Ted Grimsrud

The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (08. No to the War)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

8. No to the War

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2011

The roots of war resistance

From colonial times, the population of North American has always included significant numbers of people who by conviction believed they could not participate in war. These pacifists varied in how they believed those convictions should be applied to public policy, some actively engaged in seeking for governments to repudiate warfare, others focusing their energies primarily on encouraging those within their own faith communities refusing to participate.

Pacifism established itself in the North American colonies when the British government granted William Penn, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a charter to establish the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682. The Friends emerged as a distinct movement in Britain in the mid-1650s under the leadership of George Fox. Fox combined a close adherence to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with a mystical sense of the presence of God’s Spirit in the believer’s heart, in the hearts of all other human beings, and in the broader creation.

The combination of placing the highest priority on the message of Jesus with the belief in the active work of the Spirit throughout the world, inspired many Friends to affirm at the core of their faith the belief that all human relationships should be characterized by compassion, respect, and mutuality. This belief led them to repudiate warfare as a legitimate way for human beings to settle their differences.

In its early years, the colony of Pennsylvania operated under the leadership of people who were part of the Society of Friends. The colony sought to establish peaceable relationships with the Natives who were living within its borders. The colony also saw itself as a haven for other religious dissenters who shared similar values as the Friends, thereby becoming a pioneering political community that practiced genuine religious freedom and did not center its policies around the sword.

From the start, the colony of Pennsylvania lived with significant tensions between the ideals of its Quaker leadership and the realities of the broader colonial enterprise in North America not shaped by those values. In time, the numbers of colony residents who were not Quakers (or those of similar convictions) grew much larger than the population of Friends. In the face of growing conflicts with natives in the western part of the colony, the Friends relinquish their leadership role by 1756.

During these 75 years, though, Pennsylvania became home not only for Quakers, but also a haven for a few other sizeable pacifist groups, most notably Mennonites and Brethren. The Mennonite tradition actually predated the Quakers by about 130 years. Its origins lay in the Swiss Reformation, specifically in Zurich. In 1525, a group of supporters of the early Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli set off on their own due to differences with Zwingli over the place of secular government in determining the types of reforms the church would pursue. The issue that came to the surface in this split was baptism—the “Brethren” became known as “Anabaptists” (re-baptizers) due to their rejection of infant baptism. To reject infant baptism was also to reject the entire institution of the state church and the assumption that church membership equaled national citizenship.

Presaging key Quaker convictions, the early Anabaptists took Jesus’ direct teachings as the center focus for their beliefs and practices, especially as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. From very early, for most of the Anabaptists, the teaching of Jesus concerning love of enemies and turning from the sword led to a principled pacifism. Over the next several decades following the first Anabaptist baptisms in 1525, the beliefs about non-participation in war became one of the convictional pillars for these radical Christians. As the movement gained a strong foothold in Holland, a former Catholic priest named Menno Simons became an important leader, and ultimately most of the various Anabaptist groups took his name—“Mennonites.”

The Mennonites faced generations of harsh persecution in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. Though Mennonite groups remain in those countries, many communities and individuals migrated to locales that offered them safety—including the Pennsylvania colony beginning in 1683. The state of Pennsylvania remains today the home of the largest American concentration of Mennonite communities.

Early in the 18th century, a new movement arose in Germany, deeply influenced by Anabaptist convictions but remaining a distinct fellowship. Members of this emerging movement, numbering only in the dozens, migrated en masse to Pennsylvania not long after their emergence and in North American took the name Church of the Brethren. The Brethren, like the Mennonites and Quakers, had as one of their defining characteristics belief in non-participation in war. During the last few decades of Quaker rule in Pennsylvania, the Brethren and Mennonites offered what support they could—and welcomed the freedom to practice their faith (including the open commitment to pacifism).

Members of all three groups (sometimes called the Historic Peace Churches) in time moved to the west and south from Pennsylvania, establishing communities in other colonies. The war that marked the American colonies effort to break free from British control proved difficult for Peace Church members, and a number migrated to Canada to avoid the conflict. By and large, though, the pacifism of Peace Church members was respected by government and they were allowed to avoid military involvement. Their presence was significant enough that James Madison, in an early draft of the Bill of Rights following the Revolution, included a provision establishing the constitutional right for conscientious objection in the face of war. Ultimately, this right was not granted. As a consequence, those seeking provisions of conscientious objection in face of the military draft have continually needed to request that Congress include provisions for COs in the draft legislation.

In the early 19th century, the United States, the world’s pioneering democracy, became the home of numerous citizens’ groups, established for numerous reasons—some having to do with social justice, some with education, some with various other civic issues. In this ferment of activity, the world’s first non-denominational peace societies were formed.

These early peace societies remained quite small. They were notable for a couple of reasons, though. They signaled the spread of explicit convictions about rejection of warfare beyond the Peace Churches (a significant potion of those engaged with the peace societies were Quakers, but many were not). These may be the first organizations in the world with the specific purpose of furthering political opposition to war as an instrument of state policy. As well, some elements of this small peace movement connected with some elements of the much larger anti-slavery movement. Prominent abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, was an outspoken pacifist as well and sought to hold the two movements together.

The peace societies remained small. As the abolitionist movement grew in strength and conflicts over the issue of slavery increased, the peace societies shrank even more and eventually more or less died out. Garrison himself struggled with the growing tensions between his desire for an end to slavery and his opposition to warfare. In the end, he never explicitly endorsed the Civil War, but his abolitionist convictions led him tacitly to accept the Civil War as an appropriate tool for achieving the end of slavery.

During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy imitated practices Napoleon had initiated half a century earlier and formally conscripted young males into their militaries. In the Union, the prominence of the Quakers especially led Congress to make provisions for conscientious objection. These provisions were somewhat ad hoc, the process did not satisfy either the Peace Church communities nor those who opposed conscientious objection altogether. However, those whose convictions led them to reject participation in warfare in principle were generally able to avoid fighting. And precedents were set that would inform future confrontations between principled pacifists and a warring American government.

Following the Civil War, though, the United States did not face the need to put together a large military for about half a century. During that time, pacifist sentiment, especially among the Peace Churches, continued to be taught. However, without the test of actually facing the challenge of wars, the strength of the convictions likely weakened. In the broader society, some peace interests found expression in the emerging awareness of the need for strengthened international safeguards to provide alternatives for overt warfare, such as mediation and arbitration. This awareness was not generally linked with full pacifism.

The U. S., in general, continued to have the self-image of remaining aloof from “foreign military entanglements”—with the key exception of the decision by the McKinley administration at the end of the 19th century to enter the imperial age via the Spanish-American War and the subsequent annexation of several pieces in the former Spanish Empire, most notably the Philippines (which involved a clandestine war that left hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and as many as 30,000 Americans dead). The Spanish-American War and its aftermath did lead to the emergence of anti-imperialist sentiment in the United States, sentiment that shortly would help fuel opposition to American participation in what came to be known as World War I.

As the nations of Europe started moving toward major conflicts, engendered in part by greatly expanded military spending, Americans tended to assume that the U.S. would remain neutral. Americans had a long tradition of noninvolvement in European wars. However, President Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912, had strong connections with Great Britain. After the formal war in Europe began in 1914, Wilson moved ever closer to a commitment to join the British and French. Finally, in 1917, the Americans took the big step and for the first time entered into a war in Europe as a formal belligerent.

The American entry into the war came after three long years of mostly devastating impasse between the two warring sides. Historians still don’t fully agree on the significance of the American involvement. Certainly, this involvement was brief, since the war ended in November 1918. The general consensus now seems to be that the American entry actually did play a major role, certainly at the least helping the Germans see that they simply did not have the resources to continue the war of attrition that the conflict had evolved into.

