Trying To Stop the War

Shawn Francis Peters, The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era

Johanna Hamilton, 1971: On the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI

Shawn Francis Peters’ 2012 book is an account of the Catholic activists in May 1968 who burned draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. Johanna Hamilton’s 2014 film examines some of the men and women who stole FBI files from an office in Media, Pennsylvania, and shared them with newspapers, including the Washington Post even before Daniel Ellsberg leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to Katherine Graham’s paper. Hoping to play a role in stopping a hideous war against Vietnam, both groups of citizens felt compelled to act, even if it meant arrest, trial, and long prison sentences.

Anthony Towne, a friend of Daniel Berrigan, observed in 1970 that “the movement badly needed depersonalization.” In an open letter at the time, theologian Rosemary Ruether addressed the Nine, “The … trouble is that your symbols don’t seem to be very effective in gaining converts. On the contrary, they alienate those who are already converted.” Still, the Catonsville action energized the Catholic Left, inspiring follow-up actions against the Vietnam War, and inspired others in subsequent decades in the Plowshares Movement who tried to bring attention to the insanity of U.S. nuclear policy. Prominent in both were Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Many individuals were arrested and spent years in prison.

The citizens’ action which disrupted the FBI ultimately led to the unprecedented 1975 Church Committee’s investigation of its paranoia-inducing surveillance of activists and on-going illegality through COINTELPRO. These men and women remained unknown until recently. Theirs are not household names. They were never arrested for their break-in. Because no one in the Philadelphia movement knew what the Media activists did, they didn’t have conflicts  over public personalities. Nor was their action symbolic: It was an offering to the U.S. public to know that state power was reckless and ruthless in its efforts to neutralize an engaged citizenry.

David Darst, one of the Catonsville Nine, said that it is “an astonishing thing that our country cannot command the energy to give bread and milk to children, yet it can rain fire and death on people ten thousand miles away for reasons that are unclear to thoughtful men.”


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