Fire Sparked Push to End Vietnam War

The Catonsville Nine at the Wilkens Police Station. i i

hide captionThe Catonsville Nine at the Wilkens Police Station before being moved to the Towson Jail. Left to right (back): George Mische, Philip Berrigan, Daniel Berrigan, Tom Lewis. Left to right (front): David Darst, Mary Moylan, John Hogan, Marjorie Melville, Tom Melville.

Courtesy of the Friends of Catonsville Library
The Catonsville Nine at the Wilkens Police Station.

The Catonsville Nine at the Wilkens Police Station before being moved to the Towson Jail. Left to right (back): George Mische, Philip Berrigan, Daniel Berrigan, Tom Lewis. Left to right (front): David Darst, Mary Moylan, John Hogan, Marjorie Melville, Tom Melville.

Courtesy of the Friends of Catonsville Library
Fathers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan burning draft records. i i

hide captionRoman Catholic Priests Philip Berrigan (left) and his brother, Daniel Berrigan, (right) were arrested along with seven other people after breaking into a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md., and burning draft records with homemade napalm.

Bettmann/Corbis
Fathers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan burning draft records.

Roman Catholic Priests Philip Berrigan (left) and his brother, Daniel Berrigan, (right) were arrested along with seven other people after breaking into a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md., and burning draft records with homemade napalm.

Bettmann/Corbis

Facts About the Draft

  • The country's first peacetime draft was created when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940.

  • As many as 8,615,000 men and 250,000 women served in U.S. forces during the Vietnam era (1955-1975). Draftees made up 2,215,000 of the total who served.

  • Until the early 1970s there were two cards: the Registration Certificate and the Notice of Classification.

  • No one has been drafted since 1973, and it would require an act of Congress to reinstate the draft.
Sources: Selective Service System; "Warfare and Armed Conflict"
An apology letter the Catonsville Nine sent to draft board employees. i i

hide captionAn apology letter sent to draft board employees from the Catonsville Nine.

Courtesy of Friends of the Catonsville Library
An apology letter the Catonsville Nine sent to draft board employees.

An apology letter sent to draft board employees from the Catonsville Nine.

Courtesy of Friends of the Catonsville Library
A flier circulated by the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission. i i

hide captionA flier circulated by the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission after the break-in tells draft-age men they may have been "saved."

Courtesy of the Friends of the Catonsville Library
A flier circulated by the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission.

A flier circulated by the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission after the break-in tells draft-age men they may have been "saved."

Courtesy of the Friends of the Catonsville Library

On May 17, 1968, a quiet suburb of Baltimore became the flashpoint of the movement to end the Vietnam War.

Nine members of the Roman Catholic Church broke into a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md., and stole hundreds of files containing the draft records of young American men about to be sent to Vietnam. Using homemade napalm, the group — which became known as the "Catonsville Nine" — set the papers on fire.

Later that year, they would be tried and convicted of destroying U.S. property, destroying Selective Service files and interfering with the Selective Service Act of 1967. But their trial made Catonsville a focal point of anti-war rebellion.

The Catonsville action was organized by the now-deceased Father Philip Berrigan, who earlier that year had joined three other people in pouring their blood on another set of draft files.

Other members of the group included Mary Moylan, George Mische, Tom Melville, Marjorie Melville, John Hogan, David Darst and Tom Lewis. Father Daniel Berrigan — the ninth member — was recruited by his brother, Philip, to take part in the action, which began when they infiltrated the Selective Service offices on Frederick Road.

"We had been briefed as to the location: second-floor office. Two of the women of our group engaged the women in the office in conversation as the rest of us went for the files," Berrigan says.

The activists, however, met with some resistance, and a Selective Service clerk, Mary Murphy, had to be physically restrained.

"We took the A-1 files, which of course were the most endangered of those being shipped off," Berrigan says. "And we got about 150 of those in our arms and went down the staircase to the parking lot. And they burned very smartly, having been doused in this horrible material. And it was all over in 10 or 15 minutes. The police had been summoned, and we were found in a circle around the fire."

Dean Pappas, a longtime political activist from Baltimore, helped the Catonsville Nine make the napalm from soap chips and gasoline.

"For us in the anti-war movement in 1968, the Catonsville Nine action had a tremendous catalytic effect," Pappas says.

He credits the Catonsville affair with dramatically increasing the level of activity and interest among anti-war protesters.

"If somebody had told us a year before that we'd have 3,000 people in the streets of Baltimore marching against the war in Vietnam, we would have been incredulous — 'No, that can't happen.' And it did," Pappas says.

For Stephen Sachs, the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland who led the prosecution against the activists, justice was served once the convictions were handed down.

"You can't just burn what you hate," Sachs says. "The key to democracy is process."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: