WWI Saints

Benjamin Joseph Salmon (1889–1932) was an American Christian pacifist, Roman Catholic, conscientious objector and outspoken critic of just war theory, as he believed all war to be unjust.

Ben Salmon and the Army of Peace
by John Dear

Ben Salmon
Benjamin Salmon, WWI American Catholic Conscientious Objector sentenced to death (later commuted to 25 years).

One of the inspiring Christians of the last century was Ben Salmon, the American Catholic conscientious objector to World War I. Whenever my spirits sag over the apparently dim prospects for peace, I think of Ben, layman, husband, and father, peacemaker and resister. His was a lonely, steadfast stretch of discipleship to the nonviolent Jesus. I’ve thought often of Ben and taken his example to heart.

Imagine! Long before Mahatma Gandhi, Franz Jagerstatter, Dorothy Day, Dr. King or Thomas Merton — before the Catholic Worker or Pax Christi or NCR, before Archbishop Romero, Vatican II or the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Peace — this lone man stood and said that because of Jesus, he would not be a soldier. Right here in the United States.

Ben came to my attention in 1990, during ceremonies for the Pax Christi Book Award, which I used to direct. Gordon Zahn had nominated a biography on Salmon, written by one of Zahn’s graduate students, Torin Finney. It’s titled Unsung Hero of the Great War (Paulist Press, 1989). Our committee awarded Torin the prize. Our thinking was that perhaps more people might come to know this singular man, Ben Salmon.

Just a few years ago, I was delighted to see Ben featured in The Sign of Peace, my favorite U.S. journal. I gleaned more on the man as I pored over the rare photos, as I took in the synopsis of his life, some of his writings and an interview with his daughter Elizabeth, today a Maryknoll sister in Nicaragua. (For the full issue, where I gleaned these details, and other information, see: www.catholicpeacefellowship.org.)

The story begins April 6, 1917. It was the day President Woodrow Wilson, the “peace president,” declared war on Germany, and the next day, Congress ratified the decision, bringing the United States. into World War I. Two weeks later, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, the de facto head of the U.S. Catholic church, issued a letter, to this effect: all Catholics were to support the war.

The letter was soon followed by the founding of the U.S. Bishops’ “National Catholic War Council,” which set out to mobilize Catholics for, what it called, “war work.” Peacework? Peacemaking? That was never an option. (According to historians, this War Council eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.)

As the darkness descended, on June 5, 1917, 28 year-old-Ben Salmon took up his pen. He wrote the president, saying he would refuse to fight. “Regardless of nationality,” he wrote,

all men are my brothers. God is “our father who art in heaven.” The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is unconditional and inexorable... 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. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.

A brave missive in those days. Congress, suddenly fervid for war, wasted little time getting a new law on the books. It outlawed activities “detrimental to the war effort” — public anti-war statements, anti-war literature, utterances that might encourage draft resistance — all these punishable by up to 20 years behind bars.

Under the law, the authorities arrested hundreds, harassed thousands. And when challenged, finally, the law was upheld by the Supreme Court. Necessary for “national security,” they decreed.

Salmon had voted for Wilson. Like most, he had expected the president to lead the country to peace. And when the brilliant and upright candidate came to power and unleashed war, Salmon’s disappointment burned deep. Wilson outdid even his hawkish predecessors in warmaking. (A pattern, need it be added, quite obvious today.)

Undeterred by the chill on the air, Ben rose to leadership in Denver’s “People’s Council for Democracy and Peace,” a national anti-war organization. In defiance of the law, he wrote letters, gave speeches, and distributed pamphlets. Soon, he caught the attention of The New York Times, which hotly denounced him. He had become notorious.

Meantime, the gears of war turned feverishly, with a kind of census going full tilt to unearth prospective recruits. On Christmas day, Ben’s Army registration questionnaire arrived. Ben returned it, unfilled-out, accompanied by a letter explaining why. “Let those that believe in wholesale violation of the commandment, ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’ make a profession of faith by joining the army of war. I am in the army of peace, and in this army, I intend to live and die.”

