U.S. Conscientious Objectors in World War II

World War II was a very important period in the history of U.S. conscientious objectors. When the draft was activated, it was the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, beginning before U.S. entry into the war. For the first time in a U.S. war, COs were permitted to serve their country not by being drafted into the military, but by engaging in alternative service called Civilian Public Service, or CPS. Also during World War II, the definition of CO was expanded to include religious persons who were not members of the three historic peace churches (Friends, Mennonites, and Brethren). The passion of the World War II COs to serve their country in nonviolent ways during wartime continues to have an impact today.
A conscientious objector was any person who refused to participate in war because of his conscience. In legal terms, a CO qualified under the IV-E (now I-O or I-A-O) section of the Selective Service, which exempted men from combat service.

There are three main types of conscientious objectors. Noncombatants are those who will serve in the military but will not serve in fighting positions. Conscientious objectors also include people who will not serve in the military at all but will accept required alternative service. Finally, “absolutists” are those COs (not recognized by law) who will not register for the draft, not serve in any position in the military, nor accept alternative service.

During the 1940s, many factors influenced a person’s decision to become a conscientious objector. Some people found that they could no longer fight after experiencing combat firsthand. More commonly, families influenced many COs. Some COs in World War II, such as Steve Cary and Asa Watkins, both well-known Quakers, were directly influenced by their fathers in their decisions to become pacifists. Steve Cary’s father refused to work in a company making weapons, and Asa Watkins’ father refused to own a gun although it was the norm in their southern culture.

Another major influence on conscientious objectors was their churches. Members of the three historic peace churches were often raised with an understanding and expectation of pacifism. Some members of religious groups, including the Amish, may have felt pressured to register as COs because their church would otherwise have “disfellowshiped” them.

For some African Americans, such as Bill Sutherland and Bayard Rustin, pacifism, combined with a strong sense of the injustice suffered by blacks in the United States, helped influence them to declare themselves conscientious objectors in World War II. Bayard Rustin wrote a letter to his local draft board in 1943 explaining why he could not serve: “Segregation, separation, according to Jesus, is the basis of continuous violence. . . . Racial discrimination in the armed forces is morally indefensible.”

Throughout U.S. history, there have always been men who have refused to fight in wars because their consciences would not permit them to kill another person. Because religious principles figured strongly in the founding of the United States, there have always been people here whose religious beliefs prevented them from entering the military. Beginning with the Revolutionary War, military officers and the government have had to manage the issue of how to deal with those who would not fight.

During the Revolutionary War, Quakers were among the first conscientious objectors in the history of this country. COs did not support the war at all and indeed many remained politically neutral, siding with neither the British nor the Patriots. Quakers were absolutists who would not accept office on either side, refused to serve in the military, refused to pay someone else to take their place, and refused to pay a fine or a fee to the government. In addition, these war resisters refused to pay taxes to fund the war.

As the number of conscientious objectors increased during the Revolutionary War, the colonies imposed new penalties on them. A penalty of four months in prison was imposed on COs who refused to serve. Some COs were forced to serve in the army against their will. Some resisters were humiliated by being forced to march with rifles strapped to their backs. COs who refused to eat army rations went hungry. George Washington personally released some of these COs when they were brought to him at his home.

There were also conscientious objectors during the Civil War. In the South, COs were suspected of opposing both the war and slavery, and were viewed by some as “double traitors.” Many Quakers endured jail and threats of death for refusing to fight in the war. Only 20 COs asked for noncombatant positions in the army.

As an alternative to fighting, Quakers worked to change society. Quakers were concerned with helping people escape slavery. They helped found the Underground Railroad, provided food and shelter to needy African Americans, opened schools for children, and assisted adults in need.

The First World War offered better alternatives for conscientious objectors than the Civil War, but it still provided a challenge to them. Unlike during the Civil War, where most men accepted jail sentences instead of noncombatant service, 20,873 men were granted noncombatant classification by their draft boards. This was in addition to 4,000 conscientious objectors who were members of the historic peace churches and therefore exempted from fighting for their country.

In the early postwar years of World War I, many pacifists worked in Europe with American Friends Service Committee, providing relief to German war victims. During the interwar period, there was a growing peace movement in the United States, in part influenced by the activities of Mohandas Gandhi. Meanwhile, many U.S. citizens believed that there could never be another terrible war. There was a strong isolationist movement in the belief that this would protect the United States from another devastating war.

