We Americans, even the thoughtless, take-it-easy, insensitive ones among us, are very nearly distracted these days. During the war we were torn by anxiety and sorrow and fear, but we were not so oppressed by uncertainties as we are now–uncertainties about such life-and-death questions as how to handle the atomic bomb, how to organize the world for peace, how to find a way to live in peace (well, without war anyhow) with nations whose basic ideas don’t jibe with ours.
But there is one question to which we know the right answer, in our hearts, at least. We know that we should free between 700 and 1,000 young Americans still in federal prison because their consciences would not let them take part in war, and restore their rights as citizens to the 5,300 others who have finished their prison terms as conscientious objectors. The penitentiary doors have shut behind them, but because they have a prison record they are not yet full and free citizens. Their professional or business life and their personal happiness must suffer from a continuing disability unless the President of the United States extends amnesty to these men, who, like Thoreau, felt that to obey the legal law was to break the moral law.
The C.O.’s have not committed a crime, nor are they the kind that is likely ever to commit a crime. They are thoughtful, earnest, idealistic young men who have proved their willingness to suffer for their ideals. We may not think that the means they used to forward the cause of peace was the most effective way to go about it, granted the situation of the world after Pearl Harbor. But practically all of us feel that the effort to attain peace is now the one cause for which every decent human being should be willing to make any sacrifice. To exclude from freedom and citizenship those who have gone to prison for that cause seems unbearably illogical.
Hundreds of clergymen, labor leaders, authors, artists, and other distinguished Americans have addressed amnesty appeals to the President. The Washington Post, the Chicago Sun, the New York Times have published editorials calling for an amnesty. The Synagogue Council of America, the Brotherhood of Sleeping-Car Porters, the American Veterans’ Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, these and other groups have gone on record as “in favor of the release of all conscientious objectors from federal custody.”
An overwhelming body of public opinion of this same kind exists outside America also. On August 15 the Canadian Minister of National Defense made an official announcement which amounted to a general amnesty for 14,000 men. Since the end of the war political prisoners have been freed in Brazil, Bulgaria, Greece, India, Italy, the Soviet Republic, and Yugoslavia. A year ago General MacArthur released about a million political prisoners in Japan, including conscientious objectors; and last August Lieutenant General Lucius D. Clay proclaimed an amnesty for a million German political prisoners under twenty-seven years of age.
Why do we lag so far behind in America? Not because of a rigid tradition. On the contrary, nine American Presidents have availed themselves of their amnesty powers under the Constitution. George Washington was the first, when in 1795 he pardoned participants in the Whiskey Rebellion. And these were men who had actually borne arms against our government.
But we needn’t go so far back. A Supreme Court decision some months ago reversed the conviction of two young men who belonged to the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his comment on this vital decision Justice Frank Murphy said, “All the war effort will have been in vain if, when all is finished, we discover that in the process we have destroyed the very freedom for which we fought.”
The best of the 365 days in the year, the kindest of festivals, draws near. Shadowed with dark foreboding though it will be, Christmas, 1946, will have its hour of glory if on that day our government acts on the one moral certainty which almost all of us feel.