Ben Salmon

A letter dated June 5, 1917, was addressed to President Woodrow Wilson by a young man who had recently registered with his local draft board. Though he complied with the newly created Selective Service Act, the young man wrote the President saying: “Complying with your edict, I registered today. Your mandate was autocratic, and contrary to the Constitution … I refuse to submit to conscription. Regardless of nationality, all men are my brothers. God is ‘our Father who art in heaven.’ The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is unconditional and inexorable. … Both by precept and example, the lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was He of the soundness or that doctrine that he sealed His belief with death on the cross.”

For his convictions, the young man was arrested, given a military court martial, sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to 25 years of hard labor in prison.

The letter writer was Ben Salmon. He was a pacifist who refused to accept alternative or noncombatant service in the military. Though there were a handful of others who refused military service — mainly from historic peace churches such as Mennonite, Quaker, and Seventh Day Adventist — Salmon stood out from all of them because he based his pacifism on his Roman Catholic faith.

Ben Salmon was born in 1899 to a working class Catholic family in Denver, Colorado, where he attended Catholic schools. In the early 1900s there were a series of labor struggles across the nation which made Salmon sensitive to social justice issues. While in his 20s, he became a union activist picketing and protesting for better working conditions. He helped organize a Railway Clerks’ Union in Denver, an action which cause him to be dismissed from his job on the Colorado and Southern Railroad. In 1916 he campaigned strongly for Woodrow Wilson because he was the “non-intervention” candidate opposing American entry into the European war.

Thus, he and many other Americans were stunned when Wilson reversed himself declaring that the Untied States needed to enter the war “to make the world safe for democracy.” On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked and received from Congress a declaration of war on Germany. Initially it was hoped that volunteers would meet the need for soldiers. However, due to lower than expected enlistments, Wilson requested that Congress pass a Selective Service Act for World War I requiring all males aged 21 to 30 to register with their local draft boards. Selective Service was in effect from May 18, 1917, through Dec. 20, 1918, during which time more than 24 million American men registered.

Devout Catholic Family

The war and mandatory selective service created a crisis of conscience for Salmon. Brought up by devout Catholic parents who took their children regularly to Mass, Salmon absorbed a deep Catholic faith and the values the Church taught him — kindness, compassion, love for God and neighbor. In his letter to President Wilson, Salmon wrote:

I am not an alien sympathizer. I was born in Denver, of Canadian-American parents, and I love America. This letter is not written in a contumelious spirit. But, when human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the army, and contributing, either directly or indirectly to the death of my fellow workingmen.

This could not have been an easy decision to make. He was 28 and had been newly wedded to Elizabeth Smith, a local Denver woman from a prominent family. Her father, Samuel Charles Smith, was a highly visible Denver citizen, the owner of many restaurants and food stands around the city. Salmon’s June 5, 1917, letter launched a bitter struggle between a solitary young Catholic man and the government of the United States. Though Salmon applied for conscientious objector status, something the U.S. government made provision for among historic peace churches. Roman Catholics were not included because the Church taught and adhered to a “just war” doctrine.

Though Salmon knew that laws about draft resistance were severe and harsh he, nevertheless, wrote his local draft board clearly stating his position: “I am legitimately entitled to an exemption: a wife and mother to support. However, I will not use my dependents to shield me from an institution against which my soul rebels.” His letter concluded: “let those that believe in wholesale violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” make a profession of their faith by joining the army of war. I am in the army of Peace, and in this army I intend to live and die.”

Continued to Resist

The response was swift. On Jan. 5, 1918, he was arrested and released on $2,500 bond. Adjusted for inflation, that would have been nearly a $50,000 bond today. Another man out on bail would probably have re-considered his position. Would he continue to resist any and all military service or could he accept noncombatant duty such as a medic, cook, clerk?

In Salmon’s case there was no need for further thought. His convictions were firm as made clear the following day when he published an article in a small weekly paper which he distributed to family, friends and parishioners at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Denver. Titled “Killing the Wrong Men” he stressed the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” applying it even to war. “But, if killing has to be insisted upon, those responsible for wars — kings, presidents, kaisers, etc. — should be made to fight each other and not drag millions of innocent youths into a game where they would be compelled to slaughter each other.”

Salmon’s letter and interviews with the draft board were quickly making him Denver’s most vocal opponent of the war. His position was not shared by the vast majority. His own beloved Knights of Columbus, upon reading his January 5 letter, voted to expel him from the organization. Though hurt by the action of fellow Catholics. Salmon continued to stress the importance of the Catholic Church in his life. He wrote: “It must be understood that the action of the Knights of Columbus did not in any way affect my affiliation with the Catholic Church, except of course that it prejudiced many Catholics against me.”