This brief experience with such a massive war served as a wake-up call for many peace-oriented Americans. As with the Civil War, draft legislation was passed and did make allowance for conscientious objectors, but in ways that were highly objectionable for many Peace Church people and other pacifists. Around 50,000 draftees claimed CO status. However, the policy required all those inducted to go into the military. Only then, as members the military, could the prospective COs seek to make their case. Their fate would be determined by military officials. Not surprisingly under these circumstances, over 80% of those who had originally sought CO status gave up and became regular soldiers.

The immensity of the war led the formation of several important pacifist organizations during the war years or the time shortly after the end of the war. Four in particular will play major roles in the story of war resistance during the century to follow. Two of these groups were linked with specific peace church denominations—the American Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee. The other two sought a much wider membership—the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was formed just as the United States entered the war in 1917. With the draft legislation implanting conscription, the Quakers desperately sought to find alternative forms of service that pacifist young men could perform as an alternative to going to war. By this time, the devastation in Europe was clear and so there was no lack of need for food distribution and medical care.

The AFSC sought to communicate to potential COs and inform them of the possibilities for alternative service and to garner the military’s acceptance of these alternatives. As the war ended fairly soon after the Americans joined, the AFSC programs barely go started. The most successful program was service in war zones as medics and ambulance drivers.

With the end of the war, American Quakers concluded that the work of AFSC would continue to be needed, especially immediately in postwar repair work. AFSC played a major role in the distribution of food in many parts of Europe, saving millions of lives. The AFSC also understood that part of their needed work would be to seek to revive awareness of the Quaker peace testimony for younger people. Many Quakers believed they had not been as prepared as they should have been for responding to the war when it arose. They saw a need to help their young men understand the Quaker peace testimony and respond to the war in light of it.

Many Mennonites also felt they were unprepared for this massive war when it came. In the aftermath of the war, they began to seek ways to help some of those who suffered the most from the war’s consequences. Mennonite at this time tended to focus their energies on their own communities. One large Mennonite community with ties to many Americans in North America was the Mennonite community in the newly established Soviet Union.

So, North American Mennonites created a new organization to bring together Mennonites from their various branches into one “Mennonite Central Committee” (MCC) for the purpose of offering aid to the severely traumatized Mennonites in Eastern Europe, especially Mennonites suffering famine in the Ukraine. After a burst of activity offering aid to the Russian Mennonites, MCC remained relatively dormant for a number of years. World War II provided the catalyst for the reinvigoration of MCC, both as the central agency that would work with the U.S. government in providing for alternative service for COs and, more importantly in the long run, as the arm for the North American communities to provide a wide range of relief, development, and peace education and advocacy work.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) had its origins among British pacifists (mostly Quakers) during World War I who issued a public statement making an explicitly Christian case for rejection of warfare. The FOR was formed in Britain in December 1914. An American FOR began in November 1915, and the International FOR was formed in 1919.

In its early years, the FOR drew its membership from four groups—many Quakers, Protestant Christians influenced by the Social Gospel movement that had emerged at the turn of the century (and was not itself committed to pacifism), participants in another new organization called the Young Men’s Christian Association, and participants in the women’s movement that had coalesced around the voting issue (another parallel organization with many members in common with the FOR that was formed at this time was the Women’s League for International Peace and Freedom).[1]

The FOR grew rapidly following World War I, becoming the gathering place for many people who became disillusioned with war because of the less than satisfactory outcome of the Great War. Many leaders in American Protestant denominations (especially Methodist, Congregational, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian) affiliated with the FOR, giving it a prominent place in ecumenical interactions.

Many pacifists during World War I and its immediate aftermath found themselves desiring an organization that would be more open to non-Christians than the FOR was in its early years. With the FOR’s blessing, an FOR member, Jessie Wallace Hughan established a new organization in 1921 initially called the Committee for Enrollment Against War. Over the next few years, the term “War Resisters League” (WRL) came increasingly to be used, and by 1923 became the group’s official name.

The WRL focused on providing moral support and guidance for people who had come to reject warfare in principle—especially people who did not have strong connections with religious communities. From near its beginning, the WRL’s declaration stated, very briefly, its core conviction: “War is a crime against humanity. I, therefore, am determined not to support any kind of war, international or civil, and to strive for the removal of all the causes of war.”[2]

The other pacifist group that will play a major role in our story also began in the aftermath of World War I, but in quite a different milieu. This entity, the Catholic Worker Movement, essentially got its start with just two people, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. They were both Catholic lay people, Day a young adult convert and Maurin a French immigrant. The two met in the early 1930s in New York City, found themselves to be kindred spirits—Day deeply influenced by Marxism, Maurin by Franciscan personalism—with a deep concern for caring for suffering people in the depths of the Great Depression.

They began publishing a newspaper called The Catholic Worker and established houses of hospitality modeled somewhat after rescue missions but without the coercive religiosity. Day became the main leader for the movement. She felt it was essential for the Catholic Church to be involved in caring ministries that would provide a basis for a nonviolent kind of revolution in a time with much ferment in favor of not so nonviolent revolutions. So she sought to work closely with the Church and always endeavored to remain in positive relationships with the hierarchy.

Day’s theology remained fairly simple. She drew most centrally on the gospels (much more so than Catholic natural law moral philosophy). From the beginning of her work with the Catholic Worker, she articulated a strong gospels-centered pacifist commitment. She insisted that the Movement as a whole be pacifist—especially as represented in the newspaper. Because of the obvious fruitfulness of the Worker’s service-oriented ministry, many Catholics, including bishops and cardinals, provided support and the Movement expanded greatly during the 1930s.

Prewar pacifist internationalists

These five organizations—American Friends Service Committee, Catholic Worker, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Mennonite Central Committee, and War Resisters League—represent distinct streams of philosophy and practice. They do not exhaust the varieties of pacifism,[3] but do reflect a representative sampling. They also each have continued as loci of important peace work down to the present.

Even with their diversity, these five pacifist streams share important characteristics in common that will help us think about the moral legacy of World War II. Each of them, in their own way, rejected the assumption that the only two options in response to evildoing are to fight or to flee. We have seen in the first two sections of this book that at the heart of the appeal of American policymakers to their country’s citizens has been an implicit assumption that military force is the first-choice option for dealing with international conflicts. Certainly, all too often it was the only option considered.

The other part of the appeal for support and participation in warfare has been the articulation of high ideals for democracy and civilization and self-determination. These ideals provide the motivational bases for engaging in warfare—and tend to be linked with an assumption that military force is necessary to achieve those ideals.

Our pacifist groups challenge those war-supporting assumptions on several levels. They would generally agree with the ideals of the “four freedoms” and the Atlantic Charter that underwrote the propaganda in favor of American participation in World War II. However, they would reject the assumptions of “fight or flee” in response to wrongdoing and of the necessity of using war in order to achieve the ideals of self-determination and disarmament. In fact, these pacifists argued that war is incompatible with democracy. They believed the ways democracy had been achieved in the past several centuries had been in spite of warfare, not because of it.

Probably the main commonality all five groups have shared from their inception is the conviction that constructive work in the world is possible, that ideals such as self-determination and disarmament are worth pursuing and may be pursued fruitfully—and that this work may be (indeed must be, to be truly fruitful over the long run) nonviolent.

In this Part Three of the present book, “Alternatives,” we will consider some of the work that these pacifist groups and those influenced by them have engaged in since World War II began. This peace story may be juxtaposed with the war story we have considered up to now. Certainly these two stories involve quite different arenas of life. I want to suggest, though, that we may appropriately find significant areas of overlap. Both stories, at their heart, are addressing the issue of “democracy” (not necessarily as a style of running a nation-state so much as a means to achieve self-determination, freedom, and disarmament).

