“Our Apologies, Good Friends, for the Fracture of Good Order”

On January 30, 1968, I was teaching a seminar in political theory at Boston University when someone came into the room and said he was sorry to interrupt the class, but I was urgently wanted on the telephone. “Can’t it wait until I finish my class?” I asked. “The person says he must talk to you now.” I asked the students to wait and went quickly to the office to pick up the phone.

On the other end was David Dellinger, one of the national leaders of the antiwar movement, whom I had met in Hiroshima in 1966. He told me that he had received a telegram from the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi, saying they were prepared to make their first release of three captured American pilots, as a peace gesture in honor of the traditional Tet New Year holiday. Would the peace movement send “a responsible representative” to Hanoi to receive the pilots?

Dave and other peace movement leaders thought it would be good for two people to make the trip, and they had already asked Father Daniel Berrigan (I had vaguely heard of him), a Catholic priest and a formidable poet (he had won the distinguished Lamont Prize in poetry) then teaching at Cornell, who had been speaking out against the war. Berrigan was ready to go.

(The Vietnamese had asked for “a responsible representative.” Did Berrigan and I, both half-responsible, add up to what was wanted?)

“Well, Howard,” Dave asked, “would you be willing to go?”

“When? For how long?”

“Tomorrow. For a week. Maybe two.” I thought quickly. My classes: I could get colleagues to cover them. Roz: she would want me to go. I agreed to show up the next morning at an apartment in Manhattan.

I returned to my seminar and told my students what the call was about. They were excited: I was going to the capital city of “the enemy” to bring home three prisoners of war.

The next day, at an apartment in downtown Manhattan, I met Daniel Berrigan, slim, dark-haired, soft-spoken, dressed in black pants, black turtleneck, and sneakers, a silver medallion hanging from his neck. He had an impish wit. I was relieved. I didn’t want to spend a lot of close time with someone who believed that fun is a bourgeois indulgence. Dave Dellinger was there, and Tom Hayden, whom I had known for several years. Both were among the few Americans who had visited North Vietnam during the war, and would “brief” me and Dan Berrigan on our trip.

As we talked, a knock on the door. A well-dressed man was there. From the State Department. They had learned about our trip “from intelligence reports,” they said (meaning they had read the New York Times story on us that morning). Wanted to talk to us before we left. Wanted to stamp our passports to legalize our trip. North Vietnam was on the list of Communist countries where it was illegal to travel. No, we said, we didn’t want official approval for our trip from the government we were fiercely opposing for its actions in Vietnam.

On our twenty-eight-hour plane trip, wherever we stopped—Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Teheran, Calcutta, Bangkok—some well-dressed man would come onto the plane. “I’m from the U.S. Embassy. I am prepared to stamp your passports.” No, thanks. Dan Berrigan and I were in agreement on that.

It had started as “Father Berrigan,” but very quickly it was “Dan,” as I got over that psychological obstacle, going back to childhood, when priests were forbidding men in black. We had never met before the day we were to fly out of New York to Vietnam, but we were to spend almost three weeks together in extraordinary circumstances.

Dan came from working-class parents in upstate New York and was ordained a priest in the Jesuit order. In the early sixties he had reacted to the civil rights movement in a way that suggested to the more conservative of the church fathers that he should be sent off to Latin America. The wrong move, Dan said to me, smiling. To see poverty in the police-state atmosphere of Latin America only provoked more strongly his desire to act, no holds barred, on behalf of peace and justice.

When I discovered his poems I was moved by their simplicity, their passion. As I was by the poem he sent to Roz and me years later when Mitch Snyder, the hero of the homeless, died in Washington. It was about those who “stood and stood and stood” and those who “walked and walked and walked”:

Why do you stand

they were asked, and

Why do you walk?

Because of the children, they said, and

because of the heart, and

because of the bread.

Because

the cause

is the heart’s beat

and the children born

and the risen bread.

Our arrival in Vientiane, Laos, was supposed to coincide with the arrival of another plane—a creaky World War II aircraft owned by the International Control Commission (about the only thing left of the failed 1954 Geneva Accords ending the French war in Indochina). That plane made six trips a month—from Saigon to Phnompenh, Cambodia, to Vientiane, Laos, to Hanoi—and our trip was timed to connect with one of those.

