On June 5, 1917, pacifist Ben Salmon made his opposition to war known nationally despite the efforts of the US Government and the American Catholic Church to persuade him to join in the Great War (now known as World War 1). Ben’s resume would not have qualified him to dispute law and doctrine with his adversaries as his formal schooling extended only through graduation from a Catholic elementary school, but years of work as clerk, union organizer, legislative candidate, and weekly newspaper editor and his deep faith in Jesus and thorough knowledge of the New Testament more than made up for his lack of degrees. The conflict quietly began when Ben submitted his draft registration card and wrote to President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1917, all males from 21 to 30 years old were required to register for the draft on June 5. The draft was needed to fill the ranks of the US Army engaged in the Great War. Ben obediently filled in his registration card until he came to the question: “Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?” This query he simply answered with: “Conscience.” The Selective Service Act of 1917 that codified the June 5 registration date, specifically spelled out draft exemptions and one such exemption allowed members of traditional peace churches (e.g., Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren) to be exempted from combat, though they would be required to perform non-combatant service. However, the Roman Catholic Church did not have a history of forbidding its members to participate in war so Ben’s faithful attendance at Mass did nothing to back up his claim.
Ben Salmon revealed the basis for his conscientious objection to war and also stated his refusal to contribute in any manner to the death of fellow workingmen in the following letter, which was sent to Commander-In-Chief Woodrow Wilson. (Also found at http://www.bensalmon.org/uploads/8/2/5/7/82576010/wilsonnoconscription.pdf)
DENVER, COLO., June 5, 1917.
HIS EXCELLENCY, WOODROW WILSON,
President of the United States,
Washington, D. C.
My Dear Mr. Wilson:
Complying with your edict, I registered today. Your mandate was autocratic, and contrary to the Constitution, nevertheless, acquiescence caused injustice against no one but myself, consequently, I submitted. But, I must now tell you that I refuse to submit to conscription.
Regardless of nationality, all men are my brothers. God is "our Father who art in heaven." The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is unconditional and inexorable.
If the parent orders the child to do wrong, the child should disobey. If the State commands the subject to violate God's law, the subject should ignore the State. Man is anterior to the State, and God is supreme.
Both by precept and example, the lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was He of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed His belief with death on the cross. The great mass of the people still adhere to Christ's teachings against war, regardless of the fact that cardinals, priests and ministers have repudiated the Christian ideal and bowed to the god of expediency.
There are many ways to avoid war. Now that you are in it, there are many ways to get out of it without sacrificing, or threatening to sacrifice, a single life. Solution of the problem, without breaking the commandments of God, is merely a question of desire and determination.
Aside from right or wrong, why concern ourselves about German injustice while unmindful of the disorder of our own house? In America, millions of impoverished citizens vainly send forth their mute appeal for justice. Their supplications are answered with greater tyranny, renewed iniquities, and a further disregard of their rights and their liberties. Show me any German cruelty that can outdo in horror the massacre of the women and children in the tent colony at Ludlow! And, the underlying cause of the Ludlow tragedy manifests itself daily throughout the length and breadth of this land of liberty, although it is only when given spontaneous expression that we even notice the misery and sorrow and seething despair that is slowly eating out the heart of our boasted civilization in America. Why not correct the wrongs at home? ". . . Hypocrite, cast first the beam out of thy own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to take out the mote from thy brother's eye."--St. Luke, vi-42.
I am not an alien sympathizer. I was born in Denver, of Canadian-American parents, and I love America. This letter is not written in a contumelious spirit. But, when human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear.
Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, or death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the army, and contributing, either directly or indirectly, to the death of my fellow workingmen.
I voted for you and worked for your election in 1916, and I still have faith in you. Hopeful that you may yet see the right and have the courage to follow it, I am, sincerely yours,
(Signed) BEN J. SALMON.
(The Ludlow massacre occurred in April 1914 in Southern Colorado during a coalminers’ strike that began in September 1913. The strikers’ tent colony was burned while Colorado National Guard troops watched. Fourteen women and children sheltering in a root cellar beneath a tent were killed by the conflagration.)
Evidence for Salmon’s claim that “cardinals, priests and ministers have repudiated the Christian ideal and bowed to the god of expediency” came from a letter sent by Cardinals Gibbons and O’Connor and the other Archbishops of the US Catholic Church to President Wilson two weeks after war was declared on April 6, 1917. The Archbishops wrote: “Inspired by neither hate nor fear, but by the holy sentiments of truest patriotic fervor and zeal, we stand ready, we and all the flock committed to our keeping, to cooperate in every way possible with our President and our national Government, to the end that the great and holy cause of liberty may triumph, and that our beloved country may emerge from this hour of test, stronger and nobler than ever.” The Archbishops also informed President Wilson that “Our people, now as ever, will rise as one man to serve the Nation.” The Archbishops soon formed the National Catholic War Council in August 1917 to organize Catholic support for the American war effort and consequently contributed to the death of fellow Christians. Note that the majority of Catholics did rise to serve the Nation’s warring, but a handful of Catholics joined with Ben Salmon in conscientious objection to war and refused to participate in the killing of their brothers.
Being politically astute, Ben Salmon employed a printing house and “ A few thousand copies of this letter were published and distributed, principally in Denver. My object in distributing them was to let it be known beforehand that, if ever called for service I would not respond.” This common sense approach did not, however, prevent the authorities from inducting Ben into the Army against his will in May 1918.
Since Ben Salmon refused to put on uniform, salute any officers, or perform any work for the Army, he was held in the guard houses of several army Camps before being tried by court-martial. Copies of the letter to Wilson figured prominently in his trial as Ben had been accused of propaganda for sharing some of the printed copies with fellow prisoners. Ben represented himself at the court-martial trial and responded to the propaganda charge with: “The propaganda that I engaged in was showing a copy of a letter that I had written to President Wilson to some fellow conscientious objectors, and leaving several of them keep copies of it. These conscientious objectors could not be influenced by me, for they had taken a firm stand against service long before they ever met me, their ancestors for hundreds of years back had refused military service in several foreign countries, they belonged to a religious sect known as The Hutterian Brethren.” Nevertheless, the court-martial condemned the letter to be “of a such a nature as would, however, tend to disloyalty and to a refusal to accept military service”. The military court found him guilty of “tending to influence said members [the Hutterian COs] to refuse to accept any kind of service in the army, and tending to induce insubordination, and disloyalty among said members to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” He was also found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death (commuted to 25 years hard labor) about a year after he initially registered his opposition to war.
Thus, Ben Salmon’s conscience made its debut on the national stage on June 5, 1917. His letter sent that day to President Wilson clearly stated his firm resolve to follow Christ’s path and abstain from any action that would contribute to killing one of his brothers, his brothers being all men. He knew it would be a hard task to convince the Government and the US Catholic Church that his stand was based on his conscience and was not based on fear of dying in battle. As Ben stated in his letter, “prison, or death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the army, and contributing, either directly or indirectly, to the death of my fellow workingmen.” Unfortunately for Ben, it took more than two years in military prison, months in solitary, and a hunger strike to convince the authorities of his conscientious objection. The treatment he received while in prison resulted in his early death at age 43. Fortunately for us, during his imprisonment Ben Salmon typed out his rebuttal of the Catholic doctrine of just war and a detailed justification of his absolutist stand against killing any of his neighbors. His inspiring words can be found at www.bensalmon.org/bens-magnum-opus.html.