By 1940, U.S. views about isolationism were beginning to change. The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (the Burke-Wadsworth Bill) created the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Prior to the start of this peacetime draft, Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren worked together to negotiate the provisions of the pending Selective Service law. They requested a national register of COs, a civilian agency to administer the program, an alternative service option under civilian control, a national board of appeal, and a complete exemption for absolutists. The final law didn’t go that far, but it did expand the definition of a CO from members of the historic peace churches to anyone who could not fight because of religious training and belief. It offered the option for COs to perform work “of national importance” under civilian direction, an appeal process available under the Justice Department, and the right for violators to be tried under civilian courts rather than military court martial.

Since there was no national register of conscientious objectors, the total number is unknown, but 37,000 were classified by Selective Service as COs; 43,000 served as non-combatants; within the larger group of COs, 12,000 men served in Civilian Public Service; and 6,000 went to jail.

As alternative service, COs worked in forestry, as human testers, as firefighters, in farm work, and as hospital attendants in psychiatric hospitals. No matter what the job was, COs were always under the control of someone else, and had to work without pay. For many COs, their work was boring, depressing, and unrewarding in that the U.S. public did not appreciate their jobs.

Many COs were in forestry, mostly under the control of the U.S. Forestry Service. It was the COs’ job to build dams, levees, and reservoirs; dig ditches; clear channels; and sod gullies. COs were also responsible for a large amount of trail-clearing in national parks.

Because a war was going on, farmers needed help to produce their products and asked Selective Service to allow COs to help them. While most COs worked on dairy farms, others planted crops, picked vegetables, husked corn, dug potatoes, and pruned fruit trees, all for no pay. Veterans’ groups protested that farming was too easy an alternative to military service and, as a result, stricter rules were set. For example, COs could not work within 100 miles of a family member.

Steve Cary, a Quaker World War II CO, said, “There is no doubt in my mind . . . that the greatest contribution which we made in that era was in the whole field of mental health.” Some COs thought that working on farms was not work “of national importance,” so they requested work in mental hospitals. In many cases they replaced workers who had enlisted or left these jobs due to the bad working conditions and low salaries. COs learned that the conditions in mental hospitals were appalling, and they committed themselves to establishing new standards for patients in mental hospitals.

All together, 3,000 COs worked in psychiatric hospitals, as ward attendants, mechanics, kitchen helpers, technicians, clerks, and outdoor laborers. These jobs of COs were sometimes dangerous. Some patients took their anger out on the COs by attacking them with knives. Despite these threats, COs felt that it was their responsibility to improve conditions in hospitals, and find nonviolent ways to deal with patients.

One of the most dangerous jobs for COs was that of a human tester. These COs (about 500 COs volunteered) perhaps wanted to show their courage by offering themselves for hazardous experiments. The volunteers tested new drugs, extreme temperatures, and the effects of diseases such as jaundice, malaria, and pneumonia.

One of the experiments was a test seeking the mental effects of extreme diet deprivation of food and water. Thirty-six COs were tested for a 24-week semi-starvation experiment. They were limited to a calorie intake that was less than half of the 3,300-calorie diet given to a regular soldier, and were required to maintain their normal physical activity. Overall the COs’ weight dropped by 22 percent. The CO human testing was kept a secret and almost no photos were allowed of the experimentations. Robert Wixom, one of the CO human guinea pigs, said, “We were there to do our duty and serve in a constructive, nonviolent manner.”

Another service option for conscientious objectors was that of being a smokejumper who fought forest fires by jumping from planes. Many COs wanted to smoke jump, perhaps to demonstrate their bravery in the service to their country. Of the many COs who volunteered, only 240 were accepted for this dangerous job. During the fire season, these smokejumpers moved out West to camps where they waited until a forest fire started.

Noncombatant military service was another option for conscientious objectors in World War II who did not choose or were denied the opportunity for alternative service. Noncombatants were soldiers, but were exempted from using weapons, enabling them to receive military pay and benefits. Most of the 43,000 noncombatants were initially denied CO status by their local draft boards and then accepted non-combat positions. Some felt that being a noncombatant was a justifiable compromise. Most noncombatants were willing to be trained to use guns, but they just didn’t use them. “Noncombatancy was also undeniably the service of choice for those who wanted to promote American victory, believed in the justness of the Allied cause, but felt constrained to nonviolence themselves,” wrote scholar Cynthia Eller.

The last alternative for conscientious objectors was to serve time in prison. The lawmakers who created the Selective Service Act hoped that its provisions would mean fewer COs in prison than during World War I, but instead the number actually increased. The COs who went to jail were either denied CO status, refused to serve in a CPS camp, or never registered (only 300 were in prison because they didn’t register). Jehovah’s Witnesses accounted for the largest percentage of imprisoned COs. They requested CO status not because of an opposition to violence, but because they believed that the government had no right to draft them; they were denied. The maximum sentence for a CO was ten years and a $10,000 fine. Once out of jail, COs were at risk of being drafted and imprisoned again.

Conscientious objectors were often persecuted for their efforts in World War II. John F. Kennedy acknowledged this when he said, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” World War II COs endured verbal abuse and vandalism of their homes, were refused service in restaurants, had to witness being hung in effigy, dealt with efforts to prevent them from voting, and were socially ostracized.

Conscientious objectors and their families also suffered economically. When the men of the family were in CPS, they were not paid. Many COs went on strike, and some called the workcamps “American Slave Camps.” Families relied on the women to provide financial support. Also, families had to pay for COs to go into the CPS (about $35 a month). Finally, there were fewer job opportunities for the family members of COs because most of them would not accept employment that included working in war industries, and some employers refused to hire family members of COs.

Many CO families were separated while family members served in the workcamps or on farms. Some families disagreed with COs and were ashamed of what their relatives believed. In some instances, parents and spouses even threatened to commit suicide. The worry over persecution, loss of pay, and separation took over the lives of many COs’ families.

Conscientious objectors also experienced delayed release from the Selective Service. Because veterans’ groups objected to COs being released before people in active military service, the point system designed for fairness in determining terms of service in the military was not applied to COs. It was not until March 1947 that the last 360 COs in CPS were released, six years after the first CPS camp opened.

The contributions of WWII COs have had a lasting impact. Their efforts made positive changes in healthcare, in psychiatric institutions and prisons, and in the U.S. infrastructure. COs became leaders in U.S. social movements. They also played a large role in public health. From the experiments in which they participated, improvements have been made in the treatment of malaria, influenza, pneumonia, and jaundice. The starvation experiments offered information about the food and water needs of soldiers and refugees.

Conscientious objectors working in mental hospitals created new standards for the treatment of patients with mental illness. By exposing conditions in U.S. psychiatric facilities, COs were able to inform the public, which generated a demand for humane treatment of the mentally ill. Their efforts resulted in the establishment of the National Mental Health Foundation, which still exists to advocate for the rights of the mentally ill.

According to Austin Reiger, a Mennonite conscientious objector who was imprisoned, “The U.S. prison system is more in need of rehabilitation than all mental hospitals.” Conscientious objectors worked against solitary confinement in prisons. Their efforts also contributed to the desegregation of federal prisons.

The concrete improvements conscientious objectors made to the U.S. infrastructure included their work to build highways, dams, and levees to control rivers, and to construct bridges.

Many people throughout history have seen COs as a nuisance, but their impact has been great. This is especially true for COs in World War II. This group of men clearly established that nonviolent alternative service is a patriotic substitute for war. During World War II, the public recognized that moral objection to government policy was acceptable. World War II COs were tolerated as expressions of democracy. The beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the acceptance of Gandhi’s nonviolence originated at least in part among World War II conscientious objectors in the United States.

COs became leaders of modern-day U.S. social movements. Steve Cary became clerk of American Friends Service Committee, president of Haverford College, and a leader of the peace movement. Bayard Rustin was an organizer of the March on Washington, was an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., and is now an inspiration to African American gay men. Conscientious objectors in World War II who served their time in jail helped end segregation in U.S. prisons. Desegregation in the U.S. armed forces can also be credited in part to the efforts of World War II COs. These COs paved the way for the many draft resisters during the Vietnam War and for tax resisters of recent years. As Rosa Packard, a contemporary Quaker tax resister, says, “The example and influence of World War II conscientious objectors helped clear this path for me.” The example of these men and their commitment to nonviolence will inspire me to become a proud, patriotic conscientious objector.

John Mascari

John Mascari is a junior member of Westbury (N.Y.) Meeting. He wrote this paper and created a DVD to accompany several oral presentations of it in 2004, when he was an 8th grader at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, N.Y., where he now attends 10th grade.