Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Conscientious Objectors During World War II

Watching The “Good War” and Those Who Refused to Fight It last night was an excellent complement to the 7 episodes of Ken Burns’ The War.  42,000 American men were classified as conscientious objectors during World War II and did “alternative service” at Civilian Peace Service camps run by the “Historic Peace Churches,” i.e., the Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren.  Another 25, 000 became “non-combat conscientious objectors,” that is, they did not object to military service, merely to killing.  The Non-Combatatant COs became ambulance drivers and medics during the war–often working to save the lives of “the enemy” as well.  Others, who objected to cooperating with Selective Service (coerced military service) at all, went to prison for the duration of the war.

The film points out that America has always had COs–George Washington specifically exempted those “of tender conscience” from induction into the Continental Army.  Most Mennonite, Amish, and Brethren/Dunker folk who immigrated to the U.S. did so to escape compulsory military service in Europe.  So did many Jews.  American history is littered with utopian experimental communities–and often these included a commitment to peace and nonviolence.  But, until WWII, if one was a pacifist or conscientious objector in America, one was usually given only a few options:  Violate one’s conscience by allowing one’s self to be drafted; pay for another to go in one’s place (an option given up until the Civil War); flee to avoid service (draft dodging); or prison.  Thousands of COs went to prison during the first World War.

During WWII, some, like the Union 8, eight students at Union Theological Seminary of New York, still went to prison rather than even register for the draft. (I have met one of them, George Houser, who went on to help found the Congress on Racial Equality[CORE], the American Committee on Africa, and has been a leader in many nonviolent social movements.) Others volunteered to be “human guinea pigs” or “human lab rats” for medical experimentation–experiments that would never be approved by any hospital ethics committee, today, but which helped find cures for diseases and helped keep many civilians in post-war Europe from starving.  My teacher, Glen Stassen, has talked about a high school teacher of his, a Quaker, who had weird growths on his body because he had been such a “human guinea pig” during WWII.

Others volunteered to work in mental hospitals.  We still have a long way to go in the treatment of the mentally ill, but before this service, “hospitals” for the mentally ill were nightmarish places of torture and torment.  The work of WWII COs (and many of their wives, too) transformed these places and changed the way that Americans thought about mental illness.

As one of the witnesses in the film (Sam Yoder) said, being in a Conscientious Objector during World War II was especially hard because everyone agreed that Hitler had to be stopped and no one, including pacifists, had any answer of how to do so without war.  Of course, as another witness pointed out, pacifists and COs had warned about the harsh Treaty of Versailles (which ended WWI) sowing the seeds for another war. 

Gandhian techniques for active nonviolence were in their infancy (Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried repeatedly to get to visit Gandhi–What would the German Confessing Church movement have looked like if armed with Gandhian nonviolence?). And, even today, there is no guarantee that nonviolent campaigns will be successful:  We have many recent successes from the overthrow of Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia (2001), to the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine (2003), but success seems much further away in Burma (Myanmar).  And nonviolent 3rd Party intervention, as an alternative to war, did not really begin until the 1970s and is today embodied in such organizations as Witness for Peace, Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Friends Peace Teams, Holy Land Trust, Nonviolence International, and the Nonviolent Peace Force.  None of those options existed in WWII.  There were amazing efforts using active nonviolence to rescue some Jews from the Holocaust (most famously in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in Vichy France), but those efforts weren’t available to AMERICAN pacifists.

Therefore, it was incredibly difficult to remain true to beliefs that taking human life was always wrong, in the face of the monstrous evil of the Axis onslaught–and in the face of constant propaganda which equated pacifism with cowardice.  The COs worked to demonstrate that they were not cowards and to sow the seeds for justice and peace in the future. Many of them helped to launch the post-war Civil Rights movement.  As U.S. troops came home from battle, many COs replaced them (especially in Europe, less in the Pacific islands or in Japan), working tirelessly to help in post-war recovery, feeding and clothing civilians. 

There were no ticker tape parades for the homecoming COs and some, who felt they had done make work in place of work of significance, went into depression and seldom spoke about their experiences.

But we should never doubt their courage:  the courage to go against popular sentiment, to swim against the tide, to suffer for one’s beliefs–even the courage to face war unarmed (as with the ambulance drivers and other noncombatant COs), but never to kill.

It still takes courage to be a CO today, even with more options available and a supposedly “all volunteer” military.  Many countries still have no CO exemptions for compulsory military service and being a pacifist exacts a high cost.  Even where alternative service exists, so that COs are able to avoid prison, in many countries they are permanently banned from certain occupations or even entrance to university.

The question often posed to us pacifists, “What would you have done about Hitler?” is hypothetical if we were born later.  But this movie is a moving description of what some pacifists DID when they refused to kill.


October 5, 2007 - Posted by | nonviolence, pacifism


  1. Michael,

    This kinda relates to your post. We covered the Supreme Court cases dealing with conscientious objectors this week in class.

    Since we now have a volunteer armed forces, I was curious…what happens to say a marine who willingly enlists and during his term of duty becomes a pacifist? Does that marine apply for objector status and get reassigned to a different job until his term expires? Or how does that work considering we’re at war? I assume there have been at least a handful of such examples in recent years?

    Comment by Big Daddy Weave | October 5, 2007

  2. Hi, Big Daddy:
    I can speak to this out of personal experience. I became a pacifist while enlisted in the U.S. Army (was that really over 20 years ago, now?). I applied for a C.O. discharge and refused to continue wearing my uniform or picking up a weapon. They threatened me with prison in Ft. Leavenworth, KS. They tried to get the chaplain to talk me out of my beliefs. The National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO), which is now called the Center for Conscience and War, sent me a lawyer and, after much more struggle, I was granted an honorable discharge as a C.O.
    In war time, it is harder. Many COs during the 1st Gulf War were imprisoned–some were ordered to the front lines without weapons (which is illegal, btw). In this war, much fewer CO discharges have been allowed. Many COs have been given prison sentences. Some of these have made headlines.

    During WWII, nearly every U.S. denomination stood up for the rights of COs, even the Southern Baptist Convention. Although VERY FEW Southern Baptists applied for CO status, the Convention worked to protect their liberty of conscience. But in this war, Richard Land has called them cowards and the SBC has done NOTHING for COs–except insult their courage, deny that they are really saved, etc.
    Legally, someone is allowed to become a pacifist and CO at any time. Practically, during war the burden of proof is on the CO to show they aren’t just cowards trying to avoid pain and death.

    On the legal aspects of conscientious objection in the U.S., go to the website of the Center for Conscience and War and read everything you need to know.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 5, 2007

  3. Michael,
    Have you ever read “The Things they Carried”? I forget who wrote it, but it was about a guy who had moral problems with the Vietnam War (nothing astounding, I know). It’s a bunch of random stories, but there is a particular one I remember in which this guy had the moral dilemma of staying in Canada (dodging his draft) or going to fight in the war. I think you would appreciate it if you have not read it. My pacifist English teacher had us read it in college. Well, maybe not completely pacifist, he did support WWII because it was “the use of violence to eliminate a greater violence” as he would say.

    Comment by Chance | October 6, 2007

  4. Does anyone have information of the service of Lou Ayres as a coscietous objector during WW II?
    Can you give me some leads?


    Comment by Lou Ayres | July 12, 2009

  5. I’m sorry. This is not the kind of project where I can be of much help.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 12, 2009

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