book review: The Catonsville Nine

The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Reistance in the Vietnam Era
by Shawn Francis Peters
Oxford University Press, 2012

review by Jim Forest

It’s now 44 years since nine Catholic peace activists entered a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, filled two wastebaskets with several hundred draft files, and burned the papers with homemade napalm in the parking lot. It would have been a news event no matter who had taken part, but the involvement of two Catholic priests, the brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, made the headlines even bigger.

The event was one among thousands of protest actions aimed at America’s role in the Vietnam War, already several years old and destined to continue another seven years, but for many people — me among them — the Catonsville raid was a turning point in our lives. It also triggered passionate debate about the limits of peaceful protest. Could the destruction of property be called nonviolent?

The prime movers of the Catonsville Nine were Phil Berrigan and George Mische. Earlier in his life, Mische had worked for US-funded groups fostering labor movements in the Caribbean and Latin America. Phil had fought as an infantryman in World War II where his courage and leadership qualities won him a battlefield commission. As Shawn Francis Peters’s book makes clear, even as a priest engaged in the civil rights and anti-war movements, Phil remained very much the infantryman he had been years earlier. Dismayed that the peace movement was having no discernible impact on events in Vietnam, he became convinced of “the uselessness of legitimate dissent.” In his frustration, he opted for firing the cannons of civil disobedience.

US troops were mainly draftees; few young men had a longing to go to war in a country that posed no threat to the US and whose borders most Americans couldn’t find on the world map. The key role conscription played in keeping the war going led Phil to target draft board offices and their papers. (One of the Catonsville Nine, Tom Lewis, called them “death certificates.”)

Peters has written a complex, gripping account of what led up to the event, the raid itself and its aftermath. One by one the participants are brought to life — an artist, a nurse, three former missionaries (one a former nun, another an ex-priest), an Army veteran who had become a peace movement organizer, a teacher who belonged to a Catholic religious order, plus the Berrigans. It wasn’t just the Catonsville Two. The book becomes much more than the story of the Berrigan brothers and includes much more than Vietnam. Finally the impact of the Catonsville action is evaluated. While only inconveniencing the Selective Service System, many were inspired to refuse participation in the war while some whose records were destroyed never heard from a draft board again.

The trial, a remarkable drama in its own right, is in many ways the highpoint of the book. Federal judge Roszel Thomsen is shown as a man who allowed a remarkable degree of latitude in his courtroom, even permitting, on the trial’s last day, everyone present to stand and recite the Our Father. (Later, while the nine were serving their prison terms, he cut their sentences short.) Sadly, during the trial he would not permit the defendants to bring forward a “justification” defense — the argument that destruction of draft records was justified as a reasonable means of inhibiting prosecution of an unjust and illegal war. The trial has been reenacted in a play and film still being seen by audiences all over the world.

The book has its sad stories. One of the most poignant concerns Mary Moylan. Refusing to turn herself in, she spent nine years in hiding, for a time was part of the “Weather Underground,” then, weary of dodging the FBI, turned herself in to serve her long-deferred two-year sentence. After her release she returned to nursing but eventually had to give it up due to eye failure. In 1995 she died of the consequences of alcoholism. Her friend Rosemary Ruether regards Moylan as “a casualty of war” and suggests “an alternative Vietnam memorial bearing the names of all those whose lives were destroyed in protesting the war.”

Those interviewed by Peters include the women at the Catonsville draft board who struggled to protect their files and lawyers for the prosecution, one of whom sympathized with the raid. Peters has obtained and mined previously unseen FBI records that bear on the case, revealing how personally obsessed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was with the Berrigans and their collaborators.

I was press secretary of the Catonsville Nine Defense Committee and knew all of the nine, especially Dan and Phil, and so come to the book with more than a bystander’s curiosity. The narrative reopens some old wounds but also renews my compassion for who we were and why we put so much on the line, in my case a year in prison for participating in the burning of draft records in Milwaukee that followed the Catonsville action.

In the post-Catonsville period, with similar raids multiplying, I eventually became alienated from Phil, whom I saw as undervaluing forms of war protest that involved no legal penalties and for bullying people into actions which inevitably led to prison, for which not all were well prepared. (In response, Phil correctly pointed out that few soldiers are prepared for the wars in which they are conscripted to fight and often suffer much worse consequences.) Phil could be astonishingly cruel in his judgments not only of adversaries but of co-workers — his words sometimes seemed to have been fired from a sawed-off shotgun.

Even for someone like myself, very much an insider, the book has its surprises. I knew that, for a time, Phil had been on the borderline of violence, but I had no idea that, prior to Catonsville, Phil had briefly considered bombing a draft board, albeit at night when no one was present. Later on, shortly before being imprisoned for burning draft records, he explored heating tunnels in Washington, DC, playing with the idea of using explosives to disrupt work in the federal office buildings linked by the tunnels. Happily he never gave in to the temptation to speak in the language of bombs.

At the time of the Catonsville draft-record burning, novelist Walker Percy asked how it differed from cross burnings carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. Peters’s book succeeds in showing how great the contrast is, not least because at Catonsville no one wore hoods, no one was threatened, and there was no reliance on the cover of night. Acting in the full light of day, each of the nine insisted on awaiting the police and taking full responsibility for what they had done with all its consequences.

The words of Daniel Berrigan will continue to haunt us so long as wars are fought: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children…. And yet the times are inexhaustibly good. The truth rules. Christ is not forsaken.”

PS During a visit yesterday with Dan Berrigan, now 91, I saw the book on a reading table next to his bed and asked how he liked it. He spoke of it in glowing terms.

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