The Condemnation of the Forgotten: Conscientious Objectors and The World War Two Era

By: Alex Fancher

The Battle Grounds

America’s entry into World War II sparked a patriotic fervor across the nation. To many, it was a time of unification that represented a righteous fight for a just cause. Eligible men began enlisting by the thousands and women started entering the workforce to support the men who were being sent overseas. There was a sense of pride that the average American citizen felt in supporting the war effort, and the government used this momentum to wage a war that had global implications. But not everyone was willing to join the armed forces, produce weapons, or foster the war effort. In an attempt to hold true to their own moral principles, at least 100,000 men and women, tried to find ways to maintain their pacifistic beliefs and practices without jeopardizing America’s success overseas. Often referred to as “conchies,” “cowards,” “slackers,” “traitors,” and at times “homosexuals”, these men and women should be labeled more appropriately as conscientious objectors (COs). At the time, these outcasts were considered failures in a society that had deemed them traitors to their country. Many Americans were confused and soon frustrated to hear that the average CO was not willing to shoot at an enemy soldier due to pacifistic tendencies. But did these men and women truly deserve to be slandered in such a derogatory fashion throughout the war years? How did those who objected to fighting during World War II find a way to participate in the war effort while upholding their moral principles? How did women, who could not object by refusing to comply with the draft, demonstrate their opinions and do so in a constructive manner?

To answer these questions, it is important to first distinguish between the governmental definition of the term CO and the definition used throughout this paper. In 1940, the local draft boards were the only governmental agency that had the authority to classify a person as a conscientious objector.[1] According to the Selective Service Regulations, only men between the ages of 18-45 were required to register for the draft.[2] Religious leaders were not required to sign up which prevented several prominent pacifists from being legally declared as COs during the war. Similarly, because the Selective Service prohibited females from being drafted, pacifist women were also excluded from being identified as COs by the government’s legal definition. With that being said, this paper will refer to COs as the men and women who opposed using violence during World War II on religious, self-conscious, or political grounds regardless of whether or not the government identified them as such.[3] By using the term CO in a more inclusive manner, several prominent figures and groups of people can be remembered for their willing participation and important role as a part of a movement that inspired a different kind of service.[4]

Having said this, the percentage of registered COs as compared to the overall number of Americans that served in the military during WWII is less than a fraction of a percent.[5] Labeled as lazy, selfish, and unpatriotic, COs were stigmatized at the beginning of the war and for many years thereafter. Even as historians began to change their tune, the conscientious objector remains but a distant, unwanted memory. To the average American, those who chose not to fight overseas during one of the bloodiest wars in history are nothing but immoral, selfish cowards. Not only are these presumptions false, but they fail to consider the dedication of the CO population to serving their country in ways that were still aligned with their moral values and religious beliefs. Contrary to public opinion, the CO population was willing to go to great lengths to prove their patriotism and serve in ways that were both meaningful and considered to be of national importance.

This paper will provide a glimpse into the life of the conscientious objector, who was hard at work during the war in an attempt to serve their country in the ways they deemed appropriate. Several COs risked their lives in dangerous experiments, in which they served as guinea pigs to help scientists make advancements in ground-breaking research. Some actively supported non-violence as a part of the peace movement in an attempt to voice opposition against military conflict as a means for solving world problems. Others took to the streets and began fighting back against Jim Crow Laws that had forced the average black man into submissive obedience to governmental organizations strongly influenced by white power. Additionally, several COs made their way to government run camps scattered across the nation to complete work of national importance. Even women joined the cause, despite no obligation to serve in the military, and publicized their conscientious objections to the war in an effort to support their male counterparts. Then there were COs who joined the military but still refused to kill, forcing them to face an enemy knowing full well that no weapon of their own could save them. These are the harrowing stories that truly represent conscientious objectors during a time of war which tested their mental and physical fortitude. By holding true to their moral principles, these objectors were both legitimate in their convictions and earnest patriots in their methods to promote serious change to the American way of life during the World War II era.

Many popular studies paid little attention to conscientious objectors and their contributions to war efforts throughout American history. For instance, Tom Brokaw discusses the patriotism and unity that World War II inspired in his book The Greatest Generation. Brokaw argues that the heroes of the war helped build up America to the modern superpower that it is today. Like many Americans, Brokaw described qualities such as patriotism, military service, and a sense of duty as admirable in America during and after World War II. Interestingly enough, not all Americans were considered to be of the same patriotic quality. Several groups of American citizens would find themselves as outcasts to the war effort despite the sincerity in their desires and beliefs to better the American way of life.[6] Among those groups were the conscientious objectors of World War II.

In addition to exclusion from certain parts of history, contemporary views have depicted the conscientious objector in a more negative light: as lazy cowards that were not interested in serving the nation during a time of war. Walter Guest Kellogg’s The Conscientious Objector serves as an example as to how COs were treated on a historical level. As the Chairman of the Board of Inquiry on Conscientious Objectors, Kellogg had an extensive amount of experience working with government officials to classify COs during World War I. In his opinion, the majority of COs were a small-minded group of people with an “unreadiness to accept facts as facts, except so far as he considered them religious facts.”[7] Throughout the book are detailed stories of men that attempted to gain CO status in order to avoid military service so that they could keep higher wages on the home front.[8] According to Kellogg, the only intelligent CO was one willing to perform non-combative duties as a part of the United States military establishment.[9]

Kellogg was not the only person to feel a sort of animosity towards the CO type. Many American civilians felt discomforted by the COs beliefs against violence, which led to misunderstandings, anger, and overall resentment. In one particular study, a dissertation by Gordon Zahn suggested that pacifism in a time of war was a social deviance that classified COs as an abnormality to the American way of life.[10] This language contributed to the stigmatization of the CO as a slacker with effeminate and even homosexual tendencies.[11] In a nation that was passionately dedicated to mobilizing for war, the CO did not fit in. The Office of Public Opinion Research conducted a national poll in 1944 in which 74% of respondents expressed disapproval of COs.[12] As a result, many COs faced harsh criticism, public humiliation, and at times, even death threats.[13] In one particular situation, CO Elden Birky was told by a draft board member, “If I had my way, I’d take you all up in the hills and shoot you.”[14]

