Reprinted from McCall’s, October 1966
“Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came”
The mother of a draft-card burner, a young man already imprisoned four times for his beliefs, tells of her agony—and her son’s
by Charlotte E. Keyes
Carl Sandburg once told of a little girl who, after hearing his description of a Civil War battle, observed, “Suppose they gave a war and no one came.”
Our son Gene has committed himself to that goal to the day no one will come to war. The cost for him is high. He once told my husband and me, to our exasperation, “Jail is my destiny.” And he has indeed been imprisoned four times. His last sentence was three years in a federal penitentiary for refusing induction into the armed services. At the trial, he explained why: “There is no moral validity to any part of any law whose purpose is to train people to kill one another.”
What kind of oddball is our son, who decided against applying for alternative service as a conscientious objector because “that was selfish-to try to exempt just myself from military duty. It’s the fact that my country, and every other country, teaches all of us that murder is right, when we know it’s wrong, that I must witness against”?
Who are all of these “nonviolent agitators,” these ”peaceniks,” these draftcard burners, who are often taunted for not working daily from nine to five, but who many times put in seven days a week, from dawn to midnight, on their chosen work?
We see them on television, picketing the White House or the Pentagon or a missile base, carrying signs and solemnly marching, in silence or gaily singing. Some of them are bearded, and invariably the camera focuses on these and the longhaired ones, although the great majority have neatly trimmed hair and clean-shaven faces.
The peaceniks these days are legion—they are ninety years old and fifteen, heads of families and housewives with babies, students, young people who have gone back to tilling the soil in their search for basic realities. But a good many, as in the civil-rights movement, are young and unmarried, temporarily school dropouts. The radical pacifists among them are usually living a life of voluntary poverty, in order to be free to work for the kingdom of heaven or a truly great society.
No one of them can be called typical. They are very much individualists. But the one I know best, of course, is my own son. Perhaps if we follow his career, we can get behind the bearded stereotype fed to us by newspaper, movie, cartoon and comic strip.
What is Gene like? At twenty-five, he has been in jail; has been publicly condemned in resolutions passed by veterans’ organizations in his Midwestern home town, as well as by the County Board of Supervisors; has postponed indefinitely all thought of any career except working for peace, because he is convinced that unless a wholly committed effort is made by him and many others, our world will soon be destroyed by nuclear catastrophe.
Is he a nut? Doesn’t he think about his parents at all? How must we feel to have such a rebel for a son? Doesn’t it humiliate us in our community—a university town, where my husband teaches?
To be quite honest, we have run the gamut from shock, disagreement, anger to “patient” (we always thought) explanation of why he was wrong, on to pride and finally to learning from him and changing our own lives.
Over the years, since Gene left college, we have tried to find the seeds of his present way of life and have more than once been taken aback to realize that we ourselves had planted some of them. One friend told us, “What else could you expect Gene to do, the way he’s been brought up?”
Well, we parents don’t realize—do we?—when we inculcate our moral standards, that the children may try really to live by them. Many of the American soldiers in World War II were not able to “pull the trigger” in combat because at home and church they’d been taught “Thou shalt not kill.” The Army had to change its training methods drastically before the young boys could be made into effective killers.
In Gene’s case, he grew up in a home part Quaker (Scott, my husband, born to another denomination, is now, by choice, a Quaker); part Jewish (me); all pacifist, but “respectably” pacifist. Scoll and I had been antimilitarists in the ‘thirties and had indeed worked hard upholding our beliefs, but never with the total commitment that is our son’s way. When World War II began, we regretfully felt that Hitlerism had to be fought with violence. It was not until 1945, four years after Gene was born, that we were drawn to learn more of the Quakers, because they knew no enemy and helped all with equal compassion.
How did Gene come to translate our peaceful ways into such uncompromising action? Was he always a rebel? people ask us. Yes, he was always a rebel, though a quiet and thoughtful one, from his schoolboy days. He was a fairly good student, interested in baseball, the high school paper, dramatics and space travel. He always had friends—not a big circle, but warm and enduring ones.
Gene was always a worrier. He worried, from the time he was a very little boy, about the ants and flies and spiders I killed as I cleaned house. I laughed at him at first, until I remembered how Albert Schweitzer had lived with just such reverence for life, even to squeezing grapefruit juice on the floor for the ants to eat. I made the mistake of telling this to Gene, and sure enough, every morning, there was the ants’ juice, squeezed for them on the kitchen floor.