Most importantly, for the purposes of this book, I will suggest that our two stories do provide clear alternative options for ordinary citizens. When our state (appropriately) challenges us to take up the moral task of helping further democracy, we still have options about how we will do that. We have seen so far in this book that the option of seeking to fulfill this moral task through warfare has in fact proved to be deeply problematic in practice. Instead of being an agent for the spread of genuine democracy “everywhere on earth” as promised for those to accepted the necessity of involvement in World War II, the American nation-state has instead all too often been an agent for massive violence and injustice. It has thereby undermined possibilities of the peoples of the earth finding self-determination and disarmament.

We will see, though, as we engage this second story, of active nonviolence, that the path of warfare and nation-state violence is not the only possible way to take up the moral task of helping to further democracy. The 20th century, the “century of total war,” nonetheless (and not coincidently) has also been the century where the principled rejection of warfare expanded beyond what the world had ever before seen. For the first time, large numbers of diverse people (going way beyond the Peace Churches) stated publicly that should their nation go to war they would not participate. Of course, when war did actually come, most of these professed pacifists did end up supporting and even participating in the War—but not all. And towards the end of the century, American young men’s opposition to participation in the Vietnam War pushed the government to call an end to conscription, with the strong likelihood that it will not return.

Along with the rejection of warfare, and the willingness of increasing numbers to embody that rejection by suffering if necessary, the 20th century also saw the unprecedented expansion of two different powerful types of nonviolent action: (1) nonviolent activism for social change inspired by the philosophy and practice of Mahatma Gandhi and (2) widespread investment in relief and development work explicitly undertaken out of pacifist convictions by organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and Mennonite Central Committee.

In the United States, the catalyst for these expanding expressions of nonviolence was when President Woodrow Wilson led America into Europe’s Great War. Wilson tapped into a burgeoning idealism in the United States, a sense of call Americans had to spread democracy around the world. The actual events of the war and its aftermath led to great disillusionment on the part of many idealists who had believed the war would serve their ideals.

For some, the disillusionment with war led to an affirmation of its opposite—principled pacifism that had at its core a strong internationalist component. The formation of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and War Resisters League International in the early 1920s provided organizational focus for these impulses to forge international ties of fellowship as a counter to the tendency to treat national boundaries as occasions for mistrust and conflict.

The American Friend Service Committee also forged strong international connections in the years following the war. The AFSC was founded for the purpose of providing alternatives to military service for pacifist draftees, leading to involvement providing medical care for wounded soldiers. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Europe faced devastating shortages of food and other essential materials. At first, the AFSC worked with displaced persons in France, providing emergency relief. In time, their work expanded to Poland, Serbia, Russia, Germany, and elsewhere. They performed an extraordinary service and saved several million lives.

The Quakers retained contacts in Europe, establishing centers in numerous continental cities. So American Quakers and others linked with the AFSC European presence paid close attention to the rise of Nazism in Germany during the late 1920s and early 1930s. They raised early alarms about the treatment of Jews following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

Already in May, 1934, the AFSC executive secretary, Clarence Pickett, traveled to Germany to meet with Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Leo Baeck, the head of Berlin’s largest synagogue. Pickett said he was going to Europe “to explore whether we could do anything to help prevent the barbaric treatment of Jews and to assist the immigration of those who were so fortunate to be able to get to the United States or elsewhere.”[4]

This trip began a long, energetic, and ultimately largely fruitless struggle by the AFSC and many allies to get the United States and other safe countries to accept refugees from the emerging Nazi terror. Pickett made several trips to Europe over the next decade, as did other AFSC leaders. Pickett sought to utilize his friendship with America’s First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, to lobby her husband (fruitlessly) to open America’s doors.

As the violence against Jews in Germany increased, in 1938 AFSC representatives, including AFSC founder Rufus Jones, directly approached Nazi leaders. The Quakers sought to draw on their credibility stemming from their remarkable relief work in Germany during the immediate post-World War I years. They did find a somewhat receptive audience. After a meeting with Gestapo officials, the delegation was given permission to “investigate the sufferings of Jews and to bring such relief as they see necessary.” In his report on the visit, Jones stated, “it is the settled purpose of the German government to drive out Jews….Until a plan of rapid emigration, especially for young, effective persons is established, the authorities consider the problem unsolved, and further outrages are likely to occur, bringing greater suffering and injustice.” Jones stated that consistently the message they got from Jews they saw underscored the need for Jews to get out of the country. “They said, ‘Don’t put food and hunger first. We can stand hunger. We can stand anything, but get us out before something more awful happens.’”[5]

So the Quakers redoubled their already frantic efforts to aid Jewish refugees in finding sanctuary in the United States and elsewhere, especially from their various Quaker houses scattered throughout Germany and Austria. However, they met with constant reluctance on the part of American embassies and the federal government. At this point, the Nazis welcomed Jewish emigration, and acting almost alone, the Quakers sought to utilize the opportunity. The lack of responsiveness of the American and British governments that greatly limited the numbers who were able to leave exacerbated the tragedy that unfolded.

By the late 1930s, the likelihood of war breaking out increased by the day. Along with the Quakers, many other pacifist Americans spoke against American participation in such a war. These pacifists rejected the arguments of the isolationist strand of American neutralism because they did not accept the notion of “America First.” Rather, they rejected the idea that warfare could genuinely solve the problem of international conflict.

They had been among the first to raise concerns about Nazism—especially rejecting the tendency among American and British political leaders to welcome the Nazis as a bulwark against Communism. These internationalist pacifists recognized the evils of Hitler’s philosophy and practice and challenged the American economic interests that were linked closely with German Nazism. However, the pacifists also feared that efforts to meet Nazi militarism with a military response would likely only lead to the victory of militarism, not democracy.

John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian pastor in New York City and founding member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (he also helped found the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was outspoken in his opposition to World War II. Holmes published an article in the Christian Century almost exactly one year prior to Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S. that warned that going to war with the Nazis would not eradicate the spirit of Nazism.

Holmes asserted that Hitler’s admitted injustices were not new with him. Christians have long persecuted Jews. White in America had accepted “the myth of race superiority” in relation to blacks long before Hitler articulate such a myth. Hitler’s were not the first concentration camps—Spanish had imposed them on Cubans, the British on the Boers, and the Americans Filipinos. “He did not initiate the totalitarian state, which is only an extremity of tyranny as transmitted in our time by the Hapsburgs and Romanovs. He did not invent the idea of the subjection of helpless people, as witness the British in India, France in Morocco, and Belgium in the Congo.”

Holmes argued in his article that Hitler did not even create Germany’s powerful military machine on his own. Various nations have provided the Nazi military its hardware: Britain the tanks, American and France the bombers, American the machine guns and submarines. “This man, so cruel, so ruthless, so revengeful, is not alien to ourselves. He is the perversion of our lusts, the poisoned distillation of our crimes. We would not be so aghast at his appearance did we not see in him, as in a glass darkly, the image of the world that we have made. Our sins have found us, that’s all.”

Our big danger in face of Hitler, Holmes continued, is that we would meet him “with the weapon which he has so terribly turned against us.” Should we do so, we would confirm Augustine’s statement in The City of God: “the conquerors are ever more like to the conquered than otherwise.” The Nazis will triumph should they transform their enemies “into their own likeness by the sheer necessity of adopting nazi weapons, and nazi methods in the use of these weapons, as a means of victory.” We must find another way of dealing with their tyrannies, Holmes concluded[6]

Negotiating with the state

It has been estimated that in 1938 the peace movement in the United States had twelve million adherents and an income of over one million dollars per year.[7] However, with the advent of World War II, the vast majority of those twelve million came to support the War as at worst a necessary evil.[8]

The loss of pacifists’ influence can be seen in the sudden change of heart among the leaders of the Methodist Church.  In May 1939, they proclaimed that the Church “would never officially support, endorse, or participate in war.”  A mere nineteen months later, they affirmed that “the Methodists of America will loyally support our President and our nation” as it enters World War II.[9]

While the pre-World War II Protestant peace movement had many adherents and, in coalition with other groups, did influence public affairs, it nevertheless represented only a small part of the American church.  Virtually no Catholics, very few people of the southern churches, few Lutherans, and hardly any evangelicals or fundamentalists identified with the peace movement.  Given the polarities between liberal and conservative Protestants and the isolation of Catholics and Lutherans, the entire American church had little potential for working together in the peace movement.  This inability of Christians to be unified certainly made it more difficult for a peace movement identified with Christianity to become more widespread and powerful.

