Pacifism versus Just War

Brethren Life and Thought | Published on

By Ernest W. Lefever

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For eight fateful years, from Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies in 1937 to the collapse of Germany and Japan in 1945, I was an active religious pacifist pursuing college and theological studies first at Elizabethtown College, then one year at Bethany Biblical Seminary in Chicago, and finally at Yale Divinity School. My tenacious pacifism enabled me to blot out headlines about U.S. mobilization and war, yet I felt I was somehow more than a pawn in the larger struggle and persuaded myself that my words and deeds were relevant. With the zeal of a crusader, I sought to advance civil rights and help the poor. My less driven college pals saw me as a naive utopian.

In college, I was president of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the International Relations Club, but my energy was devoted mainly to opposing peacetime conscription. Antiwar sentiment in America was by no means confined to religious pacifists. In 1935, for example, some 175,000 American college students had signed the Oxford University oath never “in any circumstances” to fight for their country, a stance that changed dramatically after Pearl Harbor.

In my senior year, I was ordained a minister by the local Church of the Brethren in York, Pennsylvania. I never became a pastor but occasionally used my ministerial status to perform marriages.

My pacifism was strengthened by two singular events in my freshman year. In March 1938, Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota lectured on our campus, blaming modern wars on “merchants of death” who sold arms to all sides. The next day I passed out leaflets urging fellow students to write their congressmen, asking them to oppose a new navy appropriations bill.

A far more influential event was a Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) conference at Bound Brook, New Jersey. The FOR was and is a small religious pacifist organization whose members then included influential Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders. It was led by A. J. Muste, a former Trotskyite turned Presbyterian minister. He espoused absolute pacifism with the intensity of an Old Testament prophet, and become an instant hero to me.

Absorbed in my causes, I didn’t follow the day-by-day events abroad, but was quite aware of the evil personified by Hitler, Stalin, and the Japanese predators. I had read portions of Mein Kampf, and my comprehension of Hitler’s madness was further sharpened during a 1939 campus visit by Wilhelm Sollmann, a former Weimar Republic minister who advocated collective military action against German expansion. I learned about Kristallnacht from Oliver Foss, an off-campus Jewish refugee student who made my dorm room his daytime perch.

Brethren peace leader Dan west introduced me to church-sponsored summer work camps, and for five years I participated in such camps from the slums of Philadelphia to the hop fields of Yakima County, Washington. In my senior college year, I joined the FOR staff as a part-time field secretary and continued this assignment during my first two seminary years. I limited my salary to $11.95 a week to avoid paying income tax because it would help support the war effort. With no financial help from home, I worked my way through college and seminary, and during my college and seminary years, I hitchhiked about 30,000 miles. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, I marched at the British Consulate in Chicago, protesting the detention of Gandhi. As an idealistic activist, I was clearly battling too many windmills.

Watershed Year
The year 1939 was a watershed for me, not because of the infamous Hitler-Stalin pact or the German invasion of Poland but because I went to my first Brethren work camp, paying five dollars a week for the privilege. Fifteen of us volunteers spent midsummer working with children of unemployed coal miners on the outskirts of Scranton, Pennsylvania. While there, I read You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a graphic portrayal of the South with photos by Margaret Bourke-White and text by Erskin Caldwell. I was moved by the empty faces of people living in shacks, their walls papered with ads for things they could never buy.

I wanted to see those faces, so I persuaded Bill Willoughby, a college pal, to join me in visiting the region that President Roosevelt had called “ill fed, ill clothed, and ill housed.” Starting in Washington, D.C., we hitchhiked through 16 mainly southern states in 16 days. While driving through Georgia on August 23, I was shocked more by the sight of chain gangs of black convicts on the side of the road than by the Hitler-Stalin Pact signed in Moscow that day. The lights were indeed going out all over Europe, but that didn’t dampen my pacifism.

A week later, in McComb, Mississippi, Bill and I were thrown into the local jail for hopping freight trains. Though a common mode of transportation for down-and-outers during the Depression, it was illegal. We were released the next morning, September 1, only to learn that Hitler had invaded Poland earlier that day. With Europe now at war, and after many lesser adventures along the way, I returned home to York.

