When the Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan died on April 30 at age 95, the mainstream media painted him as a well-nigh heroic figure. This was, we were told, a man of deep and contemplative faith, a crusader for peace, a consoler of the sick, an advocate for the poor, and – on top of it all – a gifted poet.
Not until a couple of dozen paragraphs into its obituary did the New York Times bother to note Berrigan’s anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian slants (he was so ugly about Israel that Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg accused him of “old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism”), his reprehensible silence on the scandal surrounding sexual abuse of children by his fellow clergy, and his apparently congenital failure to criticize Communism. A follow-up profile in the Times by Jim Dwyer omitted these unpleasant details entirely, painting Berrigan as a veritable saint who “filled his life to the brim with poetry and protest, preaching and witness” and spoke “from a distinctly Catholic perspective against war, capital punishment, abortion, bigotry and indifference to the poor.”
Other mainstream media took more or less the same approach, either overlooking his views on Jews, child abuse, and the USSR or treating them as minor flaws in an otherwise stellar character. On the contrary, Berrigan’s softness on Communism, in particular, was utterly inextricable from the ideology that motivated him throughout his career. A founder of what became known as the Catholic New Left, Berrigan – along with his brother, Philip, who was also a priest (and who died in 2002) – raided draft boards during the Vietnam War, pouring blood on some selective-service records while burning others with homemade napalm. (For the latter act, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced, only to take it on the lam; the law eventually caught up with him and he spent two years in the slammer.)
Berrigan’s protest activities, legal and otherwise, invariably involved vicious rhetoric about America – rhetoric which, as the historian Michael B. Friedland has written, “did nothing to dispel the image of activist priests as fuzzy-headed moralists.” By contrast, when asked about the Communist threat, Berrigan dismissed it outright: “communism as an issue in the Vietnam war is a myth,” he insisted.
What exactly was Berrigan’s view of Communism? More than a few observers maintain that he was a Communist himself. “Daniel romanticized the North Vietnamese,” one commentator has written. To revisit his writings about them is to conclude that that’s putting it mildly. One thing is for sure: he was no fan of any aspect of American culture or the American political and economic system; routinely, he condemned his own country as violent, genocidal, and imperialistic, a nation bereft of spirit, of virtue.
We do know this: in 1968, Berrigan traveled to Hanoi with Howard Zinn, who would later become famous as the author of the 1980 propaganda tract-cum-bestselling textbook The People’s History of the United States. In Hanoi, the two men met with North Vietnamese officials, who handed over to them three U.S. Air Force POWs to take home with them to America, supposedly as tokens of good will and as a first step toward a negotiated peace.
No, Berrigan’s readiness to link arms with Zinn doesn’t necessary indicate that he, too, was a card-carrying Communist. At the very least, however, it shows that he had no problem associating himself and his cause with that of a man who was explicitly rooting not for peace but for the enemy’s victory. Indeed, in Night Flight to Hanoi, the memoir Berrigan later published about their “peace mission,” Berrigan calls Zinn “my cherished brother and friend and Old Testament man of heart and guts.” Zinn wrote the introduction to the book, which provides a fascinating window on Berrigan’s mindset; we’ll riffle through a bit of it tomorrow.