However, there are several scholars that have paid more attention to both COs and pacifists during times of war, many of whom were one and the same. Timothy Winter focuses his attention towards the role that the pacifist had in society during the mobilization of the United States war machine. By arguing for the sincerity of the CO’s beliefs, Winter discredits the notion that a life of non-violence was founded upon cowardice, homosexual activity, and general laziness.[15] Similarly, historians such as Alex Sareyan detail the role of the CO in mental health care reform during World War II. Sareyan explains the ways in which 3,000 COs stepped in to take the place of mental health care workers who went to war or to work in defense plants.[16] From a religious perspective, Gerald Sittser investigates the reluctant battle fought by several churches in A Cautious Patriotism. Sittser explains the challenges that many peace groups faced while attempting to support the war without advocating for violence. Thus, a good conscience and the desire to perform one’s patriotic duties became an intertwined complexity that angered some and confused many.

On the other hand, Leo P. Crespi of the Department of Psychology at Princeton University conducted research on the importance of public opinion as an influential component of determining policies as it related to the conscientious objector during World War II.[17] Until Crespi, very little research had been conducted in regard to statistical analyses of CO perception by American citizenry. According to his journal works on public opinion, there was a consensus that COs had always been looked at with extreme antagonism which prevented researchers from feeling the need to pursue any academic research on the matter.[18] To counter this, Crespi broke from tradition to help provide more information on COs and how they were perceived by the public.[19]

While many recent historians have presented sympathetic accounts of the causes and beliefs of COs, the bulk of these works do not go far enough in terms of exploring and expounding upon the COs value to American society during and after the Second World War. As we will see, they contributed in multiple ways and their refusal to fight in direct combat should more properly be referred to as a desire to serve in a capacity that was appropriate with their ideals. By focusing on the sincerity of their beliefs as well as their aspirations to promote peace, the conscientious objector can be remembered as more than an outcast during the World War II era.

An Arduous Task

Perhaps there is no conscientious objector that brought more attention to pacifism during the war than an Army Medic from Lynchburg, Virginia, Corporal Desmond T. Doss. One might find it strange to think that a member of the armed forces could represent a peace movement led and encouraged by so many other prominent figures; yet, Doss symbolized the very nature of the CO’s ideological struggle during a war. As a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Doss was against violence and the killing of another man, but believed he could honor God’s wishes by serving as an unarmed medic in the Army.[20]After being drafted in April of 1942, Doss served in the Pacific Theatre with the 307th Infantry as a part of the 77th Infantry Division.[21] During his time in the service, Doss faced a significant amount of ridicule for his personal convictions and attitudes towards the war.[22] This would all change after Doss saved the lives of 50-75 men on top of Okinawa under heavy fire from an onslaught of Japanese attacks.[23] Later on, Doss would receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery and devotion to duty while at Okinawa.[24] Thus, the image of the conscientious objector began to take on a slightly different meaning to the general public. In other words, the CO could be socially accepted but only if they proved their worth directly in combat. Doss valiantly demonstrated his patriotism in battle by saving the lives of the men around him. To the American public, he was no longer an outcast because he had shown the country that he was not a lazy coward trying to get out of the war.

Unfortunately, a CO’s convictions were not widely considered legitimate unless there were direct actions that proved otherwise. Men like Henry Weber were sentenced to death because of similar refusals to serve in the capacity demanded by the United States government.[25] While Weber’s sentence was eventually reduced to five years in confinement, it is important to understand the difference in attitudes towards these two individuals.[26] Of course, Doss certainly earned his place in history and deserves to be recognized for his service to country but, the premise remains that COs were considered cowards until they themselves proved otherwise. This American consensus would prove to be a difficult obstacle to overcome as COs across the country attempted to uphold their moral principles while earning the respect of their fellow Americans at the same time.

A Misunderstanding: Religion and the Good War

The Selective Service and Training Act of 1940 was the first peacetime draft in American history.[27] With almost all COs considering themselves pacifists, the majority were directly opposed to conscription for combative services. In an attempt to avoid fighting on the front lines with weaponry, men began compiling evidence from local churches, professors, and family members to ensure that the draft boards gave approval for I-A-O classification.[28] Public scrutiny increased as fears arose over the idea that conscientious objector status was too easy to achieve. Some felt that men would begin taking serious advantage of the process in an attempt to avoid fighting in the war altogether.[29] As a result, those with legitimate religious convictions were put to the test and were forced to answer questions such as; “What would you do if your wife was being raped by an enemy?”[30] and “Whose job is it to protect these things you own and this girl you want?”[31] Even Hollywood got involved, producing movies with stars such as Gary Cooper portraying Alvin C. York as a dedicated and noble soldier fighting in the war.[32] Unfortunately for conscientious objectors, advocating against the use of violence made being perceived as a good citizen of the United States a difficult task, leading many to question their religious incentives to stay out of the fighting.

Many who applied for CO status did so because of the religious convictions that it was wrong to take up arms against one’s fellow man. One man who did so was a Trappist Monk by the name of Thomas Merton, who became widely known for his Christian work both during and after the war’s end. In his application for conscientious objector status, Merton discussed his desire to serve in the capacity that was aligned with his religious values.[33] Merton passionately expressed his willingness to serve on the front lines as a medic or digging latrines for the soldiers in the field.[34] Merton even addressed the notion of the slacker in his application, suggesting that the work of non-combatants should not be considered as lesser in value or worth. Contrary to public opinion, Merton felt that the CO had a place to serve during the war despite religious beliefs that seemingly distanced the group from all of the fighting and “important” work.