But the Tet offensive was on in Vietnam that February of 1968. The Viet Cong, supposedly on the run and overwhelmed by the enormous firepower of the United States, had sprung up suddenly all over South Vietnam in a series of surprise attacks, even in Saigon itself, occupying the U.S. embassy at one point. They had made the Tan San Hut airport in Saigon inoperable, and so our plane did not arrive.

Dan and I therefore passed a strange week in Vientiane, in a shabby old hotel on the Mekong River, across from Thailand. Vientiane had the air of World War II Casablanca, a city of spies and drugs and international intrigue. In Vientiane, every major power in the world had an embassy, and after work their attaches mingled in the dark pot-smoking cafes of the city.

The day we arrived, an Asian man (Laotian? Thai? Chinese?) approached us in the lobby of our hotel, speaking French, saying he was with the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, and would like to interview us about our mission to Hanoi. We said maybe later, when we’re settled in. Two hours later, another man approached us in the lobby, speaking French: “I’m from Agence France-Presse, and I’d like to talk to you about your trip.” We told him a colleague of his had already contacted us. He said, “That’s interesting. I’m the only representative of Agence France-Presse in Vientiane.”

That week we endlessly walked the streets of Vientiane, and along the bank of the Mekong, waiting for our plane to arrive from Phnompenh. One morning we were awakened by a phone call from someone in the lobby: an American voice, saying he would like to meet us, talk with us. When we went downstairs, there was a tall young man in black pajamas, the attire of the Laotian peasant. This was Fred Branfman, who had been in the Peace Corps in Tanzania and admired its unusual leader, Julius Nyerere. He’d gone back to the States and, opposing the Vietnam war, joined the International Volunteer Service. This was a program that allowed exemption from military service in exchange for overseas work, mostly in rural areas.

Fred lived with a poor family in a village not far from Vientiane. He was happy there, he told us, this fellow from a comfortable middle-class family on Long Island. He took us to a little hut on stilts, introduced us to his “father and mother.” He had stopped on the way to pick up some strips of meat, and when it was cooked we all sat in a circle on the floor, dipping into the plates of meat and rice with our fingers, Fred acting as interpreter in our conversation with the middle-aged couple. After we ate, the husband went to a corner where there was a small Buddhist shrine. “He’s praying for you,” Fred said. “Praying for your safety on your trip.” The man came over to us and tied a string around Dan Berrigan’s left wrist, then one around mine. Fred explained. “It’s to keep danger away.” When we parted, bowing, the man and his wife said something to us. Fred interpreted: “They want you to know that they love you.” (I kept the string on my wrist for a long time after my trip to Vietnam, until it darkened and frayed and fell apart.)

Finally the word came: the plane was arriving. We would leave in the late afternoon. There was a crowd assembled at the airport to see us off, lots of reporters and photographers. As we prepared to board the plane, a man came out of the crowd. Suit and tie. “I’m from the U.S. Embassy. I’m prepared to validate your passport.” We smiled and shook our heads. He hesitated. “Not even orally?” No, thanks.

We flew through the night, at a specified altitude on a specified route, by agreement with the North Vietnamese so that the I.C.C. plane would not be taken for a U.S. bomber. One plane had been shot down by mistake. We were given flak helmets, just in case. But it was a smooth flight, with a planeload mostly of diplomats coming back to their posts in Hanoi.

We flew low over the Red River, saw the pontoon bridge that had been bombed again and again, repaired ingeniously again and again. Upon landing, we were greeted with warm smiles and flowers, then an auto trip through the night to Hanoi, past bombed-out buildings, antiaircraft crews bunched in the darkness, people on foot and on bicycles moving along the road in an endless, thick stream. We were taken to an old French hotel where we sat, just the two of us, in an enormous dining room, and were served omelettes by tuxedoed waiters who looked as if they were carryovers from the colonial French.

They led us to adjoining rooms, clean and comfortable, with little trays of candy, cookies, and cigarettes beside the beds. We were both dead tired, but Dan Berrigan stopped me from rushing to my room. He reached into his small knapsack, which was his only traveling bag (I thought, does God, like the airlines, have a weight limit for luggage?), pulled out a bottle of cognac, and we both had a few sips before going to bed. This was to be a nightly ritual while we were in Hanoi.

