Daniel Berrigan, S.J. 1921-2016: Underground in America

The activist priest, who died on April 30 at the age of 94, specialized in sanctimonious antics and rancid radicalism during the Vietnam War era.

It is a nice coincidence that as I sit down to write about Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who died April 30 at age 94, I am gazing out over the house on Block Island where he hid out as a fugitive from justice in 1970. He was eventually apprehended by a posse of FBI agents posing as bird watchers and sent to jail for two years. It was his dearest wish. “One had to go to jail,” he wrote in 1968. “It was an irreplaceable need, a gift not to be refused.”

It was a gift that Daniel and his brother Philip (who died in 2002) were treated to frequently. The “Berrigan brothers”—even today the phrase epitomizes something essential about the rancid radicalism of the 1960s. And although it has been many years since the world paid attention to the sanctimonious antics of the brother priests, there was a moment when both were caught in the limelight of celebrity. For them, as for so many others, the Vietnam conflict sharpened their radicalism and provided an overarching cause that seemed to explain all manner of evil in American society. In 1971, Daniel wrote that

I have a great fear of American violence, not merely out there in the military and the diplomacy, in economics, in industry and advertising, but also in here, in me, up close among us.

On the other hand, I must say, I have very little fear, from first-hand experience, of the Vietcong or the Panthers . . . for their acts come from the proximate threat of extinction.

Or again, in the preface to Night Flight to Hanoi (1968): “the American ghetto and the Hanoi ‘operation’ were a single enterprise–a total war in both cases.”

From about 1965 to the early Seventies, Hanoi was a prized pilgrimage spot for starry-eyed American radicals, from Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda to Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag: they all felt, as Hayden put it, that “here we begin to understand the possibilities for a socialism of the heart.” Daniel, too, went to Hanoi—accompanied by the Marxist historian Howard Zinn—courtesy of the North Vietnamese government.

The Berrigans’ favorite pastime was to raid draft boards and destroy the files of young men declared to be 1A by pouring blood on the files or setting them afire after dousing them with homemade napalm. In May 1968, Daniel, Philip, and seven others made their most notorious raid, on the draft board at Cantonsville, Maryland. They snatched hundreds of files from the hands of startled clerks, spirited them out to the parking lot, and burned them while singing the Lord’s Prayer for the benefit of the news media that had been carefully tipped off about the event beforehand.

Such conjunctions of illegality and smug parodies of religion were a Berrigan speciality. Writing about the Cantonsville raid in Night Flight to Hanoi, Daniel offered this rationale, half mocking, half maudlin, and entirely self-righteous:

Our apologies, good friend, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of the Burning Children. And for thinking of that other Child, of whom the poet Luke speaks.

(The poet Luke? Well, this was 1968.) Asked later whether he had given any consideration to the feelings of the draft board clerks, Daniel snapped that “anyone who works for the draft board deserves no more consideration than the guards at Belsen and Dachau.”

The Berrigans were eventually sentenced to jail. Daniel fled and embarked on his Block Island adventure, an action that greatly enhanced his status as a countercultural hero. While on the lam, he wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books complaining that

the time has arrived on the national scene, as well as the prison scene, when priests and [Black] Panthers are to be given the same treatment. . . . We are the objects of a search-and-destroy mission, borrowing its tactics from the military treatment of the Vietnamese.

This was signed melodramatically “Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Underground in America.” When he was finally apprehended and put in jail, we are told that he was able to catch up on the latest volumes of Che Guevara, Herbert Marcuse, Régis Debray, and other similarly edifying revolutionary authors.

It is difficult to say what is more repulsive about the Berrigans: their sanctimoniousness or their naïveté. Both qualities are on prominent view in Night Flight to Hanoi. The book has two main themes: the unspeakable evil of the United States and the great nobility of the North Vietnamese. The two are woven together with an unbreakable thread of self-satisfaction. Early on in the book, Berrigan acquaints us with his idea of “the biography of the white Westerner. He requires (1) someone to kill for him and (2) someone to die for him. His power is such that he can arrange both requirements, that of vicarious executioner and of vicarious corpse.” Meeting some U.S. embassy officials in Laos, he and his sidekick Howard Zinn “see what ‘foreign service’ does to human faces. Dead souls. They fix their gaze on the middle distance and announce the utter impossibility of all suggestions.”

