By the Center on Conscience & War

Conscientious objection is as ancient as the book of Psalms and as current as the young man turning eighteen today who will not register for the draft. The history of conscientious objection in America represents one chapter of the larger history of opposition to war which stretches back to man’s first days as a free thinker. American conscientious objection is a rich and fascinating chapter of that history. As a country open to diverse traditions and committed to liberty, America has been fertile ground for expressions of individual conscience. In fact, many immigrants to this country came here not only for political and religious freedom and economic opportunity, but also to escape conscription in their home countries. Unfortunately, we, as Americans, have not always been as tolerant of such expressions as our professed ideals call us to be.

Many of the first Europeans who came to America did so to escape forced military service against their beliefs. These were mainly members of pacifist religious sects, sometimes called peace churches, the largest being the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren. As colonial America took shape, these groups stood out as active, law-abiding segments of society that were unshakably committed to nonviolence. The Friends, Mennonites, Brethren, Shakers, Christadelphians, and other small sects would not drill with local militias or join fellow settlers in building forts and battling Native Americans.

To the exasperation of their neighbors, members of the Church of the Brethren were known to follow the anabaptist principle of non-resistance even in the face of attacks from Native Americans. A Pennsylvania historian records one occasion: “After the massacre of thirty of them in less than 48 hours, Colonel Piper . . . made a stirring appeal to them. But it was of no avail; they were non-resistants, and evidently determined to stay such.”1 So strong was Brethren opposition to violence that when one member of their sect killed two Native Americans who attacked him in his mill, his fellow Brethren boycotted the mill in protest.

The Friends, perhaps the most visible of these pacifist groups, made public statements of conscientious objection even before the Revolutionary War. In 1672, a group of New York Friends informed officials that “being in a measure redeemed of wars and stripes we cannot for conscience’ sake be concerned in upholding things of that nature.”2

These early experiences set up a pattern in American history. At first objectors were persecuted for refusing to fight; they were cursed as heretics, whipped, and required to pay stiff fines for not joining militias. Gradually, as they remained firm in their nonviolence and it was obvious that no persecution could induce them to fight, American society grew more tolerant. Citizens came to respect the pacifist position, and by the mid-1700s most colonies had laws exempting “men of tender conscience” from any requirement to bear arms.

This tolerance decreased as the colonies began the Revolutionary War; this decline was another stage in the recurring pattern of tolerance for conscientious objection. Most colonists were eager to use force to free themselves from England, and interpreted patriotism as service in the local militia. While members of the pacifist sects may have been equally eager for freedom, they did not compromise their nonviolent convictions. The Friends wrote that “we would have joined with our fellow citizens in peaceful legal resistance to [England] and have suffered.for the principles of liberty and justice. But we do not believe in revolutions and we do not believe in war.”3

In the heat of war this conscientious stand was seen as cowardice and was punished. Some thought that most religious objectors were objecting to war not because of scruples, but because it was more convenient for them. Those who would not fight were required to pay an annual fee for this privilege—and the amount went up as the war escalated. Objectors who could not or would not pay had lands and property seized. In a few cases, pacifists were dragged from their homes into military units. In one instance, 14 Quakers taken this way had muskets tied to their bodies.4

War fever eventually ebbed as America went about the business of building a new nation. Conscientious objectors (COs) continued their quiet witness and once again gained an increased measure of acceptance. Most of the state constitutions that took shape included exemption from military service for those religiously opposed, although they often required paying a fee or hiring a substitute to fight instead.

Many objectors thought that paying such fines was aiding the military (see absolutist conscientious objector), and was as immoral as fighting. The Church of the Brethren discussed the fines during their Annual Conference of 1815 and agreed to support any of their members who refused to pay. The Shakers officially protested the practice of fines in a document submitted to the New Hampshire legislature in 1818:

In all free governments it is acknowledged as a self-evident truth that the liberty of conscience is an inalienable right; consequently no human authority has a right to claim any jurisdiction over the conscience . . . We therefore . . . do exhibit our consciencious (sic) scruples and objections to bearing arms, hiring substitutes, paying fines or rendering any equivalent whatever in lieu thereof, since all contribute to support the same cause.5