This jam-packed pilgrimage cost Bill and me eight dollars each. It was one of the most riveting experiences in my young life. But Dad saw it as an exercise in improvident idealism, doubtless hoping that it would help flush such foolishness out of my system. It didn’t.

Several weeks before Pearl Harbor, as chairman of the Church of the Brethren National Youth Cabinet, I signed a proclamation sponsored by the New York-based Youth Committee Against War. It opposed “fascism and totalitarianism” and U.S. involvement in “total war.” Other signers included socialist Norman Thomas and Catholic activist Dorothy Day. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the committee changed its name to Youth Committee for Democracy and vowed to “combat war hysteria” and to protect the rights of racial and religious minorities. The committee barred fascists, Nazis, and communists from membership.

I regarded German and Japanese aggression as evil, but my pacifism held firm and I remained an idealistic internationalist throughout the war, neither supporting U.S. involvement nor facing the troubling contradictions in my position. My faith in nonviolence made me innocently arrogant or arrogantly innocent. Was I simply chasing an impossible dream, or was I unknowingly passing through a phase that would later prepare me to accept realities I had chosen to ignore?

Civil Rights Work
My growing interest in ethics and world politics led me to pursue graduate work in theology. My first year was spent at the pacifist Bethany Biblical Seminary in Chicago, arriving nine months after Pearl Harbor. Efforts to keep America out of the war were no longer relevant, so I focused on the civil rights of conscientious objectors, Negroes, as they were then called, and Japanese-Americans. While in Chicago, I joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), established in 1942 by two black civil rights leaders, Bayard Rustin and James Farmer. Each was a full-time FOR staffer and I merely a part-time colleague, then working weekends in Indiana. Like these two wartime rights pioneers, I was also a member of the War Resisters League, the NAACP, the Free India Committee, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

CORE’s activities focused on securing Negro rights in northern cities and anticipated what twelve years later would be known as “the civil rights movement.” Its commitment to passive resistance laid the foundation for Martin Luther King, Jr., who became the preeminent rights activist a half generation later.

In June 1943, I participated in one of the first nonviolent rights demonstrations in the country. Forty of us, black and white, gathered on a Saturday at a negro church in Chicago. Our target was Stoner’s Restaurant, the only one in the Loop that refused to serve blacks. I was excited, feeling that I was on the “cutting edge of change,” one of my favorite clichés.

We entered the restaurant peacefully. The whites were seated promptly but the blacks were left standing. We refused to eat for more than an hour until everyone was served. Then our entire group burst into a Negro spiritual, with other patrons joining in. Almost twenty years passed before the first such sit-in took place in the South, specifically in February 1960 at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Shortly after President Roosevelt ordered the detention of West Coast Japanese-Americans in March 1942, I shot off a letter to him protesting the internment as “a gross violation of American citizens’ rights.” That summer I visited several of the so-called relocation centers. At the entrance of the Amache camp in Colorado, a large sign read: “585 Japanese-Americans in Service from Amache.” A few days before, a memorial service had been held for six detainee sons serving with the Japanese-American 442nd Regiment in Italy who had been killed in action. The 442nd was one of the most highly decorated units in the war. The irony was palpable. Later, Ralph and Mary Smeltzer and I arranged for the release of the first Japanese-Americans from California’s Manzanar center and helped establish relocation hostels for other detainees in Chicago and Brooklyn. On the way to the Japanese-American camp in Arkansas, I had a brief tiff with Jim Crow in Arlington, Virginia. I boarded a south-bound Greyhound bus and deliberately sat in the back seat to protest racial segregation. The driver asked me to move up front, but I declined. There was no disturbance because I was white and I acted alone. Thirteen years later, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, a black civil rights activist, sat in front of a city bus and refused to give her seat to a white passenger. Her defiance, carefully planned in advance by black activists, precipitated the historic Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Encounter with Reinhold Niebuhr
During my year at Bethany Seminary, I was not wholly consumed by social action. I took several good Bible courses. And twice, I went down to the Loop to hear two noted lecturers, Norman Thomas and Reinhold Niebuhr, whose opposing views on human nature and world affairs reflected my nascent ambiguity. I inclined toward Thomas, but his vaunted oratory left me unimpressed. In contrast, Niebuhr’s powerful words challenged my utopian worldview. With flashing eyes, the fifty-year-old Calvinist preacher, who in his youth had been both a pacifist and a socialist, declared that man, though flawed and sinful, was morally obligated to fight evil, specifically predatory tyranny. On a deeper level, he said that a wholly just and peaceful world was not possible “within history” as liberal rationalists believed. The consummation of the Kingdom of God was “beyond history.” I pondered his words.

