Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wartime Wednesday: Conscientious Objectors

As long as there have been wars, there have been people who objected to them. Some for religious beliefs, others on moral grounds. These folks eventually became known as Conscientious Objectors (COs). Until World War II, the government dealings with COs were ambiguous and inconsistent, but typically harsh.

According to, the World War I draft law recognized the peace churches {those churches such as Quaker, Brethren, and Mennonite, that historically took a stand against war}, but prosecuted anyone else who objected on the basis of their own beliefs. Five hundred objectors were court-martialed – seventeen received death sentences for refusing to fight. Although none of death sentences was carried out, almost 150 objectors were jailed for life, and others were harassed and beaten.

As the U.S. moved closer to entering World War II, Congress, for the first time in history, recognized "CO Status" as a legitimate moral stand. Under the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, objectors had two choices — they could go into the military but serve in the medical corps or other non-combat duties, or they were required to do "alternative service" here at home that was "work of national importance."

Of the 34.5 million men who registered for the draft, 72,354 applied for conscientious objector status,  25,000 of whom served in non-combatant roles and 27,000 who were exempted because of their failure to pass the physical exam. There were over 6,000 men who rejected the draft outright and chose to go to jail instead of serving the war effort. And then there were 12,000 men who chose to perform alternative service. Their work was supervised by the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program.

The CPS program called for work camps to be established for assignees to labor in soil conservation or forestry projects. Initially, men dug irrigation ditches, planted ground cover, and built dams and irrigation system. Others served as fire lookouts and smoke jumpers. As the war progressed the program’s opportunities expanded to include dairy and farm labor and mental hospital attendants. Others volunteered to be test subjects in scientific experiments administered by the federal government. Known as “Guinea Pig Units” these programs studied the effects of starvation, climate, hydration, disease, and other issues.

One of the most controversial aspects of CPS was that the assignees served without pay. This was a decision undertaken early in the negotiations for CPS by the Selective Service as they feared the program would not be approved if men received a wage. This proved to be an increasing source of frustration for many of the men and their families as the men received no allotment for dependent care either, leaving many of their families in a difficult economic situation.

Many COs struggled with their decision:

“Alone, I did not know any other conscientious objectors in my community. I don’t think there were any others. I was a na├»ve young man, and I thought to myself, ‘What if I’m wrong and all these millions of other men are right? What if I’m wrong about conscientious objection?’ So in that respect I compromised and agreed to be drafted into the military, as long as I wasn’t required to bear arms." (K. Roy Bailey, Schuyler Rural school teacher who later served as a U.S. Army medic in the Pacific theater.)

"At that time, I registered as a conscientious objector...well, my background was Mennonite. We were in a Mennonite community, and it's one of the 'peace churches.' It was our way of saying we don't agree with violence. We would rather got to work for several years doing alternate service. Well, there was some problem with it. And there would be again today. Probably not as much as there was at that time. But it was considered as being non-patriotic. That was not the case, but it was perceived as such. We were very patriotic people." (Anonymous Mennonite).

What do you think?

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