Pacifist religious groups were not the only ones concerned about the rights of conscience. Many governing officials of early America supported conscientious objection. It is a little known fact that a conscientious objector clause was nearly included in the Bill of Rights.6 Even during the War of 1812, opposition to conscription was so strong that when Secretary of War James Monroe proposed a national military conscription bill, Congress rejected it. Daniel Webster, speaking to the House of Representatives in 1814, insisted that the “abominable doctrine” of conscription “foully libelled” the Constitution:

Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from the parents and parents from their children and compel them to fight the battles of any war in which the folly or the wickedness of Government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden . . . to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty?7

Webster’s plea was based on liberty and not pacifism, which reflected a broadening of the concept of conscientious objection taking place in 19th-century America. Previously, conscientious objection had been a religious phenomenon, limited to small groups who asked only that their members’ scruples be honored. But by the mid-1800s, individuals outside the peace churches argued for conscientious objection based on ethical reasons, and wanted to influence others to think the same way.

Henry David Thoreau was one of the most influential of these thinkers. Thoreau was a New England writer, naturalist, military tax resister, and outspoken critic of the 1846 Mexican War. His “Essay on Civil Disobedience,” maintaining that it is an individual’s duty to society to resist immoral laws, was a major influence to thought on conscientious objection.

As more Americans came to understand conscientious objection, the country headed into civil war and the first national draft. When the “Enrollment Act” was passed in 1863, mass protests occurred, including three days of intense “draft riots” in New York City. Nevertheless, conscription of eligible men began in both the North and the South. The draft law made no provision for exemption of conscientious objectors, but the conscripted did have the option of paying a fine for a substitute.

Quakers and other pacifist groups had been working nonviolently to end slavery for decades, and were not willing to compromise their nonviolence because the government had decided on a military response. Most peace groups objected even to paying fines for substitutes. Resistance was strong enough that in 1864 Congress said members of peace churches could serve in hospitals or work for freed slaves instead of fighting.

Even with this exemption, pacifists were frequently forced into military units, particularly in the South as the need for soldiers grew desperate. At the same time, the number of absolutist conscientious objectors grew as a reaction against alternative service that was always under military command in military hospitals.

The peace sects supported the absolutist position as one conscientious response, but the general public, in the heat of war, was unsympathetic towards conscientious objectors in general. Interestingly, though, President Lincoln was extremely sympathetic towards COs. In fact, he told Secretary of War Stanton that unless these people’s religious scruples were respected, the Union could not expect the blessing of heaven.8

It is during this period that truly brutal treatment of COs first became frequent. Both COs who were forced into the army and absolutists who would not do alternative service were subjected to imprisonment and torture. An example is found in the diary of a Quaker, Cyrus Pringle, who was drafted into the Union Army, but who would not fight, obey military orders, or serve in a military hospital. Pringle and two other Friends were repeatedly threatened, tied spread-eagle to the ground for hours, and kept in the guard house without food. He wrote, “Here we are in prison in our own land for no crimes, no offense to God nor man; nay, more we are here for obeying the commands of the Son of God and the influences of his Holy Spirit.”9

Another Quaker objector, Seth Laughlin, was tortured brutally by soldiers for a week and finally sentenced to death by a military firing squad. As twelve soldiers pointed their guns at him and the officers who had ordered the execution looked on, Laughlin asked for one final prayer, and calmly said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Historian Fernando Cartland records the response:

Strange was the effect of this familiar prayer upon men used to taking human life and under strict military orders. Each man, however, lowered his gun, and they resolutely declared that they would not shoot such a man, thereby braving the result of disobeying military orders. But the chosen twelve were not the only ones whose hearts were touched. The officers themselves revoked the sentence.10

Dramatic incidents like this reveal that although COs were small in number (an estimated 1,500 at most throughout the Civil War), they had a profound effect. During the Civil War we find the first public statement —from conservative publication Harper’s Weekly, oddly enough—that members of peace churches should not be given special treatment over COs from other denominations.11 While officially the CO exemption was still limited to those from traditional peace sects, the idea of conscientious objection was broadening and outgrowing the laws.

