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17 May 2010

On this day in history: The Catonsville Nine, 1968

In May 1968, while students clashed with police outside, representatives of the United States and North Vietnam began peace talks in Paris to try bring about an end to the Vietnam War. In spite of increased military activity, the United States was no nearer winning the war, which was becoming increasingly unpopular at home. Many Americans believed their Government's prosecution of the war to be immoral, and some decided to act upon these beliefs.

On 17th May 1968, two women and seven men entered the Knights of Columbus building in Catonsville, a suburb of Baltimore in the state of Maryland. They headed straight for the Selective Service office on the second floor where they grabbed hundreds of draft records while the staff looked on in surprise. With the records stuffed into wire baskets they left the building and walked to the parking lot where they doused the records in home-made napalm and set fire to them watched by bemused onlookers and members of the press, who the nine had alerted about their intended actions. A few minutes later the police arrived and arrested all nine of them.

All nine of the anti-war protesters were devout Catholics including one priest, Father Daniel Berrigan; two former priests, Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Melville; and a former nun, Mary Moylan. The others were David Darst, John Hogan, Tom Lewis and Marjorie Bradford Melville (wife of Thomas).

The trial of the nine began in September 1968 at the Federal court in Baltimore while protestors gathered outside. All nine were found guilty of destruction of Selective Service files, and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967. Philip Berrigan and Tom Lewis received three-and-a-half-year sentences; Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Melville, and George Mische were sentenced to serve three years; the other four faced two-year terms. Of these only Hogan and the Melvilles went to jail; Durst died in a car accident; the others went underground. Most were captured over the next couple of years, but Moylan remained at large until she surrendered herself in 1978.

There is an excellent web site dedicated to the Catonsville Nine called 'Fire and Faith: the Catonsville Nine File' hosted by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Related posts
Australian Prime Minister visited Vietnam: 7th June 1968
South Vietnamese opposition politician sentenced: 26th July 1968
Buffalo Nine arrested: 19th August 1968

Paris Peace Accords ended U.S. military action in Vietnam: 27th January 1973