This brief exposure to Niebuhr helped prompt my decision to pursue studies at a first-rate ecumenical seminary. In the fall of 1943, I moved from Chicago to New Haven, stopping briefly to visit my parents at their small farm near York. In my fevered rush to save the world, I often neglected visiting Mother and Dad who had lovingly nourished me, though I wrote frequently to them.

As a social ethics major at Yale, I focused on Christian views of man and history, freedom, and political responsibility. In a long paper, “The Problem of Evil and Freedom in Saint Augustine,” I concluded that the bishop of Hippo hadn’t resolved the paradox of an absolute God and human freedom, but, then, neither had any other philosopher before or since. Though Augustine rejected the shallow optimism of the Pelagians and the fatalism of the Manicheans, I remained a troubled Pelagian who downplayed original sin. Only after my immersion into the spiritual chaos of postwar Europe would I embrace Augustine’s and Niebuhr’s more somber view of the human condition.

My studies in New Haven coincided with the final two years of the war. Instead of disciplined study, I devoured pamphlets, articles, and other fugitive materials that fed my activism. I continued my FOR field work, traveling about New England speaking to small, friendly groups. I also wrote articles opposing “postwar conscription” and corresponded with five conscientious objectors, including my older brother, Tim, who were imprisoned because they refused to accept alternative civilian service provided by the Selective Service Act.

I continued my interest in the rights of blacks and Japanese Americans. Perhaps to make a point, I briefly dated two Japanese-American girls, Hiromi Matsomoto at Mt. Holyoke, and earlier, Mae Yoshida in Chicago. I also sought out black students, and during trips to New York City, I occasionally stayed in Harlem at the Parish House of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church whose minister, African-American Shelton Hale Bishop, was a part-time Yale Divinity School student and a friend.

But my one solid achievement-if words can be said to be solid-was a manifesto I wrote, calling for an end to the poll tax, segregation in the armed forces, and Oriental Exclusion laws, and for abolishing discrimination in housing, transport, and public places.

“Principled Unreasonableness”
At Yale Divinity School, during the last two years of the war, I lived in a kind of moral straitjacket that enabled me to survive a popular, and, as I now see it, just war without conscious feelings of guilt. I knew that German and Japanese aggression were evil and that a Nazi victory could plunge Europe into a new dark age, but I couldn’t bring myself to call for an Allied victory. And I was unwilling to call our involvement a just war. Perhaps my pacifism was an example of principled unreasonableness or an unacknowledged escape from necessary ambiguity.

Dodging the moral issue of the war was not all that difficult because I was cloistered with many other like-minded and draft-exempt theology students. I can’t recall a single conversation with a fellow student about a specific military development, except for the Allied “obliteration bombing” of German cities, notably Dresden, that I opposed on humanitarian grounds.

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered, but I didn’t hitchhike down to Times Square to celebrate V-E Day. I was shocked but not surprised by the grim images of Dachau and Buchenwald. With the war in Europe over. I believed that Japan was on the verge of surrender. I wired Senator Kenneth Wherry, Republican whip, supporting his effort to persuade President Truman to offer “peace terms to Japan to shorten the war, save thousands of lives, and lay a better foundation for enduring peace.” Truman had other plans.

