Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Shawn Francis Peters’s The Catonsville Nine.


“In the first eight months of 1970 alone,” Shawn Francis Peters writes in The Catonsville Nine (Oxford; $34.95), “the Selective Service System reported 271 separate ‘antidraft occurrences’ at draft boards across the country.” Today, people angry about American warfare click and sign petitions on Back then there was still a draft, and those protesting the war in Vietnam bum-rushed draft offices, incinerated draft cards with homemade napalm (two parts gasoline, one part Ivory Soap flakes), and somehow were given—or bestowed on themselves—team names as soon as they were brought up on charges. Between 1968 and 1972, the Baltimore Four, the Catonsville Nine, the DC Nine, the Chicago Fifteen, the Harrisburg Seven and the Milwaukee Fourteen all had their days in court, or on television. Even their lawyers got varsity jackets: the Catonsville Nine were defended by the American Four.

Peters has written a thorough, dutiful history of the most famous band of draft-card defilers, the only group to include the brother duo of Daniel and Philip Berrigan (each of whom was part of at least one other name-brand group). Like much activism, his book is inelegant and self-conscious, even when it is effective. It is too long by a quarter; Peters does not know the meaning of “irony” (it is not “ironic” that Spiro Agnew and the Catonsville protest were both the “product of suburban Baltimore”); and he resorts to cliché. William Kunstler has “a twinkle in his eye,” while subtlety was not his “strong suit.” A fellow defense attorney is “born and bred” in Baltimore. The actors Sam Waterston and Tim Robbins (and, oddly, one Peter Strauss) are all “luminaries.”

But despite the stumblebum prose, this group biography of the nine Catholics who stormed the draft office in Catonsville, Maryland, on May 17, 1968, stays caked to your boots long after the slog is over. It’s not exciting to read, but it’s rewarding nevertheless. Since finishing the book, I am still astounded that this county once produced activists who would enter a government office, restrain the federal employees working there, scoop reams of draft files into wire baskets, take them outside, and then incinerate them with the aforementioned napalm while waiting for the police to arrive.

Today, the warmongers haven’t changed, but the peacemongers sure have. The antiwar left is dispersed and mostly invisible, and the religious antiwar left even more so. You will find it in petitions signed, in occasional marches by Quakers or Unitarians, in the reliable annual declarations from dying liberal Protestant denominations. The evangelical wing of Protestantism has gone nearly all in for war, and the institutional Catholic Church has swung so hard to the right that its continued opposition to war is easy to miss, at least if you’re not reading statements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Not that the typical Catholic in 1968 was any sort of antiwar activist. The Catonsville Nine, all of whom were convicted on federal charges, and most of whom went to jail, were hardly in the mainstream of Catholic social thought. In a 1971 Gallup poll, only 18 percent of Catholics believed that “Catholics who raid draft boards to protest the war in Vietnam are acting as responsible Christians.” But they were part of a meaningful minority of Christians who took seriously their tradition’s radical and prophetic teachings.

Peters is careful not to beatify the Catonsville Nine’s action as exquisitely religious; had the leaders rounded up a different group, their action might have been framed as secular. But when “it turned out that all nine of the raiding party were Catholics…they framed their protest as a call to rouse the church from its slumber regarding peace and social justice issues.” So long as the group comprised two priests, a monk and three men who had formerly been in Catholic orders, they may as well use the symbolic power that Catholicism afforded them. Both as the draft cards burned and, later, at a break in their trial, the Catonsville Nine recited the Lord’s Prayer. At the trial, “everyone in the courtroom—the judge, the defendants, both sets of attorneys and the entire gallery—then rose for a singular moment in American legal history…. Some in the gallery, overcome with the emotion of the moment, recited the prayer between sobs.”

For the most part, the buildup to the Catonsville action is rather prosaic, involving a lot of meetings and planning for meetings. (Here’s something ironic: radicalism has gone into decline just as smartphones have made endless meetings bearable.) The story gets interesting at the trial, which brought thousands of protesters to Baltimore for days, and afterward, when four of the convicts went on the lam rather than begin to serve their sentences.

Dan Berrigan lasted from April until August 1970 before being caught; Phil Berrigan was caught within weeks. In jail, Phil became friendly with Jimmy Hoffa, a hawk who nevertheless gave a fair hearing to these radicals. “If Hoffa had a criticism,” Peters writes, “it was tactical: he couldn’t understand why the activists had waited around to be arrested after their raid in Catonsville. He felt that they should have wiped out the draft board and then made their escape.”

Of the four fugitives, the only one who spent real time on the run was Mary Moylan, a nurse-midwife and the radical feminist of the nine. She stayed underground until 1979, when she turned herself in. Her sojourn was lonely, not pleasant, and friends said that by the end she was embittered. But in just the first six months “more than one hundred different women,” in Moylan’s estimation, gave her shelter. Who, in 2012, could rely on such a sisterhood?

In the Shelf Life column last week, Stephen Burt reviewed poet Lucia Perillo’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy