History & Politics

Trial By Fire

On May 17, 1968, two priests and seven Catholic activists set fire to Catonsville draft records, sparking a national wave of Vietnam War resistance.

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children . . .” —Rev. Daniel Berrigan    

When George Mische heard two clergymen were among the four anti-Vietnam War activists who had poured blood on the draft records at the Baltimore Customs House, he immediately knew who was involved. “It was 1 a.m. and I was in bed with my wife—we were newlyweds living with my brother and his family in New York—and the TV was on low in the background,” Mische recalls with a chuckle. “We were making love, and a breaking news report came on describing what happened, and I said to her, ‘That’s got to be Phil.’”

Phil was the Rev. Philip Berrigan, then a 44-year-old local priest at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. A decorated Battle of the Bulge veteran before entering the seminary, Berrigan had been one of the first Catholic priests to volunteer to join the Freedom Rides in Mississippi and had spoken out against  the Vietnam War since its outset.

Mische—a younger army veteran and peace organizer who had previously worked in Central America during the Kennedy Administration before resigning over later disagreements with U.S. foreign policy—drove to Baltimore the next morning. Mische had become acquainted with Berrigan through his older brother, a prominent lay Catholic social justice leader.

The efforts of Berrigan, artist Tom Lewis, the Rev. James Mengel, and poet David Eberhardt in October 1967—when they were dubbed the Baltimore Four—garnered brief headlines but failed to generate the spark they felt the anti-war movement needed.

An exchange between a federal prosecutor and their defense attorney would help change that.

 Mische was in the courtroom every day for the trial of the Baltimore Four. And even now, at 80, he still vividly recalls the moment when federal prosecutors wheeled the bloody draft cards out to show the jury just how badly they had been damaged. The activists’ defense attorney, trying to mitigate the claims of permanent harm, suggested the draft board could simply use its duplicate draft files to select men into the war effort. No harm, no foul, in other words.

“The prosecutor then revealed there were no duplicate files,” Mische says, still incredulous a half-century later. “The Selective Service doesn’t have back-up records?” Mische recalls the activists’ defense attorney asking in open court. “You mean, if those records had been burned—that’s it?”

Weeks later, Mische, Berrigan and Lewis, both awaiting sentencing for their Baltimore Four action, plus Father Dan Berrigan, Philip’s brother, a Jesuit and noted writer, and five fellow Catholic activists set fire—with homemade napalm no less—to the draft records of nearly 400 potential inductees in Catonsville.

Actor and activist Martin Sheen called the daytime protest behind the Knights of Columbus building on Frederick Road—caught on film by reporters on May 17, 1968—“arguably the single most powerful antiwar act in American history.”

Media savvy in the old-school age of print and television journalism, the Catonsville Nine, as they were soon nicknamed, had tipped off local newspapers and WBAL-TV about the location of an antiwar demonstration without giving away the exact nature of their plans. Quickly, the photos of two charismatic priests in black religious garments, along with other former Catholic clergy and laity, burning a pile of draft records in the quiet, patriotic small town—and then praying and waiting to be arrested—created a national uproar.

In the ensuing four years, more than 40 draft resistance acts inspired by the Catonsville Nine followed—from Washington, New York, Boston, and Chicago to Milwaukee, Camden, Buffalo, and Rochester—reinvigorating the anti-Vietnam War movement.

“We felt like the Vietnam War was this big monster, and somehow we wanted to get our hands around its neck and bring it down,” Mische, one of two surviving members of the Catonsville Nine, says today.

Four of the Nine went underground instead of showing up for prison.

The letters to Congress, the sit-ins and marches, the full-page newspaper ads, the protests in front of the White House and homes of cabinet officials, even the self-immolation of Baltimore Quaker Norman Morrison at The Pentagon—none of it was slowing down the U.S. military campaign in Vietnam in early 1968. Nearly 300,000 young men would be inducted that year, the deadliest of the Vietnam War in terms of American casualties.

The initial plans for the Catonsville raid were made the night of March 31, 1968, shortly after President Lyndon Johnson stunned the country by announcing he would not seek reelection. By then, Mische and his wife, Helene, had moved to Washington, D.C. and were, by coincidence, hosting a cook out that Sunday for friends that included seven of the Catonsville Nine—Lewis and Philip Berrigan, as well as Thomas Melville, a former Maryknoll priest, his wife, Margarita Melville, a former nun, John Hogan, a former Maryknoll brother, and Mary Moylan, a nurse. The Melvilles and Hogan had spent years working with impoverished communities in Guatemala before their religious order kicked them out for supporting leftist guerillas fighting against the U.S.-backed government there. Moylan, who was from Baltimore, had served as a volunteer midwife in Uganda. The Melvilles, Hogan, and Moylan were all living in the Misches’ Dupont Circle rowhouse.