Ultimately, when the pressure became acute, American Protestants’ nationalism in 1941 exerted more influence than a Christian ethical system that told them that war was always wrong.  Many so identified the United States as a Christian nation that they assumed that the will of God would be mediated through the leaders of the country.  Historically, little precedent existed for Christians actually saying no to a particular government calling on them to support a war.  So it stands to reason that a peace movement within Christian churches would lose its influence once people actually faced a choice of serving their country or following their ethic of peacemaking.

Once it became clear that the United States would go to war, the energies of the remaining pacifist leaders increasingly turned toward working to secure adequate provision for conscientious objectors (COs).  This especially characterized peace church leaders, including the previously politically withdrawn Mennonites.

Representatives from the peace churches began meeting together in the mid-1930s to plan for what seemed to them to be the high likelihood of the government beginning conscription.  Their concern from the start included not only their own members, but also religious pacifists of other denominations, as well as absolutist objectors who refused both non-combatant and alternative service.[10]

Starting in 1935, peace church leaders along with a few other pacifists began testifying to House and Senate Committees on Military Affairs.  Their interaction with legislators revealed that Congress had very little sympathy for their position.  The legislators made little attempt even to try to understand the pacifists.  The initial version of the draft legislation, which became known as the Burke-Wadsworth bill, treated conscientious objection in almost exactly the same way as World War I legislation.  This meant, among other things, that only men from recognized peace churches could claim deferment and that all COs would be under direct military control.

Pacifist leaders rejected these provisions and labored mightily to institute changes.  The pacifists, most effectively represented by two Quakers, Paul Comly French and E. Raymond Wilson,[11] argued strongly for legislation modeled after that in Great Britain. The British legislation allowed complete exemption for absolutists who could show that it would violate their conscience to participate in conscription in any way, made allowance for acceptance of all objectors regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, and provided for completely civilian-based alternative service.  The American pacifists pointed out that this system worked (in early 1940) even as Britain fought for its life against Germany.  To a large degree these arguments fell on deaf ears, though ultimately they contributed to some changes.

In January 1940, the peace churches sent a delegation to meet with President Roosevelt to petition for liberal CO provisions.  Roosevelt responded congenially, providing the peace church representatives with what later proved to be a false sense of optimism regarding his intentions.

When the draft bill passed on August 28, 1940, under the label of the Burke-Wadsworth Bill and Roosevelt signed it into law on September 16, it included none of the progressive British provisions.  Unlike British COs, American absolutists whose convictions forbade that they cooperate in any way with conscription could not be totally exempted.  Alternative service work would not be independent of the ultimate supervision of Selective Service, though it was not to be under direct military control.  Also, prospective COs faced the requirement of having convictions based on “religious training and belief.”

Nonetheless the peace churches and their friends did effect some changes in the draft vis-à-vis World War I.  Four of the major advances included:  (1) CO status, while still being tied to religion, no longer required affiliation with a recognized peace church.  This meant, most obviously, that any religious pacifist could be a CO.  But it also meant that lenient draft boards (of which there were a few) that understood “religion” in a broad way could recognize all pacifists who applied for CO status, even those not affiliated with any kind of organized religion.  (2) COs could now appeal local boards’ classification to the national Selective Service.  (3) The law explicitly made provision for alternative service to include work “of national importance” that would be under civilian control.  (4) Prosecution for draft law violation would be handled by the Federal Court system and not military courts.[12]

The law allowed for alternative service of a civilian nature, but included nothing regarding the nature of that service, leaving resolution of that to the “discretion of the President.”  The law said nothing about how the work would be financed and whether, and if so, how, the COs would be compensated for their work.

Even with these (ultimately very significant) omissions, and even given the failure of the law to measure up to the pacifists’ hopes in the light of British legislation, a general feeling of nervous optimism prevailed.  Pacifists felt “nervous” because this process had no precedents in the U. S. and left much up to the discretion of government officials and “optimistic” because significant potential for doing constructive, civilian supervised alternative service as a witness against war seemed to exist.

In retrospect, clearly the roots for discord existed from the beginning.  The establishment of the Selective Service as the ultimate supervisor of Civilian Public Service (CPS) placed a serious contradiction at the heart of the program.  On the one hand, idealistic COs and the Service Committees of the three peace churches saw CPS as a means for witnessing against war, growing in their pacifist beliefs and practices, and performing meaningful humanitarian service of genuine “national importance.”[13]

On the other hand, the Selective Service from the very beginning pragmatically sought to avoid any lessening of national unity in support of the War.  Selective Service “tolerated” COs because it perceived that not to do so would hinder its primary mission—to draft soldiers to fight in the War.  So, though Selective Service willingly allowed for COs, it did so with the basic attitude of keeping COs out of sight and out of mind.  To allow the COs freedom of action and a public role (as, for example, might have happened through foreign relief service) had the potential, in Selective Service’s eyes, to alienate the vast majority of American citizens who “willingly made sacrifices.”[14]

When Selective Service was created, Roosevelt named Clarence Dykstra as Director. Dykstra, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, in conversations with pacifist lobbyists, indicated a high level of respect for their position and their interests. However, shortly after the U.S. entered the War, Dykstra stepped down and was replaced by Colonel Lewis Hershey, who was immediately promoted to general after being named head of Selective Service. For the peace churches, this seemed an ominous change and a threat to what was to them a crucial matter—that the classification of COs and their alternative service be under civilian direction.

The government’s lack of genuine sympathy for the ideals and desires of the peace churches soon became clear.  Roosevelt signed the draft law in September 1940.  Shortly thereafter he surprised Selective Service Director Dykstra and greatly dismayed the peace churches with his extremely hostile response to their proposal regarding alternative service. He made clear his intention to refuse to allow any government funds to be used to finance CPS.

Dykstra informed the peace churches that they faced a choice, either take on full responsibility to finance and administer the camps (though Selective Service would still have ultimate supervisory authority, as events came to show) or cede all control to the government and thereby give up any possibility of supervision even over young men from their own churches.

These developments naturally distressed the Peace Churches and their umbrella organization, the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO) a great deal.  After intense soul-searching and debate, NSBRO decided to go ahead with full responsibility for CPS.  In retrospect, it became clear that from this time on CPS failed to meet the conditions that many of the pacifists, especially those of a more political bent, had originally considered essential.[15]

One condition was for a choice between government-run and church-run camps.  In the beginning, all camps had to be church-run camps and all legally recognized COs had to go to church-run camps regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.  Also, CPS would receive no government funds for the maintenance of the camps or camper expenses (however, the government did fund the actual work projects by paying for equipment and supervisory personnel).  This placed a tremendous financial burden upon the peace churches, especially when they had to take all comers into their camps and subsidize those who did not have the means to support themselves.

The actual CPS program also failed to meet the condition of full NSBRO control over the camps.  Perhaps due simply to negligence on the part of the NSBRO leadership (made up, it should be noted, of people used to trusting those with whom they worked), Selective Service gave NSBRO and the peace church Service Committees no explicit and binding assurance that the camps under their administration would actually also be under their control.  This vagueness later haunted the Service Committees and NSBRO as a whole when Selective Service increasingly interfered with the internal operations and policies of the camps.

