The Catholic University of America

Vietnam War Petition Collection

An inventory of the Vietnam War Petition Collection at The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives


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Mailing Address: The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. 20064

Telephone: 202-319-5065

Email: lib-archives@cua.edu

URL: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/

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Descriptive Summary

Repository: The American Catholic Research Center and University Archives
Creator: Father John B. Sheerin
Title: Vietnam War Petition Collection
Dates: 1968 - 1971
Extent: 6 linear feet, 4 boxes
Abstract: The collaboration of Fr. John B. Sheerin and Fr. William Nerin was a controversial effort to influence government policy through a petition to recruit mainstream Catholic priests against the Vietnam War. The argument that the war was unjust, mostly because the collateral damage was too great, polarized the clergy. The petition called for priests to abandon any neutral position over the actions of the military and to denounce the war from the pulpit. This advocacy of dissent was echoed across many denominations to challenge long held beliefs over the need for clergy to remain politically silent over war policies and conduct. The collection provides candid testimony to this unprecedented effort through personal correspondence, polling data and news clippings.
Collection Number: 127
Language: English

Historical Note

War petitions have long been used as an expression of public opinion over government policies in times of conflict. The Vietnam War Petition Collection documents dissent among American Catholic priests over U.S. foreign policy towards the protracted civil war in Vietnam. Spearheaded by Fathers John Sheerin and William Nerin, this petition exemplifies the first time that American Catholic clergy would broadly unite to denounce war conduct from the pulpit. But to better understand how common misgivings among clergy over foreign war would evolve into an open act of defiance invites a glimpse farther back to World War I and the establishment of the National Catholic War Council.

This is credited to Father John Burke whose astute leadership and organizational talents won him the respect of presidents hoping to assimilate legions of European immigrants in the early 20th century. Like many, Burke had expressed reservations about entering WWI, but when war was declared his transformative leadership was known to have galvanized Catholic clergy into expressing themselves as loyal Americans to support the war effort. More than a dealmaker, Burke was a visible influence who inspired many as editor of the Paulist periodical, Catholic World. Revered long after his passing in 1936, Father Burke endowed future generations of clergy with a twin sense of idealism and strong organizational management principles.

The implementation of Vatican II in the 1960's suggests that Rome had finally caught up to Burke's earlier innovations and among Paulists it was time to move that legacy forward. Father John Sheerin assumed editorial stewardship of Catholic World and was well positioned to promote the trend toward the "new ecumenism." However, for many Americans there was a dark side to 1960's idealism and that was Vietnam.

It is well known that 1968 proved to be a pivotal year for American involvement in Southeast Asia. Events began in late January when the communist NLF insurgency launched the Tet Offensive with a series of coordinated attacks across South Vietnam. This shocking coalescence of guerrilla forces engaged U.S. troops in ground warfare on a scale large enough to force a re-assessment of what had been deemed a "police action". While U.S. forces beat back the Tet assault within a few weeks, the U.S. Secretary of Defense had resigned by the end of February with disastrous political implications for the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. American popular sentiment regarding the war effort was now visibly shaken leading the national news media to label the war a "stalemate."

These concerns were not lost on Fr. Sheerin who quickly assembled a 3 question survey on Vietnam aimed at Catholic World's over 10,000 home subscribers. Enclosed in the March edition, the survey addressed policy matters such as the bombing of North Vietnam, a negotiated peace, and the draft. It was a timely reaction for 1968 was shaping up to be an election year unlike any other. Within weeks, an anti-war candidate, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy (a Roman Catholic) would provide a much more visible litmus test to Vietnam policy through his strong showing in the New Hampshire primary. While the conflict had been long-decried by Catholic activists, McCarthy's performance would spur the entrance of the popular and persuasive Robert F. Kennedy into the presidential race. The entrance of a more mainstream contender sent a grave signal to the White House that support was eroding within the ruling political party. By month's end the world would learn that U.S. bombing would de-escalate in favor of more diplomacy and that President Johnson would not seek re-election.

In late May 1968, Fr. Sheerin offered a preview of the survey results to major news editors through a series of letters. Based on a roughly 5.5% response rate, the survey revealed that 58% of respondents desired a cessation of the bombing campaign in North Vietnam. 74% felt that the US should push harder for a negotiated peace, and that 83% asserted that the draft law should align with the Second Vatican Council to provide for conscientious objectors. While the first two questions had already been acted on by President Johnson, the last question was perhaps the most provoking. It was longer and voiced more pointedly that U.S. draft law was not making adequate allowances for conscientious objectors. While religious objection to the draft have long been a part of American military history what is significant here is that it was a matter quite personal to Fr. William Nerin who would team up with Fr. Sheerin for the 1970 war petition at the heart of the collection.