In the early 1900s, pacifism was a philosophy supported by much of the American public. Even as America entered World War I, pacifist voices protested from positions of influence. Some of the strongest protests came from leaders in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, nearly ruined her political career by voting against America’s declaration of war, accompanying her vote with a statement of peace.

Much of the public may have silently agreed with Ms. Rankin. Some historians suggest that both the decision to enter World War I and the conscription act of 1917 would have been defeated if they were submitted to a public referendum. And while many peace groups remained strong opponents of the draft and the war, the pressure to conform was great and dissent was attacked. Other peace organizations decided that war was unavoidable and backed the U.S. administration. The Selective Service Act provided only a narrowly defined exemption for conscientious objectors from established peace churches to perform non-combatant service.

Many individuals and groups resisted draft registration: peace churches, members of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), and other political groups. Members of the Christian Molokans, a pacifist group that had emigrated from Russia to escape conscription, held worship services outside registration offices as a witness to their religious resistance.

Those conscientious objectors who did register and were drafted found themselves in military camps under military direction, even those who were granted CO status. Many objectors could not in conscience perform non-combatant service, so the camps were full of absolutist objectors who were treated very harshly. Selective Service eventually appointed a three-member Board of Inquiry to travel to the camps and judge the situation of “uncooperative” objectors, but the board did not always prove up to this task. One board member told an objector he must “stand up and fight or be shot.”12

Some absolutist objectors were granted farm furloughs or were assigned to relief services in France. And while the government unofficially broadened CO policy to include ethical objectors outside the peace churches, many men were still subject to brutal treatment in military camps and inhumane conditions in military prison.

More than 500 conscientious objectors spent time in the military prisons of Fort Jay, Alcatraz, and Leavenworth. Accounts of their treatment report intense beatings, hangings from the ceiling, and confinement in “the hole” (solitary confinement) without food or water. Those who refused prison orders were, as a regular practice, manacled to their cells in a standing position and fed only bread and water. Four Hutterians at Alcatraz were kept manacled and naked in their “dungeon” for rejecting military uniforms. Two of these youths contracted pneumonia and died; one body was shipped home in military uniform.13

Even though they were from diverse backgrounds, COs encouraged and supported each other. When the Molokans at Leavenworth were confined in solitary, Evan Thomas, a philosophical objector, organized a work strike in solidarity with the Molokans, and soon all solitary cells were filled with striking objectors.

A survey of the sentences COs received reveals the vindictive view the government developed in this period: 86 jail terms of more than 24 years, 142 life sentences, and 17 sentences of execution.14 But the objectors were just as determined. A letter from an objector at Camp Pike forced to haul rocks while his feet were in iron shackles, said: “They will never know where I get my strength, but it comes, and that freely. They think they can break me, but the more they lay on me the stronger that inner man gets and the happier I become.”15

The “War to End All Wars” did cause many young people to be drawn to pacifism and to question whether they would fight again. Yet pacifist societies were still rather weak and disorganized. Individual conscientious objectors, though, continued to argue their cause. A political objector and atheist named Louis Fraina challenged the narrow view that conscientious objection must stem from traditional religion, asking the Court of Appeals, “Since when must a man necessarily belong to a church.before he can have a conscience?”16

Another objector, Hungarian pacifist Roszika Schwimmer, protested the American policy that forbade her to become a U.S. citizen because she would not bear arms for her country.

In 1940, America’s youth were again asked to register for the draft. With the brutal treatment of COs during the last war in mind, pacifist and civil liberties groups sought to secure basic rights of conscience before a draft began. At hearings on the Burke-Wadsworth conscription bill, groups ranging from the Socialist Workers Party to major Christian denominations testified that conscientious objectors must be respected and treated justly. It was at this time that the historic peace churches formed the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO). The purpose of NSBRO was to serve and protect the rights of conscientious objectors, as remains true today for NSBRO’s successor, the Center on Conscience & War (CCW).

As a result of the work of NSBRO and other groups, objectors could obtain some exemptions from military service. Exemption was allowed for men who “by reason of religious training or belief” objected to participation in all warfare. The Selective Training and Service Act, while it did not require that a CO belong to a pacifist sect, did require that the objector have a religious basis for his objections.