As the program progressed, Selective Service exercised its supervisory function in several ways.[16] It regulated the hours of work in the base camps, the establishment of overhead quotas, the use of limited service men, and the conditions of absence from camp, including furlough, liberty, and leave regulations. It imposed restrictions on assignees living outside officially designated quarters.  In these and other ways, Selective Service greatly restricted the Service Committees’ control over the campers’ situation in spite of the fact that the Service Committees had to fund the CPS program.

The first CPS camps opened in May, 1941.  The first few months of the CPS program saw morale at its highest level.  The campers, administrators, and their supporters saw CPS as an opportunity for COs to make a significant witness against war and at the same time to render a service of peace to society.[17] They saw the hardships that it engendered as bearable since the commitment at this time was only for twelve months.  An atmosphere of congeniality prevailed among the campers and administrators along with a sense of gratitude for the chance to serve in this way.  The peace churches were grateful the government appeared to trust them to run these camps.[18]

The entire dynamic of the situation changed in early December 1941, with the entry of the U.S. into World War II.  Public opinion strongly favored fighting the war—a poll on December 10 showed only two percent opposed to entry.[19] Certainly, by implication, public opinion appeared very unlikely to have much sympathy for those whose convictions forbade them to fight.  The American churches, even those most influenced by the interwar peace movement, rallied to the flag.

Many, if not most, COs certainly desired an Allied victory once the War started.  However, they still did not find the War morally justifiable, truly necessary, or something that would be acceptable for them to fight.  The strong sense of isolation they felt from mainstream American society greatly troubled many COs, though less from groups such as the Mennonites who had less of a sense of close identity with the wider society.

The realization that they now faced enrollment in the program for the duration of the War, likely several years at least, also had a powerful effect on CPSer morale.  Joining the military or going to prison offered the only ways out of CPS.  In the months to come several took one of those routes, especially those CPSers who did not come from communities strongly supportive (both emotionally and materially) of their CO stand.

Civilian Public Service

General Lewis Hershey replaced Clarence Dykstra as Director of Selective Service in early 1942. Hershey was a career military man and a member in good standing of the American Legion.  He believed that he could not allow tolerance for the CO to hamper the overriding task of Selective Service to recruit manpower for the military.  Hershey saw alternative service as a “privilege” granted to those who would tend to undercut military efficiency and discipline if inducted, and he saw COs’ privileges as totally contingent upon their cooperating fully with Selective Service regulations.[20]

Hershey did work hard at maintaining open communication with NSBRO, and he evinced a willingness to effect occasional changes in response to NSBRO requests.  He got along well with those within CPS (especially the Mennonites) who supported with the program as established.  He had little patience with, little respect for, and little understanding of those who resisted what they saw to be overly strong government control in CPS.

Following Pearl Harbor, the government required CPSers, same as soldiers, to render service for the duration of the War plus six months.  But unlike those in the military, CPSers received no pay or benefits.  Selective Service set the pattern that remained in effect throughout the War:  CPSers have the same restrictions as those in the military, but never the same benefits.  Hershey’s ascendancy signaled the beginning of an ever increasing tightening of Selective Service control over CPS.[21]

The CPS program greatly expanded during 1942.  Along with the growth in numbers came an increasing dissatisfaction with the CPS program.  COs who had entered CPS with hopes of doing “meaningful” work unhappily found themselves relegated to farm and forestry projects. By March 1942, CPS began to create “detached service” projects. By the end of the War the majority of CPSers served in these projects rather than remaining in the “base camps.”

Selective Service limited the options available for detached service due to perceived public opinion constraints. Hershey continually expressed his view that COs be best kept out of sight and out of mind.[22] Working as attendants in mental hospitals became by far the COs’ most popular option. Early in 1942, religious leaders and mental health professionals proposed using CPSers in mental hospitals. These faced a shortage of attendants, given the scarcity of labor in wartime America and the relative unattractiveness of mental hospital work.[23] Selective Service approved this proposal, and with the establishment of a unit in the Eastern State Mental Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia in June, CPSers began serving as attendants.[24] By March 1947, when the CPS program ended, 1.7 million workdays had been spent by COs in mental hospitals.[25]

A debate emerged among NSBRO leaders pitting the founders of NSBRO (as a rule, representatives of the peace churches) who had a more service-oriented approach to pacifism against those more politically- and resistance-oriented.  The issue of church cooperation with the government in carrying out the draft emerged as a major one.  Eventually, those opposing such cooperation—representatives of the Federal Council of Churches, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and War Resisters League—all withdrew from NSBRO.

This controversy moved NSBRO director Paul C. French, a Quaker, to issue a defense of church cooperation with the state in the CPS program.  He asserted that NSBRO’s perspective was the most realistic in the present situation.  The evils of the loss of civil liberties are inevitable and irresistible during time of war.  The first duty of the pacifist in such times is to refuse to fight, in contrast to spending one’s main energies protesting the conditions that accompany war.  Imperfect as it is, the CPS program is the best possible arrangement for facilitating that refusal.  French also supported church funding given CPS’s purpose to display the religious orientation of the COs’ pacifism.  In his view, this “second-mile” approach displays this orientation quite effectively.  To insist upon government funding might be just, but such would be a “purely political” approach that would not be adequate for Christians.[26]

Tensions among the various protagonists in the CPS program grew during 1942 and only got worse as the war lengthened.  In March 1942, five CPSers in the AFSC-run Cooperstown, NY, camp went on a work-strike to protest the Selective Service-mandated increase in the CPS workweek from 40 to 48 hours.[27] The strike, though short-lived, presaged an on-going battle between COs who resisted cooperating with the war system in any way and the authoritarian and often arbitrary Selective Service, with the service committees often caught in the middle.

The existence of CPS did not prevent COs out of jail.  In some cases, although they met the requirements of the law (i.e., being opposed to all war due to religiously-based convictions), COs received 1-A or 1-A-0 (non-combatant) classifications from unsympathetic draft boards.  Arrest came after they refused to report for induction.  In other cases, men with pacifist commitments lacked religious convictions.  Some absolutists refused to cooperate with the draft in any way.  Also in this category fit those who discovered their absolutism after entering CPS and then decided to cease cooperation.

Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking total exemption as ministers constituted by far the largest group of imprisoned COs.  Though they often met the legal qualifications for that exemption (i.e., spending twenty hours per week at their ministry), they usually were not granted an exemption from the military.  Thus they faced prosecution when they failed to report either to the military or CPS depending upon the classification they did receive.

By the end of the War, the government imprisoned nine times more COs than it had in World War I, three times more in proportion to total draftees.[28] Tellingly, those who refused induction on pacifist grounds received more severe treatment than other types of draft evaders, receiving lengthier sentences, being liable to being re-imprisoned upon release if they still refused induction, and simply being more apt to be prosecuted.[29]

General Hershey’s attitude toward the CPS program became public through his extensive testimony to the Senate on February 17, 1943.  Hershey stated that he supported the CPS program.  He strongly opposed an American Legion backed bill that would do away with the CO classification altogether.  He felt that to attempt to force COs to fight would compromise the efficiency of the military.  “If you arouse opposition [from COs], you develop a martyr complex and they would do anything rather than fight.  I would like to deprive the Army of having that problem to deal with.”  At the same time, he expressed a desire to convince CPSers voluntarily to join the military, stating happily “we have salvaged about 700 out of [the] 7,000 [total CPSers] already.  I think, in time, more will be salvaged.”[30]

The establishment of government-administered camps resulted largely from expressions of dissatisfaction by numerous campers with churches administering all the camps. The church agencies themselves expressed unhappiness with having to accept all comers, even those COs who preferred not to be in a church camp.

