Philip F. Berrigan, 79; Priest and Pacifist Who Helped Inspire Vietnam War Protests

Times Staff Writer

Philip F. Berrigan, a former Josephite priest and one of two “Berrigan Brothers” who ignited resistance to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, died Friday night. He was 79.

Berrigan -- who had spent a third of the last three decades in jail for leading protests against the war and later against all militarism, especially nuclear weapons -- died of liver and kidney cancer at Jonah House, the communal residence for pacifists that he founded in Baltimore.

He made a decision to halt chemotherapy treatment about a month ago. His brother, Father Daniel Berrigan, officiated at the last rites Nov. 30, witnessed by friends and peace activists, family members said.

In a statement given to his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, during the Thanksgiving weekend, Philip Berrigan said: “I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the Earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family and the Earth itself.”

A few years ago, before his last stint in prison for banging on warplanes at a National Guard base, the indefatigable and buoyant activist said he wanted to “die with my boots on.”


“I’d like to die being of use to other people, writing or speaking some truth, or maybe even during a course of action,” he said. “Not on the beach.”

Berrigan and his even more famous brother, a poet and writer, came to wide national attention in 1968 as two of the “Catonsville Nine.” The group was arrested for entering a draft board office in Catonsville, outside Baltimore, removing draft records in wire trash baskets and taking them to the parking lot, where they torched them with homemade napalm. It was “soap chips and gasoline from a recipe we found in a Green Beret handbook,” Philip Berrigan wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “Fighting the Lamb’s War: Skirmishes With the American Empire.”

“May this make clear that napalm is immorally and illegally destroying human lives in Vietnam,” one of the protesters said to members of the media who had been alerted to the incident. Cameras whirred as the protesters -- seven men and two women, all Roman Catholics -- said the Lord’s Prayer and waited to be arrested.

Men of the Cloth

Today, long past the time when Vietnam War protests galvanized a generation and threatened to rip the nation apart, it is hard to remember how stunning the civil disobedience of those men of the cloth was. Their actions -- believed to be the first by American Catholic priests criticizing their government’s war policy -- landed them on the cover of Time magazine and inspired many others to join the antiwar movement.

“To pick up a newspaper in 1968 and see a photo of two Catholic priests in full Roman collars praying over a flaming pile of 1-A draft files -- nothing could be more shocking,” said Jim O’Grady, co-author of a 1997 biography of the Berrigans, “Disarmed and Dangerous.”

The Berrigans were convicted of destroying government property. Philip was sentenced to three years and two months in prison, to run concurrently with a six-year sentence for a raid -- this one involving throwing blood on draft records -- the previous year on a draft board office in Baltimore. After sentencing, both Berrigans at first rather openly hid from the authorities, but eventually were arrested and served their terms. Philip was paroled after 2 1/2 years, Dan after 17 months.

Dan Berrigan wrote a play about the Catonsville raid, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” which ran off-Broadway in 1971.

“Dan and I went to prison because we believed that Christianity and revolution are synonymous,” Philip Berrigan wrote later. He also believed that true Christianity required a vow of poverty. “The next car is every man’s dolce vita,” he once said.

During his time in prison for the Catonsville raid, Philip was secretly married to McAlister, a nun whom he met in the antiwar movement. They disclosed the marriage in 1973, and both were immediately excommunicated.

While he was in jail, he and McAlister exchanged letters that were later used to indict both for allegedly plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger, among other charges. After a highly publicized trial, they were found guilty of a single count: smuggling their letters to each other.

Brothers, Best Friends

The Berrigan Brothers -- the youngest two of six sons born to Frida and Thomas Berrigan -- were each other’s best friend from childhood and led one another along the path to activism.

But to some degree, they competed. After one arrest, Philip wrote in “Fighting the Lamb’s War” (1996), “Everyone seemed to be paying more attention to him, laughing at his jokes, taking his picture, asking him for a good, pithy quote. Devoured by jealousy, I accused him of grandstanding.” They soon patched it up, however.

Francine du Plessix Gray, writing in the New Yorker in 1970, described Philip Berrigan this way: “The spell he casts over human beings is as great as Daniel’s and more alarming. Daniel might be more content to have his disciples rattle and needle the world. Philip wants them to transform society totally and as soon as possible. His eyes are merry, affectionate and yet fiercely impatient.”