While Merton eventually become a Monk at Gethsemani in 1941 which resulted in an exemption from military service, he continued to support non-violence work throughout the Second World War as a part of the Civil Rights Movement.[35] Works such as “Letters to a White Liberal” in Seeds of Destruction discussed the prevalence of racial issues in American society and promoted a form of active listening to include the “other” in important conversations.[36] The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton included various forms of Merton’s poetry from the late 1940s and into the 1960s. One of these poems, “The Children of Birmingham” which was inspired by the black marches in Alabama in 1963, captured the essence of the struggle for black equality in a world dominated by segregation and white superiority.[37] His work during the war led many to consider him to be the conscience of the peace movement, and he inspired many others to follow in his footsteps.[38]

Merton continued to promote his religious values throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s during the Vietnam War, remaining an important voice against military conflict as a primary means for solving world problems.[39] According to Patrick O’ Connell, Merton was “one of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th century,” having been most successful as an essayist between the years 1958-1968.[40] In “Terror and the Absurd: Violence and Nonviolence in Albert Camus,” Merton discusses the confrontations and tensions between the Eastern and Western imperialist powers by referencing Albert Camus’ philosophy of absurdism.[41] When critics argued that confrontation between these two groups was inevitable, Merton used Camus’ logic to explain that cancer was also a reality, but that there is still a reason to cure it.[42] Based on Merton’s ideals, the only solution was through peaceful dialogue, which would help carve a path towards a more unified global culture centered around peaceful interaction and reciprocity.

Indeed, it is important to note that Merton did not suggest that the pacifist way of life was one based on critical judgment towards those who chose to serve their country. Instead, Merton and many COs alike were compelled to serve God in ways that were best aligned with their religious values. In their mind, whatever one was to do to another human would also be done to Christ and much like the soldier felt compelled to fight for country, the CO desired to serve God.[43] Merton’s passion for non-violent resistance and his emphasis on establishing a foundation for dialogue proved revolutionary for his time. Merton strongly believed that interreligious dialogue was important and felt that valuing other theological traditions was an important step towards a more peaceful society.[44] Unlike the majority of Americans who considered COs to be purely anti-war, there were many who protested personal involvement in the fighting but approved of others volunteering/abiding by the draft. Thomas Merton, religious objectors, and several peace churches believed that America had its reasons for being engaged in conflict overseas but felt that they could not actively participate in the killing of another man.[45] Many COs like Merton desired to find peaceful ways to resolve world conflicts and felt compelled to abide by their religious beliefs regardless of the circumstances. Therefore, religious COs were not set on dismantling the military establishment because of personal convictions. Had the government and public understood this at the time, perhaps the CO could have been more appreciated for their dedication and service to the country throughout the entirety of the war.

Merton continued to serve as a leader of the peace movement throughout the war and is still admired today decades after his passing. According to National Catholic Reporter (NCR) correspondent Heidi Schlumpf, Merton’s writings on interfaith relations, racism, and social justice are still relevant today over fifty years after his death in 1968.[46] In a 2105 speech to Congress, Pope Francis passionately spoke of the significance of Merton’s life-long mission to initiate peaceful dialogue between people from different cultural backgrounds stating, “When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue — a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons — new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility.”[47]

The Battle Against Jim Crow

While Merton represented one variety of a religiously motivated CO that refused to fight, Bayard Rustin represented another group known as the Quakers.[48] Rustin was one of the leading advocates of direct non-violent action against racial segregation in America. Rustin fought tirelessly for the rights of African Americans and helped promote domestic reform in a country that had done very little in regard to legislation for African Americans since ending slavery nearly a century before. According to Winter, African American men faced a perplexing issue revolving around whether or not to defend a country that was racially motivated to oppress them.[49] Rustin took this challenge head on and used the war as an opportunity to pursue an agenda with a Civil Rights platform.[50]

Rustin registered as a CO in October of 1940 but later decided in 1941 to resist and protest against conscription in its entirety.[51] As a result, Rustin was sent to prison for being an absolutist and never legally acquired the title of being a CO.[52] According to Rustin’s admission summary to the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky, he claimed to be a conscientious objector upon moral, religious, and political grounds.[53] As an African American man, Rustin felt that the end did not justify the means, which greatly revolved around the persistent segregation in the southern portion of the United States. Referring to the U.S. military as the “Jim Crow Army,” Rustin encouraged fellow colored men to resist the draft while drawing connections to the failures of the German citizens during the rise of the Third Reich. In reference to Hitler’s rise to power, Rustin claims, “Failure of the German citizens to resist antisocial laws from the beginning of the Hitler regime logically ended in their placing Jews in gas furnaces and lye pits.”[54] Rustin went on to suggest that individual resistance to undemocratic laws would have played an influential role in destroying Germany’s right winged Nazi Party.[55] In his opinion, African Americans needed to resist segregation in an effort to promote greater levels of equality, which must be completed through non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. In his essay “Civil Disobedience, Jim Crow, and the Armed Forces,” Rustin states:

I believe that American citizens would do well to ponder [these] remarks. Civil disobedience is urged not to destroy the United States but because the government is now poorly organized to achieve democracy. The aim of such a movement always will be to improve the nature of the government, to urge and counsel resistance to military Jim Crow in the interest of a higher law-the principle of equality and justice upon which real community and security depend.[56]

In other words, Rustin felt compelled to resist the draft because of his desires to inspire social change throughout America and not for cowardice, treachery, or general laziness which were traits commonly attributed to COs who “dodged” service overseas. Rustin felt that non-violent direct action was necessary to change laws and social order in America, and his 1943 letter to the draft board illustrates this approach:

Today I feel that God motivates me to use my whole being to combat by nonviolent means the ever-growing racial tension in the United States; at the same time the State directs that I shall do its will; which of these dictates can I follow-that of God or that of the State? Surely, I must at all times attempt to obey the law of the State. But when the will of God and the will of the State conflict, I am compelled to follow the will of God. If I cannot continue in my present vocation, I must resist.[57]

