quinta-feira, 26 de abril de 2012
Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War I
By Louisa Thomas
Illustrated. 320 pp. The Penguin Press. $25.95.
In every presidential election from 1928 to 1948, Americans had the option of voting for Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party candidate. Very few chose to do so. Thomas’s best result — 2.2 percent of the ballot nationwide — was in 1932, and he never came close to that share again. Yet when he died in 1968 at the age of 84, he was remembered as a courageous idealist who, in the words of a tribute in The New York Times, “spoke to the feelings that most Americans have about themselves.” In other words, he was an advocate for fairness, decency, justice and equality, a man to be admired though hardly one to be voted into office.
Louisa Thomas, who never knew her great-grandfather, might well have chosen to write his biography as a way of meeting him. Instead, in her first book, “Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War I,” she has been far more daring. In fact, the lengthy subtitle is a bit misleading. Yes, Norman and his brother Evan were pacifists and their brothers Ralph and Arthur joined the Army. And yes, Evan was jailed as a conscientious objector and Ralph was wounded in the trenches. Yet the thrust of this enthralling book lies with its title: through the experience of her forebears, Thomas examines how conscience fares when society considers it subversive.
At issue is not Norman Thomas’s socialism: it barely enters the picture because he joined the Socialist Party only a month before the end of the war. Instead, we are shown the “making” of a socialist, formed not by Marx but by the Bible. This began, with no great daring, when Norman — and later Evan — followed their father and two grandfathers into the ministry. But they then took a liberal turn, embracing an early Protestant version of liberation theology known as the Social Gospel.
The leap from theory to practice took some adjustment. Although Norman’s parents were not well off, he had attended Princeton University with help from a wealthy uncle and had married into a prosperous family, so it came as a shock to be running a poor parish crowded with immigrants in East Harlem. This in turn prompted him to ask what lay behind the misery he addressed daily. “It was little comfort,” Thomas writes, “for him, let alone his parishioners, to say that God works in mysterious ways when he saw employers exploit labor all too clearly.”
Initially, Norman considered the war that erupted in Europe in the summer of 1914 to be a distant affair, and he felt reassured by President Wilson’s pledge of neutrality. But as pressure mounted to expand the United States military, he acted on his conscience, joining the American Union Against Militarism and denouncing the immorality of war. Evan, meanwhile, took a lonelier path, moving to Edinburgh to work with British conscientious objectors and increasingly confronting Scottish churchmen who supported the war. “True to my own conscience,” Thomas notes, “would become for Evan a mantra, a trump card.” Yet his conscience was never stilled.
Finally, when Wilson took the United States into the war in the spring of 1917, matters of conscience became the stuff of public confrontation. Norman was deeply disillusioned when his own church leaders backed Wilson. “As Norman drifted away from the church,” Thomas writes, “he thought it was drifting away from him.” As a leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, he campaigned in vain against conscription. With pacifists now widely viewed as traitors, the antiwar movement came under fierce attack from the new Espionage Act as well as from newspapers and thuggish vigilantes. An old friend even told Norman: “There must be a limit to freedom of conscience.”
Once the draft was in place, Ralph and Arthur volunteered for service, while Evan returned home, bent on challenging the system as a conscientious objector. (“No small part of Evan,” Thomas reflects, “wanted to be punished as a martyr.”) Indeed, Evan and a group of “absolutists” rejected the option of farm or factory furlough work and welcomed the inevitable court-martial. After a hunger strike and protests led him to be manacled to iron bars in solitary confinement, Evan was dishonorably discharged and given a life sentence of confinement at hard labor. A few weeks later, the sentence was reduced to 25 years’ hard labor and, after a successful appeal, he was freed on Jan. 14, 1919. Typically, his conscience objected. He felt “it was unfair and unjust,” Thomas reports, “that he had been released before the others.”
Norman and Evan would wait until their mother’s death in 1931 before they formally renounced the clergy, but the war had left its mark. Evan told a friend that his faith was “pretty much shot to pieces,” while Norman resigned from his East Harlem parish. But, as a socialist, Norman would also struggle to remain true to his conscience, perhaps one reason he failed as a politician. Looking back many years later, he wrote: “I expected more of both God and man than today.” Still, in his great-granddaughter’s view, he did well to make such high demands.
Alan Riding is a former European cultural correspondent for The Times. His most recent book is “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris.”
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 12:56