Skip to content Skip to navigation

They Served Without Weapons

More than sixty years ago, war was declared as the result of an attack on Hawai`i, then a territory of the United States. Although that declaration was widely supported by people throughout the country, there were those who opposed any war, popular or not, and were unwilling to compromise their principles. These conscientious objectors were dubbed "conchies" and treated with hostility and contempt by many Americans. Their experiences are suitable to reflect upon in the current political atmosphere.

In 1940, the U.S. Congress enacted a conscription bill, of which one provision allowed people opposed to being trained for combat to be excused. They could either serve in noncombatant situations in the army or in projects called "work of national importance under civilian direction." Those who refused service in either category were subject to imprisonment. Three of the so-called "peace churches"--Church of the Brethren, the Mennonite Church, and the Religious Society of Friends--undertook administration of Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps for non-governmental work projects to be carried out by conscientious objectors (COs).

The CPS men engaged in numerous activities. Some camps operated for the benefit of the U.S. Forestry Service and other federal agencies. Some men were permitted to work on farms. Approximately 2,000 worked in mental hospitals or training schools for people with disabilities. Another group volunteered to participate in "guinea pig" experiments. They allowed themselves to be infected in a variety of ways, exposed themselves to starvation experiments, and took newly created medicines. One man died from being involved in an infantile paralysis experiment. The men perceived many of these jobs "of national importance" to be ridiculous.

Other work such as that undertaken in mental hospitals resulted in better treatment for patients and raised public consciousness about conditions in such institutions. Reforms were made in the hospitals, and eventually, growing out of this work, was creation of the National Mental Health Foundation, which outlasted the era of Civilian Public Service.

Early in the war, it was hoped that CPS men would be permitted to serve abroad. British Quakers sponsored a Friends Ambulance Unit in China, and plans were made to send CPS men to serve in it, along with men from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. A rider attached to an army appropriation bill prohibited conscientious objectors from serving abroad. Seven of eight COs were recalled from South Africa, where they were well on their way to join the team in China. The rider was approved primarily because of resentment toward COs by members of Congress and their constituents. It passed despite efforts of legislators who did not wish to prohibit useful voluntary work abroad for such individuals.

Such frustrations drove many individuals in the CPS units to acts of defiance. Walkouts, slow-downs, and strikes occurred. Quaker administrators were caught in the middle. In early 1946 after the war's conclusion, the AFSC ended its administration of CPS camps because it was opposed to maintaining the camps in a time of peace. At no time did the U.S. government pay salaries to CPS men or support their families, as it did for families of those who served in the armed forces.

Even before the end of the CPS camps, vocational counseling was offered to many men. Some Quaker colleges offered scholarships to them, and special loans were made so some men could go into business. Any who were qualified and wished to serve abroad were selected for Quaker service projects. A number of CPS men took the opportunity to do such service and carried out valuable and useful work in war-stricken countries. Many men became valued staff members of the AFSC, which never again cooperated in administering any programs for COs. It did, however, offer a number of alternative service positions for people in later generations who opposed undergoing combat training in the armed forces.

Some 12,000 men who did not wish to take the lives of others during World War II served in CPS. The work they accomplished was useful and contributed to the well-being of many thousands of people.


Researched and written by Jack Sutters.

Compassion in Action Matching Gift Challenge

Your gift will be matched from now until Nov. 18.
Give to the Compassion in Action Matching Gift Challenge from now until Nov. 18 to double your impact.

Give Now →