Jan. 15, 1918, Denver policemen arrived at his door. The papers hurled slander his way, all sulfur and fire. The Knights of Columbus, the prominent Catholic lay association, in a fit of indignation revoked his membership. In March he was tried and convicted. And then the sentence came down — nine months in the county jail.

Matters, already grim, spiraled downward quickly. While out on appeal, his draft notice arrived. Report for induction, it ordered, in three days. A second refusal, a second arrest. And this time he found himself in the clutches of the military authorities, who hustled him into solitary confinement at Fort Logan, Colo.

At Fort Logan he was ordered to work. Again he refused. What to do about this, a trouble-maker in their midst? Guards and other prisoners nearly lynched him that night. And so the authorities put him in chains and trundled him to Camp Funston in Kansas. There, they told him, he would face court martial for “desertion and propaganda.” For desertion? “I’ve never actually been inducted,” he said. No matter.

The preliminary hearing was held in Iowa, and an offer of leniency proffered, a kind of quid pro quo. Again, no. He would make no deals with the military. He would rather face court martial — and defend himself. It was held on July 24, 1918, and in his own defense he argued three points.

  1. He had been inducted illegally;
  2. he was responsible for a dependent wife and mother; and
  3. conscription violated the First and Fifth Amendments.

The court found him guilty; the verdict came down in minutes. The sentence…was death.

Second thoughts came to the court, and before long they commuted the sentence to 25 years in prison at hard labor. More second thoughts came and lures and enticements. Be a legal clerk in an army office, they offered, and no more troubles. All charges dropped. His wife, having just given birth, urged him to accept, but the recalcitrant Ben again said no. Even non-combatant service, he said, entails cooperating with an institution “antithetical to Christianity.”

They hauled him under heavy guard to Leavenworth, Kan., He arrived Oct. 9, 1918, and a month later an armistice was declared. The war was over. But not for Ben; his imprisonment had just begun.

He was assigned to a unit comprised of hundreds of COs and there, with them, expected to work. He was quickly consigned to “The Hole” — solitary confinement — when he refused all orders. Five months he suffered in a dark, rat-infested cell. No toilet but a pail, bread and water his only food.

Matters grew worse yet when in June, 1919, the authorities transferred him to a military prison in Utah, where sadistic guards took a dim view of conscientious objectors. The guards inflicted beatings, withheld food, and kept prisoners underdressed against the cold.

Still, he refused to buckle, and instead pushed things to their logical conclusion. A hunger strike. He wrote to the Secretary of War: “Unless you [release me], you will cause my death from starvation, for I cannot honestly continue to support [the Greek war god] Mars as I have in the past. I now realize that even the tiny bit of assistance that I was rendering in the way of accepting your food was too much.”

And he added: “Christ’s doctrine to overcome evil with good” is the “most effective solution for individual and societary ills that has ever been formulated. It is a practical policy…My life, my family, everything is now in the hands of God. His will be done.”

Two weeks later, death loomed, and he asked to see a priest. The priest arrived, but refused to offer him Communion, hear his confession or anoint him. Two other priests arrived some days later. And, after sizing things up, one of them agreed to the request for Communion. The sacrament was done. When word made its way back to the diocese, a fury descended. The priest was sent packing. Off to minor and punitive assignments in Oregon for pitying a traitor. Another instance of church colluding with warmongering state.

Force-feeding followed — 135 days of it — then a one-way ticket to Washington, D.C., to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane.

While there he refused to languish; he kept busy — thinking, praying and writing. From the ACLU archives we have the fruits of Ben’s efforts, a 200-page, single-spaced essay on the fallacy of the just war. Much of it a refutation of the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on war by Father Macksey, a Jesuit from the Gregorian University in Rome. Point by point Ben refutes the lofty scholar.