When the results of the March Catholic World survey were published in June, many Americans had already become increasingly convinced that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was unjust and that policy could be reshaped in the court of public opinion. Troop levels remained at an all-time high and the home front had been hemorrhaging for weeks with riots and demonstrations in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination that April. June would also see the untimely death of RFK, likewise at the hands of a gunman, to yield a devastating blow to voter cohesion within the Democratic Party. Ultimately this set the stage for a Republican victory that fall to signal a new era in Vietnam policy known as Vietnamization. For those Americans hoping for immediate results, it simply marked the beginning of a long and difficult exit. The change in direction is neatly encapsulated by the author Charles DeBenedetti (1990) who credits one activist as saying "the future of the anti-war movement depends on one man - Richard Nixon."

To better appreciate the collection in this context, one might reasonably ask how a small survey sent to a list of private subscribers would springboard into an open petition to Catholic clergy to speak out against the war effort? But to summarize how the organized religions in America, who were long known to remain silent on the unpleasant truths of war, came out against Vietnam is perhaps best explained in terms of the bevy of clergy networks forged in the civil rights and anti-nuclear movements of the early 1960's. The most relevant here is CALCAV (Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam), a multi-denominational organization founded by longtime anti-nuclear activist Rev. William Sloane Coffin. Research indicates that Fr. Sheerin was active in CALCAV as a steering committee member and that Fr. Nerin was a member of a local Oklahoma chapter.

By the spring of 1970, pro-war sentiment was giving way to war-weariness among many Americans. Peace negotiations were dragging and additional tinkering with the draft, an effort to address social polarization over the selective service, seemed only to increase misgivings. Making matters worse was the revelation of a secret war in Cambodia which spawned new rounds of campus unrest. It was in this climate that many rank and file clergy began to forsake neutral opinions to sympathize with longtime anti-war activists such as Daniel and Phillip Berrigan. That June, the Diocese of Oklahoma drafted a "Letter to Clergymen" aimed at galvanizing pastoral sentiments against the war through a petition calling for a "Statement of Commitment". According to Sheerin it represented the "first time priests had ever issued a formal condemnation of any war."

The accompanying petition drive, coordinated by Nerin and Sheerin, was described in the New York Times as "a concentrated mail campaign to recruit 40,000 Roman Catholic clergymen for the anti-war movement." (June 21, 1970). An $8000 loan was secured from an Oklahoma bank by Bishop Victor Reed fund the direct mail petition which included a postage paid envelope. The same pledge was also included in the July 3rd 1970 edition of National Catholic Reporter as a full page advertisement. Sheerin's public relations skills were again on display for it was announced that a press conference would be held once the signatures had been tabulated. Here the calculations yielded a roughly 7.5% response rate with an abundance of the replies coming from California, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Wisconsin.

Adding to the controversy was the choice to visibly release the aggregated petition results through the office of Senator George McGovern according to a Boston, Massachusetts newspaper, The Pilot (9/26/70). Not surprisingly this earned the ire of many from the Catholic community leading one Washington DC monsignor to proclaim that "Father Sheerin et al. are totally lacking in common sense if they do not think that their statement of commitment will not encourage Moscow and Hanoi to continue and escalate their determination to force their materialistic, atheistic form of slavery on the brave people of South Vietnam." The St.Louis Review (10/2/70) quoted Father Nerin as having received 1000 negative responses in addition to the 3,000 committed responses.

Ultimately, the petition served to cement relations with the anti-war Senator as Fathers Nerin and Sheerin remained undaunted in their efforts to end the war. Having achieved notoriety as political activists, further correspondence between the two men reveals increasing alignment with anti-war groups and use of the pulpit therein. While the McGovern campaign to unseat President Nixon in 1972 was unsuccessful, South Vietnam eventually fell in 1975. Once the "long national nightmare" was over, its polarizing legacy did yield lasting changes to the selective service system. The draft was phased out which effectively provided a stronger platform for those with religious objections to find a means of serving their country. Today while relations with Vietnam have since been normalized, 1968 still exists in the minds of many as a sort of Pandora's box of global unrest. But for that painful lesson, the Burke legacy continues to inspire many to pursue peace and social justice as vocations for clergy.

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Scope and Contents

The Vietnam War Petition Collection is primarily composed of petition responses to a July 1970 bulk mailing that asked some 40,000 Catholic clergy to protest the Vietnam War. Among the 2000+ responses archived here are some profoundly personal expressions of concern that were included with the collected signatures. The collection also contains insightful correspondence by Father John Sheerin from 1968 and 1970-1971 along with news-clippings related to the petition. These may be located in Box 1. Of interest is the contrast between the correspondence associated with the March 1968 Draft Act questionnaire and the papers relating to the 1970 anti-war petition. While the former clearly evoke an indirect expression of concern, the latter documents indicate a hardening of Sheerin's position over the war by publicly promoting an active campaign to end it. Particularly revealing are the letters during and after 1970 . These reveal more about Sheerin's work with CALCAV and its executive director, Rev. Richard R. Fernandez. More on Fernandez may be found at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection. Most significant are letters exchanged between Sheerin and the office of US Senator (and former Presidential candidate) George McGovern who was vehemently against the Vietnam War.