Rustin’s refusal to cooperate with the government landed him a three-year stint in prison where he would continue to work on his civil rights agenda.[58] While imprisoned, Rustin began a campaign to integrate prison dining rooms and chapels.[59] A Special Progress Report from the Federal Correctional Institution in 1945 labeled Rustin as an obstructionist and a rabble-rouser, more generally defined as an “institutional problem.”[60] Rustin continued to defy prison regulations in 1946 by initiating a hunger strike to protest the segregation of whites and blacks when eating and sleeping.[61] After being released from prison, Rustin volunteered as a 1947 Freedom Ride Organizer, bravely testing the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate interstate buses.[62] This challenge against the status quo and his refusal to abide by North Carolina’s Jim Crow Laws led to another prison sentence, this time in a county jail.[63]

By the late 1940s, Rustin was internationally recognized as an important pacifist and according to one Indian, was doing Gandhi’s work in North America.[64] Rustin continued to fight for racial desegregation after the war while President Truman was in office.[65] In July of 1948, the President signed Executive Order 9981 which officially ended segregation in the military. This was a significant victory for Rustin and fellow Civil Rights advocates who had remained outraged over the lack of desegregation in the military after Roosevelt passed Executive Order 8802 a few years prior.[66] As a representative for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC),[67] Rustin discussed peaceful ways for resolving world conflicts and received the Jefferson Award from the Council Against Racial Intolerance in America in 1948.[68]

Like many other COs during the war, Rustin was lumped into a category of “others” that were stigmatized by negative connotations that suggested inferiority. This misunderstanding prohibits the average American from seeing the value in the CO during the war. While not involved in direct combat overseas, Rustin was on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement in the 1940s, and his bravery led to an inspired generation of followers that would soon change the course of American history in its entirety.[69]

Civilian Public Service

During WWII, the United States was much more prepared to handle deferments on the basis of religious training or beliefs when compared to earlier systems used throughout the first war.[70] While a Gallup Poll showed that 50% of Americans believed that COs should be assigned to regular military service or thrown into prison, the 1940 Selective Training and Service Act found other ways for COs to serve.[71] The National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO) was in charge of operations at the Civilian Public Service (CPS), camps which consisted of work considered to be of national importance.[72] For the most part, several peace churches (Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren) were in charge of the costs at each Civilian Public Service camp, a tactic used to prevent the military from having control over the COs.[73] Of the 75,000 men that were classified as such, roughly 12,000 made their way to CPS camps to begin working for the government.[74]

Shortly after arriving at CPS camps, many COs began to question whether their work was of “national importance.” Frustrations in the camps grew as it became more apparent that the government had purposefully sent the CO workers off to isolated areas throughout the country, away from the public eye. To make matters worse, the CO was not paid a wage for their services, which led to the radicalization of several members who felt that the government was treating them unfairly.[75] Eventually Congressman Arthur Winstead of Mississippi weighed in, stating that the CO was just trying to get out of serving overseas and should therefore not be compensated accordingly.[76] In an attempt to re-establish some level of dignity while also serving in a way that they felt was valued, one group of COs in California began making toys for Japanese kids held up in internment camps.[77] Rumors began to spread that the CO population in the CPS camps were making guns for the Japanese people so that they could fight their way out of the camps.[78] A combination of racial tension and a hatred towards the pacifists eventually led to an investigation by the local police, again demonstrating the predicament that conscientious objectors found themselves in throughout the war.

On the contrary, not all COs at the CPS camps found themselves in the same situation, struggling to find meaningful work. Of the 12,000 COs, 240 were trained to be “Smokejumpers” to fight wildfires out west.[79] These brave men would jump out of planes to parachute into areas that were in close proximity to fires that had the potential to spread quickly. Contrastly, 3,000 others found themselves working closely with patients in mental hospitals after many of the employees had left to pursue war-related work.[80] Additionally, there were those that went a step further, risking their lives in unusual ways in the name of scientific research. Forty-eight COs volunteered to wear lice-infested underwear so that they may contract typhus while others attached boxes of mosquitoes to themselves so that researchers could closely study the effects of malaria on the body.[81] For these men, this was their version of the war and it was being fought in locations where the public had little to no idea as to what was going on. On the surface, the CO was nothing more than an outcast that had successfully wheedled their way out of serving overseas. But in reality, these misunderstood men were actively seeking out work that posed a great risk to their personal health, knowing full well that they would receive no financial benefits. CPS work did not offer compensation for injury or death, and as a result, many COs found themselves conflicted between upholding their moral principles while serving and taking care of their families. For those that chose to defend their pacifistic ideals, it hardly remains necessary to question the sincerity of their beliefs.

The Minnesota Experiment

In addition to individuals like Merton and Rustin, more anonymous groups of objectors contributed significantly to combatting the challenges of the post-World War II period by participating in Dr. Ancel Keys’ starvation experiments, also known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. In Leah Kalm and Richard Semba’s article in the Journal of Nutrition, they describe the purpose and objectives of Dr. Keys’ study which was, “to characterize the physical and mental effects of starvation on healthy men by observing them under normal (baseline) conditions, subjecting them to semistarvation, and then following them under conditions of rehabilitation.”[82] While Keys went on to receive international recognition, including his picture on the cover of Time magazine, these objectors never received their due despite playing a role in a landmark case on human starvation. They were not given any pay for their service and many experienced the effects for several years after the experiment officially ended.[83] Thirty-six participants were chosen from an original list of 200 applicants, all of whom were COs with a strong desire to serve in a greater capacity during the war.[84] One of these men, Marshall Sutton, openly discussed his passionate decision to put his life on the line while upholding his pacifist ideals.[85] Sutton felt that his participation in the experiment would be his version of fighting the war and he took the opportunity to be in the study very seriously.[86] Like many other COs, Sutton yearned for a sense of purpose, stating “Our friends and colleagues in other places were putting their lives on the line, and you know, we wanted to do the same.”[87] Successful completion in the experiment would be an accomplishment with extensive application in a post-war world where starvation was a serious problem.[88] To Sutton and his fellow COs, this was all the motivation they needed as they took on the challenge with pride and excitement. Many suffered from severe anxiety which led men like Samuel Legg to chop off his own fingers with an ax in an attempt to end his role in the experiment early.[89] In spite of all this, Legg and the rest of the thirty-five COs pushed through the pain, literally starving themselves to death so that others could hopefully live.[90] The great risk to their health served an indispensable purpose after the war and symbolized the ways in which the CO population was willing to sacrifice for their country while keeping a firm hold on their moral values. As a result, the Minnesota Starvation Experiment exemplifies the true nature of the CO as an earnest self-effacing patriot that strongly desired to serve in a capacity that considered personal convictions and the country’s best interest simultaneously. While the Minnesota Experiment was a success with real-world implications for decades to come, it failed to recognize the CO as an important component of the study through their selfless service and noble sacrifice.