The first government camp opened at Mancos, Colorado in July 1943, followed by one in Lapine, Oregon in January 1944 and one in Germfask, Michigan in May 1944. Initially, a CO had specifically to request placement in a government camp.  At the urging of the church agencies, especially AFSC (which received most of the non-Peace Church COs and had more campers opposed to CPS), Selective Service reversed this policy in May 1944 so that COs were assigned to government camps unless they specifically requested placement in a church camp.[31]

The experience in the government camps proved unsatisfactory for many involved.  The work projects continued to be of the forestry/agricultural type, and many campers especially considered the dam-building projects at Mancos and Lapine to be of dubious value even with regard to their stated purpose as irrigation dams.  This fueled the COs’ sense of having make-work projects foisted on them.  Also CPSers saw the government camps as disciplinary camps where Selective Service could collect those who caused problems in other camps.[32]

The government-appointed camp directors, generally technical service people, had expertise in the work projects more than human relations.  They tended to lack sympathy for the resister-type CPSers who often refused cooperation with the work projects.  On the other hand, the church agencies welcomed the government camps because that enabled them to be rid of at least some of the campers who did not want to be in their camps.

The Service Committees continued to find themselves in the middle between the inflexible Selective Service on the one side and the strong resisters on the other side.  In the view of historians Mulford Sibley and Philip Jacob, the Service Committees became more strict in their discipline of assignees in order to retain responsibility for CPS and secure “leverage” to win Selective Service concessions.  For the Friends especially, this meant a deliberate and painful decision to abandon their initial commitment to a high level of democracy in the camps.[33]

With the conclusion of the European war in May 1945 and the Asian war in August, CPSers could now see the end in sight.  But morale went down, if anything.  On the one hand, Selective Service only very slowly began to demobilize CPS.  Despite early hopes that CPSers would be demobilized at the same rate as the military, they were not, partly because Congress insisted that soldiers get priority.

On the other hand, many CPSers felt little hope in facing life after release.  Unlike those in the military, they would receive no governmental assistance whatsoever.  They had no financial benefits such as the separation allowance, no aid for going to college, no assistance for buying a house or starting a trade or business, or no help in securing employment.  They feared discrimination even in attempting on their own to find employment and simply to returning to regular life in general.[34]

Continued conscription raised the question for the Service Committees as to whether they should continue to administer CPS in what amounted to a situation of peacetime conscription, which they all strongly opposed.  AFSC decided that such cooperation would be unacceptable, and in October announced that it would cease administering CPS, effective six months following the end of the War—i.e., March 1946.[35]

MCC remained with CPS for the duration of the draft.  There was little doubt that MCC would do this, given the Mennonites’ relative lack of concern with opposing a peacetime draft.  MCC’s reasons given for continuing were: (1) the desire to continue in an alternative service program within which the churches could continue to minister to its people after they were drafted and (2) the desire to render constructive service to the nation more than simply saying no to war.  MCC asserted that it desired CPS’s early termination, but it committed itself to working within that program as long as it existed.[36]

On March 29, 1947, the CPS program formally ended.

About 100,000 draftable young men expressed a CO commitment during World War II.  This included the 50,000 who were drafted or sent to prison (12,000 CPSers, 6,000 convicted of draft evasion, and over 30,000 non-combatants) and an estimated 50,000 deferred for various reasons (e.g., occupational deferments for doing “essential” work such as farming and civil service work, dependency needs, physical problems).[37]

The 12,000 CPSers gave a total of almost six million project workdays between May 1941 and March 1947.  About two-thirds were given in the base camps and one-third in the various detached service projects.  CPSers constructed and maintained 2,000 miles of fence, 475 miles of new telephone and electric power lines, 814 miles of new truck trails, and 7,640 miles of stock and foot trails.  They planted around 40 million trees in areas needing reforestation, did 1,800 miles of new fire hazard reduction work on fire-trails and roads, and devoted 48,000 workdays to fighting forest fires.  CPSers built several irrigation dams and spent one and one-half million workdays in state-mental hospitals, 120,000 in veterans hospitals, 105,000 in public health work, and 150,000 in research projects in areas such as effects of starvation, diet, and disease control.  If the government had paid for the work of CPSers at the same rate as for its military, it would have spent over $18 million.  As it was, this work—which presumably would not have been done otherwise—cost the government next to nothing.[38]

Not only did the CPS program meet with much less governmental tolerance and freedom than initially envisioned by its founders, it also ended up costing the Peace Churches and other supporting groups much more money than initially expected.  The Peace Churches expected the government to pick up part of the tab for administering the camps, especially for those CPSers not members of a Peace Church, and COs expected to be required only to give one year of service.  As events proved, except for the few government camps established more than halfway into the War, the Peace Churches and other church groups provided all the administration funds for CPS, an amount that totaled over $7 million for the three Peace Churches.  Small donations from generally rural people with limited financial resources provided most of this money.

That so many of their young men joined the military disappointed pacifist leaders—even among the Mennonites about one-half of those drafted became soldiers.  But those who did join CPS remained committed to their pacifist ideals.  Only 7.6% of the CPSers left for military service, a very small number considering the hardships imposed upon CPSers due to the restrictive government policies.[39]

Thoroughgoing resistance

A relatively small number of World War II COs chose to resist the draft to the point of going to prison. Of the approximately 6,000 men who were imprisoned for their draft resistance due to principled opposition to participation in the military, about 4,500 were Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose opposition was theological and based on a strong sense of separation from the “secular world.” Hence, imprisoned politically oriented war resisters totaled about 1,500.

Some who shared the political views of the imprisoned resisters did choose to enter Civilian Public Service. A number of these eventually decided to leave CPS and face prison. Many others generally found themselves in positions of non-cooperation and even overt resistance within the CPS camps.

These thoroughgoing resisters saw war as intrinsically evil and not to be compromised with in any way.  They saw conscription as inextricably tied with war itself.  Donald Wetzel is an example of a pacifist who initially accepted alternative service but quickly discovered that it required too much of a compromise.  So he walked out of his CPS camp and spent the rest of the War in federal prison as a draft law violator.  Wetzel concluded that war would not be possible without conscription; thus conscription itself must be resisted.[40]

Igal Roodenko, a longtime leader in the War Resisters League summarized two basic reasons for resisters not compromising with Selective Service and the direction of the draft and CPS program.  He first reasoned that the absolute evil of war depends upon conscription, hence conscription itself must be resisted.  He also reasoned that since the individual is the basic unit in society and not to be violated, the way in which conscription sacrifices the individual to the altar of the state must be resisted.  Conscription, he believed, led to totalitarianism.[41]

For many, resistance to compromise with conscription meant refusing to be drafted at all, since they saw accepting alternative service as too much of a compromise.  Lowell Naeve, Arle Brooks, and Frederick H. Richards are three examples of men who did this and went to prison.