The act also allowed for alternative service outside the army—an improvement over World War I—but selective objectors and absolutist objectors were almost always denied CO status.

Even COs who fit into the requirements of the act were viewed with hostility by a country that wanted to believe that everyone was behind the war effort. Rep. Jeannette Rankin, the sole member of Congress to vote against declaring war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, was politically ostracized and publicly insulted. Other individuals and groups who opposed the war, such as the Catholic lay leader Dorothy Day and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, were similarly maligned.

Nevertheless, resistance to war emerged in the same strong spirit of World War I, and 75,000 men filed for CO status. Even many with automatic draft exemptions, such as Lutheran minister Jim Bristol, refused to register and willingly faced jail time. Altogether there were 15,758 convictions of draft law violations throughout the war, including objectors who were denied CO status, and absolutist objectors who would not work in their assigned camps.

There were many COs who objected on principle to the Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps. Although run by the historic peace churches, the camps were under government authority, and while the work was technically non-combatant, many perceived it as part of the war effort.

Catholic CO Gordon Zahn described how the CPS “chain of authority” stretched from camp directors to NSBRO and Selective Service in Washington, where the “civilian nature of the direction was diminished if not lost altogether.”17 NSBRO’s role in administering alternative service was controversial, for many felt NSBRO was too accommodating to Selective Service, and that the CPS arrangement represented a “sell-out.”

Life in CPS camps was rigid and oppressive, involving long hours of manual labor under military-like discipline. Throughout the country, 11,950 conscientious objectors fought fires, planted trees, built dams and roads, dug ditches, and filled other needs. If the government had paid the workers by military standards it would have given out $18,000,000. But even those in the camps with families to support received no wages, a policy that Selective Service admitted was designed to discourage people from becoming COs.

Some objectors felt the best way to witness to their beliefs was by serving in the camps with a willing spirit, but others saw CPS as an immoral extension of the military system, which must be resisted. Camp officials called cooperators “second mile men” and resisters “men against the state.”

Many men went beyond the absolutist position of refusing to work and developed active resistance movements within the camps, with the goal of abolishing CPS. Their tactics included public statements, a resistance conference in Chicago, and a mass work strike. Objectors also used similar measures to seek reforms in the camps. Resistance became so widespread and effective that the government developed a special camp, Germfask, for “troublemakers.”

While resisting war, COs made many contributions to society. Objectors who provided desperately needed care in mental hospitals helped expose inadequacies and enact reforms in the treatment of mentally ill people. The National Mental Health Foundation was established by conscientious objectors. Non-combatants also gave invaluable medical aid, and one received a Congressional Medal of Honor for brave service.

In the years following the war’s end, conscientious objectors were misunderstood and discriminated against, as states tried to pass laws forbidding COs from holding public office or owning property.

At the same time, pacifism grew in the latter half of the century. Traditional peace churches remained at the forefront, joined by social, political, and philosophical movements, Christian and Jewish denominations, and individual men and women. In 1948, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors was formed to assist COs whose beliefs fell outside the legally proscribed category of conscientious objection.

A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation was an extremely influential voice, particularly in his essay, “Of Holy Disobedience,” urging total resistance to the military system. Muste went beyond Thoreau’s view of civil disobedience as a societal duty to describe “holy disobedience,” which, in the face of an evil like conscription, “becomes a virtue and indeed a necessary and indispensable measure of spiritual self-preservation.”18

Muste’s timely essay was published in 1952 when conscientious objectors again faced demands to serve the state. From 1948 to 1952, COs were allowed total exemption from service, but in 1952, as the Korean “police action” raged, conscription again required that those drafted must perform either military or alternative service. This time, though, alternative service was handled much more liberally. From 1952 to 1972, COs generally chose their own placements, subject to approval by the Selective Service.

This alternative service arrangement and the fact that the Korean conflict was never declared a war probably decreased war resistance. Although important groups and individuals opposed the fighting, the number of men who did not register for the draft was low, and just one percent of those drafted for Korea were classified COs.