A Different Kind of Status: Women and the CO

Pacifist women, who were not eligible for CO status because only men were impacted by the draft, had to forge a different path to voice their objections to the war. After all, it was only the men that were being drafted, jailed, or sent to CPS camps across the country. Indeed, women who objected to the war could have averted public scrutiny by using society’s gender bias to hide their critique. That many women did not use said excuse, is significant. In an effort to identify themselves as participants of the CO movement, these women began openly questioning the government’s stance on war and defying social expectations.[91]

Of particular interest was a peace activist by the name of Margaret Calbeak Neal who pushed back against the notion that the war was being fought to end the Holocaust; she said, “At the time, everyone except my pacifist friends seemed to be in favor of the war. We now know that our government’s reasons for entering it were not as idealistic as then claimed. If we really cared about Hitler’s oppression of the Jews, why did we refuse to admit that boatload of (Jewish) refugees?”[92] In an attempt to amend immigration restrictions, the American Friends Service Committee and U.S. section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom tried to convince President Roosevelt that the Jewish refugees should be admitted to the country.[93] While the request was ultimately denied by Congress, it is important to recognize the ways in which women pushed back against governmental regulations and practices during the war.

Furthermore, pacifist women found themselves to be active proponents in the Civilian Public Service camps and many of them followed their loved ones to work stations in an attempt to play a more active role in supporting the pacifist cause.[94] In total, 1500 women travelled all over the country to serve as dieticians or nurses in the camps while promoting racial justice, gender equality, and peaceful alternatives to war along the way.[95] Consequent to their actions, plain dress among the Amish and Mennonite CO populations became a symbolic image of resistance to a culture that stigmatized noncompliance.[96] In 1941, the Washington Evening Star posted an article suggesting that, “smart women deck(ed) themselves with jewel-studded ‘V’ pins, ‘V’-necked dresses, ‘V’-hats and ‘V’ bags.”[97] This suggested that the culturally non-compliant woman was “not smart,” which is best categorized as an effort by the local media to further ostracize the CO populations scattered throughout the country.

Not only were women belittled because of their CO affiliations and beliefs, but they were blatantly discriminated against as well. In one particular case, a woman interviewing for a position at an Ohio school was denied employment because of her husband’s affiliation with a CPS camp. In a letter to her spouse about the interview, she wrote:

He (the superintendent) asked me many questions until finally, ‘What does your husband do?’ And immediately on hearing that you were at camp he said he couldn’t use me…He believes that peace groups have gotten up into this trouble-kept us from being prepared…He was calm and quiet throughout, and did allow me to answer his statements-which I did as well as I could. He ended by writing ‘CO’ in the corner of my application and saying that he believed we probably thought alike about many things but that our basic philosophy on this subject was entirely different (as it certainly is).[98]

Women were continually denied employment opportunities which made supporting their families difficult, especially for those that had husbands serving in the CPS camps where federal policies barred CPS workers from receiving allotments and paychecks.[99]

Yet, CO women found ways in which they could fight back through the use of non-violent resistance and education. Maude Swartzendruber and Verna Zimmerman founded the Mennonite Nurses’ Association (MNA) to emphasize nursing as a form of Christian service.[100] These women attempted to find ways to educate Mennonite women on how they could serve without participating in the military by, “formulating a program for Mennonite nurses as COs during a wartime crisis.”[101] This program became all the more urgent in 1945 when President Roosevelt pondered the idea of having nurses enlist to address shortages in the military, which led to CO advocation for alternative service aimed specifically at those that conscientiously opposed war.[102]

 Overall, CO women were not focused on fighting the military establishment at every cross and turn, nor were they cowardly in their actions to promote peaceful service. Instead, these women felt that they needed to contribute in a way that was different and more aligned with their consciousness. Much like their male counterpart, CO women objected to war but felt that they could partake in work of national importance. Also, like the women who went to work in munition factories or other war-related industries, these women stepped outside of their comfort zone to pursue a cause that they believed in. Rather than take the easy way out, CO women pushed for peaceful alternatives to war, symbolizing the genuinely passionate convictions of a group largely forgotten on the American Home Front.

The Big Picture

The CO population was largely stigmatized because of a national patriotic fervor that created a wave of momentum towards traditional military service. In other words, able-bodied men were expected to serve on the front lines while receiving aid from those in supportive roles. Anyone who defied these expectations and standards was immediately deemed an outcast in an attempt to prevent others from following in their place. Draft Boards scrutinized anyone requesting CO status in an attempt to ensure that no one took advantage of the process to avoid fighting or serving overseas. As a result, CO status conflicted with being a culturally assimilated and respected citizen of the United States of America. To many, the CO represented an “other” that was anything, but an American patriot and this stereotype remained prevalent for decades to follow.

