May 17, 2008 Baltimore Sun
1968, 2008: 'Wars don't die'
Survivors of Catonsville Nine mark anniversary with a protest
By Timothy B. Wheeler firstname.lastname@example.org | Sun reporter
Forty years ago today, nine Catholic men and women - three of them
priests - walked into a military draft office in Catonsville and
seized the records of hundreds of young men likely to be summoned to
fight in Vietnam .
They burned the papers in the parking lot, using homemade napalm to
start the blaze. As the flames rose, the nine solemnly recited the
Lord's Prayer and stood around waiting for the police to arrest them.
That day in the turbulent spring of 1968, the Catonsville Nine, as
they became known, put the quiet Baltimore suburb on the map in a
growing nationwide protest against the Vietnam War. The band of
activists - whose dramatic trial drew hundreds of antiwar protesters
to Baltimore that fall - inspired similar disruptions of draft offices
around the country.
The Catonsville Nine also provoked an intense debate, one that has
resonated across the decades as Americans challenge another unpopular
war - this time in Iraq .
"I think what people are seeing is that the wars don't die," said one
of group's leaders, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, now 87 and living in New
York. He and his late brother Philip, also a priest at the time,
became prominent figures in the peace and social justice movements.
Some saw the fire the Nine ignited - and their subsequent imprisonment
- as a courageous act of conscience, inspired by Christian faith. But
others have questioned the morality - or at least the effectiveness -
of vandalism, no matter how noble the cause.
Today, the Catonsville Nine are down to five. Philip Berrigan, the
only member who stayed in Baltimore , died of cancer in 2002 after
decades of "civil resistance," repeated arrests and imprisonment for
his protests against war, militarism and social injustice.
Two others predeceased him - one in a car accident before his prison
sentence was to start.
The most recent of the group to go was artist Tom Lewis, who died
unexpectedly last month at his Massachusetts home, a month before a
planned visit to Baltimore for a commemoration of the 1968 event.
The passion lives
But the passion for peace still burns in the survivors and their
spiritual heirs as they seek to rally opposition to another war.
Elizabeth McAlister, Philip Berrigan's widow, will join a group of
activists who plan to mark today's 40th anniversary with a muted
protest at the annual air show at Andrews Air Force Base.
A decade ago, protesters attacked a B-52 bomber there with hammers.
This time, they say, they'll wield only peace slogans on T-shirts as
they seek to mingle in the crowd of families visiting to ogle the
"I think actions like this create hope," said McAlister, 68, taking
time from chores at Jonah House, the pacifist community she and Philip
Berrigan established in West Baltimore . "And being able to share with
people about that creates hope."
Catonsville wasn't the first draft office raid. Philip Berrigan and
three others were already awaiting sentencing for pouring blood on
draft records at the Custom House in downtown Baltimore in fall 1967.
They decided to do it again.
"That was the way to show the government that no matter how many
people you lock up, you're not going to get us out of your hair,"
recalled George Mische, another of the Nine who, like Philip Berrigan,
was an Army veteran.
Mische said the group looked at three local draft board sites before
settling on the western Baltimore suburb.
"There was no special signficance to Catonsville ," said Dean Pappas, a
Baltimore physics teacher who helped plan the draft office raid and
spread the word after it happened. "It was just a target of
Symbolism of site
But Mische and others saw symbolism in the draft board's location on
the second floor of the Knights of Columbus hall, a Catholic fraternal
organization. They believed church leaders were abdicating their
Christian responsibilty to speak out against the war.
Mische said the group also picked Catonsville because it would be
"virtually impossible" for anyone to get hurt. But one person did,
albeit slightly. Mary Murphy, the head of the office, cut her finger
and scratched her leg while wrestling for control of a wire
wastebasket containing the seized draft records.
Mische said Murphy also ripped his pants apart, trying to pull him
away from the draft files, and another clerk threw a telephone through
a window after protesters thwarted efforts to call police. The
breaking glass and screaming alerted a groundskeeper outside, who
Meanwhile, a TV news crew and photographer, who had been tipped off to
show up, captured the burning of 378 draft records on black-and-white
film with shaky sound.
The Catonsville Nine might have been 10 had McAlister, then a young
nun, agreed to join the group that day. "I wasn't ready," she said. "I
was too young, and it was too new."
After the episode, she secretly married Philip Berrigan and was
arrested at a Delaware draft office, the first in a series of legal
run-ins that at one point took her away from her children for two
years. All three of their offspring, she said proudly, are activists
in their own ways today.
The Berrigans and McAlister have inspired many others, including Frank
Cordaro, a 57-year-old former priest from Des Moines , Iowa , who is in
Baltimore this week to commemorate the Catonsville protest.
Ten years ago, on the 30th anniversary, Cordaro joined four others who
tried to damage the B-52 bomber at Andrews. That cost him six months
in jail, less than he expected.
"The survival of the human race really depends on the human race
deciding to put away its violent and war-making ways," said Cordaro,
whose affable demeanor belies the seriousness of his cause. "We
Christians have a major contribution to play, not least of all because
in the last 100 years, we have become the best killers."
But critics like Stephen H. Sachs, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted
the Catonsville Nine, argue that such illegal acts undermine the rule
"No one can, and no one did, at the time, contest the sincerity, one
might even say the bravery, of these folks," said Sachs, who later
became Maryland 's attorney general and ran unsuccessfully for
But he described them as "true believers who believe they were Right
with a capital 'R' and were entitled ... to take the law into their
own hands. In a democracy, that's an intolerable position."
Brendan Walsh, who helped with the Catonsville draft office raid, said
he agrees that people can't go around destroying everything they hate.
"However, if there's property that has no other reason for being than
to get people killed, then maybe ... it's OK to go ahead and destroy
it," said Walsh, who in 1968 helped open Viva House, a Catholic worker
community in Baltimore that offers a soup kitchen, legal aid and
after-school education for the poor.
Other activists, though no less committed to ending war, say they're
looking for different ways to achieve that end.
Mische, for one, is more committed to change through politics than to
symbolic, illegal actions. These days, he says, he's focusing on
supporting the presidential bid of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. He
likes the Democratic hopeful's stance on the war, as well as his
background as a community organizer.
Dean Pappas, now 69, has also parted ways with the tactics of 1968. "I
think that Phil and company, [spending] the last 20 years smashing
nose cones on missiles and getting thrown in jail was a waste of
time," he said. "I hate to put it that way, but I don't think it did
much to advance the cause."
Now a teacher at Friends School and Maryland Institute College of Art ,
Pappas is likewise backing Obama's campaign.
McAlister, though, says she has no regrets. "I think it's right and
needed," she said of the confrontations, "and the effectiveness ...
will take care of itself. ... I think they make people think and
Sun researchers Paul McCardell and Carol Julian contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun