Conscription, Conscientious Objection, and Draft Resistance in American History

By Jerry Elmer. Brill, 2023. 404 pages. $136/hardcover or eBook.

How should Quakers respond when the government resorts to conscription to coerce young men to fight its wars? Clearly Friends have not responded to the military draft in a single, unified way. Some have registered as conscientious objectors (COs); others have gone into the military (perhaps as medics); still others have refused to participate altogether. But what has always been true is this: our traditional peace testimony forces Quakers to confront the issue. Even when young men are not being drafted, Friends frequently discuss what they should do if there were a draft.

We may not realize, however, that opposition to the draft in this country is as American as the proverbial apple pie; at least, that’s Jerry Elmer’s thesis in his latest book, which is the first in a new series from Brill called Studies in Peace History. As he puts it: “The depths of American hostility to conscription—starting before the Civil War and continuing through the Vietnam era—have been significantly underrecognized and underappreciated.”

To set the record straight, Elmer has written 389 pages with nearly a thousand footnotes, a bibliography of more than 200 books, and citations from more than 100 court cases.

Yet it’s not a boring, academic book. Elmer draws on his career as an attorney to argue his points as if he were trying to win a legal case. And he writes with passion. He was a draft resister himself during the Vietnam War. He also took part in several raids of local draft boards to destroy draft records (like the raids conducted by his heroes Daniel and Philip Berrigan). His resistance earned him a felony conviction. Before going to Harvard Law School, he worked for American Friends Service Committee from 1972 to 1987. He wrote a colorful account of those years in Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Vietnam-Era Draft Resister (2005).

In this book, Elmer has written chapters on each of the wars using conscription from the Civil War through Vietnam. Each chapter details the legislative history and wording of the war’s draft laws; descriptions of how they were implemented; stories of individual and collective acts of draft resistance and evasion; relevant court cases; and assessments of each war conscription’s success (or, in most cases, failure). As could be expected, individual Quakers and Friends organizations appear throughout this volume.

The result is by far the most comprehensive and thorough book about conscription in the United States. I wish it had been around when I was doing research for a documentary film about the Vietnam-era draft that I produced with a group of other draft resisters (The Boys Who Said NO!, which was released in 2020).

What I found most compelling about the book were the details—both the individual stories and the statistics—that demonstrate the breadth and intensity of opposition to the draft throughout U.S. history.

For instance in the Civil War, many resorted to armed resistance. While many of us have heard about the New York City draft riots, less known is that 38 draft officials were killed and 60 more were wounded when they tried to enforce the law in clashes throughout the country. In the Confederacy, “roving bands of heavily armed men” kept the conscription officers at bay.

Elmer also put together a chart showing that in the North more than half (53.2 percent) of those who had been drafted either did not enroll or evaded induction.

Though draft opponents did not resort to arms in subsequent wars, opposition was equally widespread. In one of his countless examples, Elmer shares that Ramsey Clark, the attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, estimated that there were nearly two million men who simply evaded the draft by not registering. During Vietnam, the resistance took so many forms involving literally millions of young men and their supporters that the draft system essentially collapsed—though few of us knew it at the time.

Although no one is being drafted at present, the Selective Service System still exists and is registering young men. Every year some in Congress introduce legislation that would force young women to register for the draft. I suggest that they read Elmer’s book to get an idea of what kind of resistance they can expect if they succeed in creating that requirement.

I would encourage all Friends meetings to get a copy of this book for their libraries, as it is an invaluable resource.

A member of Santa Cruz (Calif.) Meeting, Robert Levering was executive producer of The Boys Who Said NO! (2020) and The Movement and the “Madman,” which premiered on PBS last year and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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3 thoughts on “Conscription, Conscientious Objection, and Draft Resistance in American History

  1. On the contrary I support conscription for all (those with special needs ,women )with Finland like liberal acceptance
    of all to do alternative service just for the asking .Benefits would be the same as for veterans .

    Pacifism and alternative service needs to become more legitimate in USA and having what I discribe above
    would do so ,other wise people are condemned to leaving the country , going under ground ,.maiming themselves ,going to jail.and joining the military just to make ends meet . I think your approach is very irresponsible causeing great hurt and humiliation to many.
    Quakerism is not about suffering , that is why Quakers didnt stay with the state church in the 1640s , but broke away

    Paul Bruhn

  2. Our draft is unconstitutional for discriminating against men, which is unequal protection of the law. Our forced taxes for immoral killing (war, abort, euthanasia, death penalty, meat, bombs, etc.) and maiming are unconstitutional for not allowing freedom of religion, which could be easily fixed by allowing taxpayers to make equal payments to qualified religious/non-profit groups, at least for the proportion of funds going to religiously immoral acts.

    1. George, like most people, you are laboring under the misapprehension that taxes fund federal government spending. That is not true. Since 1789, the money paid in federal taxes is erased from the books and disappeared back into thin air where it came from when Congress spent it into existence. Congress creates all the money and has the power to spend it any way it wants. Since WWII it’s been spending increasingly more on the MICIMATT (the acronym created by Ray McGovern: Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think-Tank complex) and the bare minimum to meet the constitutional commitment to Promote the General Welfare. Congress is now literally owned by the MICIMATT which is driven by unregulated mentally deranged self-destructing capitalism. See

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