“We were all watching the TV when Johnson said he wasn’t running for reelection, but we knew whether it was Hubert Humphrey [the eventual Democratic nominee] or a Republican president—they were going to continue the war,” says Margarita Melville. “Our concern was how do we stop this slaughter in Vietnam. So we agreed to take action again that night and broaden the scope.”

Daniel Berrigan and David Darst, a Christian Brother and high school teacher from St. Louis, would join the action later.

The location of Catonsville was chosen in large part because the massive parking lot at the Knights of Columbus building would make it safe for burning files. But symbolically, the cozy suburban enclave known for its Fourth of July parade, held since 1947, also proved the perfect setting: The point was to wake up middle-class America, the Catholic Church, and other faith communities—with essentially a religious protest.

Only a handful of the 260 U.S. Catholic bishops stood against the war, and the radical statement the Catonsville Nine delivered to reporters, in turn, delivered a harsh criticism of the faith community. Their message read, in part: “We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.”

That they did not look like protestors made their message all the more resonant.

“That these were clean-cut, mostly 30 and 40 year olds with day jobs helped legitimatize their effort and the anti-war movement,” says Baltimore filmmaker Joe Tropea, who co-directed the 2013 award-winning documentary Hit and Stay about the Catonsville Nine. “The combination of civil disruption with an element of art and theater—and people willing to risk prison for living their values and conscience—that was hugely inspirational to a lot of people.”

But more than even the action itself, it was the five-day trial in a packed Baltimore federal court that cemented the Catonsville action’s legacy as a turning point in the anti-war movement. The trial was preceded by a protest march—1,500 people by some accounts, twice that according to others—from Wyman Park Dell to downtown, which was followed by daily courthouse demonstrations. Counterculture icon William Kunstler took the lead defense attorney role. Radical intellectuals and authors Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn came to Baltimore for the trial.

All of the Nine admitted to burning the draft files, but not to their guilt. Given relatively wide latitude to defend themselves, they testified they acted out of conscience and justified their actions as a response to not only the terrible civilian bloodshed in Vietnam but to U.S. military support for dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere. They also invoked the presence of poverty and racism at home, which they connected to the cost of an immoral war. The jury, however, took just two hours to return guilty verdicts. But then four of the nine (both Berrigans, Mische, and Mary Moylan) went “underground” instead of showing up for prison. Dan Berrigan, in particular—who made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list—tormented FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover by resurfacing and giving sermons, which were reported in the media, and then ducking back below the FBI’s radar. The Berrigans made the cover of Time in 1971, keeping the story alive for years. Ultimately, all involved spent significant time in prison. Philip Berrigan and Lewis received six years because of their earlier involvement in the Baltimore Four—and did about three and a half years with time off for good behavior. Mische served 25 months. Tom and Margarita Melville served 18 months and nine months, respectively.

In the meantime, similar acts were carried out across the U.S. In an indication of the anti-draft movement’s growing acceptance, the Camden (NJ) 28 were acquitted at their trial in the spring of 1973—roughly the same time Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced an end to the draft. By then, more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen had lost their lives. Estimates of Vietnamese military and civilian deaths range from 1.5 million to 3.8 million, not including hundreds of thousands more casualties in Cambodia and Laos.

In many ways, the idea of clergy, and others of deep faith and moral convictions, committing nonviolent felonies in the name of peace and social justice, eluding capture, and going to jail seems anachronistic. But in Baltimore, the Catonsville Nine begat a living legacy.

Philip Berrigan later married former nun Liz McAlister and founded the Jonah House, where they launched the anti-nuclear weapon Plowshares movement. (“Plowshares” refers to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who said that swords shall be beaten into plowshares.)

The most lasting touchstone is the Viva House, a Catholic Worker house in West Baltimore, which was established in August 1968. The first people to stay  there were members of the Nine and their families during the trial. It was founded by Brendan Walsh, a former seminarian, and his wife, Willa Bickham, a former nun, who played behind-the-scene roles supporting the Nine. Since 1968, the Viva House has been a soup kitchen and food pantry.

“The war has kept coming back over the years,” says Walsh. “We served veterans back from Vietnam when we first opened a soup kitchen in Hollins Market, and we see veterans today, from other wars, suffering from PTSD symptoms.

“I was young then, during the war, a conscientious objector. We thought, well, people will see what the war has done to the Vietnamese, to our soldiers, and how it has torn this country apart. They will come to their senses, and we won’t do this again. But the war wasn’t an aberration, it became perpetual,” Walsh continues. “Latin America, Afghanistan, and Iraq—although it’s less visible because we do it with drones. The drug war came, too—a violent solution to a medical problem.

“We’ve watched almost a third of  this city since leave since then—40,000 in our zip code in West Baltimore. Meanwhile things continue to get worse for the poor. That’s the craziest thing. The works of war just destroy everything.”