Check this out. It’s a time capsule in the form of a Methodist sermon delivered in 1948, “Why I Am Opposed to Universal Military Training,” by Dr. G.S. Nichols. You wouldn’t think a retro sermon given nearly 60 years ago could add anything to our current dialog about war and peace. Things have changed. We’ve moved on.
That was my first impression when this faded document crossed my desk, sent to me by a WW II Conscientious Objector. But because I’m open to anything that isn’t what we’re doing right now, I dove in, keeping my expectations in check and setting my mind for “preaching.”
Was I surprised. Apparently Methodists wanted details in their sermons in the 1940s, they wanted to talk about the draft, military leaders taking government jobs that used to be done by civilians, and especially they wanted to talk about wars and how to stop them from starting. They knew about life, having lived through the 1930s and 1940s, a tough time for optimists. Politics were everywhere (still are). And politics, then as now, were something to worry about, especially when politicians did most of the talking. Dr. Nichols was in a warning mood the night he delivered this sermon.
The political wellbeing of a nation doesn’t just happen because you want a nice place to live. The “dangers of militarization” are dangerous, which is why we call them that and why we need to ask a lot of questions of people who think we need even more. Wars are easier to start when you keep making “better” weapons and training people how to use them. Weapons of mass destruction are as sexy and dangerous to Americans as they are to other people, so we need to talk about why we should have WMDs and how many (if any) we need. People were talking about these things 60 years ago. Not much has changed.
So why did Dr. Nicols take to the pulpit and deliver his warning? He was worried about all the talk from President Truman & Company about his new great idea of creating something called the Universal Military Training Act (the draft and the Selective Service Act already existed, but Truman wanted something new to handle the dangers cropping up everywhere in the world, meaning Korea and in our own backyard; plus, they argued, all young people need military training because it improves them). The troops were home from the war, but our leaders didn’t want things to slow down too much lest we lose our hard-earned edge.
I’m tempted to think that if there were a time when people would jump at the idea of giving up militarization, it would be after a world war. Or if I were cynical, I might think that the reverse would be true, that after a major war people would have come to love war so much that they would want every kid to try it out. In the end Truman didn’t get his UMT, so Dr. Nichols got one thing he wanted. However, the government figured out how to tweak the laws on the books to keep the draft going until the Selective Service Act expired in 1973.
I know what you’re thinking, “the draft is so 1960s.” No one would dare propose drafting anyone for anything today. And if you volunteer for stuff you get what you deserve. The effects of eliminating the draft had political consequences during Vietnam, just as its absence does today. How many 20-somethings do you know who are signing up to fight in this war? The back door draft is going on today, but when they run out of stop-loss troops, where do you think troops are going to come from?
I’m in the “enough is enough” camp with the mess in Iraq. Let’s try something else. So here’s to you, Dr. Nichols. Let’s get out of Iraq and try working as you propose on universal education, freedom from oppression and fear, and happiness. “We’re living in a new world,” says Dr. Nichols. “We must do some new thinking and new living. We must rise to greatness. We must combat fear and hate and all forms of exploitation and aggression.” What is old is suddenly new--again.
A brief note. I’ve done a bit of searching and can’t find anything about the life and times of Dr. Nichols. If you know more about him, or know of more of his inspiring sermons and writing and want to share, please send us email. Finally, a word of thanks to Lee Lumpkin, the CO who shared Dr. Nichols’ vision with me. Here’s to finding our greatness!
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