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    Tom Cornell on the main field of the Peter Maurin Farm

    Notes from a War Resister

    Peace activist Tom Cornell talks about conscientious objection and the moral imperative to take action, even at the risk of friends, family, and career.

    By Tom Cornell

    September 13, 2022

    On August 1, 2022, Tom Cornell, peace activist and longtime friend of Plough, died at age eighty-eight in upstate New York. Twenty-five years earlier, Plough author Daniel Hallock interviewed Cornell about his draft-resistance days in the 1960s. Hallock introduces their conversation:

    I drove over to the Catholic Worker’s Peter Maurin Farm in nearby Marlboro on a cold November day in 1997, hoping for an interview. Tom, garbed in a faded sweatshirt and barnyard boots, greeted me with characteristic warmth and humor. After the requisite tour of the rugged and somewhat swampy farmland, we headed for the Cornells’ kitchen, where we pored over pictures and news clippings of bygone arrests and demonstrations and talked peace and politics over ziti, coffee, and homemade bread.

    When we finally retired to the living room by early afternoon, it was nearly dark outside, threatening snow. Tom looked out into the winter sky, and began:

    I registered for the draft when I was eighteen. Everybody did; you just did it. So I registered and thought nothing about it. One of my buddies had applied for the Marine Corps officers training program, and they were offering to pay his way through college. Now it looked like I was going to have a hard time paying for college, and I thought, I’ll give it a try. So I presented myself to the Marine Corps and they said, “You’re a little too scrawny. Put on enough weight and we’ll take you.” I just ate and ate for a month, but I couldn’t put on quite enough weight. They said that they’d take me as a recruit, but not as an officer. I told them I was born officer class – that would never do, I was just brought up that way. So I gave up that idea.

    I always just assumed that a Catholic couldn’t be a conscientious objector to war. At the pre-induction physical examination they ask, “Are you a conscientious objector?” I said, “No.” There was a kid behind me, though, who couldn’t speak English, only Italian, so they asked me to translate for him. I couldn’t figure out how you say “conscientious objector” in Italian. Now I know how to say it, but then I didn’t. So I said to him simply, “Are you Catholic?” And he said, “Yes, I’m Catholic.” And I said, “No, he’s not a conscientious objector” – because in my mind the two were mutually exclusive. Conscientious objectors were Jehovah’s Witnesses and obscure Protestant sectarians, and it was very dangerous to be one.

    I think of myself as a patriotic American. I really do. I love the democratic traditions of this country, and the one I love the most is the freedom to dissent.

    Years and years later I remembered an episode from the third grade. This was right in the middle of World War II. Miss Coughlin – I had a crush on her – brought in the front page of the Bridgeport Post, and she showed it to the class. There was a photograph of a young Jehovah’s Witness who had just gone to Danbury Prison. She said he’d gone to prison because he refused to kill, and that he was a conscientious objector to war because of his religious beliefs. Miss Coughlin was Catholic and I was Catholic, and I remember saying to myself, “Gee, I’m glad I’m Catholic and will never have to face a question like that.” Years later I realized that yes, I did.

    I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out if I really was a conscientious objector. I wanted to look good, because I knew that very few Catholics had taken this stance, and that if I was able to make a convincing statement, then the Selective Service System would have to deal with me as an authentic Catholic and not just another eccentric.

    The Selective Service System, of course, is not there to scrutinize Catholic doctrine. But they do have the responsibility to determine whether or not a person is sincere, and so they wanted to know if I was representing a movement that might become significant. If authentic Catholics were going to start claiming conscientious objection, and there were 26 million of them in the United States, this could be a problem. So they wanted to know if this was indeed an authentic expression of Catholic faith. The bishops they consulted said, “We never studied this. We don’t know. They didn’t teach us this in seminary.” But they finally got a bishop in Chicago to get a bunch of theologians together, and they said, “Yes, this guy is right. This is an authentic Catholic position.”

    I struggled with the idea of conscientious objection. I didn’t struggle with pacifism. Pacifism made a lot of sense, as soon as your eyes were opened. I remember reading the New Testament again and thinking, “Oh my God, that was there all the time and I never noticed it!” So the issue of pacifism was clear to me, but I didn’t know what to do with it, practically. There were no other men my age at the Catholic Worker, nobody my age to talk to. I met one guy who had applied, but everybody else was either too old, or had been in World War II, or was 4-F because of flat feet or lunacy or some other debilitating condition.

    I went for help to a theologian. He said, “You know, I have to agree with you that this is a legitimate Catholic position, but I don’t think I could take it myself.” I said, “Why, Father?” And he said, “Because I couldn’t have taken it in the Irish War,” which was the war against England. To him that was the “just war.” Everybody has his “just war.”

