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Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family--a Test of Will and Faith in World War I Hardcover – June 2, 2011
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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
“Daring … 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.” — THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“….a well-paced, well-told story of an American family nurtured on mainstream middle-class, Christian respectability, testing its values as the Great War threatened to suck in America.” — NEWSDAY
“….a fascinating story from a fascinating moment in New York’s (and the nation’s) history..” — THE NEW YORKER Book Bench
Top customer reviews
spiritual and intellectual development of one of the last century's most
influential activists, Norman Thomas. Anyone who became a conscientious
objector after World War I owes a huge debt to Evan Thomas for (literally)
offering his own life for his right not to serve. Their brothers Ralph and
Arthur, who chose to enlist in the war that Norman and Evan so opposed,
never stopped being loyal to the brothers who took a different and less
socially accepted path. They respected each others' points of view, without
giving an inch.
Imagine being the parents in this family! Welling and Emma Thomas are
compelling characters in their own right; their great-great-grandaughter
Louisa Thomas gives us insight into how good parents raise independent
thinkers. She has culled the history and her family's memories to show us a
world that no longer exists, but which remains eerily relevant.
of her great-uncle Evan Thomas to refuse any military service to aid in the ghastly death-tolls of the Battles of the Somme, Verdun, and Tannenberg. plus the willingness of Marshals Hague, Hindenburg, and Foch to winning the war by "attrition", with the wider perspective of her own great-great-grandfather Norman Thomas to the collective social forces that led him not only to pacifism but to succeeding Eugene Debs as the Socialist Party's candidate for President up to 1932. Norman and Evan had two younger brothers whoi enlisted in "The War to End war," fortunately without ever having to fire at human targets. The roles of Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University, and
Union Theological Seminary in both Thomas' brothers is clearly shown, as well as Norman's multi-cultural Protestant Parish in East Harlem is clearly shown, and I corroborate from my own Scottish father's experience of losing a full third of his friends and classmates,
which drove him to drive a Quaker ambulance through most of the war, the terrible choices involved. Hugh Barbour