The SS Ericsson made landfall at Plymouth, England, on September 27, l945, three weeks after the Japanese had surrendered to Douglas MacArthur on the USS Missouri. I had come to Europe help “bind up the wounds” of a terrible war whose horrors I had been spared. I would be working with German POWs and would treat both victor and vanquished with compassion—as my Grandfather Roth, a Mennonite preacher, did after the Battle of Gettysburg eighty-two years before.

Under a one-year assignment with the Brethren Service Committee (BSC) and the World’s YMCA, I would receive my expenses plus $10 a month, just like other BSC workers. As it turned out, I spent three years in Europe, mainly in occupied West Germany. My chief responsibility was to assist German POWs being repatriated to their devastated homeland. The World’s YMCA was authorized to serve the spiritual, educational, and recreational needs of POWs of all nationalities just as the equally neutral International Committee of the Red Cross was to serve their nutritional, medical, and legal needs. My Brethren YMCA colleagues and I provided books, religious supplies, and sports gear in England and Germany to enrich the life of POWs.

Shortly after arriving in Britain, I wrote, “The tasks that confront us are overwhelming. The virtues of good humor and devotion are essential in seeking to bind up the wounds of man’s inhumanity.” On my own, I persuaded friends and family in the States to send food parcels to needy families and provided names of Howard University students in Washington, D.C., to German students who wanted to correspond with American blacks. During my final year in Germany, I became a stringer for Religious News Service in New York and wrote a monthly news column for The Christian Century.

Early on, I began to comprehend the depth of the totalitarian evil that had just been crushed and the menacing threat from the East then stalking Europe. Gradually, my utopian illusions gave way to new found realities. The first jolt came at an international Fellowship of Reconciliation conference in Stockholm. Delegates from Britain and Germany and seven Nazi-occupied countries related their wartime experiences. Some had been in concentration camps or were tortured by the Gestapo. My Quaker roommate, Herbert Hodgkin, had survived a Japanese prison camp. In sharp contrast, I had not suffered from war or tyranny and was forced to reexamine my facile assumptions about how to confront evil. I could not see that Gandhi-like nonviolence would suffice. I was beginning to acknowledge that victims of predatory violence had to be protected by justifiable violence. The Christian Just War Doctrine was chipping away at my pacifist faith..

With Brethren Service colleagues and others, I discussed anti-Semitism and race discrimination, and in early 1946 addressed 80 German POWs on the U.S. race situation. They were amazed by my frankness. On a brief trip to Sweden, Norway, Holland, and Belgium in April 1946, I saw a microcosm of a hopeful but uncertain postwar Europe. Prosperity and abundance in neutral Sweden contrasted with the harsh shards of Nazi occupation in Norway and Holland. Communist propaganda was rife in posters and newspapers.

German POWs in Britain
Shortly after arriving in Britain, I learned that some 300,000 German POWs there were being held there in violation of the Geneva Conventions stipulating that all POWs be repatriated promptly after the end of hostilities. Further, in a quiet agreement between Washington and London, thousands of U.S.-held German POWs were sent to Britain. Carrying duffel bags bulging with American goodies, they assumed they were going home, only to find themselves offloaded at British ports. London justified its policy because it needed farm labor to rebuild the economy. Under pressure from Quakers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the British conscience, repatriation to Germany was completed by mid 1946.

Pastor Niemoeller and German Guilt
I met Pastor Martin Niemoeller during his visit to a theological school set up by the YMCA inside a German POW camp in Britain near the Nottingham Forest. The famous anti-Hitler pastor confronted the POWs with the question of German guilt, then being defined and adjudicated at the Nuremberg Trials. In several conversations with Niemoeller, I came to appreciate his courageous witness against Hitler. After the war, Niemoeller had helped write the controversial Stuttgart Declaration confessing Germany’s “collective guilt” for Nazi atrocities. Later, I visited Dachau from which he had been liberated by U.S. troops including a unit of Japanese-Americans. I also paid my respects to victims at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Anne Frank died. In Germany I saw close up the physical devastation and spiritual despair wrought by Hitler. I walked through the rubble of Berlin, Dresden, Cologne, and dozens of other great cities. Millions of people were displaced, 36 million Europeans were killed, 19 million were civilians. This stark face of evil forced me to confront what German-born theologian Paul Tillich called the “demonic in history.” That demonic was manifest in evil geniuses such as Hitler and Stalin. Each reached for his own twisted utopia and delivered hell..

