The Crowning Savagery of War

Many beliefs and practices of early Mormonism such as polygamy, theodemocracy, the Order of Enoch, and the hope for Zion were profoundly counter-cultural and critical of aspects of the American order.  However, the painful reconciliation with monogamy and mammon that followed on the heels of Utah statehood and the Second Manifesto dramatically transformed the Mormon ethos.  From former Church President Ezra Taft Benson’s vociferous denunciations of socialism, to the Church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s, to its more recent orchestration of California’s Proposition 8, the rhetoric and public positions of the 20th and 21st century Mormon hierarchy seem to adhere to conservative orthodoxy.  Nevertheless, there have been some exceptions to this rule.  The Church’s April 2014 General Conference having recently adjourned, a look back at a long forgotten General Conference message of the past seems apropos.

At the October 1946 General Conference J. Reuben Clark, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, stepped up to the pulpit and vigorously condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan the previous year.   Lds.org does not provide access to General Conference talks antedating the 1970s, but the full text of the address can be found here http://scriptures.byu.edu/gettalk.php?ID=262&era=yes.  The following is an excerpt from his remarks:

….Then as the crowning savagery of the war, we Americans wiped out hundreds of thousands of civilian population with the atom bomb in Japan, few if any of the ordinary civilians being any more responsible for the war than were we, and perhaps most of them no more aiding Japan in the war than we were aiding America.

Military men are now saying that the atom bomb was a mistake. It was more than that: it was a world tragedy. Thus we have lost all that we gained during the years from Grotius (1625) to 1912. And the worst of this atomic bomb tragedy is not that not only did the people of the United States not rise up in protest against this savagery, not only did it not shock us to read of this wholesale destruction of men, women, and children, and cripples, but that it actually drew from the nation at large a general approval of this fiendish butchery.

[W]e in America are now deliberately searching out and developing the most savage, murderous means of exterminating peoples that Satan can plant in our minds. We do it not only shamelessly, but with a boast. God will not forgive us for this.

If we are to avoid extermination, if the world is not to be wiped out, we must find some way to curb the fiendish ingenuity of men who have apparently no fear of God, man, or the devil, and who are willing to plot and plan and invent instrumentalities that will wipe out all the flesh of the earth. And, as one American citizen of one hundred thirty millions, as one in one billion population of the world, I protest with all of the energy I possess against this fiendish activity, and as an American citizen, I call upon our government and its agencies to see that these unholy experimentations are stopped, and that somehow we get into the minds of our war-minded general staff and its satellites, and into the general staffs of all the world, a proper respect for human life.” (J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Conference Report, October 1946, pp. 84-89)

Clark was a respected attorney, public servant, and religious leader who graduated from Columbia Law School, served as Under Secretary of State during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, and was a member of the Church’s First Presidency for 28 years.  Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School bears his name.  But notwithstanding his stature both within and without the Church, his was the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  Like many Americans then and now, Mormons believed their nation’s participation in the war to have been honorable and found the utilitarian justifications for what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki acceptable.  His views did not find wide acceptance among the Saints.

Nearly 70 years removed from the events that he was addressing, what are we to make of Clark’s jeremiad?  Mormonism has never been a clearly pacifist movement, but passages in the Mormon scriptures condemn preemptive war and present pacifism as an admirable, though not prescriptive expression of Christian discipleship (see Alma 24:16, Mormon 3:9-17, Mormon 4:4-5, D&C 98:16).  The Old and New Testaments and the revelations of Joseph Smith are frequently enigmatic, paradoxical, pregnant with meaning.  In their pages, ideologues of all stripes, conservative and progressive, authoritarian and egalitarian, patriot and pacifist, are liable to encounter hard sayings, stumbling blocks, and rocks of offense.  They push and prod us to reexamine our presuppositions and reconsider our prejudices, for their message subsumes each of our ideologies and transcends them all.  It follows that one needn’t fully subscribe to Clark’s brand of pacifism nor his characterization of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to find value in his words. The stark assessment of America’s conduct in World War II is debatable, but the underlying premise that we ought not conflate the gospel of American exceptionalism with the gospel of Jesus is as incisive today as it was then.

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