Berrigan, Daniel

views updated

Daniel Berrigan

Born May 9, 1921
Virginia, Minnesota

American antiwar activist and Catholic priest

Daniel Berrigan is a Roman Catholic priest whose vocal opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam made him one of America's most visible and controversial antiwar activists. He participated in numerous peace demonstrations during the Vietnam War, and in 1966 he helped found Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV), one of the most respected groups within the antiwar movement. Berrigan's fame peaked in 1968, when he and eight other Roman Catholic antiwar protestors (including his youngest brother, Philip Berrigan, who was also a priest) burned military draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. This action, which ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of both Berrigan brothers, was one of the most famous acts of protest of the entire Vietnam War era.

Early interest in the priesthood

Daniel Berrigan was born on May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota, to Thomas Berrigan, a union activist, and Frieda (Fromhart) Berrigan. One of six sons (he and his brother Philip were the two youngest), Berrigan became interested in religion and helping people at an early age. "From the age of six, Daniel was obsessed by the suffering in the world," his mother recalled in Francine du Plessix Gray's book Divine Disobedience. "[He was] the most sensitive and studious . . . and the most devout [religious] of the six children."

During high school Berrigan decided that he wanted to enter the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. As a senior he chose to join the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, a religious order of men within the Roman Catholic Church. He began his training for the priesthood in 1939, immediately after graduating from high school. He spent the next thirteen years studying theology, philosophy, foreign languages, and other subjects at Jesuit schools around the world.

Berrigan was ordained (appointed by church authorities) into the Jesuit priesthood on June 19, 1952. He spent the following year on a spiritual retreat in France. Berrigan was strongly influenced during this period by his daily involvement with French Roman Catholic priests who were dedicated to addressing social problems such as poverty, hunger, and prejudice. These members of the Catholic clergy believed that they had a responsibility to apply their religious beliefs to real-world issues. By the time Berrigan returned to the United States in 1954, he had become a firm believer in this philosophy of religious activism.

Writer, educator, and activist

In the mid-1950s Berrigan taught French and theology at a Jesuit-operated school in Brooklyn, New York. During this time, the energetic priest organized a variety of projects to help poor families in surrounding neighborhoods and directed the activities of several other local Catholic groups. But Berrigan still found time to pursue his lifelong interest in poetry and literature, often crafting poems late into the evening. In 1957 he published his first collection of poetry, titled Time without Number. Reviewers praised the collection, both for its rich language and for its joyful exploration of religious faith and other themes. The volume won several awards, including the prestigious Lamont Poetry Award from the American Academy of Poets.

Berrigan continued to write poetry throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he served as professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Berrigan first arrived at the Jesuit-run school in 1957, and within months he emerged as the most admired instructor on the faculty. In fact, Berrigan's religious teachings and emphasis on social activism inspired many of the school's students to volunteer in antipoverty programs or join the civil rights movement that was taking shape in the American South.

Over time, however, other members of the Le Moyne College faculty expressed concern about Berrigan's influence over some students and his unconventional teaching style. He became an increasingly controversial figure at the school, and in 1963 the Jesuit leadership told him to take a year-long sabbatical (study leave) in Europe. Berrigan spent the following year roaming throughout Europe, Russia, and Africa, where he witnessed troubling instances of religious persecution, racial prejudice, and other social ills. These experiences deepened his commitment to faith-based activism.

Opposes the Vietnam War

Berrigan returned to the United States in 1964, a time when America was on the verge of escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War. Over the previous ten years, the U.S. government had sent military and financial aid to the young country of South Vietnam to help it establish a strong economy and a democratic government. But by the early 1960s America had become gravely concerned that South Vietnam was going to be conquered by the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies in the South. Most U.S. analysts believed that if the South were taken over by the Communists, other nations would become more vulnerable to Communist aggression as a result. For this reason, many American officials came to believe that the United States should commit military forces to the region in order to keep South Vietnam out of the hands of the Communists.

Berrigan, however, strongly disagreed with this viewpoint. "I returned to the United States in the autumn of 1964 convinced . . . of one simple thing," he wrote in No Bars to Manhood (1970). "We [the United States] were spoiling for a fight; we were determined not to yield before a poor and despised people, whose 'underdeveloped, non-white status' made them 'prime expendable targets.' . . . I began . . . as loudly as I could, to say 'no' to the war."

In 1965 U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) committed American combat troops to fight on the side of South Vietnam. But despite America's awesome military might, the Viet Cong guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies remained strong. The war soon settled into a bloody and confusing "war of attrition" (a strategy of grinding down the enemy until it cannot or will not fight any longer). As the conflict dragged on with no end in sight, many Americans joined organized protests against the war.