“Either Christ is a liar or war is never necessary, and very properly assuming that Christ told the truth, it follows that the State is without [in the words of Father Macksey] ‘judicial authority to determine when war is necessary,’ because it is never necessary.”

Much of Salmon’s thinking depended on the Apostle Paul. “Overcome evil with good,” admonished Paul. (Rom 12:21).

We do not attempt to overcome lying with lies; we overcome it with truth. We do not try to overcome curses with curses, but we overcome with silence or with words of friendship. Sickness is not overcome with sickness; it is overcome with health… Anger is overcome with meekness, pride by humility. And the successful way to overcome the evil of war is by the good of peace, a steadfast refuse to render evil for evil.

A sad matter when faithfulness, nonviolence, sanity, as it was in Jesus’ own day, is regarded as — insanity.

Eventually, in the cultural mind there passed an assuaging of adamant feelings. The newly formed ACLU had ignored his many pleas for help, but gradually they changed their tune. The New York Times, previously Ben’s sharp detractor, wrote about his plight and hunger strike. The well-respected Msgr. John Ryan of Catholic University got wind of the news and personally lobbied the Secretary of War.

The War Department, in a feeble way, finally relented — they would release 33 conscientious objectors. Ben would be among them. Thanksgiving 1920, he was released and, from the army he never joined, dishonorably discharged. The news made front pages across the nation.

Persona non grata thereafter, he struggled to find good work. And when the Depression set in, he and his family landed in deep poverty. His health never recovered — the forced feedings had taken their toll — and in 1932 he caught pneumonia and died.

The astonishing life and times of Ben Salmon, all but unheard of in our day and age.

A few years ago, my friend Bruce MacIntosh of Taos, N.M., wrote an inspiring screenplay based on Ben’s life. Bruce sent me a copy of Ben’s original manuscript, which I treasure as a kind of long lost Dead Sea Scroll. [If anyone knows a Hollywood producer who might be interested in Bruce’s screenplay, please contact me!]

Meanwhile, The Sign of Peace concludes that Ben Salmon isn’t just a faithful Catholic, but a “confessor of the faith.” I would go farther. I regard him as a saint for the ages. He took on the nation, he took on Christendom. He took them on in reverence toward the Christ of peace. He shows us what allegiance to the nonviolent Jesus looks like.

Since Ben’s days, decades have been born, decades have died. And sad to say, little has changed.

A handful of great peacemakers have been given us: Franz Jagerstatter and Dorothy Day, Philip Berrigan and Howard Zinn. Yet most bishops and priests, and following their lead, most of the laity, still cheer on state-sanctioned mass murder, especially when committed in Jesus' name. They go along, they rock few boats.

More, among our military, a third are Catholic. Vastly more theologians than not, like Father Macksey, pursue justifications for war. I get the feeling that the bishops wish they could start a new “National Catholic War Council;” they certainly haven’t formed a “Peace Council.” And today, as in Ben’s own day, an eloquent president, elected on promises of peace, has taken warmaking to new heights. The times, Ben’s and ours, run parallel. And that being the case, one of the brightest beacons we have is Ben.

His example urges us to refuse to cooperate with the warmaking state. Is the stand costly, are the stakes high? No matter. “Peacemaking is hard, hard almost as war,” to quote the poet. The vocation falls to us, Christians everywhere, to follow the nonviolent Jesus.

May we all be inspired to join Ben’s Army of Peace. It is the witness most required by our times.

