The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era

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On May 17th, 1968, a group of Catholic antiwar activists burst into a draft board in suburban Baltimore, stole hundreds of Selective Service records (which they called "death certificates"), and burned the documents in a fire fueled by homemade napalm. The bold actions of the ''Catonsville Nine'' quickly became international news and captured headlines throughout the summer and fall of 1968 when the activists, defended by radical attorney William Kunstler, were tried in federal ...

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The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era

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On May 17th, 1968, a group of Catholic antiwar activists burst into a draft board in suburban Baltimore, stole hundreds of Selective Service records (which they called "death certificates"), and burned the documents in a fire fueled by homemade napalm. The bold actions of the ''Catonsville Nine'' quickly became international news and captured headlines throughout the summer and fall of 1968 when the activists, defended by radical attorney William Kunstler, were tried in federal court.

In The Catonsville Nine, Shawn Francis Peters, a Catonsville native, offers the first comprehensive account of this key event in the history of 1960's protest. While thousands of supporters thronged the streets outside the courthouse, the Catonsville Nine—whose ranks included activist priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan—delivered passionate indictments of the war in Vietnam and the brutality of American foreign policy. The proceedings reached a stirring climax, as the nine activists led the entire courtroom (the judge and federal prosecutors included) in the Lord's Prayer. Peters gives readers vivid, blow-by-blow accounts of the draft raid, the trial, and the ensuing manhunt for the Berrigans, George Mische, and Mary Moylan, who went underground rather than report to prison. He also examines the impact of Daniel Berrigan's play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, and the larger influence of this remarkable act of civil disobedience. More than 40 years after they stormed the draft board, the Catonsville Nine are still invoked by both secular and religious opponents of militarism.

Based on a wealth of sources, including archival documents, the activists' previously unreleased FBI files, and a variety of eyewitness accounts, The Catonsville Nine tells a story as relevant and instructive today as it was in 1968.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
On May 17, 1968, in one of the more symbolic protests against the Vietnam War, nine Catholic men and women entered the Catonsville, Md., draft board office, removed several hundred Selective Service records, and burned them with homemade napalm. Combining a novel’s readability with in-depth historical research, Peters (When Prayer Fails) recounts the genesis of the Catonsville Nine and the protest. Activist brothers and Catholic priests Phil and Daniel Berrigan are the best known of the group but were by no means the leaders. The others were artist and army veteran Tom Lewis; social justice activist George Mische; husband-and-wife missionaries Tom and Marjorie Melville (who wanted to use the protest to underscore the plight of Guatemala’s poor); nurse Mary Moylan; Christian Brother David Darst; and John Hogan, another missionary who’d served in Guatemala. While a guilty verdict was never in question, the group, defended by famed radical lawyer William Kunstler, argued that while they did break the law, their intentions should be considered. In today’s sociopolitical climate, with religion playing a larger public role, it’s both refreshing and sobering to remember Father Dan Berrigan’s words: “killing is disorder, life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize.” (July)
From the Publisher
"In 1967, the respected Vietnam historian Bernard Fall warned that Vietnam 'is threatened with extinction [under] the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.' This remarkable study brings to life the courageous activists who sought to prevent this horrifying outcome with a principled act of civil disobedience, exploring the complex circumstances and consequences with rare sensitivity and insight." —Noam Chomsky

"Peters offers a rich and engrossing study of nine passionate activists who displayed their disgust with the war in Vietnam by destroying draft registration files in the Baltimore area. The book vividly depicts the lives of these men and women; who they were, what they did, why they did it, and the notable trial that followed their arrest. The Catonsville Nine is a valuable contribution to social and legal history; and an absorbing study, too, of the psychology, politics, and theology of protest and non-violence." —Lawrence Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law, Stanford Law School

"The definitive account of 'arguably the single most powerful antiwar act in American history.' Well researched and well told, it reads like a thriller, with all the pain, drama, and power of the 1960s anti-war movement—but it's far more important than any thriller. Peters deftly takes us through the epic tale and trial of ordinary activists determined to do what they could to help end the U.S. war in Viet Nam, how they broke new ground in symbolic nonviolent civil disobedience, and sparked a movement that indeed helped end the war. Like Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, The Catonsville Nine makes movement history come alive and pushes us to carry on their mission for the abolition of war once and for all." — John Dear, activist and author of Living Peace, Jesus the Rebel

"Combining a novel's readability with in-depth historical research, Peters recounts the genesis of the Catonsville Nine and the protest." —Publishers Weekly

"[A] mammoth historical account . . . The Catonsville Nine tells in detail the story of the nine activists, why they acted, what happened to them and the impact of their witness against the Vietnam War. Meticulously researched, it reads like a thriller with a compelling message about the power of ordinary people to make a difference in changing the world . . . Peters' superb account will touch and inspire everyone who cares about peace. It lifts up nine people and their colleagues who gave all they could to end a horrendous war. Their Christian witness exemplifies the nonviolent resistance of Jesus who engaged in civil disobedience in the Jerusalem temple and was arrested, imprisoned and executed. May their story live on, and the witness for peace continue." —National Catholic Reporter

