Those Who Chose Conscientious Objection
As this project evolved it became increasingly clear that there would be a number of men who knew from the first moment that the draft became a reality in their lives that they would seek to become conscientious objectors and others for whom it would be yet another strategy in their efforts to avoid the draft. Regardless of its origins and purpose, the pursuit of this status entailed many hurdles, often involved numerous allies and invariably was a source of stress and struggle.
The evolution of conscientious objector status is checkered and parallels in many ways the evolution of this country’s conception of war, morality, religion and personal choice. In order to more fully appreciate both the law governing conscientious objector application as well as the political and social climate surrounding CO attempts during the Vietnam War it is necessary to examine this history.
Whether one believes that conscientious objection is a fundamental right available to all citizens or a freedom only given to a select few deemed worthy by a panel of chosen governmental representatives, it undeniably affords those chosen freedom from the most basic and potentially most dangerous of duties – the defense of one’s country. Over time this status has expanded and now includes more categories of exemption as well as an alternative way to meet the obligations of citizenship, which has lead 6to an expansion of the definition of national service.
Records of the first resistance to service go back to 1658 in the province of Maryland. Richard Keene refused military training and was fined and “abused by the sheriff’. Despite this unfortunate outcome, the American colonies permitted members of pacifist religions – Mennonites and Brethren originating in rural German Anabaptist tradition and Quakers of urban, well-educated English stock- to be exempt from the draft. The requirement for such exemptions was the payment of a fee, but no colony ever forced those who objected on religious grounds to bear arms if they paid.
During the Revolutionary War, such exemptions varied from state to state. Pennsylvania, for example, required the payment of a fine roughly equal to the amount they would have spent in military drill. Those who refused lost their property.
In his original proposal for a bill of rights, James Madison included the following clause: “no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”
Over the years, the obvious moral integrity of the conscientious objectors gained them grudging respect and toleration. In his original proposal for a bill of rights, James Madison included the following clause: “no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.” It is not clear why this clause was not adopted, but the evidence suggests that the framers of the Constitution favored leaving military exemptions to the jurisdiction of the states.
Conscientious objection first achieved legal recognition during the Civil War. As during the Revolutionary period, the objectors included the traditional peace sector – Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren – plus the Seventh Day Adventists, who added an urban, working-class component to the pacifist population. During the war, treatment of objectors varied, from relative leniency in the North to harsher penalties in the South.
The 1864 revision of the draft had momentous implications for conscientious objection and, indirectly, for national service. Commutation was abolished for everyone except conscientious objectors-the first time that federal law made specific provision for religious objectors. The law also provided that objectors drafted into military service “be considered non-combatants.” President Lincoln made it policy to assign such noncombatants to duty in hospitals or in educating freed slaves. The Lincoln administration, by creating a de facto mode of alternate civilian service, thus introduced civic content into conscientious objection. A watershed had been crossed in the meaning of national service in America.
The World War I draft law exempted from combat service, but not military service, those conscripts who came from traditional peace churches. Some 450 individuals would not cooperate with the conscription system in any way and went to federal prisons. Of the 65,000 drafted men who initially laid claim to conscientious-objector status, only 4,000 stayed the course. Most of these did medical work in the army, but some ended up doing menial labor in and around military encampments. Under pressure from the American Friends Service Committee (founded in response to World War I conscription), the military authorities eventually made some limited and local adjustments to alternative service, but no formal alternative-service program ever developed during World War I. The judgment is clear that the policies of the Wilson administration were retrograde from the alternative service standards allowed by Lincoln during the Civil War.
The issue of conscientious objection was squarely faced in the peacetime conscription law of 1940 and reiterated in the draft legislation of World War II. New ground was broken when membership in a strictly pacifist group was no longer a requirement for objector status, although religious motives remained so. Conscientious objectors divided into three categories: noncombatant soldiers, who though unwilling to fight in combat are willing to serve in other military roles; absolutists, who refuse to cooperate in any way with the conscription system or to participate in alternative activities, even if unrelated to the war effort; and alternativists, who refuse any military identity but accept alternative civilian work as directed by the government.
Learning from the World War I experience, the authorities decided that no conscientious objectors willing to do alternative service would be forced into the army or confined in prison. This set in motion a novel national-service program called Civilian Public Service (CPS).
