Louisa Thomas on Conscience
A few years ago, a family friend found a history seminar paper that my father had written thirty years before. It had the curious title “Evan Thomas: A Case Study of a Conscientious Objector in the First World War”—curious because Evan Thomas is my father’s name, but I did not know about the conscientious objector. The paper opened with the arresting image of a young man—about my age, as it happened—standing in solitary confinement with his hands manacled to the bars, while outside the nation celebrated the armistice ending World War I. Evan was willing to go to prison to protest conscription, my father wrote, “for the most complex of simple reasons: to be true to himself.” That line made me pause. Even from the fragments of the letters my father quoted, Evan’s reasons did not seem simple, even complexly simple. He did use language like that—he wanted to be true to himself—but what that meant was just as troubling to him as it was to me. He understood that it had something to do with truth, faith, and courage. It had something to do with his family, country, and a willingness to die, but also a desire to be free. He often used the word conscience, and he said he fought for freedom of conscience. But what did it mean? One thing was clear: his conscience compelled him to do something different than it did his three brothers. Buried in my father’s paper was one line that seized me. While Evan was on a hunger strike protesting conscription, his brother, Ralph, an army captain, was wounded by a German shell in France. The Thomas family, my family, was divided.
Two brothers were pacifists, two soldiers. The oldest, Norman, a Presbyterian minister, was drawn toward politics and became a Socialist and an activist for pacifism and the defense of civil rights. The youngest, Arthur, joined the military and went to training camp to become a pilot. They had attended the same sermons delivered by their father, had the same hobbies, and went to the same schools. Yet when the United States entered World War I their lives diverged dramatically. Their choices were irreconcilable. To understand them I had to try to understand the times and places the brothers lived in, times and places that are now often overlooked or forgotten. Their letters, in archives and attics around the country, led me to the those of their father, a Presbyterian minister who resisted what he saw were assaults on religion; and those of their mother, who had grown up in Siam and then on an all-black college in the Reconstruction South, the daughters of missionaries. Their lives in turn led me to others—to the pugnacious evangelical preacher Billy Sunday; to Roger Baldwin, the force behind the nascent civil liberties movement during a time of repression; to Woodrow Wilson, who had been the brothers’ professor at Princeton, and who become President, and who led the nation into the First World War.
The oldest brother, Norman, who was my great-grandfather, emerged as the central figure in the story. It may seem strange that the making of a Socialist, a journey that took him to the margins of American history, might have something to say to us now, but it does. The debates (if not the answers) in which he was engaged are still at the center of the American experience: the responsibilities of the individual and the state, political versus economic liberties, pragmatism versus principle, the role of religion, war as an instrument, civil liberties, and dangerous enemies. Norman and his brothers spoke and acted with conviction, sympathy, anger, and humor, as well as a sense of adventure, that resonate across the space of a century. They had a moral lucidity that seems difficult to imagine in a more diverse, post-Freudian age, but one that should not be dismissed. There is something remarkable to me about the drama of their lives during those years, something worth recovering. They knew that something was at stake. The Great War was the greatest global struggle the world had so far seen, one that followed and precipitated social upheaval across the world. The Thomas brothers’ history is a part of that history, which is a part of our own.
Photo of Louisa Thomas © Joe Mikos