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May 1968: Fifty Years Since the Catonsville Nine Action

A person takes sustenance wherever and whenever he or she may find it. That is particularly true with someone on the left, as the struggle for human progress has been systematically destroyed by the political right in the U.S. and elsewhere. Most who have destroyed the legacy of progress are Republicans, but they can also be found in the Democratic Party, most recently with those Democrats (16 of them) who voted with Republicans in the U.S. Congress to roll back the few safeguards on the financial industry put in place by Dodd-Frank after the economic recession of 2008 (“Why Are Democrats Helping Trump Dismantle Dodd-Frank?” New York Times, March 6, 2018).

I recently came upon several news reports and articles about Daniel and Philip Berrigan while searching for information about significant people in the antiwar movement in the U.S. Philip died in 2002, and Daniel died in 2016. I had searched through data bases looking for the sustenance that had kept these long-distance runners against war going after so many years and after having been imprisoned so many times. At one point in the history of their journey of protest and resistance, both brothers were jailed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. They were jailed for burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, in May 1968. Readers may ponder the sanity of a society that imprisoned those who substantively opposed a war of aggression by a superpower against a relatively small agrarian nation. A question may surface as to just whom or what needs to be locked away to protect this society and planet. Actions by the brothers against weapons of mass destruction followed, the most notable at General Electric’s King of Prussia, Pennsylvania plant in 1980.

The Berrigans were folk heroes of the antiwar movement, although the last thing that they wanted from their antiwar actions was hero worship.

I had to chuckle when I reread Philip’s cogent observation about voting in the U.S., as I considered the Berrigans’ legacy. After having completed several months of political campaigning in 2016, these words are worth noting: “If voting made any difference, it would be illegal.” Philip was pretty much right on the money (no pun intended) with that observation. Elections pretty much draw the energy from people who want some way to express their mounting frustrations with the government and the economic system that enforces gross inequality, but here’s the late singer/songwriter/protester Pete Seeger in “What Did You Learn In School Today?”:

I learned our country must be strong
It’s always right and never wrong
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again.

This is from Daniel Berrigan’s Catonsville Nine courtroom statement:

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children.

But there was something deeper than this, and so important to the opposition of war. It was a statement that Daniel Berrigan made in an interview in the Nation with Chris Hedges about what sustains, and did not sustain, the antiwar movement both during and after the Vietnam War: “The short fuse of the American left is typical of the highs and lows of American emotional life,” he said. “It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognisable [sic] form without a spiritual base” (“Fr Daniel Berrigan, anti-war and pro-life campaigner, dies aged 94,” Catholic Herald, May 2, 2016).

As the May 17, 1968, 50th anniversary of the draft file burning with home-made napalm outside of the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, approaches, we would do well to consider and keep in mind the great sustenance that motivated these great figures of antiwar protest. Napalm was being used on a massive scale on children and adults in Vietnam at the time of the draft file burning. Indeed, one of the most notable photographic images captured from that war is of a girl with napalm-burned flesh as she runs down a road in Vietnam.

The Berrigans had a strong network to call upon in support of their actions and positions toward their struggle for an elusive peace. The existence of support communities has all but vanished from contemporary society.

I did not agree with the Berrigan brothers’ views on abortion, but their antiwar views and actions are among the bravest and most rational positions in the history of our troubled species. In a land of countless, vacuous malls and endless wars with no significant resistance, it is good to ponder the Berrigans’ bravery and honor.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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