Ben Salmon 1889-1932
Catholic Pacifist
by Robert Ellsberg

Ben SalmonThis month we give thanks for the dedication to peace embodied by Ben Salmon, the only Roman Catholic conscientious objector during World War I to declare, on the basis of his faith, that there is no such thing as a “just war.” For his unwavering courage, he was rewarded with federal imprisonment and scorn. Hometown acquaintances referred to him as “the slacker” and priests dubbed him a “heretic,” not comprehending his radical adherence to Jesus' teaching of love for our enemies. But ridicule, solitary confinement, and even getting dragged off to an insane asylum only intensified Salmon's resolve to oppose militaristic idolatry by placing faith in God's justice and mercy alone. – Patricia Carlson

“If Christians would have the same faith in their God that non-Christians have in a mere materialistic idea, ‘Thy Kingdom come' would shortly be a reality in this world of sorrow and travail.”

In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson led America into the Great War in Europe. For many who had voted for Wilson precisely on the basis of his promise to keep America out of the war, this came as a surprise. Nevertheless, most citizens accepted the president's vow “to make the world safe for democracy,” and so rallied to the cause with patriotic fervor. Most, but not all. There were Socialists and other radicals who claimed that this was not a “war to end all wars,” but a capitalist war. There were isolationists, who believed that if foreigners wanted to kill each other was no concern of Americans. And then there were pacifists, who believed that all killing, whatever the cause, was to be opposed. Ben Salmon was one of the pacifists, one of several hundred who refused even to accept noncombatant status in the military, and so endured brutal imprisonment. But in one important respect Salmon was different from the others – different from virtually every other man in America. He based his pacifism on his Roman Catholic faith.

Salmon was born to a working-class Catholic family in Denver in 1889. Growing up in an era of bitter labor struggles in Colorado, he quickly acquired a keen commitment to social justice. As a young man he became known in Denver as something of a rebel, active in union organizing and other agitation. But despite his radical social views, he remained a devout Catholic who often attended Mass and who took pride in his membership in the Knights of Columbus. In 1917 he married his longtime sweetheart. By this point, however, the war had been declared, and Salmon received notification to report for military service.

Salmon applied for recognition as a conscientious objector (C.O.) on the basis of his religious convictions. The government made provision for conscientious objectors belonging to the historic “peace churches” like the Quakers or Mennonites. But Roman Catholics, whose church supposedly disavowed pacifism in favor of the traditional “just war theory,” were not recognized as candidates for C.O. status. In any case even recognized C.O.s were required to accept “noncombatant status,” an option that Salmon definitely rejected. He believed that any cooperation with the military system would represent a violation of his conscience, a compromise with Satan. And so he was arrested in January 1918.

Salmon was given a military court martial and sentenced to death, a sentence subsequently reduced to twenty-five years in prison. He was incarcerated at Leavenworth and a series of federal penitentiaries, much of his time spent in solitary confinement as a punishment for his refusal to perform prison labor. For six months he was kept in a windowless, vermin-infested cell above the prison sewer. In that hot and fetid air he was allowed no visitors or mail and fed nothing but bread and water. Within months of his imprisonment the war in Europe ended. And still his confinement continued. Finally after two years in prison Salmon announced that he would no longer cooperate with the system and began an indefinite hunger strike. After several weeks, the authorities forced milk down his throat. They kept this up for months, while meantime he grew steadily weaker. Claiming his fast was a symptom of mental illness, the authorities transferred Salmon to St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. Finally, when it was clear that they could not indefinitely keep him alive on a diet of milk, they released him from prison in 1920.

Salmon was one of hundreds of resisters imprisoned during the war. But he was one of only four Catholics. Of these, he was alone in attributing his resistance to his Catholic faith. It was a solitary stand that evoked nothing but incomprehension if not the contempt of his fellow citizens. His hometown newspaper called him “the slacker, the pacifist, the man with a yellow streak down his spine as broad as a country highway,…who loves the German flag more than the Stars and Stripes.” When he began his hunger strike the headline read, “Slacker starves himself in cell: Denver's ‘yellowist draft dodger' plans to cheat justice.” He fared little better among his fellow Catholics. Prison chaplains tried to convince him that he was setting himself up in opposition to the pope, that his duty as a Christian was to defend his country, to obey the law, and to support his family. Some priests refused to offer him the sacraments, accusing him of heresy for his uncompromising pacifism.

Although his pacifism contradicted the wisdom of most Catholic moral theologians, Salmon was able to mount a spirited defense of his witness and beliefs. Armed with nothing but the Bible and the Catholic Encyclopedia, and weakened by his hunger strike, Salmon managed to write a two-hundred-page manuscript critiquing the church's just war teaching and justifying his commitment to nonviolence. Under any circumstances it was a remarkable achievement for a man with no formal education beyond the eighth grade. Nevertheless, in this work Salmon was the first American Catholic to mount a systematic critique of just war teaching.

Salmon argued that in the modern era it was no longer sensible to imagine a war that could satisfy all the criteria of the just war. In any case, this tradition was impossible to square with the clear teaching of Jesus with regard to the love of enemies. “The justice of man cannot dethrone the justice of God,” he wrote. “There is no such animal as a ‘just war.'” In enduring imprisonment, Salmon identified with the early Christian martyrs who offered the witness of their lives to oppose the idolatry of the Roman empire. The name of the new idolatry was militarism.

Upon his release, Salmon led a relatively quiet life with his family. Nevertheless, his prison ordeal had permanently affected his health, contributing to his early death at the age of forty-three on February 15, 1932. He remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life. Of his three children, one became a priest and another a Maryknoll Sister.

Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David

Additional reading:

Torin R.T. Finney, Unsung Hero of the Great War (New York: Paulist, 1989).