    I got my first draft card shortly after I applied, right out of college, in 1956. In high school I was given a student deferment, 1-S; in college I had a 2-S. When I got out of college I lost the deferment and got a 1-A. I rejected the 1-A and told them I would not be available. (1-A means you’re available for service as a combatant.) I wasn’t going to accept that, and I insisted upon having a hearing as a conscientious objector. They said, “Okay, we’ll make a compromise with you. We’ll give you a 1-AO, which means that you’re available for induction into the military as a noncombatant. You don’t have to carry or transport weapons, and you can be a Christian witness all you like. But you’re in the Army.” I said, “No, I can’t accept that. I won’t be under military authority at all. And besides, if I put that uniform on, the uniform says something; it says something I don’t believe in.” They said they couldn’t buy that, but then nothing happened for four years. The fighting in Korea had ended, and Vietnam was almost a decade away.

    In 1960, they gave me a 1-O. I’m twenty-six, and I said, “Wow, this is great. I don’t have to worry about going to prison anymore, and I don’t even have to do alternative service, because I’m too old to be drafted.” I kept the draft card in my wallet to prove that I was old enough to buy a beer. That’s the only thing it was ever useful for.

    One day my buddy Loren Miner and I decided we should go have a beer. The bartender said to me, “Are you twenty-one years old?” And I said, “No, sir. I am twenty-six years old.” “Can you prove it? Where’s your draft card?” “Here’s my draft card.” And I handed it to him. He looked at it, he handed it back, and I said, “I don’t want it.” I realized that I really didn’t want the card. So I had the beer, and then I said, “Loren, you know what I think I’m going to do? I’m not going to be part of this system anymore. I’m going to ‘unregister.’ And I’m going to burn this card right here and now.” So I burned it in the ash tray on the bar at the Goldenrod on Bank Street, had another beer, and went home.

    I had quite a few draft cards that I had kept, my 1-S, my 2-S, my 1-A, my 1-AO. And I still had my registration card. All in all, I had something like ten cards. And I’d pull them out at appropriate moments to burn them. I remember one of those occasions in particular, the Worldwide General Strike for Peace, which was the ultimate in pacifist hyperbole. Sixty-eight people showed up. We were gathered at Washington Square in Manhattan, and there was a camera aimed at me, so I took out a draft card and burned it. It was 1962, maybe ’63.

    Back then, nobody paid any attention. The law said you had to be in possession of a valid registration and classification certificate. But it didn’t say, “Thou shalt not burn your draft card” or tear it up or otherwise destroy it.

    Tom Cornell on the main field of the Peter Maurin Farm

    Tom Cornell at the Peter Maurin Farm. Photograph by Jim Forest.

    In 1965 the antiwar movement began to heat up. Young people went to Washington that spring, 1500 or so, to a very conservative demonstration that was sponsored by the Students for a Democratic Society. A couple months later, from August 6 to 9 of 1965, there was another demonstration of 1500 people, 353 of whom were arrested. But the ante was being upped and it looked as if students might really be getting upset about the draft. On August 28, I think it was, Life magazine had a full-page color photograph of Dellinger, Staughton Lynd, and Robert Moses covered with red paint. It was a very dramatic photograph; I’m in it, too. In fact I remember digging the paint out of Dave Dellinger’s eyes.

    On the other side of the page was a full-size black-and-white of a young man burning a draft card at the Whitehall Induction Center. This young man happened to be the great-great-grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and he was a good-looking white boy with a blond crew cut, looking intently into a burning draft card. They had a copy of the magazine in the Senate barbershop, and when the senators went to get their hair cut and saw the picture they just went berserk, or, as they say today, they went ballistic. They said, “Look at these kids doing these things! This can’t be tolerated! This is America, after all!” So they rushed through a law saying that you’d get five years and a $10,000 fine if you burned your draft card.

    It was clear what they intended to do. They intended to use the law to stifle dissent. Do you remember your civics classes? Is that what American law is for? I think of myself as a patriotic American. I really do. I really love the democratic traditions of this country, and the one I love the most is the freedom to dissent. We have the freedom to question our government, to gather in association with others, to press for redress of grievances. This is the American tradition. The American tradition is not using the power of law and police and prisons and courts to stifle dissent. But that’s what they were doing. It was perfectly and instantaneously clear.

    We have the freedom to question our government, to gather in association with others, to press for redress of grievances. This is the American tradition.

    Well, didn’t we then have an obligation, those of us who had burned draft cards and suggested the idea to others, to defy this law? It was immediately clear to me that we did. I didn’t have any draft cards left to burn, so I wrote to my draft board. I said, “Ladies and gentlemen of the draft board, I am not in possession of a registration or classification certificate. I burned them years ago. Would you please send me duplicates.” And they did. And we had another ceremonial draft card burning.

    Then we planned the first group act. David was the first one to do it as a single individual, but we wanted to have a group act of resistance to the Vietnam draft. We thought we would do it on the steps of the federal courthouse with A. J. Muste and Dorothy Day there to support us. But the crowd was so intense, a crowd of photographers and newspapermen, and they were acting in such an unruly manner, that we were afraid for the health of Dorothy and A. J. So we called the demonstration off. We went to our offices at 5 Beekman Street, where the War Resisters League and the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the Student Peace Union had their headquarters. These guys from the Times came over with us, and they said, “Look, you’re supposed to be professional agitators. You don’t even know your own business! This is a hot issue. Give us something that we can photograph. Give us something that’s timed for the Sunday papers. Don’t throw it away on a Thursday afternoon! Don’t you know better than that? Spend some money, get yourself a good sound system. Make a stage.”