We were awakened after an hour by the sound of sirens wailing through the hotel. An air raid. As we were contemplating what to do, there was a knock at the door. A young girl motioned to us to follow her, and took us down into the air raid shelter under the hotel, where sleepy guests from all parts of the world, in various states of undress, sat for the next hour while Hanoi was bombed.

It was a new experience for me—a bombardier now on the receiving end of bombs from the air force I had been a part of. I had that taut feeling in my belly that I remembered from my World War II missions—fear. I thought, I guess I deserve this. No one spoke. We listened to two kinds of sounds: the deep booms of the bombs exploding (were the booms coming closer, were they gradually louder?) and the sharper crack of antiaircraft guns. Then silence, then the all-clear siren, and we went back to our rooms and to sleep.

When we awoke in the morning, Dan Berrigan showed me the poem he had written before going to sleep. Every morning we were in Hanoi, Dan had a new poem to show me that he had written late in the night. I loved those poems.

The week we were there the air raids came every day. Four, five, six times a day the sirens sounded. Wherever we were, with whomever we were, we were quietly, efficiently taken to the nearest shelter. In the streets we walked constantly over one-person shelters, cylindrical holes dug into the streets for pedestrians to duck into. I had seen photos of them, taken by Life photographer Lee Lockwood, who had managed to get to Hanoi. (Lee later became a good friend.)

We tried to grasp that these people around us had been doing this, responding to air raid sirens, every day for three years. It took me a while to notice it was a city without children—almost all had been evacuated to the countryside to escape the bombs. We visited the zoo one day, and the monkey cages were empty—the monkeys had also been sent to the countryside to keep them safe.

For five days we went about the city with four Vietnamese guides—young, friendly, easy-going. Three of them spoke English, one spoke French. We returned every evening to the hotel to share a drink with them at the bar before saying goodnight. But there was no mention of the prisoners we had presumably come to pick up, and Dan Berrigan and I were beginning to worry (Was the deal off? Had they forgotten what we were there for?) when one evening the one called Oanh, a musician and composer, said to us, “Please eat supper quickly. In one hour we will meet the three prisoners.”

We drove through dark streets to the prison—what seemed like an old French villa adapted to its new function. There was the usual introductory tea session. Then the prison commandant read to us his data on the three fliers: Major Norris Overly, thirty-nine, wife and two children in Detroit; Captain John Black, thirty, wife and three kids in Tennessee; Lieutenant Junior Grade David Methany, twenty-four, single. Then the three men emerged, bowed to the commandant, and sat down.

One of our guides whispered to us, “Whether or not you shake hands is up to you.” Dan and I walked over and shook hands. We talked. “You fellows are looking good.” (They were. Had they been especially well treated for show?) “What’s your home town? … Oh yes, I know someone in Des Moines …” And so on. A strange conversation under the circumstances. Perhaps.

The following day there was a formal ceremony for us to “receive” the prisoners, with the whole international press corps of Hanoi present. There were statements from the Vietnamese and from Dan Berrigan speaking for the two of us, and a few polite words of thanks to the North Vietnamese government from Lieutenant Methany for the fliers.

Then we went back to the hotel, where it had been arranged for us to have supper alone with the three men. An elegant supper, served by a battery of waiters: endless bowls of hot potage, cold cuts, chicken, bread, beer. We had a friendly talk, but we didn’t discuss the war. They told us they were wary of us at first (we were from the notorious “peace movement”) but felt okay now. It helped, I think, that it was a priest and a former Air Force man who had come for them.

The flight from Hanoi to Vientiane was smooth; the stewardess served candies and aperitifs and we all relaxed. I sat between Major Overly and Captain Black. Dan Berrigan sat with Methany. Overly told me about his experiences in captivity. Shot down, and then, on a twenty-eight-day trek under military guard to Hanoi, threatened and beaten by furious villagers (so many had lost children, parents, loved ones, in the bombings), often saved by the guards.

“It was all strange. One moment someone would want to kill me. The next minute another Vietnamese would act toward me with such compassion that it just staggered me. I had a huge infection on my back and was in great pain. They gave me sulfa, and after a long time it was cured.” In prison, Overly said, the worst was over—no maltreatment, no indoctrination, just a few books on Vietnamese history, sufficient food, medical care.

In Laos, the U.S. ambassador arrived and hustled them onto a military plane. We would never see or hear from them again. Later, back in the States, we read that Overly was speaking around the country, telling of maltreatment and torture in prison. I was surprised, because on that plane to Vientiane there had been no reason for him to lie to me about his experience.