Draft officials persuaded Naeve to register, but he refused to report.  He intended from the beginning to go to prison.  “By registration for the draft I felt I had, as a ‘responsible individual,’ given the government the ‘go-sign’ for a war,” an action he then repudiated.  His sense of responsibility dictated to him total non-cooperation.[42]

Brooks emphasized the connection between conscription and warfare and asserted that he simply could not cooperate, even though he himself could have received a ministerial exemption. He wrote during the War, “Registration is the first and necessary step for conscription.  My conscience will not permit me to take that first step.  As a minister I could have received complete exemption.  I felt it my moral duty to do all within my power to protect against conscription which will eventually weaken and destroy democracy.  I am not evading the draft.  I am defending democracy.”[43]

Richards also emphasized the voluntary nature of his submission to arrest out of principled opposition to the draft, as he had chosen to return from humanitarian service in Mexico openly to resist the draft. He wrote: “Conscription is the denial of the personal responsibility of a man to live up to the right as he sees it; the right to obey a Higher Law than that of the state—the law of God as revealed to his conscience—the Inner Light of the Quakers.” Though deeply devoting to helping others, Richards had to resist conscription because it denied freedom of conscience. “Conscription is the legal enforcement of the proposition that human beings exist only for the purpose of doing what the government wills.”[44]

Denny Wilcher, a Quaker CPSer who finally decided CPS involved too much of a compromise, ended up in prison.  For Wilcher, it became “evident that the fundamental issue is and should be the freedom of the church from the state.”  CPS embodied a denial of that freedom because Selective Service used the Historic Peace Churches and their allies to enforce coercive oversight of COs.[45]

Resisters criticized the Peace Church involvement in CPS as compromising the separation of church and state, seeing the Peace Churches as involved in the enforcement of conscription.  Resisters saw conscription as intrinsically coercive of the individual conscience.[46]

James Peck, who spent the war years in prison as a draft resister, emphasized the priority on opposing the evils of warfare. “The most effective way for an individual to start outlawing war,” he asserted, “is simply to refuse to take part in it.”[47] He refused to fight against Hitler not due to a lack of a sense of responsibility to stop Hitler; but rather due to a stronger sense of responsibility to stop war.[48]

A group of resisters meeting in Chicago in April 1943 issued a collective statement that asserted that their refusal to fight needed to be a positive act as well as a saying “No.”  They characterized pacifism as a “courageous, non-violent opposition to injustice” undertaken out of a strong sense of calling to overcome injustice in this world.  Part of this responsibility is to make the message of active non-violence known to the world.

Their statement asserted: “Instead of clamoring for personal privilege and exemption, pacifists who see pacifism as active resistance feel they should take the offensive by placing their message before the people of the world. This at times would seem to lead to negative action – refusing to register, refusing to take a physical exam, refusing to go to camp, walking out of camp.  But it also demands what is easily recognized as positive action—becoming involved in the non-violent fight for racial justice, participating in all kinds of symbolic acts such as publicly demanding a people’s peace, uncompromsingly opposing conscription of labor, and campaigning for a democratic world by opposing imperialism in India and elsewhere.”[49]

Resisters experienced widespread uncertainty over the most responsible direction to take in their opposition to the War.  Pacifist leader A. J. Muste, executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, deep down a resister, varied in his approach.  He initially supported CPS but then led the FOR out of involvement with CPS.  He himself refused to register when Selective Service extended registration to men between the ages of 40 and 65.  He had strong commitments to social change and saw radical pacifism as the way to do that.  This total commitment to pacifism meant a commitment to non-cooperation with “evil,”[50] including by the end of the War non-cooperation with CPS.

Many resister-types went back and forth between CPS and prison in their search for the most responsible action to take.  Agard Bailey, for example, went to prison as a draft resister before accepting parole into CPS at the Mancos, Colorado, government camp. He then decided that CPS did not offer a useful alternative. He wrote: “In prison I felt I should be doing work of national importance.  Having done this so-called work for more than a year while on parole, I now see that the work in this camp is merely boondoggling.  I can do my country infinitely more good by opposing conscription, the right hand of war, than by engaging in the frenzied inefficiency which characterizes this project.  To me, opposing those things which lead to war is work of highest national importance.  I am guilty and responsible for war when I fail to oppose what makes for war.”[51]

Notions of non-violent resistance greatly influenced many resisters, especially those formulated and practiced by Gandhi.  For others, simply their own sense of unwillingness to cooperate in any way with the war-making state and its instruments influenced them most.  Indirectly, at least, such earlier champions of individual conscience as Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy influenced all resisters.

Some of the COs in prison would have denied that their resistance in prison was ineffective, pointing an action that led to the integration of the dining hall at Danbury Federal Prison as an important example of successful nonviolent resistance and as important training for post-War work.  They also would have pointed to the publicity surrounding the abusive treatment COs Stanley Murphy and Louis Taylor received from Federal prison personnel as a widely known reminder to people of the continuing possibility of resistance.[52]

Selective Service intransigence contributed to the frustration of hopes for numerous resisters in CPS and led to an increasingly negative thrust to the their actions.  They conclued, as the War went on, that the main product of their resistance was not going to be any kind of direct transformation of society nearly as much as simply the witness that individual conscience could not be totally stamped out by government coercion and denial of freedom for COs.  Hence, resisters saw their acts of negative resistance to be service as constructive to American society as helping the mentally ill was for COs less scrupulous about compromise with the state.[53]

The COs who ended up in prison took various paths getting there.  For some, such as Jim Peck, prison loomed as their likely fate from the time of the passage of the draft law.  Peck believed right away that to compromise with the warring state in any way would fundamentally violate his conscience.  Others, such as Donald Wetzel, felt more ambivalence and went into CPS initially before quickly realizing that CPS involved too much compromise.  And others, like Denny Wilcher, went into CPS with few doubts and only gradually came to realize that they could no longer cooperate.  In these latter two cases, going to prison resulted from walking out of CPS camps and being arrested for non-compliance with the provisions of the draft law.

A central characteristic of the resister prison population lay in its refusal to accept CPS as a legitimate option.  Most chose to reject that possibility when offered.  In some cases (e.g., Agard Bailey, mentioned above), COs in prison accepted the CPS option before being disillusioned by their CPS experience and deciding that they could not stay in CPS.  In other cases (e.g., Lowell Naeve), COs served their initial sentence, gained release, then faced re-arrest and re-imprisonment for failure to register with Selective Service.

Charles Swift, a CO prisoner, stated that one did not go to prison due to it being a good or bad thing to do in itself.  Rather, one went simply out of one’s total opposition to war and an inability to cooperate with it in any way, including performing alternative service.  The prison experience provided many tensions and much suffering: segregation from society, family and friends; constant injustice by those running the prisons; opportunities to effect reform at times in tension with the need simply to resist.  However, Swift felt (and so too did others such as Jim Peck, Lowell Naeve, and Donald Wetzel) that in most cases the prison experience deepened the purpose of COs’ lives and heightened their commitments to active nonviolence.[54]

Resisters who started out in CPS often quite possibly found prison to be a psychologically more satisfying situation than CPS, since it was much more “involuntary” and hence freed them from constant doubt about their level of compromise.[55]

Resisters who went to prison, in following their strong convictions and rejecting any kind of compromise with the claims of the state, ironically found themselves placed under the control of an even more thorough system of institutionalized coercion than they would have found in CPS or the military.  However, many accepted prison because at least they could honestly maintain their integrity and know that their convictions could not be bought off by promises of comfort or social approval.  And they did experience some fruit from their resistance; if nothing else a knowledge that they maintained individual values in the face of authoritarian dehumanization and hence kept some kind of spark alive in the darkest of times.[56]

The training in nonviolent action that many resisters received both in prison and in CPS camps paid dividends after the War.  In several significant cases resisters put this training to use in post-war civil rights and anti-nuclear weapon demonstrations and activities.

As early as 1942, A.J. Muste asserted that Gandhian nonviolence might have a major role to play in gaining civil rights for blacks in the United States.  In line with that, supported the Fellowship of Reconciliation hiring James Farmer and Bayard Rustin to begin efforts to make that application.[57] Rustin, a Quaker, spent time in prison during the War as a draft resister.

Many resisters in prison suffered from their separation from society, and many violated their convictions due to the unrelenting pressure of the coercive prison system.  On the other hand, many worked hard at, at least somewhat successfully, resisting prison and effected a small measure of reforms.  The coordinated work-strike that successfully ended racial segregation in the dining hall at Danbury Federal Prison serves as one example.

