book review: The Trial of the Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left

The Trial of the Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left
by William O’Rourke
Notre Dame University Press, 2012

review by Jim Forest

Appearing before a Senate committee on November 27, 1970, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made the startling charge that two Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, were leaders of “an anarchist group” that was “concocting a scheme to kidnap a highly placed government official” and also “to blow up underground heating conduits and steam tunnels serving the Washington, DC area in order to disrupt federal governmental operations.” The group’s goal, said Hoover, was to force the end of US bombing operations in Southeast Asia and the release of all America’s political prisoners. The prominent official to be kidnapped, it quickly turned out, was President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.

The story was page-one news from coast-to-coast and put clerically-clad Dan and Phil Berrigan on the cover of Time magazine the following week.

An indictment was issued in January 1971. Then, in April, came a superseding indictment that added the more winnable charge of conspiracy to destroy draft records; it was like accusing chickens of conspiring to lay eggs. In addition to Phil Berrigan, seven others were charged: Eqbal Ahmad (a scholar), Elizabeth McAlister (nun), Tony and Mary Scoblick (former priest and former nun), Ted Glick (a draft resister), Neil McLaughlin (priest), and Joseph Wenderoth (priest). In the revised set of charges, Dan Berrigan was demoted to an “unindicted co-conspirator,” thus not among those facing trial. When the indictment was published, both Berrigans were in prison for draft-record burning,

By the time Hoover made his accusations, the Berrigans had been steadily in the news for several years, seen as the principal leaders of “the Catholic Left,” a journalistic tag for those Catholics who had been resisting the war in Vietnam with acts of civil disobedience, especially raids on draft boards. In a three-year period, beginning in 1967, there had been dozens of such raids, the most famous of which was in Catonsville, Maryland in May 1968.

The trial took place in the early months of 1972 at the federal courthouse in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, by which time the Harrisburg Eight became the Harrisburg Seven with Ted Glick severed from the group because of his petition to defend himself rather than have a lawyer act of his behalf.

At the trial’s end, after ten of the twelve jurors voted for acquittal of the seven, the judge declared a mistrial. It was a personal humiliation for J. Edgar Hoover. Following defeat, the government dropped the case. Glick was never tried.

William O’Rourke, then a young writer based in New York (and now professor of English at Notre Dame), was one of the people who made Harrisburg his home for the period the trial lasted and immediately afterward wrote his account — in turns gripping, funny and surprising — of what happened in and around the courtroom: The Harrisburg Seven and the New Catholic Left. Forty years later, now recognized as a classic of trial literature, the University of Notre Dame Press has put the text back in print, expanding it with a substantial afterword by the author and also adding an index.

Even decades after the events that prompted its writing, O’Rourke’s book remains a compelling account of a remarkable trial in which a team of gifted lawyers prevailed; the team included former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Jesuit priest and lawyer William Cunningham, Leonard Boudin, and Paul O’Dwyer. What turned the tide in the defendants’ favor was their lawyers’ devastating cross-examination of the government’s key witness, crook and conman Boyd Douglas. Douglas, a fellow prisoner of Phil’s but with access to the outside world, had acted as Liz and Phil’s private mailman, meanwhile copying their letters for the FBI.

The government’s principle evidence was a folder of letters exchanged between Phil Berrigan (in prison) and Liz McAlister, who had fallen in love with him and whom she later married. In her desperate effort to reassure Phil that the flame of war resistance was not dying out in his absence, Liz had written to report discussion of the idea of a “citizen’s arrest” of Henry Kissinger on the charge of committing war crimes. Both Liz and Phil were beyond naïve in trusting Douglas. The ideas that made their letters such exciting reading for J. Edgar Hoover were — like so many love letters — more in the realm of fantasy than reality. In fact no plot was hatched to arrest, kidnap or detain anyone.

And the heating tunnels? It was true that Phil, before going to prison, had toyed with the idea of using explosives in heating tunnels connecting federal office buildings in Washington. There was still a current of battlefield violence running within his adoption of nonviolence. Phil had won a commission while fighting in the infantry during World War II and was at home with munitions. But the idea, like so many others born of desperation to end a war that was wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia, never got further than taking a walk in the tunnels. On FBI instructions, Boyd Douglas had sought to resuscitate the idea, offering to obtain explosives, but his offer triggered only alarm and disgust.

The high point of the trial was the dramatic reading by US Attorney William Lynch of what were meant to be very private letters between Liz and Phil. During the recitation, O’Rourke watched their faces: “Berrigan sits with his chin raised, his jaw set to resist an impending blow; he has the curiosity of a man listening to someone else’s letters. Surprise thickens his eyes. McAlister averts hers.” It was the trial of Romeo and Juliet but with a political edge.

That the seven defendants would win the trial was nothing any sane person could have predicted, yet it was a costly victory. The strain of the trial divided the seven — several of them wouldn’t talk with Liz and Phil afterward — and left “the Catholic Left” in disarray. What O’Rourke describes as “a golden age of protest” was over.

“Public opinion,” O’Rourke comments in his new afterword, “certainly noted that the trial had ended ambiguously, without vindication for either side, but the public also absorbed the message that the priests and nuns involved no longer seemed exactly like saints and had, if not abandoned their commitment to nonviolence, at least flirted with it, coming closer to the other protest movements of the time that had taken on violence as a tactic, such as the Weathermen. The paradox made visible was this: by the end of the Vietnam War the most successful antiwar protest group still standing was the Vietnam Veterans against the War. It is a long, strange war that puts up the men who had fought it as the most effective protesters against it.”

* * *