Letter to My Grandchildren

Dear grandchildren,

Ever since the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York over two years ago, I have been wanting to write to you to share some of the reasons I remain hopeful about our world despite the discouraging current conditions. I know all of you share the feeling that our government has taken a wrong turn. In its so-called war on the terrorists, our government went against world opinion and invaded Iraq, and it has had little concept of how our policies have provoked, rather than reduced, terrorism in the Middle East. With new government regulations eroding civil liberties within the United States, and an economic policy that is making the rich richer and the poor poorer, it is hard to see much on which to base hope for immediate improvement on any front.

It is hard to be young, and to feel that the vast majority of your fellow citizens are arrayed against your beliefs. I remember vividly what it was like after the Japanese attack on the ships at Pearl Harbor. Grandfather Allen Bacon and I were at Antioch College at the time, aged 20 and 22, and we remember vividly the sense of vulnerability and despair we felt as pacifists. Sickened by the slaughter in Hawaii and thoughts of the coming casualties, we believed, as disciples of Mohandas Gandhi, that there was ultimately a better way than meeting violence with violence. The whole nation, it seemed, was united on seeking vengeance, just as it seemed right after the events of September 11, 2001, and the few of us who held a different position felt impotent and lonely.

Just as after September 11, when many in the United States vented their frustration and anger on U.S. citizens of Arab descent (a situation that seems to have improved somewhat), in 1941-42 public prejudice against Japanese Americans was so extreme that the government established isolated relocation camps to hold them, in complete violation of their civil liberties. The first positive course of action pacifists found was trying to aid Japanese American students in relocating to colleges away from the West Coast. One student, Mari Sabusawa, came to Antioch and later became the wife of James Michener. Later, when Grandfather was facing the draft, we applied to work in the relocation camps.

But when Allen was finally drafted as a conscientious objector, he was assigned first to a forestry camp, and then to a state mental hospital in Maryland. You have all read Grandmother’s memoir about this experience, Love is the Hardest Lesson [published by Pendle Hill in 1999—Eds.], and you know that we ultimately learned a great deal about using nonviolence in dealing with disturbed and violent persons and practicing it in our daily lives.

We struggled through the war years, convinced that force was not the ultimate answer, but continually questioning how to make nonviolence a practical reality. The sickening revelations of the concentration camps that came at the end of the war in Europe, VE Day, were matched by the equally sickening news of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where between 100,000 and 120,000 civilians—men, women, and children—were pulverized by U.S. atomic bombs.

Grandfather and I came out of the war determined to make our lives count for something in changing the conditions that made war possible, whether in the slums of Philadelphia or in Quaker projects around the world. It took a while to find the right niches, but we felt that we had found them in our work for American Friends Service Commit-tee and the Philadelphia settlement house movement. When the tragic Vietnam War came along we were relieved to discover that there were ten times as many persons who shared our pacifism as in the days of World War II. It was gratifying that our three children, your parents, also opposed that war. Some of my happiest family memories are of standing in a vigil line together.

In recent years we have seen a proliferation of people devoted to finding peaceful solutions to conflicts. UN troops are trained to use nonviolent ways to solve problems, and the United States now has a Peace Institute. Methods of conflict resolution are being taught not only in the schools and the prisons, but also to soldiers and police, and they are even used to some extent by armies of occupation.

Ever since the catastrophe of September 11, we have received floods of e-mails from friends and acquaintances urging us to make our opinions known to the U.S. president, senators, and congresspersons.

We are no longer alone, as we felt at the time of Pearl Harbor, and there are opportunities at every turn to speak out against our government’s misguided policies, and to urge joint action through the United Nations. We must help our representatives understand that the seeds of terrorism grow from ever-increasing economic inequality and from forcing the interests of developed countries on the poorer nations of the world. I am so proud to have grandchildren who are working actively for fair trade and authentic economic development.

Yes, things seem to be going the wrong way now. But I remember many times that were even more discouraging. I remember the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when your parents were toddlers. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attack on real and alleged Communists in the federal government created a climate of fear in this country that infiltrated even liberal organizations and caused men and women of good will to suspect one another. I remember the long agony of the Vietnam War, which created such disruption and hatred in this country, with the extremes of the Weathermen on one hand and the excesses of President Richard Nixon’s White House on the other. I remember the Watergate scandals and wondering if we would ever have an honest and responsive government again. Each of these eras seemed as though it would never end, but they all did, and we came out stronger and better as a result.

I have lived over 82 years—a very long time. The year before I was born, U.S. women got the vote after more than 70 years of agitating. When I was a child, African Americans were being lynched in the South, and children worked in factories without the protection of child labor laws. There was no safety net for people who fell into poverty. I remember the Great Depression, with bread lines stretching around the block from St. Vincent’s Hospital on 11th Street in New York City, and people living in cardboard shacks along the train tracks uptown. There was no Social Security, no Medicaid, no low-income housing. My own father, a freelance artist, could not find work and we were lucky at times to have oatmeal to eat for dinner.

