Fire Sparked Push to End Vietnam War When a group of Catholics — including two brothers who were priests — broke into a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md., in 1968 and burned draft records, their actions would serve as a catalyst for widespread protests against the Vietnam War.
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Fire Sparked Push to End Vietnam War

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Fire Sparked Push to End Vietnam War

Fire Sparked Push to End Vietnam War

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From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

May 17, 1968, nine people were about to engage in an extraordinary protest. It would change the way America say the Vietnam War.

Mr. DEAN PAPPAS (Political Activist): 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. We said, no, that can't happen. And it did.

SEABROOK: Dean Pappas helped the group. They were not hippies. They were not draft-dodgers. They were Catholics, well-dressed, clean-cut, three were priests. They would come to be known as the Catonsville 9.

Father PHILIP BERRIGAN (Peace Activist): I was ashamed of this country and what we were doing in Vietnam.

SEABROOK: This is Father Philip Berrigan. He organized the protest. He died in 2002. This clip is from the documentary film "Investigation of a Flame." Berrigan sits in a car in the rain.

Father BERRIGAN: I was deeply convinced even then it was a necessity for direct action. It is the only resource that people had.

Father DANIEL BERRIGAN (Peace Activist): We had been briefed as to the location, it was a second floor office.

SEABROOK: Philip Berrigan's brother, Daniel, also a Jesuit priest and another of the nine. That day in Catonsville, Maryland, they walked into the office of the local draft board. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Daniel Berrigan is a Jesuit priest; Philip Berrigan was a Josephite priest.]

Father DANIEL BERRIGAN: Two of the women of our group engaged the women in the office in conversation as the rest of us went for the files.

Ms. MARY MURPHY (Selective Service Clerk): As they walked into the office I said, well what can I do for you? And with that, all the rest of them came all the sudden.

SEABROOK: Selective service clerk Mary Murphy from a 1968 interview.

Ms. MURPHY: As the one man was the trash burner. He went around to my files and stood there and started dumping files into this trash burner.

Father DANIEL BERRIGAN: We took the A-1 files which of course were the most endangered of those being shipped off and we got about 150 of those in our arms and went down the outside staircase to the parking lot.

SEABROOK: The nine drenched the draft files with homemade napalm. Then each one of them took turns throwing matches on the pile of records.

(Soundbite of flames)

Father DANIEL BERRIGAN: We all started this. 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. We were reciting, as I recall, the Lord's prayer in gratitude that this had gone well.

(Soundbite of group praying)

Group: ...give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not in temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

Police: We're going to take you to the station, right in the back of the paddy wagon.

SEABROOK: Philip Berrigan, Daniel Berrigan, Mary Moylan, David Darst, George Mische, John Hogan, Tom Melville, Marjorie Melville, and Tom Lewis. The media seized on the story, nine devout Catholics destroying draft files in protest. By October of that year, the time of the trial, the tiny suburb of Catonsville, Maryland had become a center of anti-war rebellion. Stephen Sachs led the prosecution of the Catonsville Nine. He remembers more than 2,000 protestors surrounding the courthouse in support of the defendants.

Mr. STEPHEN SACHS (U.S. attorney, Maryland): The courtroom was in the fifth floor, so we went through five floors of staircases with people waiting to get in. The atmosphere was religious is the word that comes to mind. It was quiet. The crowd was attentive. I don't recall disruption of the proceeding in any way. There was a dignity about both the conduct of the nine and if I may say so, the seriousness of those of us who saw ourselves as upholding the rule of law which was a necessity.

SEABROOK: The nine called no witnesses. Their only defense was one of conviction of the righteousness of their actions. In a now famous statement, Daniel Berrigan said, our apologies dear friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children. He went on, we could not, so help us God, do otherwise.

Mr. SACHS: My answer to Dan Berrigan's eloquence is that it is a kind of moral imperialism that is quite the opposite of what the rule of law is all about in the Democratic society. You can't just burn what you hate.

SEABROOK: Prosecutor Stephen Sachs says the evidence against them was overwhelming. The jury deliberated for two days then handed up its verdict: Guilty on all counts. Five of the nine went underground rather than service prison time. Four were captured within a year. Mary Moylan surrendered after almost a decade on the run.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: In the months and years that followed the actions of the Catonsville Nine, Vietnam War protest spread well beyond the hippies that had represented the movement. Mothers and veterans joined. The political tide turned. And in 1973, Congress ended the draft.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: As part of NPR's series, Echoes of 1968, we now take a closer look at the draft. Today it is almost inconceivable culturally, politically, though in a moment we'll hear from one lawmaker who thinks America should have a draft. First to retired Army Lieutenant General Ted Strupe(ph). He served in Vietnam and later saw first-hand how the upper ranks of the military reacted when the draft was ended.

