A few days ago, I received an e-mail from Michael [my webmaster] with an interesting link. I had taught at Cornell for many years, and Michael suggested that I print out the Cornell Daily Sun, April 23, 1970. I did so, and was amazed to find on the front page two stories: "Berrigan Remains At Large," and "Dowd Decries U.S. Actions in Vietnam."
There was also a photo of several men sitting around in Hanoi, with one talking and waving his hand: me. I was surrounded by Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, Noam Chomsky, the Rev. Richard Fernandez, and two interpreters. Thereby hangs a tale, some of it funny, some of it not.
It begins with "Father Berrigan" ( "Dan" to me). He was "at large" — hiding from the FBI. These stalwart guardians of public policy sought to put him in prison. (They had already locked up Dan's brother, Father Phillip). Father Berrigan's unspeakable crime against humanity was burning hundreds of draft cards.
Shortly before that news story — on April Fool's Day, to be exact — there was a huge antiwar rally at Cornell, the school where Dan had been in charge of religious matters. Present were not only thousands of students, but also many FBI. (I was in Hanoi). Besides many speeches, there was entertainment by a famous music group whose three or four players always appeared in small tent-like costumes. As the music began, out of one of the "tents" stepped the fugitive Father Berrigan. He said a few words, and then was whisked by away by pals. He was not found for many weeks.
Which is takes me to connected story. But first, a word about the crime had Dan (and his brother) committed. A nice one: They (with friends) had broken into an office of the US Selective Service System — that is, into a US Draft office — in Maryland, stolen the documents of hundreds of draft eligibles, taken them outside, and burned them with homemade napalm. (There is a photo of them in flagrante delicto, so to speak, in my book Blues for America). After they fled, a group of us took on the job of trying to keep them from being caught. All but Dan had been captured by that April day.
Along with others my job was to locate people here and there who would hide Dan. One weekend, Dan still free, I had to go to Princeton (NJ) to give a talk, and a friendly prof there suggested that I get in touch with another prof who lived out in the woods who might hide Dan. I found him, spent an afternoon with him and his wife in their isolated country house, and they — scared and worried, of course — said they had to talk it over; call them later.
I called late that night. They had decided to do it: "Bring Dan here tomorrow." But tomorrow was too late. Early the next morning, my phone rang. Dan had just been captured.
That takes me to another story. Dan had been an important part of the strong antiwar group at Cornell. The student leader of that effort was Bruce Dancis. For more than a year, every weekend Dan and Bruce and I would get in my old Chevy and drive to some university to do anti-war rallies. Dan (who was an easy-to-like guy and also a poet) would speak first, and soften up the audience. I came next, with a critique of the war, and then Bruce, the organizer, would close by suggesting that those in the audience find a way to help to push the US out of Vietnam — and to beat the draft.
Dan was convicted and went to prison for the draft card burning episode. Soon after Bruce went to prison for being too persuasive, having convinced 14,000 young men to come together in Central Park (NYC) to tear up their draft cards. The two of them imprisoned — for throwing sand in the gears of the war machine.
And still another related story, closer to home. When I returned to Cornell from Hanoi, a message for me was waiting. My son Jeff and his friends had been arrested in Seattle, charged with having created a violent and destructive public protest, for which were sent to maximum security prison. After they had been in prison for more than a year, it was officially revealed that the violence for which they had been convicted — along with several other such acts — had been created by Nixon's boys. Anything goes, no?
Despite all — perhaps because of all — Dan and Bruce and Jeff and have had good lives since their prison times. Me too, and not only because I didn't go to prison. But why was I was spared? It has been said by some that it was because I was a provocateur for the FBI. Others said that's impossible — because (according to them) I was working for the USSR. And there was yet a third opinion. One student, who had received a poor grade from me, claimed I was paid by both the FBI and the USSR.
Who's right? It's anybody's guess.
(Write me at doug AT dougdowd DOT org.)