The first category was the largest: an estimated 25,000 World War II draftees served in noncombatant roles. The military set up special basic training courses in which “1-A-O’s,” as they were known from their draft board destinations (a simple “1-A” meant the draftee could be assigned anywhere), did not partake of weapons handling or training. Most such unarmed soldiers served in the medical corps, where they often performed extremely hazardous work. Some were killed in combat areas, and one received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Conscientious objectors in uniform willing to perform noncombatant roles cause little problem for the system and easily meet the standards of the citizen soldier. The absolutists went to jail. All told, some 6,000 men were sentenced to prison terms for as long as five years. About three quarters of these were Jehovah’s Witnesses (whose claims for blanket exemption as ministers have never been recognized by the government). The remainder consisted of hardcore religious objectors and some Black Muslims protesting the racism of American society in general and its military in particular. Alternativists came under the provision of the draft law that allowed conscientious objectors to be assigned “to work of national importance under civilian direction.”
Learning from the World War I experience, the authorities decided that no conscientious objectors willing to do alternative service would be forced into the army or confined in prison. This set in motion a novel national-service program called Civilian Public Service (CPS). Some 500 objectors volunteered to be guinea pigs in medical experiments. (Among them was Max M. Kampelman, later the Reagan administration’s chief arms negotiator.) Another 2,000 or so worked in asylums and mental wards, thereby bringing an unprecedented humanness into the handling of the mentally ill in this country.
The great majority of alternativists, about 12,000, served in CPS camps located in rural areas, where participants performed conservation work. Alternativists worked without pay. For spending money, they had to rely on individual savings, family, or religious groups. Wives and children of conscientious objectors had to fend for themselves, a cause of great resentment among objectors. The CPS camps came under the technical administration of the Selective Service, but they were run by a consortium of the traditional peace churches. Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers (and later Methodists) ran their own camps. The sponsoring church provided food, clothing, and medical care, as well as camp staff for round-the-clock supervision. The actual conservation work was supervised by the Agriculture or Interior Department. The army loaned cots, bedding, utensils, and other camp equipment. Most camps tended to be religiously homogeneous. Objectors from nontraditional peace churches were likely to go to the more tolerant Quaker camps; but it was also the Quaker camps, perhaps because of their social heterogeneity, that were the most likely to be demoralized by the harshness of the work and the absence of pay. Serious offenders against camp procedures were reported to the Selective Service and became liable for prosecution in civil courts. In 1943 the government set up several of its own camps for conscientious objectors who did not want to serve or could not adapt to the regimen of the church camps.
At first, most pacifist groups considered the CPS system a great triumph for conscientious objection; it certainly contrasted favorably with the repressive policies of World War I. By the end of the war, however, most religious objectors came to see the CPS experiment as a moral capitulation by the pacifist establishment to the state. The consortium of peace churches was also influenced by the growing rebelliousness of assignees, who increasingly came to view the CPS camps as penal institutions. Management of conscientious-objection camps by pacifist churches was an unhappy experience that future administrations would try to avoid. Overall, the World War II experience helps to clarify the relation of conscientious objection to national service. Of the three categories of objector, the noncombatant soldier most clearly accords with the definition of the citizen soldier. And the absolutist most clearly falls short; however much he may be acting on the basis of high principle, the absolutist does not fulfill any civic obligations. It is the alternativist who poses the hardest case. World War II showed just how different from a civic standpoint the alternativist is from the draft evader, the deserter, and the absolutist. Indeed, the war demonstrated that conscientious objectors, by performing civilian work, can truly fulfill their civic obligations. Establishment of the principle of alternative service had lasting importance. The legacy of certain forms of civilian national service in lieu of military service was now accepted by the authorities, the public at large, and, importantly, the conscientious objectors themselves.
A History of National Service in America, Peter Shapiro, Ed. (Center for Political Leadership and, Participation, 1994.)
“Conscientious Objectors” is excerpted with permission from A Call To Civic Service: National Service for Country and Community by Charles C. Moskos (The Free Press, 1988)
publications: books : history of national service : conscientious objectors
© Copyright 1998-2002, The James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership. Updated August 7, 2001
During the American Revolutionary War exemptions varied by state. Pennsylvania required conscientious objectors, who would not join companies of voluntary soldiers called Associations, to pay a fine roughly equal to the time they would have spent in military drill. Quakers who refused this extra tax had their property confiscated.
The first conscription in the United States came with the Civil War. Although conscientious objection was not part of the draft law, individuals could provide a substitute or pay $300 to hire one. By 1864 the draft act allowed the $300 to be paid for the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers. Conscientious objectors in Confederate States initially had few options. Responses included moving to northern states, hiding in the mountains, joining the army but refusing to use a weapon or imprisonment. Between late 1862 and 1864 a payment of $500 into the public treasury exempted conscientious objectors from Confederate military duty.
We were cursed, beaten, kicked, and compelled to go through exercises to the extent that a few were unconscious for some minutes. They kept it up for the greater part of the afternoon, and then those who could possibly stand on their feet were compelled to take cold shower baths. One of the boys was scrubbed with a scrubbing brush using lye on him. They drew blood in several places.