Nevertheless, whatever the truth about Overly’s own treatment, I cannot doubt the stories of torture and maltreatment that came out of the prison camps after the war. Brutality is not something confined to one or another side of the ideological wars—it is part of the environment of prisons everywhere and should be condemned in every single case.

Dan Berrigan and I made the long flight back to the States, and, very tired, faced batteries of microphones and cameras, then separated. But our trip to Hanoi led to a lifelong friendship.

That friendship would grow, when Dan became an outlaw, and I would help hide him.

In the fall of 1967, Dan Berrigan’s brother, Phil Berrigan, once a soldier in World War II, now a priest, had staged a dramatic protest against the war. He and three other men had entered a draft office in Baltimore, removed draft records from the files, and poured blood over them to symbolize the destruction of life in Vietnam. They were arrested and sentenced to prison terms. But their action was to lead to others.

Very soon after our return from Hanoi, Dan Berrigan was shaken by the death of a Catholic teenager who had entered a cathedral in Syracuse, New York, poured kerosene on his body, and set himself afire as a protest against the war. A few months later, Dan and his brother Phil (who was out on bail) joined seven others, including two women, the Maryknoll nun Marjorie Melville and a nurse, Mary Moylan, in entering a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, removing files, and using home-made napalm to set fire to draft records before being arrested.

The Catonsville Nine thus joined the Baltimore Four, and after that the list of draft board actions would grow (the Milwaukee Fourteen, the Boston Two, the Camden Twenty-eight, and a half-dozen others). They were tried and convicted, but not before they spoke at length and from their hearts to the jury about why they had decided to break the law. In effect, they were putting the war itself on trial.

In advance of the action, Dan Berrigan wrote: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.… 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.… We ask our fellow Christians to consider in their hearts a question which has tortured us, night and day, since the war began. How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? … When, at what point, will you say no to this war?”

They were sentenced to terms of two to three years, but remained free on bail pending appeal. Those appeals went on for a year and a half, all of them failing, and finally the order went out to pick up the defendants. Three of them could not be found—Mary Moylan, Philip Berrigan, Daniel Berrigan—and the FBI went into a frantic search. (I am only guessing at their mood, judging by their massive effort.)

I received a phone call in early 1970, asking me to come to Ithaca, New York, to speak on the war. I was given no details, but in those years we asked few questions. When I arrived I was met by that extraordinary anarchist intellectual Paul Goodman, who told me about the huge antiwar rally that had just taken place in the Cornell University gymnasium.

It had been rumored that Dan Berrigan would speak, and dozens of FBI agents were mingling with the crowd, ready to pounce on him. On the stage there was a kind of Passover peace ceremony, in the course of which, as is customary at Passover, a door is left open for the prophet Elijah. The door was opened and Dan Berrigan came in, onto the stage. The FBI agents in the crowd rushed toward him, but all the lights went out.

When the lights came on again a few moments later, Berrigan was gone. He had hidden on the stage, inside a huge puppet belonging to the famous Bread and Puppet Theatre group, and was carried out, along with their other giant puppets, onto a waiting truck.

As for my speaking engagement at Ithaca College, antiwar students had arranged for me to collect a $1,000 fee. This would be used to start a fund to support Dan Berrigan while he was underground.

A few days later I received another phone call. (It’s easy to understand why phone-tapping is so important to the police.) Would I come to New York to speak on the war at a Catholic Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan? The priest there was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam intervention, and my friend Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani intellectual very active in the movement, would also speak.

I was met at LaGuardia Airport by a young woman, a nun. By this time I was feeling at home with nuns wearing ordinary street clothes, with priests getting married. I was developing great affection for these wonderful men and women who were challenging not just the government of the United States but their own religious hierarchy. The nun told me that Philip Berrigan had just that afternoon been discovered by the FBI in the church apartment of the parish priest; they had smashed down the door and arrested him.

Indeed, the FBI was sure that Dan Berrigan too was in the vicinity and might appear at the church meeting; in the crowd of perhaps five hundred people packed into the church that evening there seemed to be swarms of agents—trench coats, fedoras, the famous Bureau wardrobe—circulating through the audience and around the platform.

