A reluctant pacifist: Thomas Merton and the Cold War Letters, October 1961 – April 1962

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Cronin, James G. R.
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University College Cork
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Thomas Merton believed nuclear war was the single greatest threat facing humanity, whereas American Catholic commentators considered that nuclear war was winnable or at least survivable. What made him a reluctant pacifist was the tensions he faced between speaking frankly without being partisan. Merton had an intellectual duty to his readers to both fairly and accurately set out his position on nuclear pacifism. In order to evaluate whether he did this with integrity as a writer it is necessary to set his declared motivations against his actions and to evaluate what the tensions between his views and his actions reveal about him as a writer. Merton’s pacifism is evaluated through archive research at the Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, and supported by a substantial secondary literature. Research for this dissertation highlights previously unacknowledged associations between Merton’s Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky and radical pacifism of the Catholic Worker movement. Merton’s pacifism is evaluated in five chapters through examination of his character, cloistered life, and correspondences within the institutional context of Merton’s tussles with his superiors and censors in reaction to the resumption of atmospheric nuclear testing by the Soviet Union in September 1961 and the U.S. in April 1962. He represented himself through correspondence as being a writer who was committed to a central American Catholic ideal that America was good for Catholicism and Catholicism could save America. He was committed to a consistent ethics of life. The few mainstream readers who engaged with Merton’s ideas were shocked and confused that he reduced political reality to symbols of moralism that rejected all war, not just nuclear war. The broader significance of Merton’s pacifist writing was as a bellwether of a broader cultural shift in American Catholic life from American Catholic triumphalism to prudential judgement in the responsible exercise of the democratic life.
Cold War culture , Thomas Merton , President John F. Kennedy , Berlin crisis , Nuclear pacifism , Deterrence , American Catholicism
Cronin, J. G. R. 2021. A reluctant pacifist: Thomas Merton and the Cold War Letters, October 1961 – April 1962. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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