On March 30, Salmon went on trial defended by two Denver attorneys. Found guilty, he was sentenced to nine months in the Denver County Jail but appealed his case and was again released on $2,500 bond. Meanwhile, whatever defense he could claim was weakened considerably by an order issued on April 27, 1918, by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker that directed action against all conscientious objects “whose attitude . . . is sullen and defiant,” “whose sincerity is questionable,” or “who are engaged in propaganda.”

The order mandated that such individuals were subject to military trial and conviction by court-martial. A month later (May 16) Salmon received notification from the draft board that he had been inducted into the Army. He protested reminding the draft board there was a rule which prohibited induction of any person out on bail in a criminal process. The draft board acknowledged his induction was “irregular” but that he had to comply. Salmon decided he would refuse to report for duty.

This resulted in his prompt arrest and being turned over to the military where he was placed in solitary confinement at Fort Logan, Colorado. There he was ordered to serve in any capacity but again refused indicating any involvement, even that of a noncombatant was aiding the war effort. Writers at Denver Post, in an article dated May 21, went after Salmon with a vengeance describing him as “the slacker, pacifist, the man with a yellow streak down his spine as broad as a country highway . . . who loved the German flag more than the Stars and Stripes.” The article included descriptions of Salmon as “pro-German” and “anti-American” adding that he was “the man who laughs when brave Americans are dying on the battlefields of France.”

Court Martial

After repeated attempts to coerce and pressure Salmon into service, the military decided to he would be tried in military court for “desertion” and “propaganda.” He was found guilty and initially sentenced to death, a sentence subsequently commuted to 25 years in prison. Salmon was incarcerated in Leavenworth and other federal penitentiaries spending weeks at a time in solitary confinement. At one time he spent six months in “the hole” — a medieval type dungeon located directly over the prison sewer system. It was a windowless, humid, vermin infested cell measuring five feet by nine feet containing no bed or blanket.

While incarcerated, Salmon also had to contend with his own Church’s support of the militarism via the “just war” doctrine. Salmon staked out his position not merely on political and humanitarian grounds but upon his Christian-Catholic religious grounds. Salmon’s pacifism put him at odd with his own Church. For example, Cardinal John Farley of New York remarked in 1918 that “criticism of the government irritates me. I consider it little short of treason. . . Every citizen of this nation, no matter what his private opinion or his political leanings, should support the President and his advisers to the limit of his ability.”

Farley along with the majority of Catholic bishops supported Wilson citing the just war doctrine of the Church. Salmon, however, objected to this teaching hand writing a 200-page manuscript critiquing the Church’s just war doctrine. His only reference tools were a Bible and The Catholic Encyclopedia; this was a remarkable achievement for a man whose education ended with the eighth grade.

In that manuscript, Salmon declared: “If you are a Christian, listen to the voice of Christ echoed from the pages of the New Testament.” He cited Christ’s blessing of the “peacemakers” (Mt 5:9) and the “merciful” (Mt 5:7) and noted that Jesus said “Do not murder” (Mt 19:18). In Salmon’s Catholic ethic there was no such thing as a just war.

Hunger Strike

After two years of prison, Salmon announced he was beginning an indefinite hunger strike to protest his treatment. In a letter written to the Secretary of War as well as the military commandant of Fort Douglas where he was incarcerated, Salmon said:

For more than two years I have been illegally imprisoned because I refused to kill or help kill. I will not kill. . . . I wish to inform you that I am on a hunger strike for liberty or death . . . because I am opposed to militarism — wholesale murder — you have tortured me in diverse ways for 26 months, and you now have me in the prison guard house, an unhealthful abode of solitude where one keenly feels the want of fresh air and sunshine. I have missed my meals for four days, and I will continue to starve until released by a discharge from prison or by death.

After two weeks, authorities began to force feed Salmon. Though this kept up for several months, Salmon continued to lose strength becoming weaker and weaker. Charging that he was mentally ill, authorities transferred him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. Finally, fearful that he would die and not wanting publicity Salmon was released from prison in 1920. Also, by then, several attorneys including members of the American Civil Liberties Union had taken an interest in his case.

Salmon returned to his wife and family moving to Chicago where he lived a quiet life. Incarceration, however, took a toll on his health contributing to his early death at the age of 43 on Feb. 15, 1932. To the end, he remained a faithful, devout Catholic. Of his three children, one became a priest and another a woman religious.

REV. PARACHIN writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.