To what extent were the German people guilty of Hitler’s crimes?   Why had the “good Germans” followed him? Though millions supported the Nazi system, culpability was not universal. Children were innocent. And many Germans did what little they could to ease the plight of potential victims. In Berlin alone, 1,500 Jews survived because they were sheltered by non-Jewish friends. Like Edmund Burke, I reject the doctrine of collective guilt: “I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people,” he wrote.

Moscow’s Brutal Hand
I saw Stalin’s brutality in the eyes of the few German POWs he permitted to return home. Most of the five million enemy soldiers captured by the Red Army had died of starvation or were worked to death in the Gulag. To counter Western criticism, Stalin sent a few thousand useless derelicts back to Germany. In 1947, at a reception camp near Göttingen University, I met some of these men. They looked like concentration camp victims and smelled of death. Their gaunt, vacant faces were grayish-yellow; their deeply sunken eyes stared into nothingness. Clothed in rags and wooden clogs, they could hardly walk. One man tried to salute a British officer, but he was too weak to complete the gesture.

Even before I visited Budapest and Prague, I had written Frank Wallack, a Brethren relief worker in war-ravaged China:

The yawning chasm between East and West is destroying not only the possibilities of a united Europe, but it is tearing people apart. In Germany, the center of this political-spiritual struggle, frightened people pass each other in the night along the illegal crossing points between the Soviet Zone and the West. Most are moving into the American and British zones seeking freedom from fear.

The 1948 trip to Hungary and Czechoslovakia with a Quaker friend in his Volkswagen began in Vienna where I met with Brethren Service workers, then on to my first visit behind the Iron Curtain. In Budapest on Sunday morning, June 4, I had a long private conversation with Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary in his palace office in Esztergom. Ironically, the meeting was arranged by Dr. Alex Mathé, a Calvinist pastor and fellow Religious News Service stringer, who at that time supported the communist regime’s harsh measures to diminish Catholic influence. Seated at his cluttered roll top desk, Cardinal Mindszenty, told me in his accented German that the recent “nationalization of Catholic schools” had amounted to the confiscation of Catholic property, insisting that he was “fighting not only for narrow church rights, but for broad human rights.” Clearly, this proud and determined man, who had been imprisoned for five months during the Nazi occupation, was on a collision course with the Soviet-installed regime. I knew his days were numbered. Six months later, in a mid-December Christmas letter to friends, I said Mindszenty would be given a show trial and found guilty of treason..

The day after Christmas, Mindszenty was indeed imprisoned and charged with treason. On February 8, 1949, he was given a life sentence. Before his arrest, he had cautioned that any “confession” he might make would be invalid, extracted under duress. He was right. He had been drugged and denied sleep. At the public trial, he stood unsteadily but with dignity and said that his “confession” was null and void. He was sentenced to life in prison. Seven years later, during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he was released.

A Protestant Pastor in Prague
After Budapest, my politically naive Quaker friend and I drove to Czechoslovakia whose government had just been taken over by Stalin. The atmosphere was tense. Communist Party officials were taunted by the quip “When it rains in Moscow, Prague puts up an umbrella.” Our host, Jan Kucera, was a Calvinist pastor who had opposed the Nazis. Now his house was under constant and obvious KGB surveillance. Unafraid, he showed us the third floor window from which the distraught foreign minister Jan Masaryk — a respected democratic leader — had two months before been pushed to his death..

Soviet tyranny, Jan insisted, was worse than the Nazi occupation. Two years later he wrote me a cryptic letter saying he was in a “reeducation” camp in the woods. Jan had been a firm anti-Nazi, he had helped Jews escape, and was a moderate socialist, but he believed in democracy. In Moscow’s view, this was his heresy. He had to be “reeducated” to live in a “people’s democracy.” Finally, he was released and came to see me in Washington, signing his name in my New Testament next to Martin Niemoeller’s..

