began that caused the Senate to investigate and castigate the FBI, reducing its powers.
-The Media Files
-Carl Stern’s (Stern was a legal affairs reporter for NBC) multi-year investigation and report on the nature of COINTELPRO.
-Assistant Attorney General Henry Peterson’s Department of Justice report on the FBI’s watered down files.
-Watergate revelations about the manipulation of intelligence agencies by the Nixon administration.
-New York Time reporter Seymour Hersh’s story on the CIA’s domestic operations against anti-war protesters.
-Congressional investigation/ Church Committee (and censure) of the FBI and other intelligence groups.
And the group never met together again. For months and years, the robbery was investigated, and several members lived in fear. Several never acted as activists again. Davidon never stopped.
Davidon’s activism started with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as he recognized the potential for total annihilation at the hands of power-hungry leaders. Over the years, his activism increased and he gave public talks with other physicists about the danger of nuclear power.
He did consider silencing his protests after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and moving to New Zealand to focus on research and scholarship- but decided to remain at Haverford College and intensify his activism, not returning to theoretical physics until after the Vietnam War.
“Davidon thinks the silence of his generation after World War II, especially in the 1950’s, diminished an impotent part of the American spirit- the impulse to question and to understand what the government is doing in the name of its citizens. He sees a sad irony in the fact that many of the people who made up what became known a few decades later as the Greatest Generation were largely silent when leading American officials- Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover among them- labeled citizens who questioned government policies as un-American in the 1950s and early 1960’s. His generation’s silence, he thinks, created a habit of silence that by 1964 contributed to the fact that most Americans accepted without question the major decision by the administration of President Lyndon Johnson to send troops to Vietnam” Medsger p 439
Davidon continued his activism against the Vietnam war after the Media break in. In March, 1972, he was part of a group that made a local shipment of bombs in York County, Pennysylvania inoperable; this was done not ably to reduce the destruction destruction of Vietnam, but to point out to locals that their local economy depended on the production of weapons. In April, 1972, he and 44 other Philadelphia antiwar activists in aluminum canoes and light rowboats blockaded the munitions ship USS Nitro in Sandy Hook Bay, NJ. Some members were arrested, but Davidon was not, and he was not questioned in the March or May 1972 actions. In May, 1972, he helped to sabotage 3 Air Force jets on Memorial Day at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station by cutting electrical and hydraulic lines and painting BREAD NOT BOMBS on the exterior of one of the planes.
These were dangerous actions that could have resulted in many, many years of prison time. He regretted later that he never really thought through the implications of his actions on his family- yet he also thinks that contemplating the possible impact of one’s actions could lead to refusing to take risk. He believed a life should be useful, and that decreasing opposition to the Vietnam war would encourage Nixon and his advisors to think that people didn’t care- and here, he could be, and was, of great use. Medsger details how much Davidon disliked the idea of breaking and entering, of destroying property, of risking personal confrontation with guards, with deception- but “he hated the escalation of war more.”
Though an FBI investigation did not find who had committed the break-in (the FBI did interview some of the group, but did not charge anyone) Betty Medsger, after receiving papers from the FBI break-in, continued to investigate the story while she still worked at the Washington Post, and after she left. Unexpectedly, while having dinner with two friends from Philadelphia- Bonnie and John Raines- those friends lightly told her that they had been part of the Media break-in. It was decades past the time when they could be prosecuted, Medsger talked them into telling their story and finding the other members. They found 7 of the 8 members. All agreed to participate and tell their stories, though only 5 agreed to be publicly identified.
Davidon spoke quite openly (and, in fact, had already mentioned his part in the break-in to Patrick Catt in 1997) and agreed to be identified, but did not live to see the publication of Medsger’s book, or the wonderful media attention the book, and the actual break-in, received. He died on November 8, 2013, of Parkinson’s disease.
So, in the face of such heroism, where does one start to be effective? One of the first actions Davidon did as a graduate student was to write (with a group of colleagues) a letter in response to an article in the New York Times by science writer Walter Sullivan about the role of natural uranium. (Catt 1997)
Davidon tried to keep his scientific and activism lives apart, but the two lives were quite entwined. He did feel some pressure from Haverford faculty, one of whom lamented that he would be getting more work done if he weren’t politically active. But he received tenure, with the understanding that a gap in his publications was due to a focus on activist work. In the last class of the year for his physics and math classes, he would devote the period to talk about nuclear weapons and the dangers they presented.
It has not escaped our notice that the activism of Edward Snowdon and Chelsea Manning has been similarly disturbing and effective.
The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. Betty Medsger. 2014. Alfred A. Knopf, New York
http://theburglary.com Website for the book, reviews, etc
Interview of [Dr. William Davidon] by [Patrick Catt on [July 11, 1997],
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA, http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/32356.html
Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows. Mark Mazzetti, January 7, 2014. The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/07/us/burglars-who-took-on-fbi-abandon-shadows.html?_r=0
Recalling Haverford professor’s role in 1971 FBI break-in. Ben Finley. January 14, 2014. The Inquirer. http://articles.philly.com/2014-01-14/news/46153180_1_fbi-agent-burglars-engineering-professor
Burglars who took on FBI abandon shadows. Mark Mazetti The New York Times, January 7 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/07/us/burglars-who-took-on-fbi-abandon-shadows.html?_r=0
What new revalations about the Media, PA FBI break-in teach us about intelligence reform today Slate Beverly Gage January 9, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2014/01/media_pa_fbi_break_in_revelations_what_we_can_learn_from_them_about_intelligence.html