Conscientious Objectors during WWII
"This is a war story. It was not meant to
be. It started as a love story,
the story of a marriage, but the
war has stuck to everywhere like
shattered glass. Not an ordinary
story of men in battle, but of
those who did not go to war. The
cowards and shirkers; those who
let an error keep them from
their duty, those who saw it and
hid, those who stood up and
refused it, even those too young
to know that one day they would
rise and flee their own
country... The story of those
men, and of a woman in a window,
unable to do a thing but watch."
- The Story of a Marriage.
spoil the story to reveal too
much about the plot of The
Story of a Marriage, but the
war and not going to war figure
prominently throughout, in
different incarnations and
different wars, including a
conscientious objector in WWII.
We mostly associate conscientious objectors with the Vietnam War, not so much with "The Good War". But even as America united nearly wholly with the good vs. evil characterization of WWII, there were still men whose religious and ethical beliefs prevented them from killing other human beings. Most objectors belonged to traditionally pacifist religions like the Quakers, Mennonites and Jehovah's Witnesses, but there were also Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and others, including some who objected for political and ethical reasons.
70,000 men applied for conscientious objector status during WWII, but The Selective Service Act of 1940 only allowed men to legally defer for religious reasons. A little over half of the men who applied for CO status received it. Known as conchies, they were given a choice of noncombatant service in the Armed Forces, as unarmed medics or chaplains, or they could enlist in alternative service, as road-builders, fire-fighters, attendants in mental institutions, subjects in medical experiments, or working in Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps. The CPS camps were formed in an unusual collaboration between the traditional peace churches (Quakers, Bretheren, Mennonites) and the US government, providing the first legal alternative service to combat for COs. Many men worked in the camps for the duration of the war, working 9-hour days, six days a week, of hard labor, for which they were not paid. In fact, they were expected to pay the government for their room and board, but church communities paid the fees for most of their COs who could not afford to. Many families of COs were left in dire poverty, shunned by their communities and extended families.
While the government viewed the camps as a way to keep the COs out of sight, the peace churches initially envisioned them as utopian pacifist communities. When much of the labor turned into pointless busywork, some COs chose to leave the camps in protest and join the 6000 COs who were imprisoned in jails. During WWII one of every six men in US prisons was a draft resister who had not received legal CO status or who refused to engage as noncombatants in the armed forces or work in the CPS camps. Still, many remained in the camps, and fostered emerging ideas about nonviolent protest, some becoming leaders in the civil rights and social justice movements in the decades to come.
"We had Ph.Ds, we had winners of Fulbright prizes, we had guys who had a third-grade education, we had stockbrokers, we had ballet dancers, we had atheists, we had fundamentalists...every possible kind of human being was there....And that made it a fascinating place to be." - Steve Cary, WWII CO
Interesting Link: A PBS sub-site about conscientious objectors during WWII, including a brief history of conscientious objection in the USA, which traces all the way back to the Founding Fathers themselves, such as Quaker pacifist William Penn.
This article was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the
March 2009 paperback release.
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