At the End of the Barrel of a Gun: From Voluntown, Connecticut to D.C.

Understanding the attack against antiwar activists and protesters at “The Farm” in Voluntown, Connecticut in late August 1968, without the larger context of the antinuclear and antiwar movement, would be like viewing the insurrection in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021, as an aberration.

The attack against members of the group the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) at the farm came amid the burning dissent of the 1960s, and particularly 1968, following the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The debacle and police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention had just taken place against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement. I was a college student and had just joined an antiwar group on my campus. I was about 12 miles from the farm on the night of the attack against members of peace and antinuclear protesters who lived at the farm and it seemed as if the entire society was falling apart around us. How could this be? How could people with entirely peaceful objectives be attacked so viciously?

First, the setting where the antinuclear activists and protesters lived on a farm in Voluntown where they were attacked by right-wing Minutemen on that summer morning: The forest and lakes of the area are pristine and walking within this pristine wilderness a person might think that he or she is far from the great metropolitan swath of highways and cities that comprise the densely popular East Coast of the US. Some of those cities are at most one hour away.

That members of  CNVA would locate here in the 1960s is no surprise. Nearby, is the submarine  base at New London, Connecticut, and the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics that used Polaris submarine missiles and later would arm submarines with more sophisticated doomsday weapons such as the Trident submarine with its multiple warheads contained in a single missile capable of destroying a host of large cities at one time with hydrogen bombs.

CNVA would launch its Polaris Action project in New York City, nearby Norwich, Connecticut, at the farmhouse in Voluntown, and at an office in New London, Connecticut. The antiwar protesters were seasoned people who had taken part in other actions around the US and some members had already spent time in jail.

Members of CNVA had already felt the right-wing pushback from offices and homes they had established at other locations. The anti-communism of the time would confront members of CNVA again and again in New London and Norwich.

Bradford Lyttle was the son of a Unitarian minister who was steeped in the theory of nonviolence and had taken part in earlier peace actions. A protest at a ballistic-missile site in Nebraska got him six months in federal prison.

With Lyttle in Connecticut were Bob and Majorie Swann, Majorie having taken part in the Omaha Action and had been sentenced to six months in jail.

These were people steeped in the principles of Gandhian nonviolence.

The farm’s CNVA community became known and drew the interest of Nation reporter Barbara Deming and her partner, painter Mary Meigs, who provided the community with part of its financial support.

One of the Swann’s children, Carol, countered the categorization of the farm as a commune. In Connecticut Explored (“A Legacy of Nonviolence in Voluntown,” Summer 2019), Carol Swann offers this observation:

Some people get impressions that it was a commune. But it was not a commune. CNVA was a seminal center for the training of nonviolence and political direct action in its time. There were anywhere from 10 to 50 people of various genders, races, sexual identities, and ages, studying, training, gardening, and taking action. Gandhi’s principles of living simply, consuming less, sharing finances for economic equity, and creating alternative structures to replace oppressive ones were all a part of CNVA’s mission.

The group of Minutemen who attacked the farm at Voluntown was founded by Robert Bolivar Depugh and they were anti-communists, had ties to the John Birch Society, and had lots of weapons and ammunition. A letter sent to many peace groups during this time from the group had a picture of rifle crosshairs and the word “beware” (Connecticut Explored).

Government agencies monitored both the Minutemen and the CNVA. Ominously, a barn was burned on the Voluntown property in 1966, two years before the armed attack. The Minutemen entered the farmhouse in the early morning of August 24, 1968. Before their armed attack was over, both Minutemen and CNVA members were wounded, including one seriously wounded CNVA member and one of the attacking Minutemen who was blinded in the attack. Connecticut State Police had been monitoring the Minutemen and were on the property as the attack unfolded. The state police had been informed of the impending attack by the FBI.

True to the teachings of nonviolence, some members of CNVA sought to learn more about the political right. One CNVA member, Mary Lyttle, was so traumatized by the armed invasion of the far-right Minutemen that she left the group and moved to Ireland.

I visited the CNVA farmhouse soon after the attack and was struck that such an organization was located about 12 miles from my childhood home. I have visited again a few times in the years since, and it is now known as the Voluntown Peace Trust and continues to follow the same principles as its founding members.

A call to Carol Swann for comment on this article, who was a child at the time of the attack by Minutemen, was not returned. I would have liked to have known what her impressions were on the night of that attack, its aftermath, and how she viewed the recent growth of the armed right.

CNVA members were dedicated people with an ennobling philosophy of war and peace who were under armed attack by forces of the right much as were members at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Over 52 years have passed and while history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, it certainly rhymes in a dissonant way in places as disparate in time and space as that quiet provincial and bucolic farmhouse in northeastern Connecticut and the seat of the federal government in Washington, DC, yet similar threads of violence and terrorism ring out once again as armed vigilantes seek to enforce their beliefs with guns.

Far-right armed extremists, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), lethal militarism, military-industrial-financial interests, the history of the armed right wing in the US such as the Ku Klux Klan with their organized murderous hate and links to police, nuclear proliferation, and groups of ordinary people willing to say no and take action against unrelenting evil rise up again and again.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).