World War II COs

“An Ethical Analysis of Conscientious Objection to World War II”

By Ted Grimsrud

PhD dissertation

Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, 1988

Abstract: The experience of American conscientious objectors (COs) during World War II was a significant case of people with deeply held convictions facing the severe test of often hostile social pressure. This experience serves as a fruitful test case for looking at the adequacy of contemporary ethics for considering actual ethical practices and looking at how religious traditions shape moral commitments and at factors that affect the strength of those commitments.

Chapter one introduces the dissertation stating that it will pay special attention to types of COs usually ignored by most accounts of conscientious objection to World War II. Chapter two summarizes contemporary ethics’ standard account of conscientious objection and raises some questions.

Chapter three gives background to the experience of World War II COs, isolating four quite distinct historic streams that co-mingled to provide the World War II CO population (i.e., the historic peace churches, Social Gospel-influenced Protestantism, sectarian millennialism, and individualist absolutism). Then this chapter describes chronologically the events relating to COs’ experience between 1940 and 1947. It emphasizes the difficulties faced by COs, including especially their often tense and mutually frustrating relationship with Selective Service, and the diversity of responses to those difficulties.

Chapters four through eight analyze the various characteristics of COs’ responses to their experiences. They establish an interpretive typology of four general tendencies that roughly correspond to the four historical streams. These include: (1) Resister (corresponding to absolutists and characterized by total non-cooperation with the warring government); (2) Transformer (corresponding to Social Gospel-influenced Protestantism and characterized by an optimism about transforming the social order; (3) Servant (corresponding to the peace churches and characterized by emphasizing service over political concern); and (4) Separatist (corresponding to sectarian millennialism and characterized by a strong ethic of withdrawal).

In conclusion, chapter nine evaluates and critiques the standard account, pointing out how it fails to provide an adequate basis for understanding World War II COs. This failure is attributed to faulty philosophical assumptions—i.e., that ethics is rationalistic, that conscience is individualistic, and that the basic equation for conscientious people is the individual versus the state. This chapter also points to a few issues arising from this study deserving of further attention.


Links to the chapters: 

  1. Introduction
  2. The Standard Account
  3. Historical Background
  4. The “Resister” Tendency
  5. The “Transformer” Tendency
  6. The “Servant” Tendency
  7. The “Separatist” Tendency
  8. Comparing the Tendencies
  9. Conclusions: Evaluation of the Standard Account and Ongoing Issues
  10. Bibliography (incomplete)