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‘Some fights are bigger than others’

By (August 1, 2011) No Comment


By Louisa Thomas
Penguin June 2011

Although Louisa Thomas’s family biography Conscience is subtitled ‘A Test of Will and Faith in World War One,’ it has less to do with the war than with its prehistory and its lasting, mostly forgotten legacy for U.S. politics and society. The hook of the story is compelling, and it’s fun to imagine what a novelist might have made of two brothers fighting for the Allies while the other two become conscientious objectors – especially when one is wounded on the Western Front and another goes on hunger strike in a military prison. Thomas, however, is not a novelist. This story of her own family does not focus on domestic drama but on domestic politics, and in the process the book becomes an indispensable and often surprising guide to the United States’ entry into World War One and onto the world stage. In clear and engaging language it takes up the entwined histories of religion, socialism, civil liberties and family life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By grounding these large themes in the story of a single family, and exploring them through the diaries, letters and public statements of characters we come to recognize and relate to, Thomas offers up a gripping hybrid of the personal and the political.

The story follows the Thomas family from the late nineteeth century up to the immediate aftermath of the war, focusing most extensively on the author’s great-grandfather Norman, later the six-time Socialist candidate for President. The story starts before Norman’s birth in 1885, and traces his and his siblings’ extraordinary commitment to public service through the figures of their father Welling, son of a Welsh immigrant farmer ‘insistently named Thomas Thomas,’ and mother Emma, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, a woman determined to make – and unafraid to revise – her own judgments about the world. Thomas describes a photograph of the family on the veranda of their house in Bangkok, inscribed with the note that six-year-old Emma ‘is somewhere in the bushes.’ This spirit of mischievous independence was accompanied by a strong sense of fair play. When the family returned to the United States, her parents taught at a new college for black students in North Carolina, and Emma made the effort to see the good in the white neighbors who at first wouldn’t call on her parents: ‘She would later tell her sons what it felt like to be shunned, to be called a carpetbagger and worse. At the same time, though, she emphasized that her friends came to look past her parents and her background.’ A commitment to social justice, imbued with religious fervor, marked the backgrounds and characters of Welling and Emma, and were passed on to their four sons and two daughters.

Welling Thomas was a graduate of Princeton’s conservative theological academy, and all four sons attended Princeton, through the generosity of relatives. This experience bound the brothers together even as their personalities and beliefs divided them, and induced varying degrees of loyalty toward Woodrow Wilson, their professor and college president before he was their country’s leader. Unlike their father, however, who was a faithful minister to the end of his life, Norman and Evan rejected Princeton and pursued their own religious studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City – a bastion of liberal thinking that challenged the absolute truth of the Bible. Given how unstable America’s public discourse about religion tends to be, lurching between fundamentalism and dismissal, it’s refreshing to encounter people who could grapple seriously and amicably with the nuances of their faith, and one of the pleasures of the book is the chance to spend time in their thoughtful company. Yet Thomas also resurrects the Glenn Beck of the era in Billy Sunday, a fire and brimstone preacher who roared a gospel of pugnacious individualism, and whose appeal she neatly sums up: ‘He made hatred feel good, which made people feel powerful.’ Once the war got underway, Sunday became a virulent militarist and advocate for U.S. intervention, at one point calling for a group of pacifist ministers to be lynched.

