In May of 1968 Father Daniel Berrigan walked into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, with eight other activists, including his brother, Father Philip Berrigan, and removed draft files of young men who were about to be sent to Vietnam. The group carted the files outside and burned them in two garbage cans with homemade napalm. Father Berrigan was tried, found guilty, spent four months as a fugitive from the FBI, was apprehended and sent to prison for eighteen months.
The trial of the Catonsville Nine altered resistance to the Vietnam War, moving activists from street protests to repeated acts of civil disobedience, including the burning of draft cards. It also signaled a seismic shift within the Catholic Church, propelling radical priests and nuns led by the Berrigans, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day to the center of a religiously inspired social movement that challenged not only church and state authority but the myths Americans used to define themselves.
Berrigan argues that those who seek a just society, who seek to defy war and violence, who decry the assault of globalization and degradation of the environment, who care about the plight of the poor, should stop worrying about the practical, short-term effects of their resistance.
"The good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere," he says. "I believe if it is done in that spirit it will go somewhere, but I don't know where. I don't think the Bible grants us to know where goodness goes, what direction, what force. I have never been seriously interested in the outcome. I was interested in trying to do it humanly and carefully and nonviolently and let it go." (The Nation)
In August, 1970, Berrigan was living underground as a fugitive from the FBI. He spoke with Harvard Psychiatrist Robert Coles just before he was captured by federal agents: "I have never been able to look upon myself as a criminal and I would feel that in a society in which sanity is publicly available I could go on with the kind of work which I have always done throughout my life. I never tried to hurt a person. I tried to do something symbolic with pieces of paper. We tend to overlook the crimes of our political and business leaders. We don't send to jail Presidents and their advisers and certain Congressmen and Senators who talk like bloodthirsty mass murderers. We concentrate obsessively and violently on people who are trying to say things very differently and operate in different ways." (Time Magazine)
Daniel Berrigan: In May of '68 we entered a draft board in this little town called Catonsville, in Maryland, and we took out about 160 A-1 files, we took them out of the building, downstairs, because we didn't want to risk a fire in the building, and we hustled them into a parking lot nearby — they had these big trash baskets — and threw them in and set them on fire with homemade napalm. We had found the recipe for napalm in a special service handbook in the library at Georgetown U. None of us knew anything about napalm except that it had been used on people, especially on children. We thought that would be a proper symbol of the war as ethical outrage, that we would use this on documents that justified murder instead of on people, that that might speak to the public about this war. So the night before we had a kind of a liturgical service, we concocted napalm at the home of a friend in Baltimore and we mixed that and prayed over it, and prayed that this might be an instrument of peacemaking, as it was an instrument certainly of us taking our lives into our hands. And, uh, so we threw that over the huge bundle of papers and it whooshed up tellingly, and we joined hands around the fire and recited the Lord's prayer, and waited for Armageddon.
Oh, they called the police of course, who arrived shortly and were astonished at these priests and people, and [they] put the fire out and hustled us into the wagon. And of course when we got to the ... I think in the town they didn't have any lock-up so they used the back room of a library and locked us in, and of course we were in a great state of relief. And then this big guy, I still can see the scene, appeared at the doorway, obviously in charge, you know, FBI, and he looked around the room and saw my brother, Philip, and he had been involved in Philip's case in '67 for pouring blood on draft files in Baltimore City. So he looked around the room and he bellowed out, "Berrigan again!" And then he yelled, "I'm leaving the Catholic church." [Laughs.] So I said to Philip, "That's the best thing you did all day — get him out!"
We knew we were going to be arrested, and we knew the chances were very large that we would spend several years in prison. That had to be spelled out, that had to be part of the preparation for this action, you know, so that people didn't go into it blindfolded, or with some sort of utopian idea that we're going to get away with this, which was ridiculous, infantile. So part of the building of the trust ahead of time was to take a close look at family obligations, at your professional life, at your bible, at your friendships, at your ability, as far as you can gauge it, to go into something that's going to cost you, maybe years of your life. Well, that note of realism I think was very, very important. And some people were mature enough to say, "Okay, I can swallow, even though dry, and I can walk with you, even going to the unknown." And then other people bowed out, which was a good thing to do also. [It was] too much.
Let me say something about the intention we had in the trial, which of course had to be dramatized in our style and in our rhetoric and our personal convictions, and so on and so forth. I think we had pretty well agreed ahead of time that going for acquittal was tactically hopeless, and wasn't really speaking for our passion in going into Catonsville. The judge was always intervening, he played it very soft as the trial went on, because he knew he had the last word. But he was saying things to us like, "Well, if you had taken five or ten of those draft files and burned them symbolically, you wouldn't be in this trouble now. But," he said, "you did something very serious." And we said, "Yes, and we understand it was serious." We couldn't really be impressed by a symbol that was not serious, and five or ten draft files as a symbol was not serious. So we took out 165, and that was worth three years, as we well know.