By the time Gene reached college, he was ready to take on the world’s problems. This was in an era when students were still called the silent generation. His letters from college and vacation tales of his life there were normal enough. True, he picketed a Boston store whose Southern branch did not serve Negroes at its lunch counter, taught Spanish at a nearby jail, explored every student liberal group. All through school he’d been interested in so many things that he’d never been an honor student—usually a good sturdy B with an occasional A. Then he began dropping to Cs and Ds.
As I reread my letters to Gene, at times they make me glow and at times make me blush. It’s a salutary thing to read a correspondence one has had with one’s son. I learned I was no Lady Chesterfield. Instead, I jumped around like a hen on a hot griddle, now approving and admiring, then suddenly growing alarmed and veering to waspish criticism. And it was this written advice I’d expected would steer him into the calm waters of living like everybody else. I suppose I still feel that some of my points were well taken; but it’s fortunate that though his father’s letters were few and sometimes as inconsistent as mine, they were all sober, calm and just.
We must have confused Gene by our changes in tone, because during his first year at Harvard, when we thought he was safely stashed away, our words were generally admiring. In the early months, we kept commending the causes he was taking up.
Later, writing about a theme he sent us, for which he’d received a lower grade than he had hoped for, I went further. “Life is too full of other things right now for you to sweat over every word of a theme—too full of wrongs to be righted, picket lines to be walked. So your theme was the best you could do in the pattern of your life and of what you think is important.”
In February, the tone of the letters began to change. The Christmas holidays had been filled with long talks and with much advice from us elders about Gene’s use of time and his slipping grades. He had a scholarship, and although his first year’s average had been mediocre, Harvard had given him the benefit of the doubt and renewed the scholarship. Now his marks were worse than they were before.
His problem came, of course, from the immense amount of time he spent in such outside activities as campaigning for a peace-minded Congressman, leafleting about nuclear bombs, picketing for civil rights and working for social betterment with his Friends Meeting and student liberal groups. At Christmas, the three of us had carefully listed everything, including class attendance, class preparation, term papers, examinations, cafeteria job, eating, sleeping and recreation. Something had to go, and that something had to be outside activities.
We thought Gene had agreed to this. In fact, he had agreed. But though he tried, when he returned to college, to practice what we preached, spirit was having trouble following reason’s sage advice.
Scott wrote him: “In regard to your single-mindedness—which, I take it, is peace these days—if you want to be in a position to exert real leverage, you should guard against dissipating your efforts and energies at this time…. How will you best serve the cause of peace: By throwing yourself into the fight now, in what may be exciting but relatively minor engagements, at the expense of your studies? Or by turning in a creditable performance at school, and on the basis of that performance getting yourself set for more strategic roles where you take part in heavier engagements? Well, maybe all this is just well-meaning but misguided moralizing. Who knows? Do what you have to do, and we will be behind you.”
Already crossing ours in the mail that month of February came Gene’s letter that threw the bombshell, if a pacifist will excuse the expression. It began with: “Page for page, this letter has more news than any I’ve ever written, so take it slowly, and perhaps read it twice,” then worked up gradually to the crux, which was reached on page three:
“I’ve come to the decision to go on leave of absence from college this month and join Polaris Action, a radical peace organization, with the intent of committing civil disobedience.
“Obviously my joining Polaris Action means swimming upstream against every word of advice I’ve had (excepting of course the Polaris Actioneer and my conscience). But the intensity of my feeling is such that I now see the significance of Jesus’ quote about ‘I bring you not peace but a sword’—the sword being the breaks one has to make in life to get with it.
“The trouble about the contemporary threat of war is that it is when I try to get a sense of proportion about the situation and my relation to it that I most realize that I should immediately drop everything to directly obstruct war preparations. But more than that, I’ve been persuaded of the effectiveness of outright nonviolent civil disobedience NOW. I’m not the first college student to join this movement full-time, and those who have are yelling for more. The more who give up the works to join all the way, the more physically effective this thing is going to be.
“This won’t be a glamourous business like running away to sea, although that’s what I’m doing as it were, and it will have all the drudgery that starry-eyed lads found when they did so. The business of Polaris Action is mostly leafleting, speaking, clerical, canvassing, with infrequent melodramatic and physically dangerous moments of submarine boarding. (It’s the Gandhian idea of lying across the railroad tracks, except we’re lying across the Polaris submarines.) Polaris efforts are just like any politicking, about the same proportion of glamour and lots of tedium, about 1 to 20 maybe.
“The decision is not a sudden one, but fourteen months in the making and fourteen years indirectly. I understand fully the enormity of this departure and its counter considerations. Without exaggeration, that is the outcome of every hour of sixty weeks of direct meditation on the problem. Most importantly, I have tried to know thyself, and to the best of my knowledge, I think this course of action is most consistent and true to myself.