On the platform I sat with Eqbal, and with Liz McAlister, the nun who later married Philip Berrigan. (They would have three children in the years to come and all live in a Baltimore peace community where everyone seemed to take turns going to jail for antiwar, anti-militarism protests.) Liz and I had become good friends, and as we sat there she passed me a note for me and Eqbal to meet her after the church rally, at a Spanish-Chinese restaurant farther up Broadway, near Columbia University.

Eqbal and I wended our way (using all the evasive tricks we had learned from the chase scenes in Hollywood movies) to the restaurant. There was Liz and also Sister Joques Egan, a distinguished Catholic educator, former president of Marymount College, who had served forty days in jail for refusing to speak to a grand jury investigating antiwar activists.

The two women told us that Dan Berrigan was hiding out in ahouse in New Jersey, but that it was not safe. They gave us the address; we were to go there and arrange for him to be moved elsewhere. The next morning, Eqbal and I rented a car, drove to New Jersey, found Dan, and talked over the situation. He said getting out of there was urgent—across the street was the home of an FBI agent. We decided he should come to Boston, where I would be able to work out a secure situation for him.

We found someone to drive him to Boston, and the next evening he turned up at our apartment, the last time he would come there because we knew that I would be high on the list of suspected friends. In our strategy session that night we put together the names of people who would not be on any FBI list as friends of Dan—people who might be willing to harbor him while he was underground. None of us had any idea how long that would last.

We knew that anyone who helped a fugitive was in danger of prison. But none of those we asked to take Dan in—a young editor, an artist and her family, the family of two college professors—refused. He moved from one to the other, became part of each household. A half-dozen of us constituted ourselves as his support committee, arranging to transfer him from place to place, deciding what he could safely do or not do. (He had his own ideas, and often refused to follow our “orders.”)

He read, and wrote poetry, but he wanted very much to go to the movies, to take walks along the Charles River, and so we decided to try to disguise him. Someone came up with a wig, which only made him look grotesque and would have made him stand out immediately in any crowd. We had fun one evening as Dan tried it on, in different poses.

One time he needed a tooth repaired, and so I made an appointment with my dentist for a “Mr. McCarthy” who was visiting me from out of town. As we sat in the waiting room, a copy of Time magazine was on the table before us. It was opened, and on the page was a story and a photo: “Fugitive Father Daniel Berrigan.” But my dentist was not aware. (Years later I told him the truth and he said, “You should have told me; I would have been proud to help.”)

That spring, with Dan Berrigan underground, I was teaching my course in political theory at Boston University. In a book I had published two years earlier (Disobedience and Democracy) I had discussed the issue of whether a person committing civil disobedience has an obligation to give himself/herself up for punishment. My own opinion was that there was no such obligation—that to evade prison was to continue the civil disobedience, to continue the protest.

In my class we read Plato’s Crito, in which Socrates refuses to escape from jail and his death sentence, and defends his decision by saying he has an obligation to do whatever the state tells him to do. In arguing against that, I used the example of Dan Berrigan going underground, continuing to speak out against an unjust war. The class was unaware, of course, that he was right there in Boston.

Dan was underground for four months. But not totally. He would emerge from time to time and quickly disappear, driving the FBI a bit crazy, I’m sure. We arranged for a secret interview in Connecticut with a major network news broadcaster; he appeared in a church in Philadelphia to deliver the Sunday sermon; he became the subject of a documentary by Lee Lockwood, The Holy Outlaw. He broadcast messages to the country at the time of the Cambodia invasion and the Kent State killings.

We were proud of our efficiency in keeping him safe. But it was not to last. He insisted, against our suggestion, on visiting two old friends of his, the poets William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne, who had a house on Block Island, a beautiful summer spot in the ocean south of Rhode Island. A letter to his imprisoned brother Phil, telling of his plan to go, was entrusted to a messenger who turned out to be an informant for the FBI. Dan woke one morning and saw men, a surprising number of them, out in the bushes around the house.

Bill Stringfellow went out to inquire. “We’re birdwatchers,” they explained. Father Daniel Berrigan was the bird they were watching, and they arrested him and took him on a motor launch to the mainland. The sea was rough, and the FBI men with him got sick. There is a funny photograph of Dan handcuffed, an FBI man on either side of him, arriving on the mainland. The captured fugitive has a broad smile on his face; his captors look quite miserable.

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