Discovering New Stories

Here is a photograph of Ben J. Salmon (1888-1932), one of four American Catholics who were imprisoned for their refusal to fight in World War I.  I obtained this image in 1988 from the Library of Congress during the process of writing a biography of Salmon based on my Master’s thesis at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.  I had completed writing my thesis on him in the spring of 1985 and graduated with my M.A. a few months later.  I was pleased to be awarded outstanding thesis for that year, but I never expected that anything more would come of my work on this previously unknown historical figure.

Three years later, I signed a contract with Paulist Press to publish the story in book form.  I rewrote parts of the thesis and reviewed the galleys.  The book appeared in May 1989 (see photo of the cover below).  That summer I taught a seminar on Ben Salmon and the history of conscientious objection in America at Holden Village in Lake Chelan, Washington (you can listen here to recordings of Part 1 and Part 2). In the fall I was interviewed on a cable television show in the Bay Area, and the following year I delivered an address at Loyola University in New Orleans as the first recipient of the Pax Christi USA Book Award.

By then I was studying for a second Master’s degree at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and concerned by the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War.  Ben Salmon’s story seemed a timely one and began to garner some attention within the Catholic peace movement.  The book also attracted interest from Lutherans, Mennonites, and other Protestant groups, as well as college classes and religious periodicals.  I was even contacted by some current members of the military struggling with issues of conscience.

In retrospect, the way I discovered this story in the first place seems incredible.  In the fall of 1983 I was a young graduate student who was disturbed by the escalating nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.  I was deeply affected by the television movie The Day After, which aired that November and depicted a nuclear attack on the American heartland.  Six months earlier, I had read the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter which condemned the arms race and called for people of conscience to work for peace.  At my college graduation in June, the commencement speaker quoted from Jonathan Schell’s landmark book The Fate of the Earth.  Schell cited scientific research that indicated only cockroaches and grass would survive a nuclear holocaust.

When I arrived at UMass/Boston that fall in search of a thesis topic, I was introduced to Dr. Gordon Zahn, a retired professor of sociology there who was still teaching part-time.  He turned out to be a major figure in the American Catholic peace movement who had been a conscientious objector in World War II and helped found Pax Christi USA after the war.  He listened to my interests and my concerns and suggested I look up Ben Salmon, a Catholic pacifist in World War I whose story had appeared in a 1942 edition of The Catholic Worker.  Zahn had read the article as a young man facing the draft and decided to follow Salmon’s example.  The 1940 Selective Service Act allowed him to complete alternative service at a labor camp in New Hampshire, an exemption denied to Salmon a generation earlier.

I began my research and discovered a treasure trove of information in the archives of the American Civil Liberties Union at Princeton University.  ACLU co-founder Roger Baldwin had taken on Salmon’s case and helped secure his release from federal custody in November 1920.  While in prison on hunger strike, Salmon had composed an extensive autobiography and theological treatise defending his position and challenging the centuries-old “just war theory” of Catholic tradition.  I ordered a copy of the material and devoured its contents.  I also managed to locate and contact three of Salmon’s four children and another World War I pacifist who had served with him in prison and later published his own memoir.

Assuming that I was done with the Salmon story after finishing my thesis, I was pleasantly surprised to receive more letters from his adult children, particularly his youngest daughter, who became a Maryknoll Sister and served for many years in Hawai’i and Nicaragua.  I also received letters from graduate students at other universities pursuing research on the Catholic peace movement and from antiwar protestors seeking to emulate Salmon in their opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the waning years of the Cold War.  One of my former roommates heard about my thesis and suggested I show it to a skiing buddy of his, a Catholic priest who happened to be on the editorial board of Paulist Press.  The rest, as they say, is history.

This was a remarkable experience in historical discovery and personal growth.  I share it with you to encourage your own interests in untold stories from history.  President Harry Truman once said “there is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”  Each book published on an historical subject is a new perspective on an old topic.  There is nothing preventing you from making your own contribution to this limitless universe of research.

Start with a subject that interests you, and keep digging until you come to a dead end.  That is usually when you can see what else needs to be explored.  There is always another aspect of a person’s life or an historical event that has not been fully presented to the public in print or digital form.  Perhaps a subject has been waiting just for you to be the person who brings it to light.

That is definitely how I feel about Ben Salmon.  In the three decades since my book’s publication, many others have unearthed more information on his life and published articles and artwork inspired by his story.  There is currently a small group of Catholic peace activists who maintain a website on Ben Salmon and raised the funds to give him a proper gravestone.  They are now petitioning the Vatican to begin the process of his beatification.  Many copies of my book are now housed in libraries across the country and around the world.  A few are available for sale online as well.

Pursue your interests.  You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.  If you have a gift or interest in history, the material is waiting somewhere for you.  Ask for help, start digging, and stick with it.  You will be pleased with the results.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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