I tried in my statement before the court, I tried to speak about the criminality of burning papers instead of children. And that's one way of putting our argument. We were calling these A-1 files 'hunting licenses against humans,' and we were saying if you carry this document, it's open season on children and the aged and the ill and all sorts of people. And you could be given a medal for it, you certainly won't be tried criminally for it. So we were trying to unlatch some of these myths that were protecting, in our way of thinking, were protecting mass murder. And putting it that way, that this napalm burned papers instead of children, was deliberately shocking and deliberately, as I felt, true. Why not put it that way, put it boldly?
You know, in a sense I think we flew in the face of something we respected very highly, which would be, let’s say Gandhian tactics. He often pled guilty to breaking the law … well, that’s another way of doing it. Gandhi is not my bible. Gandhi is a mentor in many, many arenas, but I can also respect him by disagreeing with him. And I think the idea of pleading very firmly “not guilty” and saying why — because it’s better to burn papers than children — that makes sense to me, even though maybe not Gandhian sense. [Chuckles.]
We frequently invoked, because all of us were people of religious faith, we frequently invoked the Sermon on the Mount. And what is one to make in wartime of this plain stipulation of Jesus, “Love your enemies,” or of a statement to Peter, “Put up your sword, those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” or his words at the Last Supper, “This is my body given for you,” not, “This is your body destroyed by me,” and so on, and so on, and so on. I mean, we have so much evidence that the burning of papers instead of children was a Christian act, a religious act, that war is constantly closing the book and saying it doesn’t apply. “We’re at war, hate your enemies.” “We’re at war — kill them!” As at present, and as during Vietnam. So, we were trying to keep the book open, and say, “No, we think he meant it, we think he meant it or he wouldn’t have said it. Love your enemies. Don’t kill, for any reason.”
Toward the end of the trial I remember one famous exchange between Bill and the judge, and the judge got really quite annoyed at this point. Bill was invoking an ancient American case of, I think, a printer in New York who had been tried for sedition ... does that ring a bell at all? I forget the name of the printer. But, anyway, at his trial his lawyer, on this very serious charge, his lawyer insisted that the jurors could follow their conscience. Well, that started a furor. And the judge said, "Mr. Kunstler, if you pursue that, well knowing that that was prior to our Constitution and that now one cannot say to a juror that one can follow their conscience, if you pursue that I will dismiss the [case]... or send the juries out and rebuke you." He didn’t threaten anything very serious. So Bill had to abandon that, but he did get the appeal across for what it was worth: You could follow your conscience. Now, of course, it’s common instruction that the jury has no freedom to follow their conscience, that they must follow the law of the land. It seems to me — I have never served on a jury — but it seems to me that it’s a terrible disservice to any kind of human makeup I can understand to say to people, “You cannot follow your conscience. Once you take on this role, your conscience is outside that courtroom, or is dead in the courtroom, but you can’t heed it.” Well, if we can’t act conscientiously, I wonder how we can call ourselves human beings. And ... I guess those questions don’t arise in the ordinary courtroom, but Bill was trying to raise it.
I felt that we had conducted ourselves — the eight defendants — had conducted [our]selves honorably, had not betrayed our convictions, had told about all sorts of service in the third world that brought us to say no to this war, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It was emotionally a draining week and a very difficult one, but at the same time I felt we couldn’t really have done better, Bill couldn’t have done better on our behalf, and the outcome was a foregone conclusion before we started. We knew we were going to be convicted, that’s why we didn’t waste time with the jury, all sorts of things like that. But I was comparing it … in my own heart I was comparing that day to a kind of birthday. I felt reborn. I felt that I had done what I had been born for, and I think the others did, too.
Filmmakers: Do you think that young people still think they can change the world?
Berrigan: I don’t hear that kind of talk much. I think it’s very tough to be young. It’s almost as tough as being old. (Smiles.) You’re supposed to laugh.
Filmmakers: Do you think we can change the world?
Berrigan: Well, I think we can live as though we are changed, you know, and that’s a start.
Filmmakers: Do you see any progress from the time you started being an anti-war activist to today?
Berrigan: No, I see regress. But it doesn’t depress me because you do what you do, do what you can.
Filmmakers: So what’s the value of the work?
Berrigan: The value of the work is vindicating your own humanity and that of your friends, and living as though the truth were true. There's a mood that can set in easily that would say, because I can't do a big thing I'm gonna do nothing. But I mean I love the Buddhist teaching that the good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere. I think that's powerful, and I think, too, that if it's done for the right reason, it will go somewhere.
All extended interviews were provided by the filmmakers and edited by Andrew Lutsky.