Nine decades ago, pacifism was called un-American. Are attitudes different today?

Rosika Schwimmer (center) at the 1915 International Congress of Women in The Hague, Netherlands, where attendees drafted and discussed proposals to end the war in Europe. (LSE Library/British Library of Political and Economic Science via Wikimedia Commons)  Rosika Schwimmer (center) at the 1915 International Congress of Women in The Hague, Netherlands, where attendees drafted and discussed proposals to end the war in Europe. (LSE Library/British Library of Political and Economic Science via Wikimedia Commons)  

In his address to a joint session of Congress in September 2015, Pope Francis praised three Americans—Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr.—for their persistent efforts against war and the perpetuation of violence. This was not unusual: Since his installation in 2013, the pope has received significant media attention for his work against violence and his push for the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons.

But even with Francis’ pastoral emphasis on nonviolence, not many Catholics call themselves pacifists. Seven months after the pope’s speech to Congress, Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter commended the witness of Catholic pacifists but concluded that “just war theory still reflects the demands of justice in an often brutal world.” Earlier, in 2009, the Catholic writer Austen Ivereigh bluntly stated that followers of Christ “must be willing to wage war in defence of the oppressed,” among other reasons.

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Even with Pope Francis’ pastoral emphasis on nonviolence, not many Catholics call themselves pacifists.

We now view certain activists who embraced nonviolence as national heroes (a large public memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. opened in 2011 in Washington, D.C.). But this admiration has been rare. More common are cases like that of Rosika Schwimmer, a Budapest-born pacifist who was denied U.S. citizenship nearly one century ago.

By the time she applied for U.S. citizenship in 1924, Schwimmer had courted her fair share of controversy. She was the driving force behind the Peace Ship, which in 1915 journeyed to Europe with the industrialist Henry Ford and other activists intent on ending World War I before the United States joined the fray. Schwimmer was derided by the U.S. press after a fruitless meeting with President Woodrow Wilson and the collapse of the peace mission. She attracted further criticism for her confrontational personality and Jewish heritage, with some blaming Madame Schwimmer, as she was called, for the embarrassment of the Ford peace tour. (She was also accused of fueling Ford’s venomous anti-Semitism.)

Schwimmer returned to Hungary and briefly served that country’s ambassador to Switzerland before political instability prompted her to move to Chicago in 1921. In January 1924, the American Legion called for the denial of U.S. citizenship to Schwimmer, citing her “Un-American utterances and unpatriotic character,” seen at the time as a reference to her stalwart pacifism.

Branded in the court of public opinion as a communist and socialist, Schwimmer came before the Supreme Court in 1929. In a 6–3 ruling, the court denied her citizenship and held, in the words of Justice Pierce Butler, that “the pacifism that Schwimmer professes may hinder her ability to develop the nationalism that the country attempts to foster.”

But in his landmark dissenting opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. held that the Constitution does not exclusively protect popular or widely accepted opinions but rather guarantees “freedom for the thought that we hate.”

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Schwimmer remained a stateless person and an active pacifist until her death in 1948. Some vindication came in 1946, when the Supreme Court upheld the right to religious freedom and made citizenship available to the Canadian pacifist and Seventh-day Adventist James Girouard. In his majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas stated, “Devotion to one’s country can be as real and enduring among non-combatants as combatants.”

The Supreme Court ruled that “the pacifism that Schwimmer professes may hinder her ability to develop the nationalism that the country attempts to foster."

Today, Americans are skeptical or openly hostile toward pacifism. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the editors of the Catholic journal First Things stated that pacifists “have no legitimate part in the discussion about how military force should be used.” (The Christian pacifist and U.S. theologian Stanley Hauerwas responded that such a view robs pacifists of “any political relevance.”) Even today, two of the more progressive Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and spiritual author Marianne Williamson, soundly reject charges of pacifist sympathies. “No, no, no, no, no. You have never read, and you have never heard me say that I am a pacifist,” said Ms. Williamson to Vanity Fair this past July.

While pacifist beliefs are no longer an obstacle to U.S. citizenship, there is little serious discussion in mainstream public discourse of pacifism. Pacifist thought stands outside the purview of modern U.S. politics. Meanwhile, the United States continues down the path of violence and armament. This past April, The Washington Post reported that the proposed 2020 military budget—$750 billion—rivals Iraq War-era defense spending. Relations between the United States and Iran have deteriorated in recent months following the destruction of a U.S. drone by Iran in June and increased Iranian military presence in the Strait of Hormuz. Escalating tensions have reignited public concern over a potential violent clash between the two countries.

But this is not to say that the world over is antagonistic toward pacifism: 54 percent of Japanese citizens opposed efforts to rewrite their country’s post-World War II pacifist Constitution, according to an April 2019 poll.

Far from being the refuge of the romantic or myopic, pacifism demands active, creative participation in combating forces of violence. The fruit of this nonviolent labor is evident throughout history: in the struggle for Indian sovereignty, in the U.S. civil rights movement, in the widespread protests against the Vietnam War, in the Polish Solidarity movement, in the 21st-century “color revolutions” throughout post-Soviet nations.

Near the conclusion of his speech to Congress, Pope Francis maintained that “[b]eing at the service of dialogue and peace means being determined…to end the many armed conflicts throughout the world.” At this moment, advocating for a complete rejection of the politics of violence, and a rejection of change achieved through destructive force and reckless brinkmanship, may not only be compatible with U.S. citizenship, it may be the most patriotic of gestures.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
6 months 1 week ago

No. Pacifism kills big time. Self defense is what will stop a killer or an aggressor. not pacifism. A few may think it is noble to be a pacifist but once they understand that such a position invites aggression, most will change their minds.

It certainly should not be an obstacle to citizenship but even pacifist have served in the military and I believe one got the Medal of Honor.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
6 months 1 week ago

"most will change their minds" -- and those who don't will have to depend on those who knew better to liberate their oppressed selves.

Daniel Keeran
6 months 1 week ago

The early Christians were pacifists. Read about nonviolence through the fouth century https://www.academia.edu/27661808/Nonviolence_in_Early_Christian_Thought

Philip Cheung
6 months 1 week ago

Didn't St. Thomas Aquinas set out the criteria for a "Just War"? I guess angels and demons fight every moment of the day?

J Jones
6 months 1 week ago

Great piece.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
6 months 1 week ago

Don't know if it's un-American, but it's certainly un-realistic. Last time I looked, original sin was still around, and sometimes evil has to be stopped with force. Just war theory is all the more vital today, even if some want to jettison it from the treasure trove of Catholic social teaching.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
6 months 1 week ago

Don't know if it's un-American, but it's certainly un-realistic. Last time I looked, original sin was still around, and sometimes evil has to be stopped with force. Just war theory is all the more vital today, even if some want to jettison it from the treasure trove of Catholic social teaching.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
6 months 1 week ago

Don't know if it's un-American, but it's certainly un-realistic. Last time I looked, original sin was still around, and sometimes evil has to be stopped with force. Just war theory is all the more vital today, even if some want to jettison it from the treasure trove of Catholic social teaching.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
6 months 1 week ago

Don't know if it's un-American, but it's certainly un-realistic. Last time I looked, original sin was still around, and sometimes evil has to be stopped with force. Just war theory is all the more vital today, even if some want to jettison it from the treasure trove of Catholic social teaching.

Todd Witherell
6 months 1 week ago

Your efforts here are noble, Mr. Di Corpo. Best wishes to you. Pope Francis is with you as well, I believe. Reach the Unreachable Stars!

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