Yet, as described throughout this paper, the CO was more than an “other.” Men and women throughout the country found ways to serve while abiding by their personal pacifistic convictions. A few COs found themselves serving overseas in support roles that did not require a rifle, including as combat medics and truck drivers. Corporal Desmond T. Doss proved his bravery after saving the lives of countless men at Okinawa in Japan. Religious leaders such as Thomas Merton inspired followers while promoting non-violent resistance along the way. Others battled Jim Crow laws in an attempt to end racial segregation that had plagued the United States for almost a century since the end of the Civil War. Many traveled to CPS camps throughout the country to complete work for the government of national importance, with some risking their lives in the process. Some even volunteered for dangerous experiments with unknown consequences in the name of scientific progress. Pacifistic women began speaking up so that they could support their CO companions in an effort to find peaceful alternatives to war. Despite their efforts, the conscientious objector minority faced rampant ridicule and abuse during the war which resulted in much of their work being left unnoticed. In an attempt to bring attention to the “other,” this paper sought to explain their significance to a war that tested their physical and mental fortitude. COs served their country valiantly and did so knowing full well that they would receive little to no credit along the way. Despite being a country that was founded upon the principles of a free society, COs were mistreated and belittled for their beliefs. Some were thrown in jail while others were suspended or put on leave from their employers. Yet, the CO persevered and continued to find ways to serve their country while upholding the moral standards that they valued most. In the end, the CO population should be remembered for their earnest commitment to their beliefs which directly contradicts the perception of conscientious objectors by Americans during the World War II era.


Primary Sources

“Admission summary for Bayard Rustin.” Federal Correctional Institution Ashland, Kentucky. April 6th, 1944. Accessed April 14th, 2019.

Feld, Rena. “From the Interviewer’s Perspective: Interviewing Women Conscientious Objectors.” Oral History 31, no. 1 (2003): 29-37.

Goldstein, Richard. “Desmond T. Doss, 87, Heroic War Objector, Dies.” The New York Times. March 25th, 2006.

“‘Bayard, Rustin, ‘Letter to the Draft Board,’ 1943.’,” n.d.

Kellogg, Walter Guest. The Conscientious Objector. New York: Roni and Liveright, 1919.

Mary Alice Alexander to Howard Alexander, 1 June 1942. DG 56, Series I, Box 5, SCPC, quoted in Goossen, Rachel W. Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947. London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Merton, Thomas. “Application for Conscientious Objector Status – March 1941.” Merton Annual 28, (November 2015): 24-29. Accessed November 14, 2016.

“Policies of the Mennonite Nurses’ Association,” 1942. Minute Book Mennonite Nurses’ Association Records. VII-20, AMC, quoted inGoossen, Rachel W. Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947. London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Selective Service Regulations, Volume III, Classification and Selection, 1940. Accessed April 12th, 2019.

“Special Progress Report for Bayard Rustin, January 1945.” Federal Correctional Institution Ashland, Kentucky. Accessed April 14th, 2019.

Thomas Merton’s Life and Work.” The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Accessed March 12th, 2019.

Newspaper Sources (listed in footnotes):

Altoona Tribune

The Courier-Journal (Louisville-Kentucky)

The Gazette and Daily

The Guardian (London)

The Minneapolis Star

The Philadelphia Inquire

The Oregonian

Secondary Sources

Bateman-House, Alison S. Compelled to Volunteer: American Conscientious Objectors to World War II as Subjects of Medical Research. Columbia University, 2014.

“Bayard Rustin: The Inmate that the Prison Could Not Handle.” National Archives: Rediscovering Black History. Accessed April 14th, 2019.

Blum, John M. V was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II. San Diego, CA: Harvest Book, 1976.

 Carbado, Devon W. Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. New York: Gleis Press, 2015.          

Chin, Richard. “Remembering the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. The Washington Times. November 24th, 2014. Accessed April 15th, 2019.

Goossen, Rachel W. Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947. London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Gullace, Nicoletta. The Blood of Our Sons: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Kalm, Leah M., and Richard D. Semba. “They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment.” Journal of Nutrition 135, no. 6 (June 2005): 1347-1352. Accessed November 13, 2016.

McElwee, Joshua J. “Francis, citing Day and Merton, pushes Congress to pursue common good.” National Catholic Reporter. September 24th, 2015. Accessed April 13th, 2019,

Merton, Thomas. Introduction to Thomas Merton: Selected Essays. Edited by Patrick O’ Connell. New York: Orbis Books, 2013.

Sareyan, Alex. The Turning Point: How Men of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America’s Mentally Ill. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1994.

Schlumpf, Heidi. “50 years after Merton’s death, maybe we’re finally getting him. National Catholic Reporter. December 7th, 2018. Accessed April 13th, 2019.

 Tucker, Todd. The Great Starvation Experiment: Ancel Keys and the Men Who Starved for Science. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Winter, Timothy S. “Not a Soldier, Not a Slacker: Conscientious Objectors and Male Citizenship in the United States during the Second World War.” Gender & History 19, no. 3 (November 2007): 519-542. Accessed November 13, 2016.

Zahn, Gordon C. A Descriptive Study of the Social Backgrounds of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service During World War II: Abstract of a Dissertation. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1953.