Lieutenant General TED STRUPE (Vietnam Veteran): The senior generals at that point in time were absolutely against it. They did not want to change the draft system. They predicted gloom and doom. We wouldn't be able to get soldiers in the numbers we needed for the type of army that was sized at the end of the Vietnam War.

SEABROOK: Today we often hear senior officers in all the branches of the military say an all-volunteer force is much preferable to a conscripted military. Do you believe that?

Lt. General STRUPE: I certainly do. The ranks of the military are far better than the ranks of the draft army from the standpoint of capabilities, physical fitness, not having bad misbehavior records, finishing an enlistment, so it's a good army.

SEABROOK: A lot of soldiers are currently on their fourth or fifth tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Can you image a time when instituting the draft again might be beneficial if only to give these folks some time with their families.

Lt. General STRUPE: The choice of using draftees to go to a high intense combat area like Iraq and Afghanistan is not feasible from the standpoint of what the military calls readiness. To introduce a draft in the army today, whether we were at war or not, would cause the army to have a major rearrangement because the average draftee would expect that they would come in for the two-year draft as it had been practiced in the past. They're going to spend their first three months in their initial training. If they go on to a technical skill, that could be another three months or another nine months, and at the end of the two-year enlistment, you have a unit that does not have that continuity or what's even more important, cohesiveness that you have as soldiers serving together over a period of time. So the draft would be very detrimental to readiness, which is a subject really nobody wants to talk about. They want to talk about ethnicity, they want to talk about economics, they want to talk about fairness. You want an army that wins your wars.

SEABROOK: Ted Strupe is a retired Lieutenant General for the U.S. Army. Thank you very much, sir, for speaking with us.

Lt. General STRUPE: Pleasure to do so, Andrea.

Congressman CHARLES RANGEL (Democrat, New York): I say if we want to prove our patriotism, support the draft.

SEABROOK: Congressman Charlie Rangel wants to reinstate the draft. I spoke with him this week in the capital. Rangel told me the most important part of his draft proposal is that there would be no loopholes. Every young person would be eligible.

Congressman RANGEL: And I truly believe, and most people agree, that if they thought their kids had to be put in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we did have a draft, we never would have the war.

SEABROOK: Think back, if you would for a second, sir, to the early 1970s to a time when Congress finally laid down the draft. Do you remember what you thought of it then?

Congressman RANGEL: I would have been opposed to it because of the unfairness of the war. There were loopholes in that law that once again, only those people without influence or those that were willing to break the law and leave the country were in jeopardy. There was so many ways to get deferments that it ended up the same way it is now.

SEABROOK: So at the time, you were opposed to the draft?

Congressman RANGEL: No question about it. No question about it. And my draft bill, nobody's exempt, none, not women, if you stay in high school until you're 19, if you haven't finished, you go too. And I guess I'm a little more emotional because my district, inner-city districts, districts where there's lack of opportunity for kids is who is in the military today. And when the affluent people questioned whether their kids should go, then people then asked the question draft for what; fight for what? I wouldn't hesitate to do something extraordinary for this country as good as it's been to me. And I challenge anybody that supports the war and don't support the draft.

SEABROOK: New York Democrat Charlie Rangel. To get a sense of how today's young people might react to a draft, we went to the National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C. We talked to people from Maine to Georgia to Washington State.

Ms. ANNA JOHN(ph): I'm actually not against the draft. My little sister is an active duty member of the Air Force and she's already been there twice. So, I think it's very different when you have somebody who's served in your family and I think a lot of Americans may be sympathetic towards the war but there's a profound disconnect when you don't know somebody who's personally over there.

Ms. PAULA HOLLOCHICK(ph): I would not be happy if they started a draft because I feel like I am way too frail to fight and that is not - some of the stuff we get involved in is not what I personally believe in or want to fight for.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER TALBOT(ph): I think that a draft would be very successful in this country. There's still lots of people that are feeling the effect of what happened and as of now there's no cause and there's still (unintelligible).

Mr. COLIN STEVENSON(ph): I'm actually in the Air Force, ROTC program right now. And I believe a volunteer military is the best military you can have. It would be very hard serving in a unit where the morale ranges from extremely high to extremely low.

Mr. KEVIN CLARK(ph): I would go to Canada. I have Canadian citizenship so I'd be up there in a minute. Apologies for those who aren't but that would be me.

SEABROOK: That was Kevin Clark, Colin Stevenson, Christopher Talbot, Paula Hollochick and Anna John.

To read more about the Catonsville Nine and hear other stories in our series, Echoes of 1968, go to our Web site,

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