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When Even the Best Writing Fails to Persuade

June 9, 2021

The United States had long been fearful of engaging in foreign wars. But by the time the U.S. entered World War I in April of 1917, war fever had reached a high pitch.

Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961) was an economist, social activist, and pacifist teaching at Wellesley College in New York City. She wrote the following letter to her college president defending her views on war. Despite the persuasive and unthreatening letter Balch composed, she lost her professorship because of her stand against the war. See what you think of the letter!

To the President of Wellesley College


110 Morningside Drive, N. Y. C.

April third, 1918

Dear Miss Pendleton,

I should like to state to you, as well as I am able, my fundamental position in these tragic and heroic days through which our country and all the world is passing.

In the first place I am entirely in sympathy with the purposes of our country in the war as expressed for us by the President. I rejoice in his international leadership and am thankful that such a leader has been raised up to us.  I feel moreover that we can never adequately appreciate the heroism and self- sacrifice that are being poured out so unstintingly in the war day by day. I could desire nothing more than also to give myself wholly in trying to bring about a better world.

In such a time when love of country is conscious as never before, and when patriotism has such special claims upon us all, it is a very painful thing to be obliged to forgo, in any degree, full inner cooperation with the methods by which the ends for which we all are working are being sought.  Nevertheless I believe so deeply that the way of war is not the way of Christianity, I find it so impossible to reconcile war with the truth of Jesus’ teachings, that even now I am obliged to give up the happiness of full and unquestioning cooperation where the choice is mine to make.

On the other hand any effort to obstruct the war, to work against enlistment or anything of the sort, would seem to me not only inexpedient and silly, as well as unlawful, but also morally wrong. It is, I suppose hardly necessary to add that Junkerism and militarism and all their manifestations, from faithlessness and fraud to atrocities and annexations, are abhorrent to me.

In all such activities as food conservation and relief reconstruction work of all kinds I can of course take part gladly to the limit of my ability.

I fully realize that wiser as well as infinitely more spiritual disciples of Christ believe that they are following him in taking part in the war according to their respective functions.  This does not excuse me however from doing what seems to me right as I see it.  I may have a larger vision someday, then I can follow the new leading.  Meanwhile one of the hardest things about holding the position that I do is that it is so hard to keep it clear of Pharisaism.

Now as to the practical side of all this. It means that I have no temptation to dampen patriotism even in forms that I could not personally adopt nor to carry on any propaganda for my own peculiar views in connection, direct or indirect, with my teaching.  It means that at Wellesley or elsewhere I desire to do all that in me lies toward making the world safe for democracy by whatever phrase we may choose to express our national purpose at its purest, to work for honest and vigorous thinking, self- control and above all for service.


Emily G. Balch