Mennonite from Camp Lee, Virginia, United States, 16 July 1918.
John T. Neufeld was a WWI conscientious objector sentenced to 15 years hard labor in the military prison at Leavenworth. He was paroled to do dairy work and released after serving five months of his sentence.
In the United States during World War I conscientious objectors were permitted to serve in noncombatant military roles. About 2000 absolute conscientious objectors refused to cooperate in any way with the military. These men were imprisoned in military facilities such as Fort Lewis (Washington), Alcatraz Island (California) and Fort Leavenworth (Kansas). The government failed to take into account that some conscientious objectors viewed any cooperation with the military as contributing to the war effort. Their refusal to put on a uniform or cooperate in any way caused difficulties for both the government and the COs. The mistreatment received by these absolute COs included short rations, solitary confinement and physical abuse so severe as to cause the deaths of two Hutterite draftees.
Eventually, because of the shortage of farm labor, the conscientious objectors were granted furloughs either for farm service or relief work in France under the American Friends Service Committee. A limited number performed alternative service as fire fighters in the Cascade Range in the vicinity of Camp Lewis, Washington and in a Virginia psychiatric hospital.
During World War II, all registrants were sent a questionnaire covering basic facts about their identification, physical condition, history and also provided a checkoff to indicate opposition to military service because of religious training or belief. Men marking the latter option received a DSS 47 form with ten questions:
1. Describe the nature of your belief which is the basis of your claim.
2. Explain how, when, and from whom or from what source you received the training and acquired the belief which is the basis of your claim.
3. Give the name and present address of the individual upon whom you rely most for religious guidance.
4. Under what circumstances, if any, do you believe in the use of force?
5. Describe the actions and behavior in your life which in your opinion most conspicuously demonstrate the consistency and depth of your religious convictions.
6. Have you ever given public expression, written or oral, to the views herein expressed as the basis for your claim made above? If so, specify when and where.
7. Have you ever been a member of any military organization or establishment? If so, state the name and address of same and give reasons why you became a member.
8. Are you a member of a religious sect or organization?
9. Describe carefully the creed or official statements of said religious sect or organization as it relates to participation in war.
10. Describe your relationships with and activities in all organizations with which you are or have been affiliated other than religious or military.
Civilian Public Service firefighting crew at Snowline Camp near Camino, California, 1945.
Civilian Public Service (CPS) provided conscientious objectors in the United States an alternative to military service during World War II. From 1941 to 1947 nearly 12,000 draftees, unwilling to do any type of military service, performed work of national importance in 152 CPS camps throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The work was initially done in areas isolated from the general population both because of the government’s concern that a pacifist philosophy would spread and that conscientious objectors would not be tolerated in neighboring communities. A constant problem through the duration of the program, especially in camps located in national forests for fire control, was make-work projects designed to occupy the men’s time in the off-season and between fires. For instance, men at a camp on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia shoveled snow from an unused roadway while a snowplow was parked nearby. The uselessness of this type of work lead to low morale and loss of experienced men as they requested transfers to other camps hoping for more meaningful work. Draftees from the historic peace churches and other faiths worked in areas such as soil conservation, forestry, fire fighting, agriculture, social services and mental health.
The CPS men served without wages and minimal support from the federal government. The cost of maintaining the CPS camps and providing for the needs of the men was the responsibility of their congregations and families. CPS men served longer than regular draftees, not being released until well past the end of the war. Initially skeptical of the program, government agencies learned to appreciate the men’s service and requested more workers from the program. CPS made significant contributions to forest fire prevention, erosion and flood control, medical science and especially in revolutionizing of the state-run mental health institutions which had previously been very inhumane and often cruel.
Alternatives to war bonds and war savings stamps were provided for those who could not conscientiously help fund the WWII. National Service Board for Religious Objectors offered civilian bonds and Mennonite Central Committee offered Civilian Public Service stamps and War Sufferers’ Relief stamps.
Civilian Public Service was disbanded in 1947. By the early 1950s a replacement program, 1-W service, was in place for conscientious objectors classified as 1-W by Selective Service. The new program eliminated the base camps of CPS and provided wages for the men.
1-W service was divided into several categories. The Earning Service involved working in institutions such as hospitals for fairly good wages. Voluntary Service was nonpaying work done in similar institutions, mostly within North America. Pax Service was a nonpaying alternative with assignments overseas. 1-W Mission Supporting Service was like the Earning Service but the wages were used for the support of mission, relief or service projects of the draftees choice. The nonpaying services were promoted by church agencies as a sacrifice to enhance the peace witness of conscientious objectors.