+++++++This piece first appeared in the February 23, 2010 National Catholic Reporter in John Dear's monthly column




by Daniel Berrigan

(for a letter Ben wrote from prison, click HERE)

He brings to mind the buried treasure of the Gospel story, this unlikely hero.
He was born in an unlikely city - Denver, Colorado.
How could he know that one day its resident critics would unite in scoring him. with a great groan of the media, as a "drone" an "arch slacker" a "violent antiwar CO.." a "man with a yellow streak down his spine..."
His crime? He was anti-Denver, anti-American: even anti-Catholic. He was anti war. He was guilty of the Great Refusal. The year was 1914; the country was embarking on Wilson's "war to end all wars." And in the bastion of busbies. Salmon dared, cannily, with more than a soupcon of irony, to put his convictions on record:" If killing has to be insisted on, those responsi-ble for war - kings, presidents. Kaisers, etc. - should be made to fight each other and not drag millions of inno-cent youths into a game where they would be compelled to slaughter each other."
Outrageous. The reaction was swift: was it not war-time, were Catholics not bound (on thinks of the survi-val instinct of an immigrant people and the bidding of their religious authorities) - bound to follow the flag?"
Ben was summarily ejected from the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization famed for its tightfisted Catholic Americanism.
Worse was to come. Imprisoned for refusing induction. Ben encountered a number of priests, chaplains to the military. One after another, each fired off an ecclesiastical salvo. This solitary prisoner was demented or ethically awry, or both; the church would grant him no concession, allow him no sacrament.
In many details. Ben's story eerily resembles that of an Austrian counterpart, Franz Jagerstaetters, and his resistance against World War II.
Both were working class married men, had fathered children. Both were Catholic, both were repudiated by the church. Both were offered alternative noncombatant service by their governments, and refused the concession. Their decision to resist war worked hardship on their families; spouses endured public odium, children were raised and educated as best the women could, alone.
Jagerstaetter was finally executed. Salmon too was condemned to death, a sentence afterward commuted to 25 years at hard labor.
On November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed. The War to end war was over, but Ben's sentence had scarcely begun.
In a private war of wills, he was shuttled about the country from one military gulag to another; from Fort Logan. Colorado: to Camp Funston, Kansas; to Camp Dodge, Iowa: then back to Kansas and an ominous phase at Fort Leavenworth.
There was no bargaining with him. he was baffling, outrageous, iron willed. He was Irish. No, he would not work for " our natural butchering process...the system." "To work in a military prison is to aid the killing machine." And Yes, he would organize a strike, to protest the larceny of funds designated for prisoners' food.
In wit and wisdom he could be devastating: "I would rather be one of the conscientious objectors who died in the stand for genuine Christianity, than to be wearing a breast full of medals for service rendered the devil on fields of battle."
Today, more than 30 years after his death, his writings offer an anthology of riches. Suffering lent a razor's edge to the mind of this "uneducated" working man.
Thus he countered a Jesuit ethician who defended in print the just war theory: " Either Christ is a liar or war is never necessary; and, very properly assuming that Christ told the truth, it follows that the state is without judicial authority to determine when war is necessary -because it is never necessary."
No giving in. A further punishment, another circle of hell was devised for him - bread and water and solitary confinement.
Catholic chaplains, exasperated, tarred him as "recalcitrant" and "reckless."
Six months of this. Released to the prison population, he remained adamant: not a finger lifted, no working for the system. His logic was delicious. He saw concession as a game of dominoes falling: "If I could work five minutes, I could work a day, and if I could work a day, I could work a year, and if I could work a year, I could join the army..."
Off again he was trundled. He was the original patron of holy gyrovagues. a Saint Elsewhere.
The destination This time: Fort Douglas, Utah. He arrived, in shackles.
No, he would not work.
Threatened again, this time with life imprisonment, his response was typical, uncowed. He put it in writing: the commandant could "have me tried by court-martial immediately and give me a million years in sentences: but I would not go to work."
The war had come home, as wars will. The brutalities of the battlefields spilled over, a domestic witches' brew. He and his companions tasted it. He reported: "...starvation, beatings, cold baths in zero weather, bay-oneting, were the order of the day"
Late he added, summing up, and in spite of all. exulting: "Every method of torture was used, and while many died, only a few were broken in spirit."
The armistice was declared. More than a year passed. And Salmon and the other C.O. s remained in prison.
Hell on earth, being the work of humans, must be endlessly reinvented. For these refusers, new circles within circles were drawn up.
Ben, too, to evaluating his past, with a view toward a further act of resistance.
He recalled how at the start, he had refused to report for induction. He would not work at assigned tasks, or wear a military uniform. He resisted the official theft of prisoners' food money.
The war ended. And here he sat. under lockup. Prison, that bitter pill, stuck in his throat.