But getting to the prelapsarian city of Hanoi—for Sixties’ radicals the Eternal City—was worth any number of cantankerous civil servants, even American ones. “It was,” Berrigan tells us, “like stepping out upon the threshold of a new planet, and then reporting back to those whose lives and history and future had wedded them to earth. . . . It was as though . . . a new creation was in its first stages. History being woven by a people who refused to die.”

The purpose of the trip was to receive, as a gesture of goodwill from the Hanoi government, three captured American pilots (whom Berrigan later described as having been brainwashed . . . by the American military). It is when the pilots are herded before him by their captors that the pap really starts flowing. “I was struck,” Berrigan writes, “by the thought, How well they look, how ruddy, how clean cut, how unkillably American.”

They seemed eager and nervy and somewhat overanxious to please. They declared without prompting that they were well fed and cared for and grateful to the North Vietnamese military for the kindness with which they had been treated. . . . They said they had been given news of the war regularly, that they had visited Hanoi during Christmastime, that they had had a Christmas celebration “with a tree in that corner there,” that their Christmas dinner had consisted of turkey and rice, that they had even received a kind of gift package at that time.

(And one recalls that George Bernard Shaw, visiting the Soviet Union in 1931, boisterously announced that he could find no trace of famine anywhere.) It is extraordinary that the pilots should have consented to leave such a paradise.

The Berrigan brothers were men for whom calculated illegality became a patent of moral seriousness. Dazzled by the thought of their own virtue, they exempted themselves from the claims of established authority to pursue the calling of a “higher” morality. Poaching on the prestige they commanded by virtue of their status as clerics, they helped to undermine respect not only for the Church’s authority but also for the authority of the various laws they broke with such regularity and insouciance. And by their example, they helped to license the spirit of casual antinomianism that has had such destructive effects on American life and culture.

Howard Zinn, in a preface he contributed to Night Flight to Hanoi, blithely observed that “of course [Daniel Berrigan] violated the law. But he was right. And it is the mark of enlightened citizens in a democracy that they know the difference between law and justice, between what is legal and what is right.”

But who is to decide what counts as enlightenment? Howard Zinn? As Montesquieu noted, “in a society where there are laws, . . . liberty is the right to do everything the laws permit; and if one citizen could do what they forbid, he would no longer have liberty because the others would likewise have this same power.”

Many Sixties radicals regarded civil disobedience as a form of no-fault political theater. One broke the law in as noisy a way as possible, and then one was hauled off to jail, generally for a token sentence. The willingness to endure jail (which radical activists rarely did for more than a few hours before their lawyers arrived to bail them out) was supposed to legitimize the illegality. As George Kennan’s noted in “Rebels Without a Program,” a reflection about civil disobedience and lawlessness from 1968, “The violation of law is not . . . a privilege that lies offered for sale with a given price tag, like an object in a supermarket, available to anyone who has the price and is willing to pay for it.”

Kennan is an especially noteworthy critic in this context because he, too, was deeply opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But he understood, as the Berrigans of the world do not, that in a democracy illegality is not a justifiable brand of political opposition. And he also understood that, even when one disagrees with specific policies, one’s country continues to exercise a legitimate claim on one’s allegiance, a claim that cannot be disposed of in a fit of self-righteous bravado. “It seems to me,” Kennan writes,

that the citizen who lives under a system that assures him not only voting rights but extensive guarantees for the inviolability of his person and property, and who accepts the protection of the state in the enjoyment of these rights, owes to the state at least a high measure of respect and forbearance in those instances where he may not find himself in agreement with its policies.

The alternative, as the Berrigans illustrated so graphically, is not a higher morality but the delegitimation of the institutions and attitudes that guarantee freedom. Edmund Burke once observed that “men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free.” The Berrigan brothers illustrate one way in which civil liberty can be compromised by exorbitance.

About Roger Kimball 0 Articles
Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. He has written several books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press, 2012), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee), and The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (Encounter).