After visiting Budapest and Prague, I wrote several Yale friends: “I have become less naive about the Devil and his pernicious ways. A communist elite has imposed its will in both capitals, and Moscow has become the center of a worldwide revolution. Nazism is dead, but Soviet totalitarianism as an idea and system is forging ahead.”

The Christian Just War View
As early as June 1946, my views were changing more than I had realized. In a pompous letter to Professor Richard Niebuhr, brother of Reinhold, and one of my few nonpacifist teachers at Yale, I wrote:

When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, I disagreed with you more than with any other professor, but today there is no professor whose teachings are more relevant as I wrestle with the ethical imponderables of the Christian faith.

I have talked with victims of Belsen and listened to stories from the lips of Jews and Christians whose lives have been wrecked by Gestapo and SS men. I have seen the wanton devastation of great areas in Holland and visited Dutch children held in prison camps because their parents were collaborators..

I have talked with a German pastor who never gave the Hitler salute. I have seen Christians hate — transferring their hatred to the language spoken by the enemy. But, I have seen more. I have seen men rise above hate, blessing those who tortured them..

Three years in Europe had enabled me to see history as an endless struggle between good and evil. I had come to the Old World as a New World idealist, confident that humans were capable of building a peaceable kingdom on earth. But the tragedies of a shattered Europe had transformed me into a humane realist. In man’s unending quest for freedom and justice, I now acknowledged the political limits of personal compassion and the crucial role of political power and war. I was struck by the truth in Churchill’s words: “The malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.” This is the irony of virtue..

During three subsequent years, 1948-1951, as a Christian ethics student at Yale Graduate School, my views on the nature and destiny of man were deepened by further encounters with Reinhold Niebuhr. I drew on my newly earned humane realism and my acceptance of the Christian Just War Doctrine to denounce communism as a false doctrine and the Soviet Union as a brutal predator. I supported President Harry Truman’s firm military buildup in Europe and acknowledged that my wartime pacifist views were in error. In conversation, speeches, and writing I criticized the confusion and duplicity of Soviet apologists and fellow travelers, notably presidential candidate Henry Wallace and his left-wing supporters.

My Pacifist Friends Were Shocked
My new stance angered some of my pacifist friends. My former Fellowship of Reconciliation boss and colleague, A. J. Muste, declared that I had become worse than his old adversary, Reinhold Niebuhr. Charlie Walker, my college roommate, whom I corresponded with while he was in prison as a conscientious objector, called me “an avowed advocate of evil.” I shot back:     .

Everyone, including you, distinguishes between the lesser of two evils in his daily choices. The counsel of perfection is an escape from responsibility and leads to cynicism. As Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” America has used military force to defend freedom, while the Red Army has used its tanks to destroy freedom. I am as committed to peace, justice, and human rights as ever, but now I support the use of military force in a just cause..

As a quiet activist, I joined the newly formed Americans for Democratic Action founded by Niebuhr, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and others. It explicitly rejected the totalitarian left and right. I feasted on anticommunist writers like George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. I had not lost my commitment to peace with honor and to justice with mercy.

Enduring Brethren Memories
Through I am no longer affiliated with a local Church of the Brethren, I honor the Anabaptist commitment to personal piety, serving the needy, and human rights. I especially cherish my year at Bethany Biblical Seminary (1942-1943) then located in Chicago. And I recall with pleasure, and a touch of nostalgia, the Brethren Love Feast (including feetwashing) held in 1945 at Yale University in an upper room of an Episcopal parish house. It was my idea..

With Edward K. Ziegler, pastor of my home church in York, Pennsylvania, officiating, the 30 varied communicants included seven Brethren students then at Yale Divinity School. Other participants were eleven conscientious objectors from nearby Civilian Public Service camps, a Brethren serviceman from the New London Submarine Base, and two men who, like me, would become Brethren Service workers in Europe. Yale professor of church history, Roland Bainton, spoke briefly of the agape and the Lord’s Supper. After the service, we visited, washed dishes, and put the room in order.