    So we did. We spent about $2500 of the Committee for Nonviolent Action’s money, erected a stage at the north end of Union Square, hired a sound system, and timed it for the Sunday papers. We attracted 2500 people to an event that was staged with great dignity. We all wore suits and ties; we didn’t look like hippies. Dorothy read something, A. J. read something. It was really beautiful. And we burned the cards. As the cards were burning, just before they ignited, a jet of fluid flew in an arc and landed right in our midst. We had no idea what it was. I thought, “Is this volatile? Are we going to go up in a puff of smoke?” It was water. Somebody had brought a pressurized container of water in past the police and just doused the cards. So there we were holding cards that were soaking wet and applying a zippo lighter to them. You know the story of Elijah and the sacrifice? Well, the cards were drenched, but they still burned! It was marvelous, just marvelous, that they burned.

    Well, it was on the evening news. My stepfather and my mother were watching back home in Connecticut. He was so furious he almost broke the set. He managed to get to bed and get to sleep. The next morning he went to mass with my mother as usual. He came out of the church to the parking lot afterwards, and there were all the local papers and the New York papers for sale: the New York Times, the New York News, the New York Mirror, the New York Post, the Herald Tribune, the Journal American, the Fairfield County Herald, and the Bridgeport Post – and I’m on the front page of every single one! Me and the other four guys, Dorothy, and A. J., and the cards burning. He went berserk. For three years I couldn’t go home. I couldn’t see my mother unless she came to New York, and she was getting older and afraid of New York. So that was very, very painful. But our appeals were finally exhausted, and we had to surrender for imprisonment.

    I said, “You know what I think I’m going to do? I’m not going to be part of this system anymore. I’m going to ‘unregister.’” So I burned my draft card in the ash tray on the bar at the Goldenrod on Bank Street, had another beer, and went home.

    At the trial we had a wonderful defense team made up of top civil liberties lawyers. They understood what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to get off the hook. That was not the point. We wanted to broadcast a moral principle. We didn’t want a jury. We wanted to be tried by the court, convicted by the court, and overturn the law on appeal. In other words: First Amendment. The act of burning a draft card is an act of speech, symbolic speech. The new law serves no purpose other than to stifle dissent, and therefore it is invalid.

    Well, the Supreme Court didn’t want to hear this. Only one voted in our favor, but they didn’t even hear it. It took three years for them to decide that they weren’t going to hear it. The judge must have been impressed with the fact that we weren’t trying to save our skins but that we were trying to make a constitutional case. He gave us a much more lenient sentence than we had anticipated. We thought we’d get what everybody else was getting under Selective Service, which was two to three years. But he gave us six months. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. I mean, I could do six months. I knew I could do six months.

    But it was hard. Maybe it’s my own weakness of character, I don’t know. But it was terrible, really awful. The food was execrable. After the first week I simply couldn’t eat it anymore. I lived on ice cream and Fritos. This was 1968. I developed a little tire around my middle. I never had one before. Then it was a Schwinn. Now it’s a Goodyear. I was incredibly bored. There was nothing to do. I was married, and I was the only guy in the whole prison who insisted on keeping his wedding ring on. That told the other prisoners that there was something special about me. They knew it immediately. They knew I had some kind of “juice,” as they say. So I was protected by that. Then I let the Mafia guys know that I was Italian. It was foolish not to. I mean, I tell the Jewish kids, don’t ever think you’re not Jewish. Other people are not going to forget; Hitler didn’t forget. If you’re going to pay a price you might as well have the reward too. And the reward for me was Mafia protection.

    My daughter Deirdre took her first steps in the Danbury prison in the visiting room. She was about a year or thirteen months. Tommy was three. He was old enough to be affected by it. When I got out, he was fearful that I’d leave again. If I went to the grocery store or something like that, he was afraid I might never come back.


    So I got out, and the New York Times did a story about my experience for the magazine, and they paid very generously. Now, the grand gesture is one thing. Take the burning of draft cards, for instance – you get famous for fifteen minutes, but it’s hollow, it’s not really you. It’s somebody’s image of you, a public thing, and it bears very little resemblance to the real you. We’re addicted to grand gestures in the peace movement, flashy things that seem to have an effect, and then they’re gone. A generation later, who remembers? But if you can institutionalize something, then it affects future generations. Isn’t it more important to have a generalized widespread attitude than it is to have a few people with a very well articulated intellectualization of all these issues? Those people you’ll always have. But they’re not representative.

    We’re not really in control of events, and in the end it’s by the grace of God that any good comes out of our protests. It’s a gift. On the other hand, we weren’t put here just to wait. We have the Scripture, the experience of our communities, and we need to take action.

    From Hell, Healing, and Resistance: Veterans Speak by Daniel Hallock

    Contributed By Tom Cornell Tom Cornell

    Tom Cornell was a veteran of the Catholic Worker movement and lifelong friends with Dorothy Day. He was managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper from 1962–1964 and was also an associate editor. He was a cofounder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and of Pax Christi, USA.

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