Several COs gained experience here that served them in post-war activism.  Danbury veteran Jim Peck afterwards became active with the Congress on Racial Equality.  “These demonstrations constituted our attempts to apply effectively on the outside the nonviolent methods of protest which we had used in prison,” he later explained.  “Somehow it seemed a continuation of the same struggle.”  Peck “felt certain that nonviolence would prove as effective in combating racial discrimination on the outside as it had been in Danbury.”[58] Two pacifists, looking back upon the prison rebellions, concluded that COs “salvaged from their years of captivity ideas of immeasurable value to all of us who contemplate in the coming totalitarian days a continual warfare with the state—both in and out of its prisons.”[59]

These activists received some immediate encouragement. Jim Peck wrote, “The first pacifist post-war demonstrations, against prison racial segregation, were our attempts to apply effectively the nonviolent methods of protest which we used in prison.  During [the prison] strikes we had been under constant scrutiny and control of uniformed screws mostly hostile to our aims and therefore to us.  During the demonstrations on the outside, we were similarly scrutinized by uniformed cops, who often expressed their hostility through violence or illegal arrest.  The issues involved on the outside—amnesty, opposition to conscription—were of course broader.  The methods, such as picketing and leaflet distribution, were different.  Yet, somehow it seemed a continuation of the same struggle, a struggle against what we believed to be an injustice.  We discovered that a small number of COs—not more than 30—could get national and even international publicity for pacifism by means of well-timed public demonstrations of such an unusual nature that the press could not ignore them.  We were anxious, primarily, to get our fellow-COs freed and to win a general amnesty, and secondly to carry on an effective campaign against war and against the threat of permanent conscription in the US.[60]

We have seen earlier in this book how the turn toward total war ended up for the United States—a mad, downhill rush towards destruction that seemingly cannot be derailed. And yet, this handful of naysayers, those who even in the face of the “Good War” retained their convictions that war simply does not have the possibility of achieving genuine social wellbeing, did keep a small candle of alternative possibilities burning.

When we take a second look at the aftermath of World War II, we will see along the societal margins in the United States (and, of course, elsewhere in the world) genuine possibilities of something different. The few who rejected warfare as an appropriate response to evildoing in the first half of the 1940s sustained various forms of a vision for an alternative story for the human project.

We will look now at some of the expressions of that vision that may in the long run turn out to be the most important moral legacies of World War II—the existence of which as much as anything underscore the moral bankruptcy of the War itself.


[1] Paul R. Dekar, Creating the Beloved Community: A Journey with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2005), 34.

[2] Scott H. Bennett, Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 21.

[3] John Howard Yoder discusses some 29 “varieties of religious pacifism” in Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism, revised edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992).

[4] Clarence E. Pickett, For More Than Bread: An Autobiographical Account of Twenty-Two Years’ Work with the American Friends Service Committee (Little, Brown, and Company, 1953), 93.

[5] Quotes from Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 109.

[6] John Haynes Holmes, “The Same Old War,” The Christian Century (December 11, 1940). Quoted from Joseph Loconte, ed. The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 74-75.

[7] Lawrence Wittner, Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960 (New York: Columbia University, 1969), 1.

[8] See Eric Sevareid, Not So Wild a Dream (New York: Atheneum, 1976), a memoir of the war years by one who changed from a pacifist to a pro-war perspective, first published in 1946.

[9] Quoted in Wittner, Rebels, 37.

[10]Theodore Wachs, “Conscription, Conscientious Objection, and the Context of American Pacifism, 1940-1945” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, 1976), 50.

[11]Wachs, “Conscription,” 58.

[12]Neal W. Wherry, Conscientious Objection (Washington, DC: Selective Service System Special Monograph #11, vol. 1, 1950), 89-90.

[13]Great diversity existed among COs and the Service Committees themselves over the shape this idealism took and the relative potential of the work that they actually did to meet those ideals.  But even those happiest about the actual shape of CPS and most grateful for government “tolerance” had these kinds of idealistic views about the purpose of CPS.  Naively, it now seems, these “optimists” failed to perceive that Selective Service did not share those ideals.  Though those who saw through more “rose-colored glasses” kept the contradictions between Selective Service’s and the Service Committees’ basic perceptions regarding the purpose farther from the surface, those contradictions nevertheless existed in all cases.

[14]Wherry, Conscientious, 1-2.

[15] Mulford Q. Sibley and Philip E. Jacob, Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940-1947 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1952), 120.

[16]Leslie Eisan, Pathways of Peace (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1948), 376-77.

[17]Eisan, Pathways, 182.

[18]Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 121.

[19]Wittner, Rebels, 34.

[20] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 308.

[21] Wachs, “Conscription,” 114.

[22] Wherry, Conscientious, 168-169.

[23] Marvin R. Weisbord, Some Form of Peace: True Stories of the American Friends Service Committee at Home and Abroad (New York: Viking, 1968), 29.

[24] Wherry, Conscientious, 169.

[25] Gordon Zahn, “A Descriptive Study of the Social Backgrounds of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service During World War II” (Ph.D. dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1953), 30.

[26] Paul Comly French, Civilian Public Service (Washington, DC: NSBRO, 1943), 3-4.

[27] “Protest Brings Major McClean,” Cooperstown 1.4 (March 21, 1942), 1, 10.

[28] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 332.

[29] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 336.

[30] Lewis Hershey, “Testimony Before the Senate Military Affairs Committee, Feb. 17, 1943,” Calumet 2.12 (July 10, 1943), 4-5.

[31] Eisan, Pathways, 382.

[32] “Camper AWOL to Chicago Conference Ordered to Government Camp,” Sage O’Pinion 2.1  (July 1943), 3.

[33] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 283.

[34] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 303.

[35] Wachs, “Conscription,” 188-89.

[36] “MCC to Continue Administration of CPS,” Mennonite CPS Bulletin 4.16 (Jan. 4, 1946), 1.

[37] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 464.

[38] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 125-6; Wherry, Conscientious, 209-10.

[39] Zahn, “Descriptive,” 89.

[40] Donald Wetzel, Pacifist, Or, My War and Louis Lepke (Sag Harbor, NY: Permanent Press, 1986), 198-99.

[41] Igal Roodenko, “So That Others Might Be Free,” CPS GI #8 (June 1944), 8.

[42] Lowell Naeve, A Field of Broken Stones (Glen Gardner, NJ: Libertarian Press, 1950), 3.

[43] Quoted in Clarence Pickett, For More Than Bread (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1953), 334.

[44] “Statement of Frederick Howard Richards Before the U.S. Court in Philadelphia,” Federal Convicts: Numbers 1128 and 1129: From College to Prison (n.p., 1941), 8-9.

[45] Denny Wilcher, “Shall the CPS Camps Continue?” Camp Walhalla News 1.5 (Jan. 1943), 7.

[46] Mulford Q. Sibley and Philip E. Jacob, Conscription and Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940-1947 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1952), 473.

[47] Peck, Underdogs, 100.

[48] Peck, Underdogs, 18.

[49] “Proceedings – Chicago Conference on Social Action,” Chicago, 1943. (Mimeographed.), 11.

[50] A. J. Muste, The World Task of Pacifism (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Pamphlets, 1941), 39.

[51] Agard Bailey, “Prison…CPS…Prison…” CPS GI #12 (Feb. 1945), 6.

[52] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 374, 412-416.

[53] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 417.

[54] Charles Swift, “Letter from a Non-Registrant,” Sage O’Pinion 1.8 (Feb. 1943), 9.

[55] Sibley and Jacob, Conscription, 360; Wetzel, Pacifist, 50.

[56] Wittner, Rebels, 85-86.

[57] Wittner, Rebels, 64.

[58] Quoted in Wittner, Rebels, 92.

[59] Quoted in Wittner, Rebels, 92.

[60] Peck, Underdogs, 61.

  1. Fantastic blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Really Cool.

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