In August 1941, Selective Service drafted my grandfather to serve as a combatant in World War II. My grandfather was one of 43,000 drafted men who refused to bear arms for the United States government and claimed conscientious objector status during the war. The government responded to these war resisters by placing them in alternative service or in prison.
I became aware at an early age that schools often present an uncomplicated and incomplete account of United States history. On the one hand, my academic courses, buttressed by the popular media, taught me a simple story about World War II as a conflict of “good versus evil.” In this story, U.S. citizens unanimously support their government’s “good war” against fascism. On the other hand, my grandfather taught me about the struggles of conscientious objectors and the contention surrounding the government’s involvement in the war. Although conscientious objectors held diverse views about violence, war, and social change, many argued that violence is fundamentally immoral and an ineffectual means for creating a peaceful and just world. They agreed with A.J. Muste, a prominent nonviolent social activist, that “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” Furthermore, COs argued that tyranny at home should be fought before tyranny abroad, and that racial and class inequalities in the United States were manifestations of a fundamentally violent and unjust society.
Today, as an aspiring social studies teacher, I am working to develop strategies that more clearly reveal historical complexities that textbook-driven curricula typically undermine. World War II conscientious objection is a perfect example.
The Story and its Discontents
The 43,000 draftees Selective Service classified as conscientious objectors were categorized within three sub-groups: those who served as noncombatants in the military (approximately 25,000); those who worked in Civilian Public Service (CPS) (approximately 12,000); and those imprisoned by the U.S. government for refusing to register for the draft or refusing to serve in alternative service (approximately 6,000). My grandfather served as a CO in Civilian Public Service.
Of the 21 texts recommended by the College Board for AP U.S. history courses that I reviewed, only three mention World War II conscientious objectors. Houghton Mifflin’s The Enduring Vision devotes one paragraph to CO history out of a 28-page chapter on World War II. Houghton Mifflin’s A People and a Nation also offers a single paragraph on conscientious objectors out of an 18-page chapter. Longman’s The American Nation devotes a single sentence to conscientious objectors out of its 21-page chapter. The other 18 texts reviewed suggest, by omission, that war resisters were completely irrelevant to the conflict. Twelve of these, slightly more than half of my sample, indirectly legitimate this absence by arguing that the U.S. citizenry unanimously supported the war. W.W. Norton’s America, for example, claims that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor “silenced America’s debate on neutrality, and a suddenly unified and vengeful nation prepared for the struggle.”
As a result of this inadequate coverage, textbook accounts of World War II COs fail to address two important aspects of the CO experience. First, textbooks do not address the harsh treatment COs received from the federal government and the civilian population. Indeed, Longman’s The American Nation claims, without evidence, that COs “met with little hostility” during World War II. This claim is an outright falsehood.
The government imprisoned roughly 6,000 men who refused to cooperate with Selective Service because of their beliefs. Cynthia Eller, in Conscientious Objectors and the Second World War, states that these objectors accounted for one sixth of the federal prison population and could serve prison terms up to five years and be fined up to $10,000. The United States government imprisoned conscientious objectors for refusing military induction, refusing service in CPS, refusing draft registration, or for walking out of service. Even recalcitrant COs in CPS were sometimes imprisoned. If released, a CO could be imprisoned again for refusal to cooperate with Selective Service. For example, Dave Dellinger, a lifelong champion of nonviolence, was imprisoned twice during World War II for draft resistance. During this period, Dellinger consciously embraced a life course dedicated to peace and social justice advocacy, one that he anticipated would be filled with sacrifices like those he endured as a conscientious objector.
Although treated more generously than COs in prison, COs in Civilian Public Service were also victims of government hostility. For example, Selective Service abdicated financial responsibility for its COs, forcing them, without a stipend, to pay for expenses like work clothes, linens, toiletries, furlough travel expenses, tobacco, and dental care. Furthermore, the government did not provide COs in CPS with the same post-war benefits given to military servicemen. COs did not receive financial assistance for housing, education, or job training even though they served similar terms of government-conscripted service as military combatants. As a result, soldiers and COs re-entered civilian life on a significantly unequal footing, reflecting the government’s unequal valuation of violence and non-violence, obedience and disobedience.