The changes I have seen in my lifetime in the position of women, in civil rights for minorities, in respect for the rights of Native Americans, in civil liberties for all, in the care of the mentally ill, in the proliferation of helping services, and in teaching alternatives to violence in the schools have been widespread and breathtaking. Of course, not all problems have been resolved, and in some areas perhaps things have gotten worse. We advance erratically, two steps forward and one step back. But I do not know how anyone of my age could avoid acknowledging that some progress has been made.

The world, too, has seen vast changes since 1921. Old-style colonialism has all but disappeared. We have seen the nations of Africa become independent one by one, and although all is not well, it is certainly better than when France, Great Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, and Italy all ruled parcels carved out arbitrarily with no regard to tribal ties.

In 1964, Grandfather and I went to South Africa, sponsored by a program called the U.S.-South Africa Leader Exchange, designed to break up the cultural isolation of so many Afrikaners. It is not clear that it achieved its objective, but it did introduce us to a troubled land that held our attention for many years. In the fall of 1992 I returned with an AFSC delegation to examine the roots of the violence that was convulsing the nation and threatening to interfere with the upcoming national elections. Despite that violence, the South Africa I saw almost 30 years later was a different nation than I had first visited, when change seemed impossible. I had the great privilege of meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and I subsequently followed his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with joy. No, things are not altogether right in South Africa today, but when I compare conditions now to conditions 40 years ago, I cannot help but believe that progress is possible.

In Southeast Asia also, old-style colonialism has been defeated. Keep in mind that when I was growing up, India and Burma were Crown Colonies of Great Britain, there was no Pakistan, Vietnam was still part of French Indochina, and the Dutch ruled Indonesia. Today we have neocolonialism, with our great transnational corporations exploiting workers and markets all over the world, but one cannot say that it would have been better to keep the old style of colonialism in place. In my lifetime, the USSR rose to dominate states surrounding Russia, as well as many countries in Eastern Europe; that power has ebbed, thanks in large part to nonviolent struggles of peoples in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere.

I have also seen great changes in the material circumstances of our world. When I was small, only the very rich had cars; few had radios; we had iceboxes rather than refrigerators; we traveled by train rather than plane. I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders to watch Charles Lind-bergh, “Lucky Lindy,” welcomed home from the first transatlantic flight by a ticker tape parade up Fifth Avenue. There were no antibiotics or penicillin, polio was a dreaded disease, and my grandmother died of a heart condition that is treatable today. The inventions of so many of the conveniences you have grown up with—television, computers, cell phones—were all in the future.

Astute observers have noted that the advances in government, economics, and social welfare have not kept pace with technological change. Nevertheless, there have been advances. When I was young we had an inept League of Nations. Today, the United Nations is a much stronger and more respected organization, with the potential to become a true world government, if the United States and others would give it a chance.

I draw my faith not only from the changes I have seen—I have even played a small role in some of them—but also in the advances of the past. As you know I have written a number of biographies of men and women, most of them Quakers, who have made a difference in their lifetimes. In exploring the lives of Isaac Hopper, Abby Kelley, Lucretia Mott, Henry Cadbury, Abby Hopper Gibbons, Mildred Scott Olmsted, and Robert Purvis, I have sought to understand the motivation of men and women who have been instruments of social change in their lifetimes. And although there are clues in their personalities that account for their commitment, I also have come to feel that there is a deeper source, a force for good, that works through individual women and men. It is not omnipotent; it needs the cooperation of committed people to express the power of love and to bring about change. As Mother Theresa said, “God has no hands but these.” But there is in each one of us a potential source of strength and of guidance.

And I draw my faith from you, my grandchildren. I am so proud of you all, and your commitment to social change: in the organization and study of fair-traded coffee cooperatives, building houses and other structures based on environmentally friendly architecture, organizing workcamps in Central America to provide schools for poor rural children, and volunteering at these workcamps. I am proud of my stepgrandchildren who are making our family a little United Nations of our own, with two Korean American great-grandsons and with an African American great-granddaughter. Following a Muslim-Methodist wedding we may look for Indian American great-grandchildren, while one of you shows us how to raise five children under the age of ten with grace and humor. I see a force for good working through all of your lives. It is my hope that each of you will keep in touch with this inner resource in the days, weeks, and years ahead.

Margaret Hope Bacon

Margaret Hope Bacon, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, is an author and lecturer. Her most recent book is a novel,Year of Grace. She has four grandchildren, four stepgrandchildren, and eight stepgreat-grandchildren.