Ralph and Norman Thomas

At the start of the war in Europe, however, only the most fervent hawks could have seen American involvement coming: ‘When a Serbian nationalist shot an unpopular aristocrat on the edge of Europe in late June, 1914, few people paid much attention.’ The U.S. government was more concerned about Mexico, while the British feared a civil war in Ireland. But as the war began to produce tangible horrors, in the German atrocity stories and the conditions of trench warfare, the country became more publicly pro-war. Driven largely by Wilson’s defeated presidential rival Teddy Roosevelt, the doctrine of ‘preparedness’ – a massive militarization effort – began to dominate the public sphere. Preparedness made pacifism, which before the war had been a fairly mainstream political position, into a cause for suspicion – a change from which it has never fully recovered. At the same time, the surveillance of political dissenters was becoming more common. After a press story suggested that the offices of the main pacifist organization, the American Union Against Militarism, were under surveillance, its leaders ‘could not conceive that the story might possibly be accurate. They were too confident of their good standing with the government, their good reputations. But the story was true.’ Thomas’s skill lies in showing these moments of quiet drama, seemingly insignificant in the larger scheme of things, to be the real turning points in history. Her book makes us not only recognize but feel the lasting impact of the moment when people lose faith in their government.
As the war went on, Norman became a key player in pacifist politics. Thomas traces subtly and in detail the evolution of his beliefs, from the security of religious faith to his uncertain embrace of a secular socialism. He lived and worked as a minister for many years in East Harlem, then an immigrant Italian and Hungarian neighborhood blighted by unemployment, racial tensions and alcoholism. During the war, he began to doubt the church’s ability to respond to these conditions, and to see the interconnectedness between Harlem and Verdun. ‘He could see [war’s] echo in the poverty produced by industrial capitalism. Whether from force or need, he met too may people who were crushed.’ Pacifism became an article of faith – supplanting God – not simply because of the terrible losses of the war, but because it was part of that crushing system: ‘his revulsion for war after the Somme and Verdun, after the endless bloodletting and the poison gas, the easy enmeshing of gears between American business and the Allied war effort, and the feverish promilitary rallies, had grown overwhelming.’
Norman’s public-spirited pacifism was surpassed in fervor by that of his brother Evan, who embraced a determinedly individualistic kind of resistance, and emerges as perhaps the most complex figure of all. Norman’s status as a family man and a minister protected him from conscription, but also anchored him and directed his energies outward. Evan, by contrast, yearns for some kind of martyrdom but lacerates himself for the selfishness of that desire. He spends the early years of the war in Scotland, in order to be closer to the action and to those fighting against coerced enlistment. The United States’ declaration of war comes as an undeniable relief – he returns immediately in order to publicly resist the obligation to enlist. He and his fellow conscientious objectors in the military training camps on Long Island and at Fort Leavenworth argue endlessly about the nature and limits of their resistance. He eventually goes on hunger strike, is force-fed, then court-marshaled for refusing an order to eat and sentenced to life imprisonment (a sentence commuted and then overturned shortly after the war). Evan seems to have been a natural, charismatic leader despite his inner torments, and became a kind of hero even to the soldiers, yet he continued to wrestle with the suspicion that his protest was selfish or meaningless. Thomas lets these complexities play out in Evan’s own words, through his letters home and in the reactions of his family, resisting the temptation to interpret his actions based on a preconceived psychological template. As a result he and Norman, in particular, develop the roundedness and changeability of the most skilfully drawn fictional characters.
Ralph, the second son, had a more traditional outlook on the evils of society and his role in combating them. After their father’s sudden death, it was the bachelor Ralph who took in his mother and young sisters: ‘This was how Ralph understood duty – differently from Norman, and certainly differently from Evan…. He thought about his personal debt before his social one.’ It was also Ralph, an engineer, who enlisted in the army and fought in the trenches for several months before suffering serious injuries in the late summer of 1918. He was cleared fit for duty and ready to return to his regiment on the day the Armistice was declared. Ralph was joined in his military service by Arthur, his youngest brother. A rather hapless figure, Arthur grows up in his talented brothers’ shadow and lacks the intelligence and force of personality that otherwise distinguishes the family. He joined the Air Corps but the war ended before he made it out of training. Although his experience was not especially heroic, it was fairly typical of the time: ‘He went because he was asked, not because of his idealism; he wanted to prove himself, but he struggled against strictures of the military and with his disappointment.’ That disappointment was no doubt exacerbated by the loud and public stands and sacrifices of his brothers.