Conscientious objectors also faced hostility from civilians. In his book Exercise of Conscience, Harry Van Dyck recalls that he was harassed with verbal invectives like, “You goddamn COs should all be shot.” COs were also segregated from public establishments. Some stores posted signs that explicitly told COs to “keep out.” In some cases, COs were also publicly burned in effigy. In 1942, a Florida public school teacher was fired because the state Supreme Court argued that his CO status compromised his ability to “exemplify … principles of patriotism and Christian virtue.” In a less publicized incident after the war, my grandfather was not allowed to teach Sunday school in the Baptist church that he and his family attended. The church council decided that his CO status made him an inappropriate role model for Christian children.
A second aspect of the CO experience that textbook companies do not present is the accomplishments and sacrifices of conscientious objectors during the war. Students do not learn about the 25,000 COs who risked their lives as medics on battlefields, and as other noncombatants, to care for the well-being of U.S. soldiers. Students do not learn about the COs in civilian public service who fought for the humane treatment of the mentally ill while serving in mental health hospitals. Students do not learn about the COs who participated in dangerous medical experiments, which included starvation and being infected with typhoid and hepatitis. Nor do students learn about imprisoned COs who went on hunger strikes, beginning in the Lewisburg penitentiary in 1943, to desegregate the federal prison system.
These conscientious objectors served their country as nobly as any military combatant. They worked to end injustices in the United States, and they did so while adhering to principles of non-violence. Exposing students to this history teaches them that there are other means for expressing their patriotism than through violence and aggression.
CO treatment in U.S. history textbooks is part of a trend in textbooks to ignore the history of social justice activists who protested and resisted war. There is limited attention paid to abolitionists and workingmen who protested the Mexican War, arguing that the war was an attempt to expand the power of Southern slaveholding elites. There is limited attention paid to socialists who challenged World War I as a manifestation of U.S. imperialist ambitions. There is limited attention paid to the peace movement of the 1930s, which, on April 22, 1936, resulted in 500,000 students across the country mobilizing for an “anti-war strike.” Textbooks also silence prominent individuals who have denounced war. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, is celebrated as a civil rights activist of the 1950s and early 1960s. But he disappears from textbooks when he protests the Vietnam War and the destructive interconnection between “war, poverty, and racism.” Through scant attention and outright omission, these voices of nonviolence and resistance are silenced. Furthermore, we lose a sense of the injustices that have been perpetrated and the humane advocacy and organizing that has been done to overcome them.
Without a thorough representation of CO war resistance, World War II remains the U.S. government’s militaristic poster child, an incontestably just and unanimously supported war. As a result, World War II becomes a myth that can be used to suppress the history of pacifism in the United States. The myth can also be used to suppress the atrocities committed on U.S. soil that COs protested during a war against fascism and oppression abroad. Further still, a mythologized World War II can be used to legitimate future military aggression. A political leader need only associate a potential enemy with Hitler and the Nazis to raise public support, which can lead the nation into conflicts that, like the Iraq War, have dubious motives. Indeed, the Bush administration used this myth generously in its militaristic foreign policy rhetoric. The administration equated Saddam Hussein and the Taliban with Nazis and it framed Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil,” drawing on the World War II rhetoric of an Allies vs. Axis conflict.
By adequately addressing conscientious objection, teachers can illuminate the possibilities and challenges of struggling for non violence and liberty during periods of intense militarism. Today, students can look to these war objectors for inspiration in their own pursuit of a more just and compassionate world.
American Civil Liberties Union (1943). Conscience and the War. ACLU. This short volume contains an excellent legal history of WWII conscientious objection with passages that could be easily extracted for classroom use. It also contains a moving testimony from an African American man who was imprisoned for his draft resistance.
Ehrlich, Judith and Rick Tejada-Flores (2000). The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It. Bullfrog Films. This 60-minute documentary provides a history of World War II conscientious objection beginning with the 1930s peace movement. It also contains first-hand accounts from COs, including Bill Sutherland and Dave Dellinger, who served in federal prisons and CPS.
Mascari, John (2006). “Conscientious Objectors in World War II.” Friends Journal, December. An accessible and concise history.
Van Dyck, Harry (1990). Exercise of Conscience. Prometheus Books. A readable history of World War II conscientious objection and a valuable first-hand account of life and work in CPS.
Zinn, Howard (1981). A People’s History of the United States. HarperCollins. Zinn’s chapter on “A People’s War?” contains valuable statistics and a brief analysis of conscientious objectors and other forms of military resistance.