“Now, the question of when I get back home—assuming I’m not in jail, Easter might be the time. I’ve called New London, Connecticut, to make definite arrangements for me to go there, and I’m returning the money you sent me this month. I’ve joined Polaris Action with the understanding that I’ll be self-sufficient. It runs on voluntary contributions, voluntary poverty, and part-time work by participants, who live on a farm in an ‘intentional community.’ Two adults, Marj and Bob Swann, live there with their four children, and are the directors of the project.”
We read and reread and discussed far into the night this letter from our son who had made his life decision. After the long months of talk and letters, the choice came as no utter surprise. And yet we were not prepared.
We called Gene’s adviser at Harvard soon afterward and, using the extension, held a satisfying three-way conversation, which ended thus:
“Maybe,” I said, “he’ll get all this out of his system and be ready to come back.”
“Oh, no!” said the dean. “We don’t want him to get it out of his system. To care passionately about what kind of world we live in is the most precious part of a person’s makeup. He must keep this ‘caring’ and learn to use it effectively.”
His letters from New London were happy and excited. He was helping write and distribute leaflets to the Electric Boat workers—manufacturers of the Polaris submarines—and to the townspeople. He shared, as did everyone, in the cooking, cleaning, repairing, gardening.
He also sent us the Polaris Action bulletins. There were humor and drama in these write-ups, ranging from such an anecdote as “the quiet evening in the office” when a couple of young boys barged in and one said to the other, “Let’s throw those tomatoes,” only to be answered by an abashed voice, “I ate them,” to detailed descriptions of the icy, dangerous swims out to submarines.
Gene wrote that he did not plan to engage in civil disobedience until he had thought it through and felt prepared. We applauded this mature caution, and in fact I began to write about his returning home and to college in the fall. I was also very careful to remind him that we were on his side whatever he decided to do.
Far from his planning to come home, Gene’s dedication was growing ever deeper. At each next drastic step, this pattern evolved; his decision and gentle explanations to us; our counseling him that there might be a better, milder way; his inevitable accomplishment of his mission; our acceptance. Now, we’d think he’s ready to settle down. But there was always a further goal.
The first of these steps was his decision that he was at last ready for civil disobedience. Although Scott and I had known from the first that this was an ultimate aim, we’d nursed a hope that when it came right down to it, Gene wouldn’t go that far. So when he wrote us of his decision, we tried again to oppose our reasoning to his. We kept questioning what we felt was a passion for going to prison. We said that losing one’s fear of prison and death was wonderful, but having imprisonment as a goal disturbed us.
By summer, our irresistible force had given in to his immovable mountain, and we were resigned to his plans. Resigned is too mild a word. We had visited Polaris Action by this time and were beginning to understand. In one letter, I told my pupil-become-teacher that the thought of him was encouraging me at times to be more courageous in thought and deed than I might otherwise be.
In August, five months after arriving at New London, Gene was in jail. He and seven others had tried to swim to the submarine Ethan Allen. They had been stopped but not arrested and then had tried to reach the vessel by going through the main gates. This time, arrest had followed.
A telephone call from Gene the day before, and one from Marj Swann just after the arrest, kept us informed if not serene. Calls from local reporters who’d got the news from the wire services followed. This we’d been dreading, but found, to our relief, that the reporters were intelligent and objective, the stories written without slant or ridicule. One paper even quoted without comment such statements as this from a Polaris Action leaflet: ” ‘So the pacifist actionists cannot stay away from the Ethan Allen just because they have been ordered to. Even if it means jail. They know that too many Germans were just obeying orders to look the other way. And they know that a Polaris submarine can cause more atrocities than 100 years of Auschwitz.’ ”
The papers also accurately printed Scott’s and my comments: “ ‘Young people are more direct,’ said Keyes, explaining the difference in the actions of parents and sons.” “Worried but proud,” they described me, and quoted, “ ‘I respect his decision, but I’m not sure civil disobedience is the best way to fight armament. I wish he were safe at home or safe in college.’ “
Characteristically, Gene’s first letter from jail began, “Having a fine time. Wish you were here.”
We were happy to be able to write him that friends and even acquaintances had been going out of their way to express their love and sympathy. One friend who wanted to visit Gene at the jail on a trip east touched us very much, and when we thanked her with all our hearts, she said, “I feel as though he’s fighting our battles.” Another friend phoned and bawled me out for not backing Gene up all the way. I was quite delighted to be scolded.
