Pacifist

Waldo Williams would be familiar with discussions about pacifism and socialism on the hearth during his boyhood as his parents were aware of all forward-looking thinking. Radical magazines would be read. It can be said that Elm Cottage was a hive of debate about the ills and the hopes of the age.

Another influence upon Waldo was his friend from his very early days, Willie Jenkins, who lived in the Manse at Prendergast, Haverfordwest. Willie was jailed during the First World War because of his pacifist convictions. He later stood as a Socialist parliamentary candidate on three occasions and was supported by Waldo.

During the Second World War Waldo regularly corresponded in the Western Telegraph, the main Pembrokeshire weekly newspaper, advocating pacifism. He registered as a conscientious objector and appeared before a tribunal in Carmarthen. He was exempted from all military duties on the basis of his conviction. He would not have been called up to join the forces anyway as we was too old by then and was a temporary headmaster at Puncheston School.

Waldo gave up writing poetry for a time in the early 1950s as he felt so much shame during the Korean War as he saw what he believed to be the ignominy of men killing their fellow men. He could not stomach such behaviour he deemed to be barbaric. As so many of Waldo’s poems highlighted the Christian pacifist viewpoint, he did not feel they should be published until he himself had accomplished a direct action against warfare. Mahatma Gandhi was a great influence upon him and the Indian leader’s words to the poet Rabindranath Tagore resonated in his ears – it is not words that are needed but actions.

As a result Waldo gave up teaching and refused to pay income tax in protest against the spending on warfare. As a teacher he had no control over his tax payments as they were taken from his pay packet at source but as a lecturer employed by the Extra Mural Department, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, he received payment in full and it was his duty then to arrange his income tax payments.

Court bailiffs confiscated some of Waldo’s possessions in lieu of his unpaid tax contributions and he was later jailed on two occasions in the early 1960s for his non-compliance. Waldo suspended his protest when military conscription was abandoned and every soldier who had been called to arms under such circumstances had been released from the armed forces.

Waldo leaving HMP Swansea (courtesy of the National Library of Wales)

In May 1956, a few months before the publication of Dail Pren, Waldo delivered a lecture entitled ‘Sovereignty and Brotherhood’ at the Baptist Union Assembly held at Fishguard and the following month he published an article in the national weekly, Baner ac Amserau Cymru, entitled ‘Why I refused to pay income tax’

On reading both the lecture and article, the motivation behind the pacifist standpoint becomes crystal clear as well as the strong influence of the Russian philosopher, Nicolai Berdayev. Waldo believed that the state compromised man’s freedom because it fettered his imagination. This is how he concludes his address:

When I observe the detailed future arrangements of governments and their advisers I am constantly struck dumb that all the geniuses of the age, in the various administrations, with their knowledge and capacity, find they are in a situation that is beyond their reach. A bird will fly around in frustration when an offspring falls from the nest. Despite its concern it will not endeavour to feed the fallen chick on the floor. It will be left to starve. It is shameful to observe a creature suffering because it is bound by its instincts. It is far more shameful when man, who has been blessed with reason, behaves in a helpless manner in a situation of anguish because he is dictated to by his habit. It is the light of Christ that shows us the truth and it is the truth that frees us. It is a personal matter for us all.

This is how he concludes the article in Y Faner:

Nothing can set us free except an affinity with other people. Compassion towards the suffering of others can lead us through places that are inexplicable to the reason unless the reason is awakened by the imagination. The only option we have is to face our guilt and transform it into conscience, and transform conscience into responsibility. Then our responsibility will become a vision. But this is very difficult for us.