Despite these chasms of difference in the brothers’ war experience, there is no evidence of any lasting fights or feuds, and they continue to exchange thoughtful, detailed letters discussing their own and each other’s moral positions, inviting the reader to consider – and reconsider – what his or her decisions might be under such circumstances. Especially after Welling’s death, Emma devoted herself to maintaining her sons’ tight bond: she would diligently circulate every letter she received from one among all the others, writing a list of their initials in the margins so each reader could mark off his own. This apparent lack of privacy ends up keeping even the bitterest differences of opinion from becoming personal. Yet there are ways of reading between the lines even of letters written for an audience, such as the fragment Thomas reproduces of a letter sent by Evan to his mother when he is in solitary confinement in Fort Leavenworth. Despite reassurances that ‘you have no cause to worry,’ the letter, with its uneven lines and frequent mistakes, reveals that ‘the pressure he had placed upon himself, torqued by the intense asocial and physical experience of being in solitary, did affect his spirit, body and mind.’
This ‘physical experience’ was being manacled for nine hours a day to the bars of his six-by-eight foot cell (Evan was the tallest of his four tall brothers, and well over six feet). Information about Evan’s treatment was taken to the White House by Norman’s colleague in the Christian pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, John Nevin Sayre, whose brother was Wilson’s son-in-law. Although the military had denied the practice of chaining prisoners, Evan’s evidence was enough to convince the President to order it immediately discontinued. Wilson was on his way to France at this point for the peace talks, and although he did not pardon Evan, as Sayre had also requested, this small concession, and the way he communicated it to his secretary of war, was important. ‘His description of the chaining as “mediaeval,” perhaps, is telling: Wilson was looking forward, away from the dark past, to a better future.’
Here and throughout the book, Thomas excels at reading minor details – a misprint in a letter, an unusual word or phrase – to make a larger point about the way that the country was changing under the pressure of the war. She notes for instance that before World War One, the term ‘conscientious objector’ had described those who refused compulsory vaccinations – the changing meaning of the term seems to suggest the migration of ‘conscience’ from the arena of the private to the public, when it comes to indicate a moral line drawn between the self and the state. The statistics Thomas uses, both familiar and new, are similarly revealing, especially about the extent of the government’s propaganda efforts. The Committee on Public Information, ‘President Wilson’s brainchild’ employed 75,000 ‘four-minute men’ whose job it was to travel the country promoting the war in high-speed bursts, and its written propaganda campaigns were mind-bendingly intensive: ‘It published seventy-five million copies of more than thirty pamphlets promoting the war.’ This bombardment of the population makes the resistance of Norman and Evan Thomas the more striking. ‘It turned an unpopular war into a two-year-long Fourth of July parade.’
It was a parade with a fatal aftermath. The influenza epidemic was exacerbated by American troop movements to Europe and back and spread at victory parades that the government refused to cancel. It ‘killed more men and women in one year than the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages had killed in a century; it killed more people in six months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years.’ Despite these statistics, the war and its aftermath register barely a blip on American national memory. Yet as this book makes clear, its legacies are significant, both positive – in the birth of the ACLU and a greater public understanding of the importance of ‘civil liberties’ – and negative, in the political use of ‘freedom’ as a mask for coercion, and in the public neglect and alienation of returned veterans. As Thomas puts it, ‘During the early twentieth century, the American government began to play a role in the lives of its citizens it had never played before’ – and that role was not always benign.
The war did not begin, but certainly intensified Norman’s belief that the defense of the powerless working classes would be his life’s work. The lack of public outrage – especially from liberals – toward repression, violence, lynching and segregation shocked him: ‘Few seemed to question the extraordinary powers the state had given itself to order the lives of its people and crush dissent.’ He found his role in the Socialist party, and after the death of Eugene Debs in 1926, was the party’s ‘American-born standard bearer’ for 50 years. He committed himself to that role without reserve, and ‘spoke from hundreds of stages … every year, until his body was so broken that he could hardly stand.’ In a political climate in which the label ‘socialist’ functions primarily as a hysterical slander, Norman Thomas’s moral commitment and dogged idealism is all the more inspiring. His great-granddaughter’s story of how that commitment was formed is an unexpected pleasure, balancing politics and personalities with exceptional skill, and in the process opening an insightful window into a shadowy period in American history.

Joanna Scutts teaches literature – from the Greeks to Virginia Woolf – to unsuspecting freshmen at Columbia University. Originally a Londoner, she now lives in Astoria, New York, and is working on a book about modernism and memorialization after the First World War.