In 2006 Interview, Fr. Dan Berrigan Recalls Confronting Defense Secretary McNamara over Vietnam War

May 02, 2016


Daniel Berrigan

priest, poet, pacifist, educator, social activist, playwright and lifelong resister to what he called "American military imperialism." Father Dan Berrigan played an instrumental role in inspiring the antiwar and antidraft movement during the late 1960s, as well as the movement against nuclear weapons. He was the first Catholic priest to land on the FBI’s most wanted list.

We revisit a 2006 Democracy Now! interview with legendary antiwar priest, activist and poet Father Daniel Berrigan, who has died at the age of 94. He joined us to mark his 85th birthday, and discussed his life as a lifelong resister to what he calls "American military imperialism." In 1965, he and his brother Phil Berrigan spoke to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. "I said to the secretary something about, 'Since you didn't stop the war this morning, I wonder if you’d do it this evening.’ So he looked kind of past my left ear and said, 'Well, I’ll just say this to Father Berrigan and everybody: Vietnam is like Mississippi. If they won't obey the law, you send the troops in.’ And he stopped," recalls Berrigan. "And the next morning, when I returned to New York City, I said to a secretary at a magazine we were publishing—I said, 'Would you please take this down in shorthand? Because in two weeks I won't believe that I heard what I heard?’ ... And he talks like a sheriff out of Selma, Alabama. Whose law? Won’t obey whose law? Well, that was the level at which the war was being fought."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: He joined us again in 2006 to mark his 85th birthday.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about that first decision you made in Catonsville, before Catonsville, to do it, what you were doing at the time, and how you made the decision?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Yeah. I was teaching at Cornell, and Philip came up. He was awaiting sentencing for a prior action in '67 in Baltimore, where they poured their blood on draft files in the city. And he came up to Cornell and announced to me, very coolly, that he and others were going to do it again. I was blown away by the courage, and the effrontery, really, of my brother, in not really just submitting to the prior conviction, but saying, "We've got to underscore the first action with another one." And he says, "You’re invited." So I swallowed hard and said, "Give me a few days. I want to talk about pro and cons of doing a thing like this." And so, when I started meditating and putting down reasons to do it and reasons not to do it, it became quite clear that the option and the invitation were outweighing everything else and that I had to go ahead with him. So I notified him that I was in. And we did it.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this was after you had been to North Vietnam.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Right. This was May of ’68, and I had been in Hanoi in late January, early February of that year.

AMY GOODMAN: With historian Howard Zinn.


AMY GOODMAN: Freeing prisoners of war?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Yes, we brought home three flyers who had been captured and imprisoned. It was a kind of gesture of peace in the midst of the war by the Vietnamese, during the so-called Tet holiday, which was traditionally a time of reunion of families, and so they wanted these flyers to be reunited with their families.

AMY GOODMAN: In Catonsville, was this the first time you were breaking the laws of the United States?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: No, I had been at the Pentagon in ’67 in—I think it was in October. And a great number of us were arrested after a warning from McNamara to disperse. And we spent a couple of weeks in jail. It was rather rough. And we did a fast. And we were in the D.C. jail, which was a very mixed lot. So I had had a little bit of a taste during that prior year.

AMY GOODMAN: You and your brother, Phil Berrigan, had an unusual relationship with Secretary of Defense McNamara. You actually talked to him, wrote to him, met him?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Yes. I met him at a social evening with the Kennedys in about '65 and after this very posh dinner, which was welcoming me home from Latin America. One of the Kennedys announced that they would love to have a discussion between the secretary of war and myself in front of everybody, which we did start. And they asked me to initiate the thing, and I said to the secretary something about, "Since you didn't stop the war this morning, I wonder if you’d do it this evening." So he looked kind of past my left ear and said, "Well, I’ll just say this to Father Berrigan and everybody: Vietnam is like Mississippi. If they won’t obey the law, you send the troops in." And he stopped. And the next morning, when I returned to New York City, I said to a secretary at a magazine we were publishing—I said, "Would you please take this down in shorthand? Because in two weeks I won’t believe that I heard what I heard. The secretary said, in response to my request to stop the war, quote, 'Vietnam is like Mississippi: If they won’t obey the law, you send the troops in.'" And this was supposed to be the brightest of the bright, one of the whiz kids, respected by all in the Cabinet, etc., etc., etc. And he talks like a sheriff out of Selma, Alabama. Whose law? Won’t obey whose law? Well, that was the level at which the war was being fought.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dan, after the trial, you went underground. Why did you decide to do that?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, the war had worsened, and the spring of '70, the campuses were aflame. Nixon had invaded Laos. There was secret bombing going on. The war had widened. It was a bad time to turn oneself in, and we were comparing that order to military induction. It was like saying, "Well, I'm going off to war. I’m going to obey them and go off to war. I’m going to take the penalty for what we did to make the war evidently, evidently unwinnable and unwageable. So, a group of us said, "No go," and went underground.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean when you go underground?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, it meant that the FBI was on your tail and that Hoover was outraged and very angry and kept marking up sheets—that we got out, Freedom of Information, later—saying, "Get him! Get him!" and scrawling all these orders around and putting extra people on our tail.