Two factors caused an upsurge of war and draft resistance, starting in the late 1950s. Opposition to nuclear weapons, which groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation had

championed through the Cold War years, blossomed into a popular movement. Even more significantly, America’s participation in the Vietnam War, from 1959 to 1972, was the catalyst of widespread war resistance. This unpopular war drew a conscientious “no” to fighting not only from religious pacifists and political liberals, but also from mainstream American youths, minorities and disadvantaged groups, and even from those within the military.

Conscientious expression went beyond the thousands who acquired CO status and performed alternative service. Many young men also took an absolutist approach by not registering at all, or by burning their draft cards. Many others became “draft dodgers” by fleeing to Canada or by finding doctors who opposed the war and would sign medical releases so they would not have to serve in the military.

Alternative service for COs did not involve CPS camps during this war. Most of the service was in hospitals, with pay usually lower than that of drafted privates, and with no veterans’ benefits.

There was an upsurge in support for COs, with protest rallies, sit-ins, acts of civil disobedience, and public worship drawing women and men of all ages, clergy, veterans, and public officials.

Some of those public officials were longtime pacifists like Jeannette Rankin and members of the peace churches, and some were newer to conscientious objection: student leaders, child-care authority Dr. Benjamin Spock, Catholic priests Phil and Daniel Berrigan. Civil rights leaders Julian Bond and Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged young men, particularly blacks, to resist the war; for this action, Bond was nearly barred from the Georgia legislature.

The Vietnam War caused two changes in this country’s way of thinking about conscientious objection. First, because of the range of people opposing conscription, conscientious objection was finally broadened to include objectors for reasons outside traditional religious beliefs. The Supreme Court’s 1965 decision in U.S. v. Seeger, reinforced by the 1970 Welsh decision, defined “religious” beliefs as any sincere conviction of ultimate importance in one’s life.

The second change was an increase in the number of “selective objectors,” people conscientiously opposed to the Vietnam War, but not necessarily to all war. Since selective objectors had no legal protection, they had to become draft dodgers or lie to get CO status. Three U.S. Army privates brought suit against Secretary of Defense McNamara, claiming they would serve anywhere but in the “illegal and immoral” conflict of Vietnam. Many selective COs went to federal prison for their beliefs.

By 1972—for the first time in U.S. history—more registrants were claiming CO status than being inducted into the Army. The draft ended in 1973. Yet the specter of war continued during the Cold War years, and draft registration was reinstated in 1980. At the same time, conscientious objection continued to expand its boundaries, including those who argue that war is wrong because of its destruction of the environment, and those who practice conscientious objection because of America’s nuclear policy and its potential for the destruction of all people. Military tax resistance, protests and civil disobedience, disarmament studies, and the increased involvement of major churches all became facets of conscientious objection.

The U.S. involvement in the Gulf War, which began in 1991, caused renewed problems for conscientious objectors serving in the military. With rapid troop buildup in the Persian Gulf, the processing of CO claims came to a halt. In many cases, conscientious objectors on active duty in reserve units had to wait to have their CO claims processed until they reached their “duty station,” which was often a posting in the Persian Gulf. One Army sergeant who became a CO was jailed for refusing to work.

Yet by May 1991, as many as 2,000 military members had applied for discharge as conscientious objectors. During the war, which ended in March 1991, COs who applied for discharge were told they could not get the discharge unless they went to the Persian Gulf. Many instead left their military units or refused to work, and were arrested for disobeying orders, desertion, or being Absent without Leave. Some received jail sentences ranging from one month to 40 months. Many more were given punitive discharges, reductions in rank, and fines.

The Gulf War proved that countries do not need to call for a national draft to fight a war, and, at least in America today, the conscientious objector is likely to be a member of the military. As many as 100 service men and women each year realize that war is wrong and apply for dismissal as conscientious objectors. Not surprisingly, they are not always treated fairly or told of their legal rights as COs. Organizations such as the Center on Conscience & War exist to provide this information to COs both civilians and members of the military.

At the same time, the world is coming to realize that conscientious
objection must be recognized and respected. In fact, millennium ceremonies included the acknowledgment of conscientious objection as a “human right”—the first time in human history that it has been formally recognized on a worldwide basis. With modern technology changing the nature of warfare, this larger recognition is essential: conscientious objection must be a worldwide mission.