[1] A conscientious objector (CO) is a term used by the Selective Service System in reference to anyone who refuses to serve in the Armed Forces and/or bear arms because of religious or moral reasoning.
[2] Selective Service Regulations, Volume III, Classification and Selection, 1940, accessed April 12th, 2019, retrieved from
[3] In Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947, Rachel Goossen suggests that many men and women identified as conscientious objectors despite not being labeled as such by local draft boards. All women that considered themselves to be COs were self-identified because there was no legal basis for CO status by the government’s standards and regulations.
[4] To limit the scope of the CO to governmental definitions and technicalities fails to consider important figures that redefined patriotic service during the war on similar moral grounds. From religious leaders and civil rights activists to women, objection to war was founded on pacifistic ideals, but took the form of a movement centered around the CO.
[5] While the addition of self-identified COs to the equation undoubtedly increases the overall percentage, there is no polling data to suggest what those numbers specifically look like.
[6] The CO was not considered to be a part of the Greatest Generation according to Brokaw’s recount of World War II in The Greatest Generation. Prominent historians such as Howard Zinn have countered this argument by suggesting that the CO deserves to be recognized much more for what they brought to the table during the war.
[7] Walter Guest Kellogg, The Conscientious Objector, (New York: Roni and Liveright, 1919), 64.
[8] Kellogg, The Conscientious Objector, 61.
[9] Kellogg, The Conscientious Objector, 64.
[10] Gordon Charles Zahn, A Descriptive Study of the Social Backgrounds of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service During World War II: Abstract of a Dissertation (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1953) 1.
[11] John Morton Blum, V was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II (San Diego, CA: Harvest Book, 1976) 60.
[12] Alison S. Bateman-House, Compelled to Volunteer: American Conscientious Objectors to World War II as Subjects of Medical Research (Columbia University, 2014), 134.
[13] In Alison Bateman-House’s dissertation Compelled to Volunteer, she references a Social Rejection Thermometer Scale which measures how American citizens felt about COs during the war (page 135).
[14] Alison S. Bateman-House, Compelled to Volunteer: American Conscientious Objectors to World War II as Subjects of Medical Research (Columbia University, 2014), quoted in Matt Sabo, “Standing Against the Flood,” The Oregonian, November 18, 2001.
[15] Timothy Stewart-Winter, “Not a Soldier, Not a Slacker: Conscientious Objectors and Male Citizenship in the United States during the Second World War,” Gender and History 19, no. 3 (November 2007): 520, accessed October 14, 2016,
[16] Alex Sareyan, The Turning Point: How Men of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America’s Mentally Ill (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1994), ix.
[17] Leo P. Crespi, “Public Opinion toward Conscientious Objectors: III. Intensity of Social Rejection in Stereotype and Attitude,” The Journal of Psychology, 19:2 (1945), 251, DOI: 10.1080/00223980.1945.9917231.
[18] Crespi, Public Opinion, 251.
[19] Statistical research and data prove that the CO was an outcast in American society. However, Crespi’s research (as cited in Rachel Goossen’s Women Against the Good War) suggested that while disliked by many, the CO was not as widely hated as originally expected. In 1943 and 1944 for example, Crespi found that three-quarters of Americans surveyed nationwide favored wages and family allotments for COs that were assigned to CPS camps. Interestingly enough, Crespi found that those who expressed these opinions felt that they were in the minority.
[20] Richard Goldstein, “Desmond T. Doss, 87, Heroic War Objector, Dies,” The New York Times, March 25th, 2006,
[21] Goldstein, “Doss.”
[22] Goldstein, “Doss.”
[23] Goldstein, “Doss.”
[24] H.A. Brandborg, “A Contrast in Treatment,” The Minneapolis Star, 8 November, 1945,
[25] Brandborg, “Treatment.”
[26] Weber refused to obey government orders because of political reasoning which was not protected in the same way as religious objectors were as defined by the draft board regulations at the time.
[27] Winter, “Not a Soldier,” 519.
[28] Winter, “Not a Soldier,” 521. I-A-O classification allowed COs to serve in the military in non-combative occupations (medical, transportive, etc.).
[29] This fear played a role in how the CO was viewed by the American public as a slacker that attempted to take advantage of the draft board system.
[30] Winter, “Not a Soldier,” 527.
[31] Rachel W. Goossen, Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 (London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 29.
[32] Sergeant York was a 1941 film that symbolized the nobility of serving in the American Army. York’s religious beliefs and desire to serve his country were conflicted in ways that greatly resemble the struggle of the CO during WWII.
[33] Thomas Merton, “Application for Conscientious Objector Status – March 1941,” Merton Annual 28 (November 2015): 29, accessed November 14th, 2016,
[34] Merton, “Application,” 29.
[35] “Thomas Merton’s Life and Work,” The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, accessed March 12th, 2019,
[36] George Kilcourse, “Merton,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville-Kentucky), 8 February, 2015,
[37] The local police attacked the black marchers with dogs and hoses before arresting and sending them to prison. Merton’s poetry served as a method for capturing important moments like this one so that it could inspire others to follow suit. Other marches adhered to similar guidelines and represented a sort of Gandhian approach to non-violent protest.
[38] “Thomas Merton’s Life and Work,” Merton Center.
[39] While voicing his opinion that non-violence was the only way he could serve God, Merton did believe that he could join the American military, so long as it was non-combative in nature.
[40] Patrick O’ Connell, Introduction to Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, edited by Patrick O’ Connell (New York: Orbis Books, 2013), iii, x.
[41] Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, edited by Patrick O’ Connell (New York: Orbis books, 2013), 364. Absurdism refers to a term by the French Philosopher Albert Camus who believed that there was no meaning to existence but that humans will always seek to understand life’s purposes.
[42] Merton, Selected Essays, 364.
[43] “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” as quoted in the Holy Bible served as a guide for many COs during the war.
[44] Schlumpf, “50 years after Merton’s death.”
[45] In a similar light, Merton recognized that the “black power” movement was violently anti-liberal. Yet, Merton chose not to patronize the movement in an attempt to push for non-violent measures. Instead, Merton stayed true to his own religious convictions without stirring controversy with groups of differing interests, much like he chose not to pass judgment on those who fought in a war filled with violence and death.