Was this to be borne?
Everything indicated a further step.
On July 17, 1920, Salmon announced his decision; he was undertaking a hunger strike "for liberty or for death.
Christ's urging that we "overcome evil with good," he wrote, "is the most effective solution for individual and societary (sic) ills...ever formulated."
He was at the brink, my life, my family, everything is now in the hands of God. His will be done."
Though under duress, he could be dauntingly logical in reflecting on his decision. He writes in the tone of Dorothy Day:... We do not attempt to overcome lying with lies; we overcome it with truth. We do not try to overcome curses with curses, but we overcome with silence or with words of friendship...Sickness is not overcome with sickness; it is overcome with health. If I cut my finger, the remedy is not to cut another finger, but to succor the original wound. Anger is overcome by meek-ness, pride by humility."
And he comes to the nub of his argument: "...the successful way to overcome the evil of war is by the good of peace, a steadfast refusal to 'render evil for evil'.
No food, no water, indefinitely.
Another military chaplain entered his cell. This one too proved a harrier of our Job. The priest pontificated; Salmon's hunger strike was "suicidal, and a mortal sin."
Salmon was unmoved.
And inevitably, official anger flared anew. They were at wits' end with him.
He was shipped out again, this time on a daunting continental trek. It was an instance of military overkill, with armed guards, a train with drawn shades, a physician, a commandant - all this to control a single prisoner, half dead with fasting.
What were they to do with this baffling subverter?
The prisoner's train sped out of Utah eastward.
Ben was deposited, under lock and key, in St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C.
In the blueprint of hell, a further circle had been devised. It included a dwelling of sorts for the otherwise unclassifiable.
Salmon was classified, once for all, locked in a wing of the hospital set apart for the 'criminally insane.' He had been thrust in each of hell's circles, rejecting each, declaring with a sublime perversity that hits or that cell as will fitted to his needs. Which is to say, to his conscience.
A hospital for the insane, a scene of cacophony and anguish. His report: " The wilder ones rave and holler, all day long they rant and screech, sometimes in stentorian tones, sometimes a little milder...At night everyone is perfectly quiet except for the intermittent ravings of various unfortunates and the innocent conversations of those who seem to have many friends conversing with them in their solitary cells."
Salmon had arrived at hell's home address.
He continue his strike for an unprecedented 80 days. For months, he was force fed several times each day.
But ever so slowly, a tide was gathering. Support for the resister grew, even in the Catholic church.
The military mind, let it be suggested, reasons somewhat like this: when a tactic proves useless, repeat it.
Ben was shipped off once more, from hell to purgatory, so to speak. To Walter Reed Military Hospital. It was the last redoubt of an astonishing survivor.
In November, 1920, signed, sealed, and delivered to Benjamin Joseph Salmon was a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Army. Hell had given up its prey.
Peacemaking exacted of Ben Salmon a terrifying price, just short of the fate of Franz Jagerstaetter.
They could not defeat Salmon. But the fasting, the torment of forced feeding, the solitary cage, fell on him like a hundredweight, shortening his life.
In the harsh Chicago winter of 1932, in his 43rd year, he fell ill with pneumonia and within days, died..

See, brutes huff and
puff, they rake the world with
they build hecatombs of shuddering bones.
The God of life
half attentive,
keeps them at edge of
no need of vengeance, of judgment;
they crumble, a faulty tower downwind! 
At center eye
the apple of God's eye
blossoms, swells, ripens
the faithful who fall
straight as a plumb line
God's right hand!
(after Psalm 33)