In repeated discussions of LDS positions on war there is an inevitable quotation from J. Reuben Clark. But non violent proponents and radical libertarians do not know the life and times of this man, which in turn undermine his positions and any use they may have in advancing an anti war agenda. Isolated quotes from J. Reuben Clark fail to account for his inconsistent views, his pro Nazi positions, and his demotions and minority voice within church leadership.
Before I cover those three points I must point out several things. It may shock an average church member to read a critique of a former apostle. This is a valid concern based on an abundance of love and respect for those leaders. Yet I should remind readers that binding church doctrine is not found in isolated statements of church leaders. (And as I point out below, even contemporaries leaders disagreed with and prevented the publication of his statements.) Church doctrine is found in the standard works, and in the consistent pronunciations of the First Presidency and the Quorum the Twelve. A single statement represents a well thought out opinion and is not considered binding on church members.
Furthermore, it is disingenuous to introduce a prophet’s words to bolster a political argument, but then expect an uncritical acceptance of those words. In essence radical libertarians and anti war critics introduce a piece of evidence in a court room, and then deny a proper cross examination of it. If they are so sensitive to possible mistreatment of a prophet’s image or legacy, perhaps they shouldn’t introduce his words to bolster their political arguments and castigate brothers who disagree with them. So with as much respect that I have for the prophets’ words, they are used to support arguments with which I disagree, and used in opposition to the context in which they originated. So a faithful member of the church can and should examine the historical context and logical implications of teachings often presented in isolation to support an agenda.
Tossed About With Every Wind of Politics
His shifting positions hardly represent a stable moral view of war, but rather a position that changes with the politics of the time. He started his young adult life with his family barely convincing him not to enlist in the Spanish American War. This is particularly insightful as it is considered one of the most Imperialistic of America’s Wars and resulted in a brutal counter insurgency campaign in the Philippines. He then worked for State Department and wrote what sounded like the Taft Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine was a policy that told Europeans to keep their hands off North or South America. While the Taft Corollary added that America could and would be hands on in that region. This doctrine expanded America’s involvement in unofficial wars, gunboat diplomacy, and even quasi annexation of Caribbean and Central American countries until the start of WWII. At the start of WWI he enlisted in the Army Reserves and even argued that German nationals should be imprisoned.
A person might argue that he was impassioned by later abuses and ennobled by the course of his life so he would eventually become a pacifist. But he said during this period that:
“The older I get, the more I see, the more experience I obtain, the more I become convinced that the peace propaganda and the present peace propagandists are both equally impractical and illusory, as also inimical to the interests of the this nation. If we get into war…we shall have to put some of them in jail, and personally I should like to begin with [prominent progressive and anti imperialist, William Jennings] Bryan.”
Clark actually agreed with George Orwell, who later commented during WWII that,
“In so far as it hampers the British war effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis and German pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the USSR. Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi.”
A year later he said:
“Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me.’”
Clark’s words and actions after his anti war shift exemplify this quote. In sharp contrast to his earlier statements about interning Germans, Clark had effusive praise for Hitler and the society he was creating. This is in spite of the numerous reports he had concerning Nazi death camps. He even “suppressed” the anti-Nazi writings of a former mission president to Czechoslovakia which contained pictures of prisoners in a German concentration camp.
He repeatedly advocated for a negotiated peace with Germany that would have left them in control of much of Europe. He did so after yet more reports from death camps such as Auschwitz. The FBI had secret files which detailed how Nazi agents received the private encouragement of J. Reuben Clark. After a fireside given by Clark one member publicly wrote that is was “the most reactionary, critical, and near seditious ever delivered in a country during a time of war.”
After the war was over he condemned the Nuremburg trials while also accusing the Allies of seeking to destroy the German people. Historian D. Michael Quinn recorded that in over 600 boxes of personal papers there is not one criticism of Nazi conduct during the war. “Clarks only accusation of war crimes was against his own nation’s leaders and armed forces.”
These comments didn’t escape the notice of fellow church leaders and the rank and file members. The title of this piece reflected one opinion of Clark’s pro Nazi views and the above section also included the “near seditious” nature of Clark’s words. After the attack at Pearl Harbor President Grant disregarded Clark’s description of the war as “jungle law of beasts” and published a more cautious message. The First Presidency message in April 1942 did not contain any of Clark’s positions on conscientious objectors, though a later letter seemed to be influenced by Clark. In 1945 the First Presidency against softened a message he wrote.
On the ascension of President David O. McKay he was demoted to second counselor in the First Presidency. McKay also forcefully ordered him to speak in support of military service during the Korean War. Many of his most strident remarks were made in unofficial capacities or remained in his private papers as he seemed out of step with many of his church colleagues, like Harold B. Lee and McKay, but also his professional colleagues, where he was the only former or current U.S. ambassador to reject creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; his opinions also elicited severe opposition from rank and file church members. While morality is not a popularity contest, establishing church doctrine does require the consistent proclamation of all 15 people in the Presidency and Quorum of the 12. Because of the deference for past and present leaders it is also extremely rare to be overturned in such conspicuous ways and reinforces the idea that Clark was not speaking for the Lord but stating his opinion.
It is tempting and easy to say you are anti war. With the horrors of death and a humanistic concern for the individual welfare, not to mention the often naked use of power we see around the world, it is understandable. But many anti war advocates don’t consider the logical outcomes of their actions. Thus somebody who was antiwar during WWII, inevitably became pro-Nazi.
J. Reuben Clark was not consistent in his positions. He supported imperialistic endeavors through his youth and even defended them and attacked pacifists as he advanced in his career. He abruptly shifted without explanation and consistently defended Nazis and attacked any form of warfare. He was so strident that he often didn’t garner the support of other church leaders and was overruled on more than one occasion.
Using out of context quotes from J. Reuben Clark might satisfy the pacifist looking for support in his position. But it ignores the context of his time. The shifting positions, pro-Nazi attitudes, and minority within church leadership undermine the value of isolated quotes. Using his quotes suggests a failure to articulate clear moral positions, and the reason why you might shift them throughout a person’s life. They argue that the logical outcome of anti war positions will result in opposing just war against genocidal dictators. And they suggest that you hold a minority position within the Church and not accurately stating binding doctrine.
- Have you seen anybody use prophetic quotes out of context? Describe. What issue was it, what happened, and how did it make you feel?
- What is the proper way to incorporate a prophet’s council into an argument? Is it even possible to do so without angering your opponent?
- Why might it be difficult to say you are antiwar?
- Did the quote from George Orwell about being for or against us sound like something George Bush said? Does that make you reassess your view of Bush?
D. Michael Quinn, “Pacifist Counselor in the First Presidency: J Reuben Clark Jr., 1933-1963” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Patrick Mason, J. David Pulsipher, Richard Bushman eds. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012) 141-160, 149. Unless otherwise noted, all of the page numbers for this post originate from Quinn’s essay. I was rather surprised he presented the evidence found in this post without comment but instead focused on Clark’s protection and assistance to pacifists. While the latter is good I think the former deserves more attention and consideration than it got in his piece.
 See more on prophet bashing here: http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-duplicitous-anti-war-critic.html
 Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas (New York: Penguin Group, 2012) 183.
 153, 154.