Event forty years ago took county into antiwar conflict
SUSAN C. INGRAM
May 14, 2008
(Part of a series spotlighting 1968)
“You will kill ten of our men, and we will kill one of yours, and in
the end it will be you who tire of it.” – Ho Chi Minh, as war loomed
with France in 1946.
Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh died six years before the Vietnam War
ground to its chaotic conclusion, but his cryptic words sum up the
reality of a conflict that divided the nation and galvanized an
energetic antiwar movement that continues to make its voice heard
even 40 years later.
Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of a small, nonviolent, antiwar
action that took place on a sunny spring afternoon in a quiet
Baltimore County suburb, but nonetheless one that subsequently
influenced activists across the nation.
On May 17, 1968, a group of nine men and women, clergy and laypeople,
entered a U.S. Selective Service office in Catonsville where military
draft records were kept.
By that year, U.S. troop levels had escalated from about 16,000 in
1963 to a high of more than half a million by 1968.
The war that had roots in Vietnam’s push for independence from its
French colonial government had by 1968 become what many believed to
be a fruitless and dead-end aggression.
Nightly news reports from the front lines brought the war into living
rooms back home, and unlike current Iraq war coverage the public saw
the parade of flag-draped coffins being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base.
Antiwar sentiment was gaining purchase across the country, especially
on college campuses, where students protested not only the draft, but
school investments and policies that supported the war effort.
Back in Catonsville, some of the nine people who entered the
Selective Service office that sunny day had in 1967 poured blood over
draft records at the Baltimore Customs House. Some of the “Baltimore
Four,” as they’d become known, were awaiting trial for that event
when they felt another action was necessary.
After pulling hundreds of draft records from file cabinets, the group
proceeded to a parking lot behind the building and doused the records
in homemade napalm – a mixture of gasoline and soap flakes.
The military was using napalm for deforestation and it had horrific
consequences for people on the ground when the flaming mixture
covered and stuck to their clothing and skin.
After setting the draft records alight as a television news camera
rolled, the nine crossed themselves, read a statement, prayed and
waited for police.
Arrested and loaded into a paddy wagon that day were Philip Berrigan,
Daniel Berrigan, David Darst, John Hogan, Tom Lewis, John Melville,
Marjorie Melville, George Mische, and Mary Moylan. They were later
tried and convicted, as thousands protested outside a Baltimore
courthouse. Some served time, while others went underground.
Today Daniel Berrigan, John Hogan, John and Marjorie Melville and
George Mische are alive and continue to speak out for peace.
Forty years later
David Eberhardt grew up in Baltimore County and was a colleague of
the nine. He was one of the four who poured blood on draft records at
the Customs House. He went to jail in 1970.
He said many influences caused him to eventually move from ideology
to antiwar activism.
“Being angry from birth, going away to private school, the rebellious
nature of youth, trying to see through the bull,” he said. “And
liking part of the church that says thou shalt not kill and blessed
are the peacemakers.”
Eberhardt’s father was an Episcopal minister in Parkton. Before
returning home to Glencoe from Oberlin College in Ohio he watched the
civil rights movement heating up.
“Then three guys get killed in Mississippi,” he remembered. “You see
people burning themselves up in protest to the war.”
Eberhardt recalled Quaker Norman R. Morrison, a member of Stony Run
Meeting in Baltimore, immolating himself in front of the Pentagon in 1965.
“You see that and you say, ‘I can take some risks. What’s the worst
they can do, put me in prison?’ ” he said.
Eberhardt said the antiwar movement ebbs and flows, depending on the times.
“Through slavery and segregation, through the 20s and the 30s, it
rises a little bit sometimes. It depends on how horrible the
injustice is,” he said.
At a Catonsville Nine commemoration last week, where the film
“Investigation of a Flame” was screened, Eberhardt said the crowd was
mostly older white people.
“But there were enough young folks,” he said. “Sadly, only a couple
of blacks – there is a missing link there.”
He sees the current anti-Iraq War movement growing more quickly than
“It was like a decade before the movement got going on Vietnam,” he
said. “But because of Vietnam, people seek it out and see through the crap.”
For people who want to join the antiwar movement Eberhardt suggests
starting with groups like Jonah House or American Friends Service
Committee, a Quaker group.
“Seek out whatever nonviolence group you can find. There are plenty
of them out there,” he said. “Take as much risk as you wish. Our part
of the movement stressed going to jail and keep going to jail. But
you don’t have to go to jail to do great things.”
Brendan Walsh helped organize the Catonsville Nine action. A former
seminarian from the Bronx, he and wife Willa Bickham started Viva
House, a Catholic Worker House, in Baltimore in 1968. The
organization that has served the poor for four decades through its
soup kitchen, food pantry and legal counseling was started by people
whose commitment was forged during the turbulent decade of the 1960s.
Walsh was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and
started doing alternative service in 1968. One way conscientious
objectors were allowed to serve was as medics. But he rejected that option.
“Once you get involved in that it’s not much of a step to carrying
guns,” Walsh said.
He got to know Phillip and David Berrigan and began to recognize the
cost of the war to people back home, especially the poor.
“When you learn African Americans were 11 percent of the population,
but they were dying [in Vietnam] at 33 percent, you start seeing lies
about the war. It’s just like Iraq. It switched from communism to
terrorism they just changed the ‘ism.'”
Forty years ago Walsh said that one of the sayings was, “The rich
sent their sons to college and the poor sent their sons to Vietnam.”
Walsh thought that one of the reasons there was such “tremendous
poverty” in Baltimore was because of funds diverted to the Vietnam War.
“And after the war the government would get going,” he said. “But
since then, there has been almost no change in the percentage of
Baltimoreans living below the poverty level. It is the same now as 40
“There was a feeling in Baltimore that demonstrations and vigils
would end the war,” he remembered.
Today’s antiwar movement, peace protests and other actions aren’t
covered as closely in the media, Walsh said.
“We’ve been doing a demonstration against the death penalty every
Monday for the last 10 years at Central Booking,” he said. “Back then
you would be covered by the media, all the TV stations.”
He said he doesn’t see as many college students involved in today’s
antiwar efforts, but thinks part of that is because the draft was in
effect during the Vietnam War, but not for the Iraq War.
He sees other movements and social issues, including the environment,
global warming and the world food crisis, as drawing people into
different areas of protest. But he sees many people who come to
volunteer at Viva House subsequently get involved in some kind of activism.
“We see a lot of people who are helping us serve the meals here,
which leads to a discussion as to why people are coming here,” he said.
As far as how to get involved, Walsh said “you can start anywhere.”
He suggested people start by contacting Congress and legislators and
see “where that gets them,” he said. “A lot of us did that and
nothing happened anywhere, and the death toll was mounting.”
The interview with Brendan Walsh only appeared in the online version
Daniel Joseph Berrigan, died April 30, 2016
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