Philip Berrigan was born in a small Minnesota town Oct. 5, 1923. His father was a socialist who worked as a railroader until he lost his job. He then moved the family to Syracuse, N.Y., where he founded the Electrical Workers Union and started a Catholic Interracial Council.

Philip, a tall and athletic man, was drafted into the Army in 1943 and saw combat in Europe as an infantryman. Of the “strange and bewildering contradictions of war,” he later wrote, “I killed in order to prove the immorality of killing. I massacred in order to demonstrate the illegality of mass murder. I laid waste to show that laying waste is unjust.”

After the war, he graduated from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., and followed his older brother, Jerome, into the Society of St. Joseph, an order known as the Josephite Fathers that is devoted to helping African Americans. Philip was ordained in 1955 and was assigned to New Orleans, where he taught English and did student counseling in a black ghetto.

But Daniel, a Jesuit who was ordained in 1952 and never left the church, said his youngest brother was “incurably secular.”

“He saw the church as one resource, bringing to bear on the squalid facts of racism, the light of the Gospel, the presence of inventive courage and hope.”

While in the South, Philip became more and more involved in freedom rides and civil rights marches. Stokely Carmichael, who organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, once called him “the only white man who knows where it’s at.”

Race and the War

It was not long before Berrigan drew a connection between racial discrimination and the Vietnam War, asking, “Is it possible for us to be vicious, brutal, immoral and violent at home and be fair, judicious, beneficent and idealistic abroad?” He clearly concluded that it was not.

His controversial and increasingly more public beliefs in the mid-1960s led to his transfer to a parish in Newburgh, N.Y., and later to Baltimore.

His first act of protest against the war soon followed. He and three others drew some of their own blood and, when they couldn’t draw enough, bought duck blood and calves’ liver blood at a delicatessen, carefully pouring it into Mr. Clean bottles.

On Oct. 27, 1967, they entered a draft board office in Baltimore and drizzled blood -- a powerful symbol of Christ’s gift of redemption to mankind -- on draft records. As surprised clerks looked on, the four men waited to be arrested.

The protest drew much publicity and many to the cause, but Philip -- always the more political of the two brothers -- believed something more was needed.

Six months later, he persuaded Daniel to join him and seven others on a sunny day in May for the more daring Catonsville raid, in which 378 draft cards were incinerated. Daniel wrote of this day: “Our apologies, good friends, for this fracture of good order. The burning of paper, instead of children.”

Such statements puzzled many in the establishment, including the Nixon administration. John W. Dean, who was White House counsel for President Nixon, said Friday that his White House colleagues “never understood men of conscience” such as the Berrigans. “That,” he said, “was unfortunate, for they had much to teach us.”

Many others agreed with the Berrigans’ stance on the war but were critical of their radical Christianity.

During the next 35 years, Philip Berrigan continued his life of protest, though never again generating as much notoriety. He once estimated that he had been arrested more than 100 times.

In 1975, he and 21 others were arrested in East Hartford, Conn., after throwing red liquid on several military aircraft. In the last two decades, most of his arrests were due to activities of Plowshares, an antiwar, anti-nuclear movement that has spread to Europe and elsewhere.

His last act of civil disobedience was banging with hammers on A-10 Warthog warplanes in an anti-nuclear protest at the Warfield Air National Guard base in Middle River, Md.

The use of primitive weapons against modern weapons of war was symbolic. He believed that the Bible gave him the authority to be an activist committed to “destroying the implements of war.”

Berrigan often quoted Isaiah 2:4, which says, “and they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Without that belief in his rightness, he told the Baltimore Sun this year, “I wouldn’t be doing it.”

During his last stint in prison -- he was assigned to cleaning cigarette butts in the outside smoking area -- Berrigan said he found incarceration more difficult physically. “Doing prison is really a younger person’s job,” the much thinner and more frail Berrigan told the Sun. He was released last Dec. 14.

Pacifists Together

Berrigan and his wife helped start Jonah House, a small community of pacifists who lived, worked, raised children and planned protests together. They had three children: Kathleen, Frida and Jerry. All survive.

Berrigan said that although there was much left to be done, he never despaired.

“We tried to stay in there, speaking some sanity and some nonviolence,” he told the Washington Post in 1997. “We didn’t quit. That’s epitaph enough.”