“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 Change.org. 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.