AMY GOODMAN: But you were showing up in the strangest places.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: All sorts of places, including preaching in church and getting on national television with a good interview and so on and so forth. So, it really increased the edginess of the whole thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what happened—was it at Cornell? They almost caught you there?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: That was at the beginning of all this. In early spring of ’70, they had a big rally in our favor at Cornell. And I showed up unexpectedly and got away again, in spite of the presence of FBI all over.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get out?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: I went out in a puppet of one of the 12 apostles. They had had a beautiful mime on stage that night showing the Last Supper. And somebody whispered in the darkness, "Wouldn’t you like to go out?" And I said, "Well, let’s try it."

AMY GOODMAN: So you went out as one of the apostles.


AMY GOODMAN: And you slipped past the FBI.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Got away, for months.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they catch you?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: There were letters exchanged between Philip in prison and Elizabeth.

AMY GOODMAN: Philip Berrigan, your brother.


AMY GOODMAN: And Elizabeth McAlister.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: His fiancée or wife at that point. And they gave a kind of a hint as to the fact that I would be visiting friends on Block Island, which proved true, so we had birdwatchers out there, and they got me.

AMY GOODMAN: There was that famous picture of you with a peace sign and the—


AMY GOODMAN: —authorities on either elbow—


AMY GOODMAN: —taking you in. And how long did you serve then?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: I think that was two years then.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, with your brother Phil, you founded the Plowshares Movement, your first action in 1980?


AMY GOODMAN: King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you did at the GE plant.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, we had had meetings, I recall, all that spring and autumn with people about the production of an entirely new weapon, the Mark 12A, which was really only useful if it initiated a nuclear war. It was a first-strike nuclear weapon and was being fabricated in this anonymous plant, huge, huge factory in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. And there had never been an attempt in the history of the antinuclear movement—there had never been an attempt to interfere with the production of a new weapon. And with the help of Daniel Ellsberg and other experts, we were able to understand that this was not a Hiroshima-type bomb. It was something totally different. It was opening a new chapter in this chamber of horrors. So, we decided we will go in there in September of ’70 [sic]. And we did.

AMY GOODMAN: September of ’80?


AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean, you did?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, we didn’t know exactly where in that huge factory these weapons were concealed, but we had to trust in providence that we would come upon the weaponry, which we did in short order. We went in with the workers at the changing of the shift and found there was really no security worth talking about, a very easy entrance. In about three minutes, we were looking at doomsday. The weapon was before us. It was an unarmed warhead about to be shipped to Amarillo, Texas, for its payload. So it was a harmless weapon as of that moment. And we cracked the weapon. It was very fragile. It was made to withstand the heat of re-entry into the atmosphere from outer space, so it was like eggshell, really. And we had taken as our model the great statement of Isaiah 2: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares." So we did it, poured our blood around it and stood in a circle, I think, reciting the Lord’s Prayer until Armageddon arrived, as we expected.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve continued to get arrested. Do you think these arrests, what you have engaged in, protest, even when people are not being arrested or jailed, have an effect? I mean, you have gone through a number of wars now. Do you think things are getting better, or do you think they’re getting worse?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: No. No. This is the worst time of my long life, really. I’ve never seen such a base and cowardly violation of any kind of human bond that I can respect. These people appear on television, and the unwritten, unspoken motto seems to be something about "We despise you. We despise your law. We despise your order. We despise your Bible. We despise your conscience. And if necessary, we will kill you to say so." I’ve never really felt that deep contempt before for any kind of canon or tradition of the human.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, "We despise your Bible"? It is often said it’s done in the name of the Bible.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, yes, these people are—they’re making a scrapbook out of the Bible in their own favor. And they’re omitting all the passages that have to do with compassion and love of others, especially love of enemies, or the injunction to Peter, "Put up your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword"—all of that. All of that gets cut out in favor of, well, a god of vindictiveness, the god of the empire, the god who is a projection of our will to dominate.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Dan Berrigan, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2006, marking his 85th birthday. He was born May 9th, 1921. He died on Saturday, just shy of his 95th birthday. We’ll be back in a minute.

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