Back to Father Daniel Berrigan, the Vietnam War activist who died recently at age 95. As we noted yesterday, his mainstream-media obits were overwhelmingly glowing. One aspect of his life that they either omitted or downplayed dramatically was the fact that, far from being simply an advocate of peace in Vietnam, he was a man who held America and Americans in contempt and looked upon the North Vietnamese with a special kind of regard.
Let’s just examine a few excerpts from Night Flight to Hanoi, his memoir of a 1968 visit to North Vietnam with Communist historian Howard Zinn. Prior to the visit, Berrigan meets with a U.S. State Department officer, whom he accuses, in the book, of “making the worse cause [i.e. the U.S. side in the Vietnam War] appear the better.” Berrigan refers to “the contrast between the facts of Hanoi and the words of Washington.” America, he asserts, is undergoing “the most profound spiritual turmoil in its history” thanks to “a little, broken, unbreakable Asian nation which is working this enormous change in the spiritual constitution of the Western giant.” The conflict between the evil Goliath and the noble David reminds him that “the meek shall inherit the earth or at least that portion of the earth which destiny and their own bloodletting and their own unkillable sense of history and the rightness of cosmic ecology have allotted to them.”
As we noted yesterday, Berrigan and Zinn went to Hanoi to pick up three POWs – American Air Force pilots who’d been shot down over North Vietnam and who were released into Berrigan’s and Zinn’s custody as part of what was apparently a canny PR bid on Hanoi’s part. But Berrigan professed to be riddled with doubts about the situation. What kinds of doubts? He puts it this way:
Can it be true that in going to face these prisoners of war we are truly leading them from prison? Or are we rather not leading them from a physical prison back to a prison society? And are Zinn and myself of such quality that we can truly free others? And are they of such spiritual capacity as to be enabled to become free men?
Or are we doing something different? Are we bringing children by the hand from one prison into a larger prison yard? What account will they have to tell us of their selves? And if they have grown into free men, what alternative would be truly open to them except to desert, to condemn the war, and to reject once and for all the slavery that hems them in?
Berrigan is unsure, then, whether members of the American military who are being held behind bars in North Vietnam are truly prisoners, in the deepest sense. But he does know “beyond any doubt that Americans are ‘prisoners of war,’ locked in our dungeons of illusion, of fear, of hatred and contempt and joylessness.”
What hateful, joyless people we Americans are! And what a contrast we are to our enemies! Meeting officials at the North Vietnamese Embassy in Peking, Berrigan writes that the “little men,” as he puts it, “could not have been more courteous. Their way is hard and small and gentle.” When he and Zinn fly on to Hanoi and walk around the city, the people there “look at us with a certain curiosity, but we have yet to see on a single face marks of animosity.” He compares the feel of Hanoi favorably with that of New York City, with its “fever and violence and pace.”
But back to the U.S. pilots. The North Vietnamese officials, Berrigan writes, tell him that “they are trying to educate the pilots so that when they return to the United States they will be good citizens, and give up the dark thinking of clichés. They are being released so that they will become good fathers and husbands.” Berrigan makes it clear that he buys the idea that this is, indeed, Hanoi’s intention. To read this passage now is to marvel at Berrigan’s staggering credulity: if the pilots’ captors made any attempt to “educate” them, it’s obvious that what was going on was Chinese Cultural Revolution-style indoctrination, likely accompanied by occasional doses of torture. But it doesn’t occur to Berrigan that he’s being naive; he thinks it’s the North Vietnamese who are naive: in believing that they can improve the pilots through education, he concludes, they’re exhibiting “a strange mixture of naiveté and human confidence,” presumably attributable to the fact that they have “not lost all hope in the decency of the American public.”
While in North Vietnam, Berrigan and Zinn are shown a documentary about the life of Ho Chi Minh – obviously sheer propaganda. Berrigan, naturally, loves it: the film “conveyed the spirit of his life with the people, with no heavy hand. A life came through, cut to the bone, the life of a peasant, a man with nothing to sell except his capacity for living for others….Quite Gandhian in spirit. Imagine the Pope or Johnson or Kennedy moving among the poor in such a way, allowing spiritual forces to be liberated so that one’s whole life was showed new confidence.”
Yes, that’s right: Berrigan likened Ho Chi Minh to Gandhi. While disdaining his fellow Americans, he had nothing but adulation for a bloodthirsty dictator who executed countless political opponents and tortured his own people in unimaginable numbers – all with the backing of one of the few people in modern history who were even more murderous than he was, Mao Zedong.
This, then, is the true legacy of Daniel Berrigan, who is widely considered a modern “spiritual master” and whose death, almost exclusively, occasioned hymns of praise in the mainstream media.