[46] Heidi Schlumpf, “50 years after Merton’s death, maybe we’re finally getting him,” National Catholic Reporter, Dec. 7th, 2018, accessed April 13th, 2019,
[47] Joshua J. McElwee, “Francis, citing Day and Merton, pushes Congress to pursue common good,” National Catholic Reporter, September 24th, 2015, accessed April 13th, 2019, retrieved from
[48] Quakers believe that war and violence are against God’s wishes, and therefore promote non-violent measures for solving conflict.
[49] Winter, “Not a Soldier,” 526.
[50] Winter, “Not a Soldier,” 526.
[51] Bayard Rustin, Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, edited by Devon W. Carbado (New York: Gleis Press, 2015), 11.
[52] During WWII, absolutists were known as men who refused to cooperate with the government in any way that benefited the armed forces. As a protester against the war on religious and socio-political grounds, Rustin is best categorized as an absolutist that went to jail for his conscientious objection to the war. In total, 6,000 men would go to prison for similar beliefs, 70% of them Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[53] “Admission summary for Bayard Rustin,” Federal Correctional Institution Ashland, Kentucky, April 6, 1944, accessed April 14th, 2019, retrieved from
[54] Rustin, Crosses, 30.
[55] The Nazi Party rose to power in 1933 and is the year Adolf Hitler was appointed as the Chancellor of Germany.
[56] Rustin, Crosses, 30.
[57]   “‘Bayard, Rustin, ‘Letter to the Draft Board,’ 1943.’,” n.d.
[58] Rustin would be arrested on 22 occasions throughout his life, of which several he was sent to prison for.
[59] Carbado, introduction to Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, xvi.
[60] “Special Progress Report for Bayard Rustin, January 1945,” Federal Correctional Institution Ashland, Kentucky, accessed April 14th, 2019, retrieved from
[61] “Bayard Rustin: The Inmate that the Prison Could Not Handle,” National Archives: Rediscovering Black History, accessed April 14th, 2019, retrieved from
[62] Benjamin Lowe, “Civil-rights leader’s activism made impact on the world,” The Philadelphia Inquire, December 12th, 2002,
[63] “White, negro, convicted of violating N.C. jim crow bus seating law,” The Gazette and Daily, 22 May, 1947.
[64] Carbado, introduction to Crosses, xix.
[65] Carbado, introduction to Crosses, xxi.
[66] President Roosevelt issued executive order 8802 in 1941 which outlawed discrimination in all areas of employment except the military. This outraged Rustin even though many of his friends considered this to be a victory for people of color.
[67] The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was founded in 1917 and worked for peace and social justice on a global scale.
[68] “Bayard Rustin to lead forum,” Altoona Tribune, 14 March, 1952,
[69] The Civil Rights Movement would take off in the 1950s and 1960s, as prominent leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. organized peaceful protests in pursuit of greater equality in America.
[70] The American government was not prepared to handle conscientious objectors during World War I. In order to be recognized as a CO, a person had to belong to a specific church which limited the opportunities for men to avoid combative service. In an attempt to more appropriately employ COs during WWII, the government enacted much different policies. The creation of the CPS camps was one of several changes made to ensure that CO deferments were managed appropriately by government officials.
[71] Rachel W. Goossen, Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 (London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 17.
[72] Goossen, Women, 20.
[73] Goossen, Women, 26.
[74] Winter, “Not a Soldier,” 521.
[75] According to a CPS worker and Professor of History by the name of Arthur A. Ekirch Jr., the churches and government methodologies for running the camps became a serious issue for some of the individual COs. Some became cynical in response to the lack of pay which led to issues with cooperation and non-compliance.
[76] Goossen, Women, 51.
[77] Goossen, Women, 39.
[78] Goossen, Women, 39.
[79] Tucker, Starvation, 46.
[80] Tucker, Starvation, 46.
[81] Tucker, Starvation, 46. “Chapter 5: Men of Peace and the Search for the Perfect Pesticide: COs, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Typhus Control Research” in Compelled to Volunteer: American Conscientious Objectors to World War II as Subjects of Medical Research provides an in-depth analysis of the ways in which COs participated in typhus experiments during World War I and II.
[82] Kalm, “They Starved,” 1348.
[83] Tucker, Starvation, 46.
[84] Kalm, “They Starved,” 1347.      
[85] Kalm, “They Starved,” 1351.
[86] Kalm, “They Starved,” 1351.
[87] Kalm, “They Starved,” 1348.
[88] Millions of people around the world were having difficulties acquiring the food they needed to survive. The refeeding process refers to the ways in which these populations should slowly go about introducing more calories into their diets with the help of outside organizations and aid.
[89] Tucker, Starvation, 169.
[90] The COs used the motto “we starved so that others could live” as a way of motivating themselves to continue on with the difficult experiment. The experimentees hoped that their sacrifice would help with the starving populations in Europe and Asia, which had large populations of people suffering from severe nutritional deficits.
[91] Goossen, Women, 2. Women began self-identifying as COs in an effort to join the movement against war, violence, and mandatory conscription. In “From the Interviewer’s Perspective: Interviewing Women Conscientious Objectors,” Rena Feld discusses the ways in which women joined the efforts of the CO to push for other solutions besides fighting in wars.
[92] Goossen, Women, 13. In this quote, Neal is referring to a situation in 1939, when the St. Louis tried unsuccessfully to dock on American shores while transporting a group of European Jews. According to Neal, America’s failure to welcome these Jews in a time of need made her question the motives of the U.S. being involved in the war in the first place. While not directly involved in the effort to get the refugees admitted, Neal did bring attention to this subject both during and after the war.
[93] Goossen, Women, 13.
[94] Goossen, Women, 15.
[95] Goossen, Women, 69.
[96] Goossen, Women, 62.
[97] Goossen, Women, 63.
[98] Mary Alice Alexander to Howard Alexander, 1 June 1942, DG 56, Series I, Box 5, SCPC, quoted in Rachel W. Goossen, Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 (London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 67.
[99] Roughly 15% of the women at the CPS camps were paid as staff members.
[100] Goossen, Women, 77.
[101] “Policies of the Mennonite Nurses’ Association,” 1942, Minute Book Mennonite Nurses’ Association Records, VII-20, AMC, quoted in Rachel W. Goossen, Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 (London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 77.
[102] The war ended a few months later which ended the conversation over whether or not women would need to be drafted to serve in the military as nurses.

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