Recently I wrote a review of Nicholson Baker's controversial book Human Smoke. Baker tells the stories of the largely unknown pacifists, draft resisters, and war critics who tried to stop the US from waging war against Germany and Japan. Baker's book ends at the end of 1941, just after the US declared war. There were some Americans, however, who supported the initial declaration of war as a matter of national survival, but later became highly critical of the Allied practice of targeting the civilian populations in Germany and Japan, as well as the US and Britain's policy of "unconditional surrender". In 1943 two events stood out that called into question American and British war tactics: the firebombing of Hamburg in July of that year that killed tens of thousands in a deliberate firestorm, and the bombings of the Ruhr dams - Operation Chastise - that resulted in the deaths of 2,000 non-combatants - mostly female Russian slave-laborers.
On September 7, 1943 the poet Robert Lowell wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (excerpt quoted from Robert Lowell, Collected Prose):
"Dear Mr President: I very much regret that I must refuse the opportunity you offer me in your communication of August 6, 1943 for service in the Armed Force. I am enclosing with this letter a copy of the declaration which, in accordance with military regulations, I am presenting on Septer 7 to Federal District Attorney in New York. [...} You will understand how painful such a decision is for an American whose family traditions, like your own, have always found their fulfillment in maintaining, through responsible participation in both the civil and military services, our country's freedom and honor."
Declaration of Personal Responsibility
Orders for my induction into the armed forces on September eighth 1943 have just arrived. Because we glory in the conviction that our wars are won not by irrational valor but through the exercise of moral responsibility, it is fitting for me to make the following declaration which is also a decision.
Like the majority of our people I watched the approach of this war with foreboding. Modern wars had proved subversive to the Democracies and history had shown them to be the iron gates to totalitarian slavery. On the other hand, members of my family had served in all our wars since the Declaration of Independence: I though – our tradition of service is sensible and noble; if its occasional exploitation by Money, Politics and imperialism allowed to seriously discredit it, we are doomed.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I imagined that my country was in intense peril and come what might, unprecedented sacrifices were necessary for our national survival. In March and August of 1942 I volunteered, first for the Navy and then for the Army. And when I heard reports of what would formerly have been termed atrocities, I was not disturbed: for I judged that savagery was unavoidable in our nation’s struggle for its life against diabolic adversaries.
Today these adversaries are being rolled back on all fronts and the crisis of war is past. But there are no indications of peace. In June we heard rumors of the staggering civilian casualties that had resulted from the mining of the Ruhr Dams. Three weeks ago we read of the razing of Hamburg, where 200,000 noncombatants are reported dead, after an almost apocalyptic series of all out air-raids.
This, in a world still nominally Christian, is news. And now the Quebec Conference confirms our growing suspicious that the bombings of the Dams and of Hamburg were not mere isolated acts of military expediency, but marked the inauguration of a new long-term strategy , indorsed and co-ordinated by the our Chief Executive.
[…] Our rulers have promised us unlimited bombings of Germany and Japan. Let us be honest: we intend the permanent destruction of Germany and Japan. If this program is carried out, it will demonstrate to the world our Machiavellian contempt for the laws of justice and charity between nations, it will destroy any possibility of a European or Asiatic national autonomy; it will leave China and Europe, the two natural power centers of the future, to the mercy of the USSR, a totalitarian tyranny committed to a world revolution and total global domination through propaganda and violence.
[…] With the greatest reluctance, with every wish that I may be proved in error, and after long deliberation on my responsibilities to myself, my country and my ancestors who played responsible parts in it is making, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot honorably participate in a war whose prosecution, as far as I can judge, constitutes a betrayal of my country.
In 1943 poets and poetry still mattered in American public life, and when news of Lowell's letter leaked out it was reported on the front page of the New York Times. For refusing military service, Lowell was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. His experiences behind bars spawned one his most famous poems, Memories of West Street and Lepke.
Bonus for Poetry Lovers: You can now hear Robert Lowell reading from his poetry in his high-pitched hybrid accent (part Southern drawl, part Boston Brahmin) as part of the Voices and Visions series available in free streaming video on www.learner.org (10-second registration required).