A Brief History
On January 12, 1971, a group of conspirators dubbed by the press as “The Harrisburg Seven” were indicted on charges that they planned to blow up the steam heating tunnels to Federal buildings in the Nation’s capital, as well as to kidnap National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. Shockingly, this group of alleged terrorists was led by radical Roman Catholic priest, Father Phillip Berrigan!
Berrigan was already in jail at the time of the alleged plot, serving a sentence of 3 years for entering a military draft office and burning draft cards with home made napalm. Berrigan had a history of radical social activism and was fiercely against the War in Vietnam. The conspiracy that led to the indictments consisted of an exchange of letters among the conspirators, brought to the attention of the authorities by a jailhouse snitch that Berrigan had befriended.
The other conspirators included 3 other Catholic priests and 2 Catholic nuns, while the last member of the group was a Pakistani American journalist/political scientist with an anti-war agenda. One other unindicted “co-conspirator” was a professor from Haverford College.
The alleged conspiracy was only in the planning stages when the indictments were made, so no actual physical acts of terrorism took place. The trial was characterized by prosecutorial mismanagement that included illegal wire taps and one of the first masterful uses of jury selection by the defense attorneys, led by former US Attorney General, Ramsey Clark. The careful, scientific selection of jury members ensured there would be people on the panel sympathetic to the defendants, and the defense called no witnesses at all, not even the defendants, to ensure the jury would not be turned off by admissions of draft card burning or other questionable prior activities by witnesses or defendants.
The trial resulted in a hung jury, although a few minor charges were deemed guilty, those concerning the violation of prison rules covering the transfer of secret correspondence with prisoners. These minor convictions were later overturned. A key element in the defense and the failure to secure convictions was the jailhouse snitch role as star witness. This snitch was revealed to be a key instigator of the plot, spurring on the others, possibly for his own benefit.
Berrigan, the best known defendant, was still a priest when he married a nun in 1970. This marriage was kept secret until 1973. Berrigan’s radical activities covered a wide range of civil rights and anti-war topics, even including the physical assault against Minute Man nuclear ICBM’s under construction and later physically attacking US Air Force A-10 fighter bombers with a hammer! During his activist career while a priest and after leaving the church, Berrigan was involved in numerous acts of civil disobedience, not always peaceful. Berrigan died in 2002 at the age of 79, having spent over 11 years of his life in jail or prison. His widow, the former nun, Elizabeth McAlister, survives today at the age of 78.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were the Harrisburg Seven right to plot against the US Government in order to help force a pull out of the Vietnam War? Are they patriots or are they treasonous? Please share your opinions on these or other activists that break the law in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
O’Rourke, William. The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left. University of Notre Dame, 1972.