Berrigan soon emerged as one of the American antiwar movement's leaders. In early 1965, he and his brother Philip helped found the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the nation's first-ever Catholic antiwar organization. A short time later, the Berrigan brothers publicly declared their opposition to the Vietnam War in a "Declaration of Conscience." The Fellowship also took out a number of ads in national magazines, in which they described the Vietnam War as an immoral violation of God's laws. And in October 1965 Daniel Berrigan joined with Lutheran Reverend Richard John Neuhaus and Jewish Rabbi Abraham Heschel to create a new peace organization called Clergy Concerned About Vietnam.

A month later, Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman—who supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam—assigned Berrigan to a post in South America. Most observers interpreted this reassignment as an effort by church leaders to neutralize Berrigan's antiwar activities. But Cardinal Spellman and other Roman Catholic officials underestimated the impact of their decision. Antiwar Catholics strongly protested Berrigan's removal and demanded his return. Anger over Berrigan's treatment became so strong that church officials ended Berrigan's exile in March 1966 and brought him back to the United States. But Berrigan remained an extremely controversial figure within the Catholic Church—and the country—for the remainder of the war.

Outspoken leader of CALCAV

In May 1966 Clergy Concerned About Vietnam changed its name to Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV), in order to encourage laypersons (non-clergy members) to join the organization. The group soon became one of the most prominent of America's mainstream national antiwar organizations. It emphasized a message of peaceful protest based on genuine moral outrage about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In addition, it maintained a level of independence from the larger antiwar movement, which sometimes used radical activities and harsh language. CALCAV's moderate, peace-oriented stance appealed to many Americans who opposed the war but disliked the militant stances of other antiwar groups.

In addition to his CALCAV-related activities, Berrigan participated in a wide range of other antiwar rallies and events. In October 1967, for example, he took part in a massive antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C. Berrigan was one of hundreds of protestors who were arrested on the last day of the protest outside the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. military. In addition, Berrigan's writings reflected his strong outrage over the Vietnam conflict. He used both books of poetry such as No One Walks Waters (1966) and nonfiction works such as They Call Us Dead Men: Reflections on Life and Conscience (1966) to express his anger and anguish over the war.

In 1967 Berrigan moved to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to take a leadership position with the United Religious Work Program. In February 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam with fellow activist Howard Zinn. During their visit, the two men examined the impact of U.S. air attacks on the nation's population centers and helped gain the release of three captured U.S. pilots. Later that year, Berrigan published an account of his trip to North Vietnam, called Night Flight to Hanoi.

The Catonsville Nine

In the late 1960s Daniel and Philip Berrigan became so frustrated about the continuing war in Vietnam that they turned to more radical methods of protest. On May 17, 1968, the Berrigan brothers and seven other Roman Catholic activists entered a local draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland. They seized hundreds of government files containing information on potential military draftees and carried them outside to the parking lot. The protestors then set the records on fire with homemade napalm, a flammable chemical widely used in Vietnam in bombing attacks. The Berrigans then led the group in prayer until authorities arrived to arrest them.

"We are Catholic Christians who take our faith seriously," the protestors declared in a public statement. "We destroyed these draft records because they exploit our young men and represent misplaced power concentrated in the ruling class of America . . . . We confront the Catholic church, other Christian bodies [organizations], and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes."

In October 1968 the Berrigan brothers and the other activists, collectively known as the "Catonsville Nine," went on trial for conspiracy (an agreement to join with others to perform an illegal act) and destroying government property. During the trial, Daniel Berrigan explained that he burned the draft files because he felt that he needed to fight against the war with more than words. "I burned some paper because I was trying to say that the burning of children was unhuman and unbearable, and . . . a cry is the only response," he said.

The Catonsville Nine were found guilty by a jury, and sentences of varying lengths were handed down to the nine protestors. Daniel Berrigan received a three-year prison sentence for his role in the Catonsville protest. He launched a legal appeal to have his sentence overturned, but it was turned down. He was ordered to surrender to federal authorities and begin serving his jail sentence on April 10, 1970. But rather than submit to jail, Berrigan decided to go "underground" (lead a secret existence) with his brother, who had also been sentenced to prison. The two men hoped to elude authorities and continue their fight against the war.

Federal law enforcement organizations immediately launched a massive manhunt to capture the fugitive priests. Philip Berrigan was apprehended on April 21, eleven days after he went underground. But Daniel Berrigan eluded capture for four months before FBI agents finally caught him in Rhode Island. He served eighteen months in a federal prison in Connecticut before gaining an early release. During his time in prison, Berrigan wrote an award-winning play about the case called The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1971).

