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Vietnam: anatomy of a peace protest

04 January 2013

Robert Nowell looks at the motivation of an incident in 1967


The Catonsville Nine: A story of faith and resistance in the Vietnam era
Shawn Francis Peters
Oxford University Press £22.50
Church Times Bookshop £20.25
(Use code CT719) 

Nine anti-war protesters, all of whom happened to be Roman Catholic, raided the draft-board offices in Catonsville, a suburb of Baltimore, on 17 May 1968. They seized files that detailed young men's liab-ility for military service, took them outside to the car park, and burnt them, using home-made napalm. They then waited to be arrested. In due course, they were tried and sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to three-and-a-half years.

This book is a comprehensive account of the raid, what led up to it, and the aftermath. It brings out the way in which this dramatic protest was not just about disgust at the unjust war that was being waged in Vietnam: three of the protesters had been Maryknoll missionaries working in Guatemala, where they were appalled by the way in which local tyranny was supported by the United States.

One of them, Tom Melville, said of the situation in the rural area where he worked: "I hesitate to use the word 'poverty': they were living in utter misery."

Guatemala was, after all, a banana republic, where the United Fruit Company held sway. Another of the nine had worked as a nurse in a mission hospital in Uganda. Experience of the Third World - reinforced by awareness of continued racial injustice in the US - thus played a considerable part in inspiring the nine. Six of them were clerics or former clerics. One of them remarked how good a preparation for prison life seminary training had been.

The best known were the two Berrigan brothers: Dan, a Jesuit, and Phil, a Josephite (the order formed in 1871 to work among the newly liberated blacks of the South). Phil Berrigan and another of the protesters had military experience: Berrigan in the artillery, towards the end of the Second World War; and Tom Lewis, who trained in atomic, biological, and chemical warfare in peacetime national service.

But the Catonsville protest was not an isolated incident. Six months earlier, Phil Berrigan and Lewis had been involved, with two others, in a raid on the draft-board offices in central Baltimore, where they had sprinkled blood on the files. And, in September 1968, a raid on the draft-board offices in Milwaukee ended with the burning of 10,000 files - significantly more than the 400 or so destroyed at Catonsville.

Shawn Francis Peters (who was born and grew up in Catonsville) has provided a scholarly and readable account of this episode in the history of US protest against the Vietnam War and other forms of injustice, tracing the diverse personal histories of the participants, their background and motives, and its impact.

One minor quibble is that, for readers this side of the Atlantic, there is no brief explanation of how the US draft law worked. Also, it seems bizarre to describe the Second Vatican Council as a "conclave".

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