We had every kind of reaction to his stand. Telephone calls, of course, accusing him of being a Communist. One caller became quite interested when we pointed out that it would be impossible for a pacifist to be a Communist, because he can never engage in violent revolution and because he always puts the individual’s relation to God and conscience above his relation to the state, as the early Christians did. The man ended by requesting that we let him see some of our peace literature. Not all conversations ended on this friendly note, however. One man said flatly that anybody who did not obey his country’s laws was a traitor.
Strangers wrote letters pro and con to the local newspapers, One man put it: “He is an admitted criminal who openly defies our laws when they interfere with his personal beliefs.”
But when another answered, saying that though he did not share Gene’s beliefs, he defended his right to fight for them, he received a call from the antagonistic letter writer apologizing for his own letter.
Despite our growing understanding and pride, we were never so happy as when Gene came home after seventeen days in jail. Now he was safe at last, we thought. He was safe—if beginning to plan to throw tea into Boston Harbor is safe.
Two and a half years passed before he achieved his tea party, years in which he engaged continually in peace activity and also in the struggle for integration (which again brought jail). But his thoughts were being drawn more and more to one profound question—the question faced by every young man of his age—what Selective Service meant to him and what it meant to his nation.
At college, on reaching his eighteenth birthday and facing the problem of registering for the draft, he had taken two solid days off from classes to struggle with his conscience in answering the questions on SSS Form No. 150, the Special Form for Conscientious Objector that he had requested.
“Do you believe in a Supreme Being? was one of the questions, and describe nature of your belief which is the basis of your claim…. Explain how, when and from whom or what source you received the training and acquired the belief…. Under what circumstances, if any, do you believe in the use of force?”
Gene studied, weighed and reweighed religious and pacifist writings; advice from the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors; the Bible. He went into a retreat and faced himself and the meaning of life. It is not a simple deed at eighteen to probe the truth, to know oneself. But at last, convinced that he could in all honesty ask for it, he requested the conscientious-objector classification.
Yet he was not easy in his mind. Such a sentence as this one in an American Friends Service Committee pamphlet stayed in his thoughts: “We are convinced that our failures are due to our own unreadiness to live boldly by the faith we hold.
Was he really living boldly by his faith, Gene asked himself, to accept this easy way of being a legal conscientious objector? Didn’t the objectors get tucked away in their own little cubbyholes of alternative service, so that most people didn’t even know there were those who protested the draft? Shouldn’t his goal be not simply to disengage himself from war but to ensure that his country, by ceasing to rely on force, regain its vision of the brotherhood of all men?
And time was so short, he kept fretting to us that summer, The world had no more than a few years to exist. He was absolutely convinced of this and was backed up in his opinion by hardheaded scientists and statesmen. A nuclear war probably wouldn’t be started purposely, he answered us when we pointed out the caution of world leaders, who were more aware than he was of such perils. Statistically there was no doubt in the minds of many that if nuclear stockpiling and testing continued, chance would bring about accidental war. And it was even possible that such a war might be purposely started; as other countries gained these weapons, who knew among all leaders of state that one might not miscalculate or even go insane from the sheer weight of awesome responsibilities?
We admitted the truth of all this, but nevertheless the chorus of our voices urging caution and education continued. “Caution!” Gene might sputter. “Don’t you know what William Lloyd Garrison you know, the abolitionist-wrote? Something like this: ‘Friends have said my words are too harsh, that I should be more moderate. Tell a husband to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of a ravisher. Tell a mother to moderately extricate her babe from the flames into which it has fallen. But urge me not to use moderation in my present course! I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—and I will be heard!
“You know what he eventually did?” Gene went on. “He publicly burned a copy of the Constitution, because he said the slavery clauses in the Constitution were immoral.”
It was fine to read of those stirring deeds in history books, but—
At last Gene came to a decision that lulled me once more into thinking—I never learned—that he was in safe pastures. He applied for and received a scholarship to Pendle Hill, a Quaker Center for study and contemplation. His purpose was, as he wrote in his application, “to step back for a longer look at the past, present and future of the peace movement and of my own direction and intentions” and to study “nonviolent ways of meeting the problems of race conflict and war.”
Although Scott and I knew that Gene scorned thought without action (as well as action without thought) and that his goal still was to challenge dramatically the militarization of America (which was what the draft law meant to him), we felt that the mature mentors he would meet in the coming year might steer him into calmer waters.
Not for our son was it to work that way. The advisers he sought—mainly sage and experienced pacifists—not only at Pendle Hill but in New York, Connecticut, Minnesota, California, and so on, were not able to dissuade him from the final action he kept groping toward. Though few agreed wholly with his approach, none doubted his sincerity and vocation. This was a path along which his inner light was leading him.