Social activist for many causes

When Berrigan was released from prison on February 24, 1972, he quickly resumed his outspoken criticism of the war in Vietnam. U.S. forces withdrew from the conflict in 1973, and two years later, North Vietnam finally defeated South Vietnam to end the war and unite the country under Communist rule. With the war finally over, Berrigan turned his attention to other social causes, such as racial equality and improving the lives of poor and politically powerless people.

Through the 1980s and 1990s Berrigan became well-known for his counseling efforts on behalf of people suffering from cancer and AIDS. Over the years, he has also expressed strong opposition to the death penalty in America and fiercely criticized U.S. military policies toward other nations. Finally, Berrigan is known as a leading critic of nuclear weapons production in the U.S. and abroad. In fact, he has been repeatedly jailed for his protest activities against nuclear arms production. His most recent imprisonment took place in 1997, when he and five other antinuclear activists were convicted of damaging a U.S. missile cruiser during a protest.

Berrigan has also published nearly three dozen books of poetry, nonfiction essays, and religious studies over the course of his career. In 1987 he published an autobiography, To Dwell in Peace. Not surprisingly, critics characterized Berrigan's autobiography as a blunt and unapologetic account of his actions and statements during and after the Vietnam War. "Those readers who despised Berrigan at the peak of the Vietnam War will find him no more worthy of admiration as he reflects on the events in his life [in To Dwell in Peace]," wrote Chicago Tribune reviewer Charles Madigan. "And those who admired him, who perhaps recognized in him something of an ancient Christian ideal, will find that the fire still burns in Berrigan."


Berrigan, Daniel. Lights on in the House of the Dead: A Prison Diary. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Berrigan, Daniel. Night Flight to Hanoi. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Berrigan, Daniel. No Bars to Manhood. New York: Doubleday, 1970.

Berrigan, Daniel. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (play). Beacon Press, 1970.

Berrigan, Daniel. They Call Us Dead Men: Reflections on Life and Conscience. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

Berrigan, Daniel. To Dwell in Peace: An Autobiography. New York: Harper, 1987.

Dear, John, ed. Apostle of Peace: Essays in Honor of Daniel Berrigan. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1996.

DeBenedetti, Charles, and Charles Chatfield. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Gray, Francine du Plessix. Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Hall, Mitchell K. Because of Their Faith: CALCAV and Religious Opposition to the Vietnam War. 1990.

O'Grady, Jim, and Murray Polner. Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Robbins, Mary Susannah, ed. Against the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

Philip Berrigan (1923–)

During the course of the Vietnam conflict, Roman Catholic priest Philip Berrigan engaged in numerous radical protests against U.S. involvement in the war. In his early years as a priest, Philip actively participated in the civil rights movement. He also became a firm pacifist (one who refuses to consider war or violence as a way of settling disagreements).

As the Vietnam War developed, Philip and his older brother Daniel—also a Catholic priest—became the center of controversy both inside and outside the Catholic Church because of their antiwar activities. In 1966 Philip conducted a series of demonstrations around the United States, including rallies outside the homes of Secretary of State Dean Rusk (see entry), Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (see entry), and top U.S. military leaders.

In 1967 Berrigan's anguish over the war became so great that he decided to risk lengthy imprisonment in order to register his opposition. In October 1967 he and a few other activists broke into the offices of the Baltimore military draft board and poured blood on hundreds of personnel files. "To stop this war I would give my life tomorrow," he declared afterward. "I believe in revolution, and I hope to continue a nonviolent contribution to it. In my view, we are not going to save this country and mankind without it."

Berrigan was arrested for his participation in the Baltimore incident. As he awaited sentencing, however, he joined forces with his brother Daniel to strike another blow against America's military draft machine. On May 17, 1968, the Berrigan brothers and seven other protestors—collectively known as the Catonsville Nine—set fire to hundreds of personnel files from a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland. The Berrigan brothers were convicted of conspiracy and destruction of government property. Rather than submit to prison, they tried to escape the authorities and carry on their antiwar activities, but both men were captured within a matter of months.

Philip Berrigan was released from prison on December 20, 1972, after serving thirty-two months. In 1973 he left the priesthood and announced that he had actually been married to a nun, Elizabeth McAlister, for the previous four years. Since then, Berrigan has continued to work on behalf of a wide range of peace and social justice groups.

About this article

Berrigan, Daniel

Updated About content Print Article