"[A] a comprehensive account of this high-profile event in the antiwar protest movement of the 1960s and '70s, along with an examination of its aftermath and legacy. This readable history, based on eyewitness accounts, archival documents, and previously unreleased FBI files, recounts how the protesters came together, follows them through the storming of the government offices, chronicles their dramatic trial, describes the flight underground by the Berrigans and some other members of the group after the guilty verdict, and the group's time in jail." —Boston Globe

"Peters has contributed a thorough account of each individual and the events before and after their their ritual napalming of draft records. It is required reading in the growing literature about American religious responses to the Vietnam War." —The Journal of American History

"Peters offers up a compelling hybrid, a masterful work of history and group biography . . . The Catonsville Nine helps us understand and re-evaluate the social justice movements of our recent past. It expands the traditional view of this important anti-war action, favoring heroic acts and ideas over heroes. Considering the current levels of polarization and political helplessness-a decade of endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, new civil rights issues like racial profiling and marriage equality, and politicians who seem to have no real solutions-this book couldn't come at a better time." —Baltimore City Paper

"Peters has produced an original, balanced study in which the Nine are depicted neither as heroes nor charlatans . . . Objective, well-written and highly interesting from a variety of angles, The Catonsville Nine stands out for two very definite reasons: it provides the most detailed and sustained account of the five-day trial itself (October 7-11, 1968) that we possess, with all its rituals, theater, and standing ovations, and it tells us what we have always wanted to know about the forgotten Catonsville Seven who have never received their due: Tom Lewis, John Hogan, Tom and Marjorie Melville, George Mische, Mary Moylan, and Brother David Darst." —

"A well-researched tale...Peters' compelling narrative renders the Catonsville Nine not as saints nor as villains, but as human beings who could no longer be silent in the face of injustice and war. They risked everything and, by doing so, gained much more than they ever could have lost. It is a story older than Antigone but, when told as masterfully as Peters does here, it is a story that never grows old. Nor should it." —

"Peters shows himself to be a thorough, detail-oriented and entertaining author and historian . . . But it is not Peters' straightforward retelling of the events and characters in the story that make this particular book stand out. It is his painstaking attention to detail that keep the reader engaged. It is his research and writing that make 'The Catonsville Nine' seem like a firsthand account of the planning, execution, trial and aftermath of that fateful protest . . . For the American church history and politics enthusiast, Peters offers a solid account of this interesting story of the Vietnam era. But with his ability to entertain with details and anecdotes, Peters also grabs the attention of those only vaguely familiar with and interested in anti-war protests of the late 1960s. It is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history." —Catholic News Service

"[An] assiduously researched history . . . Peters records with a historian's rigor and the compassionate curiosity of an investigative journalist. Yet even in this prosaic telling, the Catonsville draft-file burnings stand out as a poetically holy and politically relevant act. He covers the drama in the courtroom, the daily street demonstrations-pro and con-and the nighttime gatherings at St. Ignatius Church, where heavy-hitters of the peace movement like Dorothy Day and William Sloan Coffin praise the Nine for their 'desperate offer for peace and freedom.' Many Baltimoreans are less generous. 'I think they ought to lock 'em in the can and throw away the key,' says a popular disc jockey. Amid such a vivid reconstruction of events, the reader feels the chaos and hope of that period." —America Magazine

"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, an Army vet 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 Berrigans and includes much more than Vietnam. Finally, the impact of the Catonsville action is evaluated. Not only were vital records destroyed, but many were inspired to refuse participation in the war . . . I knew all of the nine and so come to the book with more than a bystander's curiosity. The narrative renews my compassion for who we were and why we put so much on the line, in my case a year in prison for helping burn draft records in Milwaukee. Even for an insider, the book has its surprises." —Sojourners

"In addition to being an excellent work of history, The Catonsville Nine is a thought-provoking book that forces one to contemplate just how far an individual should go to fight for his or her vision of justice. It is written in a clear and well-thought-out manner, and the author's passion for the topic is evident. The reader gets the sense that Peters is digesting the facts he is presenting along with the reader. This subtle narration gives the book an inviting feel and allows it to avoid the drabness that too often plagues works of history."
—VVA Veteran

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199827855
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/26/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Shawn Francis Peters teaches in the Integrated Liberal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of When Prayer Fails, Judging Jehovah's Witnesses, and The Yoder Case.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: ''Arguably the Single Most Powerful Antiwar Act in American History"
Chapter 1: "I Want You to Meet This Priest"
Chapter 2: "What About Destroying a Death Certificate?"
Chapter 3: "In Jail For the Right Reason"
Chapter 4: "A Great Human Act Done by Sincere Men"
Chapter 5: "Guatemala Smells Like South Vietnam Did a Few Years Ago"
Chapter 6: "Did You Hear What We Are Planning?"

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