Time began to move toward the end of this path as in a movie scene where the hands of a clock are shown moving toward finality.
In March, while studying at Pendie Hill, Gene went to Washington to testify against the bill to extend the induction provisions of the Universal Military Training and Service Act.
“Among the many opinions freely expressed in this nation,” he told the Senate Committee on Armed Services, “you also represent mine.” And he wished to “indicate my favoring of the idea of establishing an integral strategic nonviolent national defense system…. What is suggested is a basic reorientation of the defense posture of this nation.”
He went on to clarify his stand:
“My responsibility as a citizen is to defend directly the integrity and institutions of the United States of America. My purpose is not to secure a special berth in the ship of state while others man its artillery. My purpose is equally to participate in the national defense, upon supplanting of the violent premises on which our national defense establishment is currently structured.”
The clock kept ticking inexorably, and in December, Gene came home primed for action. He had now a clear and concrete plan of a way to challenge the draft law so that people would become aware it could be challenged. It was his belief that this law was now accepted as being as much a part of our government as the Bill of Rights. He felt most of us did not realize that whether the draft continued or was abolished lay in the hands not of some mysterious and far-off government, but in the hands of us, the people. Only we needed a shock to make us realize it, since years of legal protest by peace workers and others had wakened very few. It was as Mildred Olmstead, of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, has said: “I have often wondered why it is that a family which would make a great protest if the government took away their automobile or even their dog, says nothing when the government takes away their sons.”
In keeping with the pacifists’ way of explaining all actions beforehand, Gene wrote a letter to the two local papers and told them what he planned to do: “Christmas Eve reminds us of our duty to work for peace on earth, a world without war…. As a prayer for peace on earth, I will be holding a vigil on Christmas Eve in front of the office of the local draft board. If I can withstand the weather, I hope to witness for twelve hours, beginning at noon. In any event, at midnight Christmas Eve, I will be using my one A draft card to light a candle.”
To burn his draft card! The idea was as new and shocking to us when he first described it as it still is to most people. At that time, though Gene was not the first to do this, there had not been many, and the whole action seemed preposterous to us.
He had talked with us and written us about this for a long time, and he listened as patiently as always to our protests. But the words of two others rang louder in his heart. There was the motto of William Lloyd Garrison’s magazine, The Liberator: “Our country is the world—our countrymen are all mankind.” And undergirding everything was Jesus’ admonition: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
All I could turn to for help was the weather. I began to pray almost as hard for bad weather as Gene was praying for peace. I wanted a blizzard and temperature twenty below zero, weather even our quixotic son would admit was more than a human being could stand. But on December 24 the temperature rose. It was still cold, but had become short of unbearable. And at noon, he walked to the draft board and began his vigil.
He was dressed warmly and neatly, had on earmuffs and a dark-blue overcoat, and wore suspended from his shoulders a sign that read: “To Light This Candle with a Draft Card—A Prayer for Peace on Earth.” The sign had been beautifully lettered by an artist friend. He was accompanied by his girl, who, for a large part of the day, kept vigil with him.
I was resigned and even, once again, as always seemed to happen when my worst fears were realized, proud.
All of us went there from time to time during the day to keep him company—our two younger sons and daughter and one son’s girl, as well as Scott and I. Other friends unexpectedly came to accompany Gene for parts of the day. Even some strangers walked up and down with him now and again, not necessarily agreeing, but interested and eager to discuss. But, of course, Gene was the only one who kept vigil, and fasted, twelve long, cold hours.
At home, we were trying to go ahead with Christmas preparations—decorating the tree, wrapping presents. But we were tense and absent-minded and, as it grew late, were all at the draft board again. This time, a crowd of about twenty-five was there to watch. If any were unfriendly, they did not speak up. TV cameramen and reporters were also waiting.
At midnight, there was a stir; the cameramen and others got ready to snap the scene. Gene’s girl began to play her part—holding the candle while he got the draft card ready in a pair of tongs. He took out a cigarette lighter, but a bitter wind kept blowing out the flame.
I began praying again—Don’t let this look ridiculous. It’s so important to him! Oh, let it light! And at last the card and the candle were lit. The card burned quickly in the grip of the tongs.
I let go my breath. It was over. People crowded around. Some were nervously laughing, and some were almost crying. I was doing a little of both.
Scott went to Gene and patted his back, much as he used to do when our son was little and succeeded in something he’d been afraid to do, like climbing a high tree. I held him in my arms a moment. We had no words. But he knew both of us were close to him.
And so it has become. As we have watched him grow and climb his high places, we no longer argue with him, no longer call him foolish. We stand by our son, and we learn from him.