Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era

Article excerpt

The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era. By Shawn Francis Peters. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2012. Pp. xxii, 390. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-19-982785-5.)

This is a book about memory and how slippery it can be. On May 17, 1968, one such rupture was the peace action at Catonsville, Maryland, where nine protesters against the Vietnam War entered a Knights of Columbus Hall, rifled through the files of the Selective Service office upstairs, and set them ablaze in the parking lot using homemade napalm. Numerous witnesses- from the Selective Service staff to the reporters waiting outside-eventually gave testimony that convicted the group on state and federal charges of destruction of property. In 1970, two years after the event, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal. With all defense measures exhausted, some in the group extended their protest by going underground and evading capture for weeks, months, and years. These are the facts, yet some see little effect in the Nine's theatrics, whereas others view their actions as courageous witness.Yet the interplay between the Nine's motives, rooted as they were in their Catholic faith, and those of the American government, form a story whose power has not diminished. With its legend fueled by books, documentaries, and feature films like The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (financed in part by Gregory Peck), Shawn Francis Peters's volume hopes to set aright the historical record, judiciously withholding the sweeping judgments that have often fed polarization.

Peters grew up in Catonsville, where the story was part of his DNA. Although he was hardly more than a toddler when the action took place, he often heard about the Nine's exploits. For his history, he sorts through the extant oral histories, trial testimonies, press accounts, and the literature penned largely by Philip and Daniel Berrigan, two of the more famous participants and on whom Peters's narrative frequently shines a spotlight.The facts are laid out well, with few deviations from the standard narrative, and the discrete episodes that form his twenty-five chapters read like vignettes on the personalities involved. …

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