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Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

By Murray Polner and Jim O'Grady Basic Books. 434 pages. $30.00.

This past May, at age seventy-three, Philip Berrigan was in jail yet again, facing a prison term of fifteen years and $500,000 in fines for vandalizing a guided-missile launcher at the General Dynamics shipyard in Bath, Maine. That same month, at an arts festival in New York City, Daniel Berrigan read selections from poems he wrote in Laos in 1968 while awaiting entry into North Vietnam and, later, while under American bombardment in Hanoi. Long ago, both Berrigan brothers staked out grounds of religious and political conviction. They have stayed the course where others have veered away.

Appropriately enough, the authors of Disarmed and Dangerous cast their en grossing and often rousing portrait of Daniel and Philip Berrigan against the more uncertain backdrop of the American peace movement. Somewhat uncomfortably designated as part of the Catholic left, the sheer consistency, scope, and integrated radicalism of the Berrigan brothers' lifework is an extraordinary challenge to more orthodox secular radicals.

On May 17, 1968, in Catonsville, Maryland, the Berrigan priests led protesters as they doused Selective Service files with napalm and burned them. A total of nine people, including the Berrigans, received prison terms. This action initiated a wave of draft-board raids and draft-card burnings, ushering in what writer Francine du Plessix Gray dubbed "ultra-resistance" in the peace movement.

The Berrigans did not escape the attention of J. Edgar Hoover. As part of his vendetta against the anti-war movement, the FBI director targeted the Berrigans, charging them with participating in a conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and bomb the heating pipes of government buildings The case centered on the often dubious testimony of an ex-con FBI informant who had befriended Philip Berrigan in prison and acted as his courier. The case argued in Harrisburg ended in a mistrial. But by then the civil-disobedience movement was profoundly frayed.

The fraying happened because of exhausting repressive pressures from the FBI, Nixon, the National Guard, and police infiltration squads. But profound flaws in the nonviolence movement itself, including a pervasive machismo, weakened it. Murray Polner and Jim O'Grady note that, as in so many other 1960s organizations, "the movement's women were the first to drift away from the ultra-resistance movement. Nuns were outraged at privileges accorded male priests in Harrisburg and in movement retreats and caucuses. The `priest as hero' and the `priest as stud' disgusted numerous movement women, lay as well as religious." Phil Berrigan himself acknowledged the mistakes of an elitist male leadership. Many years earlier, when the draft raids were first getting under way, pacifist writer Barbara Deming attended one secret planning session and was disturbed "by the intrigue and exotic romanticism she detected."

There were personal costs, as well. Along with the camaraderie and exultation of this special Christian community also came exhaustion, strained family ties, and what poet and resister David Eberhardt has pointed to as one of the least remarked-upon characteristics of the 1960s--the dread of imprisonment. Many became what resister Barbara Dougherty called "damaged people," due to the stresses of the movement.

Even so, by establishing illegal, nonviolent resistance to the state as a de rigueur test of one's commitment to peace, the Berrigans made their singular contribution to the nonviolence movement. The civil-disobedience actions against the Vietnam War and the Selective Service that Polner and O'Grady recount are a reminder of how groundbreaking such actions were-not only for Catholic activists in the context of a conservative Church bureaucracy, but also for the wider antiwar movement. Many peace activists feared that precedent. Some would later reject Gandhian nonviolence as not activist enough, but it proved threatening to the timid leadership of the movement. The authors note that during the mass November 1969 Moratorium march in Washington, D.C., organizers prohibited demonstrators from displaying destroyed draft-card files on the platform.

Disarmed and Dangerous is especially good at vividly depicting the penurious childhood the Berrigans shared. Their father, Tom Berrigan, or "Dado," was by all accounts a complicated, profoundly disappointed man, who survived by various stints at hard manual labor but was frequently out of work. Brother and fellow resister Jerry Berrigan recalls, "He felt he wasn't appreciated and had a kind of tremendous, undisciplined ego. He thought he was the world's best poet, farmer, locomotive engineer."

Tom Berrigan turned his disappointment on his family. Episodes of violent rage alternated with bouts of maudlin self-pity. Daniel, the bespectacled "houseboy" who as a child had trouble walking, was a particular object of his father's ire. Those looking for an early source of the Berrigans' insistence on resistance to illegitimate or abusive authority need look no further--though that would be the sort of psychological reductivism that Daniel Berrigan, especially, would dislike.

Daniel Berrigan has written, "Whatever substance has accrued to our lives, whatever goodness, must be laid at our mother's feet." Freda Fromhart died at age ninety in 1976, having witnessed the transformation of two of her six sons into political celebrities.

Daniel and Philip had their political awakenings as relatively young men: Daniel as a Jesuit priest on assignation in postwar France where militant worker priests were not uncommon; Philip, as an infantry officer, witnessing the extraordinary carnage of World War II and shocked by racism towards blacks. Inspired by Daniel, Philip entered the Josephite order, and devoted himself to caring for black Roman Catholics. Philip became an outspoken advocate for integration and civil rights, prompting Stokely Carmichael to claim, "Phil Berrigan is the only white man who knows where it's at."

For all their evident admiration, Polner and O'Grady have not written a hagiographic book. They point to the sins of righteousness and arrogance (Philip claimed the Plowshares actions, for example, achieved more than Gandhi did). Those who could not follow Philip's strenuous standards of conduct entailing frequent jail time found themselves ostracized from the group.

The authors also trace the persistent objections to the effectiveness of civil disobedience as a tactic. They note the steadily decreasing media coverage of the Berrigans, and the virtual blackout accorded the "Swords Into Plowshares" actions that began in the 1980s and are still going on today. Yet by devoting the great bulk of their book to the tumultuous actions of the 1960s, Polner and O'Grady repeat the inattention; apart from the chapter devoted to Daniel Berrigan's controversial speech on Israel, the authors give a scant fourteen pages to the years since the Harrisburg trial, even though the Plowshares actions provided some significant moments of confrontation during the Reagan decade.

Although anti-nuclear resistance perhaps had fewer significant effects than the anti-draft and anti-war actions, The Nuclear Resister Newsletter estimates that there were more than 37,000 arrests during the 1980s for anti-nuclear actions in North America, and more than 10,000 during the 1990s. This sort of continuing resistance is not a small part of the Berrigans' legacy.

Daniel Berrigan's remarks during a 1994 talk could serve as an epigraph for the book: "We can't save the world. We can't do the big things. . . . We can't do what we thought we could do in better times. Most of us in my generation will not live to see serious changes in a pro-human direction in our country. But that is not the point. The point is the integrity and the consistency of our actions, the ability to concentrate and be refreshed by the quality of things to be done."

Polner and O'Grady's work attests to a paradoxical phenomenon: In our hedonistic, consumer society, religious radicalism based on quaintly moral appeals has staying power.

Jay Murphy is a writer living in New York City. He is editor of the anthology "For Palestine" (1993). He is currently editing a book with artist Carolee Schneemann and writing a biography of the late filmmaker Emile de Antonio.
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Author:Murphy, Jay
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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