It is also important to note that the petition coordinated by Fr. Nerin and Fr. Sheerin was supported by a board of activist clergy. This is evidenced by the inclusion of Father Robert Drinan as a member. Drinan, a Jesuit priest, had recently announced his candidacy for US Congress and in doing so was attempting to break new ground by seeking public office. Other notable board members included Father Charles Curran who was better known for his role in the controversy over the July 1968 Humanae Vitae encyclical. There is a letter from Curran in the collection as well. Father Thomas Stransky, a Paulist, was also a supporter. In toto, the Sheerin correspondence reveals much about the tenor of the times and echoes the assorted calls for civil disobedience among the American anti-war movement. What is not in the collection is any direct correspondence with the Drinan campaign despite his election to Congress in the fall of 1970.

In hindsight, it is important to consider how such positions came about in context of other controversies from that era. Chief among them is the aforementioned Humanae Vitae encyclical that was issued by Rome. This event incited an explosive debate among U.S. clergy and laity over human life and contraception that, for Catholics, perhaps surpassed Vietnam in terms of inviting dissent. One may find references to it amidst the correspondence within the Vietnam War Petition Collection. Consequently the encyclical served to magnify the fractious environment that defined the 1960's to expose deep theological divisions in public. This seemed to only compound the sense of creeping polarization at all levels of American society.

Today, some four decades later, the scope of this collection suggests that the "Vietnam War Petition" represented a hybrid of ecumenical thought and populist action that would have been unthinkable prior to the Second Vatican Council. Some board members eventually left the church to pursue other vocations. Fr. Drinan won re-election more than once leading Rome to assert its position on clergy seeking public office. CALCAV, like many of the so-called anti-war groups, retooled their message to peace causes and social justice concerns. Since Vietnam they have been known as CALC.

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Arrangement

The Vietnam War Petition Collection consists of 2 series:



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Restrictions

Restrictions on Access

None.

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Administrative Information

Acquisition Information

Donated by John B. Sheerin, 1979

Processing Information

Processing completed in 1995 by Rodney Obien and in 2012 by Carter Rawson. EAD markup completed in 2012 by Carter Rawson.

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Related Material

American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives:

Joseph F. Byron Humanae Vitae Controversy Collection

JShane MacCarthy Humanae Vitae Collection

Joseph Daniel Keenan Papers

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Health Affairs Department-Vietnam Asssistance Program Records

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Office of the General Secretary Records

Swarthmore College:

Peace Collection

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Index Terms

This record series is indexed under the following controlled access subject terms.


Persons:
Berrigan, Fr. Philip Francis, 1923-2002
Bonnike, Fr. Frank J.
Burke, Fr. John J.(John Joseph), 1875-1936
Curran, Fr. Charles E., 1934-
Drinan, Fr. Robert F., 1920-2007
Fernandez, Rev. Richard R. (Richard Ritter)
Johnson, Pres. Lyndon B.(Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973
McGovern, Sen. George S.(George Stanley), 1922-2012
Nerin, Fr. William F., 1926-
Nixon, Pres. Richard M.(Richard Milhouse), 1913-1994
Sheerin, Fr. John B., 1906-1992
Stransky, Rev. Thomas F.
Weil, Gordon Lee, 1937-

Organizations:
Clergy and Laity Concerned(About Vietnam)
National Federation of Priests Councils
Paulist Fathers

Places:
New York, N.Y.
Oklahoma City, OK
United States of America
Vietnam
Washington D.C.

Subjects:
Catholic Church. Pope (1963-1978 : Paul VI). Encyclical letter (Humanae vitae) of His Holiness Paul VI
Conscientious Objection
Draft Registration
Operation Rolling Thunder, 1965-1968
Paris Peace Accords(1973)
Tet Offensive, 1968
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements


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Bibliography

DeBenedetti, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990 Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992 Advertisement. (1970, July 3). Now Is The Time. National Catholic Reporter. p8. AP. (1970, June 21). Antiwar Drive Begins to Recruit 40,00 Priests. New York Times. p3 (1970, September 26). 2800 US Priests Say Viet War Unjustified. The Pilot. p14

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Detailed Description of the Collection

                       
Series 1: Personal correspondence, Newsclippings, 1968-1971 Box 1
Series 1 contains correspondence by John B. Sheerin from 1968 and 1970-71 as well as news clippings regarding the 1970 petition.
Box Folder
1 1 1968 Draft Act Questionnaire, 1968
  2 General Correspondence, 1970-1971
  3 Newspaper Clippings, 1968-1970
                       
Series 2: Petition responses, 1970 Box 1-4
Series 2 contains the 1970 petition responses alphabetical by state. Box 4 is devoted to oversize petition responses
Box Folder
1 4 Alabama - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  5 Alaska - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  6 California - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  7 California - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  8 California - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  9 California - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  10 California - Folder 5 Petition Responses, 1970
  11 California - Folder 6 Petition Responses, 1970
  12 California - Folder 7 Petition Responses, 1970
  13 Colorado - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  14 Colorado - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  15 Connecticut - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  16 Connecticut - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  17 Connecticut - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  18 Delaware - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  19 District of Columbia - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  20 Florida - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  21 Georgia - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  22 Hawaii - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  23 Idaho - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  24 Illinois - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  25 Illinois - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  26 Illinois - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  27 Illinois - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  28 Illinois- Folder 5 Petition Responses, 1970
  29 Illinois - Folder 6 Petition Responses, 1970
  30 Illinois - Folder 7 Petition Responses, 1970
  31 Illinois - Folder 8 Petition Responses, 1970
  32 Illinois - Folder 9 Petition Responses, 1970
  33 Illinois - Folder 10 Petition Responses, 1970
  34 Indiana - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  35 Indiana - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  36 Indiana - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  37 Indiana - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  38 Iowa - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  39 Iowa - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
Box Folder
2 1 Kansas - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  2 Kansas - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  3 Kentucky - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  4 Kentucky - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  5 Louisiana - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  6 Maine - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  7 Maryland - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  8 Maryland - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  9 Massachusetts - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  10 Massachusetts - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  11 Massachusetts - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  12 Massachusetts - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  13 Michigan - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  14 Michigan - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  15 Michigan - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  16 Michigan - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  17 Michigan - Folder 5 Petition Responses, 1970
  18 Michigan - Folder 6 Petition Responses, 1970
  19 Michigan - Folder 7 Petition Responses, 1970
  20 Michigan - Folder 8 Petition Responses, 1970
  21 Minnesota - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  22 Minnesota - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  23 Minnesota - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  24 Minnesota - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  25 Nebraska - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  26 Nevada - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  27 New Hampshire - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  28 New Jersey - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  29 New Jersey- Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  30 New Jersey - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  31 New Jersey- Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  32 New Jersey- Folder 5 Petition Responses, 1970
  33 New York - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  34 New York - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  35 New York - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  36 New York - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  37 New York - Folder 5 Petition Responses, 1970
Box Folder
3 1 New York - Folder 6 Petition Responses, 1970
  2 New York - Folder 7 Petition Responses, 1970
  3 New York - Folder 8 Petition Responses, 1970
  4 New York - Folder 9 Petition Responses, 1970
  5 Oklahoma - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  6 Oklahoma - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  7 Ohio - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  8 Ohio - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  9 Ohio - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  10 Ohio - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  11 Ohio - Folder 5 Petition Responses, 1970
  12 Ohio - Folder 6 Petition Responses, 1970
  13 Pennsylvania - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  14 Pennsylvania - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  15 Pennsylvania - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  16 Pennsylvania - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  17 Pennsylvania - Folder 5 Petition Responses, 1970
  18 Pennsylvania - Folder 6 Petition Responses, 1970
  19 Rhode Island - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  20 Rhode Island - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  21 South Carolina - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  22 South Dakota - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  23 Vermont - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  24 Virginia - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  25 Washington State- Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  26 West Virginia - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  27 Wisconsin - Folder 1 Petition Responses, 1970
  28 Wisconsin - Folder 2 Petition Responses, 1970
  29 Wisconsin - Folder 3 Petition Responses, 1970
  30 Wisconsin - Folder 4 Petition Responses, 1970
  31 Wisconsin - Folder 5 Petition Responses, 1970
  32 Wisconsin- Folder 6 Petition Responses, 1970
  33 Wisconsin - Folder 7 Petition Responses, 1970
Box Folder
4 1 Alaska - Louisiana, Petition Responses (oversize), 1970
  2 Maryland - Michigan, Petition Responses (oversize), 1970
  3 Nevada - New York, Petition Responses (oversize), 1970
  4 Ohio - Wisconsin, Petition Responses (oversize), 1970

TABLE OF CONTENTS


Descriptive Summary

Historical Note

Scope and Contents

Arrangement

Restrictions

Administrative Information

Related Material

Index Terms

Bibliography

Detailed Description of the Collection

Series 1: Personal correspondence, Newsclippings, 1968-1971

Series 2: Petition responses, 1970

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