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The time was World War II. The U.S. government had not devised a way to deal with the thousands who, for reasons of conscience, would refuse to fight. Eager to avoid a repeat of the harsh treatment their young men had experienced during World War I, the Historic Peace Churches (Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren) fashioned a program acceptable to their peace convictions--and the highly militarized U.S. government. It is an earthy story, full of personal struggle, government red tape, humor, and loss--an unusual experiment in church-state relations.
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Chapter 1 -- No Room for COs
John Yoder finally realized the war was over when he topped the hill and saw the farm spread out below, an oasis of peace in a world which had known only war and violence for six years. The farm seemed unchanged since his departure four years before. The world had changed, however, and so had he. Four years ago he had been a simple farm boy. He was no longer that, but he was not sure he could tell in what ways he had changed, who he had become.
The train carrying him to Hill City, South Dakota, in 1942 had been crowded with noisy young men in military uniforms. His civilian clothes confirmed his draft orders--he was a conscientious objector, a CO. His destination was a Civilian Public Service camp. CPS #57 was a work camp for conscientious objectors who refused to participate in World War II.
John remembered his feelings of fear and awe as he carried his suitcase from coach to coach in search of a seat. That train had been an alien world which he had never encountered before. The isolated quiet farm had not prepared him for his four-year adventure in Civilian Public Service.
He was not an accidental conscientious objector. He had been taught, and believed in a fuzzy sort of way, that war and violence were against the spirit and purpose of God. The church community to which John belonged was not just objecting to this war; his people had objected to and refused to serve in any war for 400 years. Their objection was seldom expressed in rhetorical moral terms. Instead, for them it was a collision of two communities: the prevailing society which claimed to manage the world, whose failure seemed to often erupt in war, and the little community of Mennonite Christians intent on putting into practice the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It was the clash of those two communities, both claiming complete loyalty from John, which had put him on the train to Hill City, South Dakota. John had chosen the alternative program of his faith community.
The "Good War"
World War II was not an easy war for COs. It carried none of the ambiguity of the Vietnam War. It was, as Studs Terkel has put it, the "Good War," a clear case of good versus evil, freedom versus tyranny. On what possible basis could one choose not to fight against Hitler and the evil he represented? It was a hard call for many pacifists and most elected to fight the Nazis.
Of 34,506,923 men who registered for the draft during World War II, only 72,354 applied for conscientious objector status. Of those, 25,000 accepted noncombatant service in the army; that is, they were soldiers who agreed to work in the Medical Corps or in any military work which did not involve actual combat. Another 27,000 failed to pass the basic physical health examination.
A total of 6,086 were imprisoned for their refusal to participate in any form of service whatsoever. Of those, 4,441 were Jehovah's Witnesses whose refusal was based primarily on their claim of ministerial exemption. Beyond Jehovah's Witnesses, only 1,645 persons refused any of the alternative provisions of the law.
Just 12,000 conscientious objectors chose the only other alternative available: to engage in "work of national importance" under civilian direction, the Civilian Public Service program.
The number of conscientious objectors in World War II was exceedingly small. One might have expected far more, for a powerful pacifist movement had developed in the 1930s, with hundreds of thousands of adherents. The pacifists had vowed to oppose war as a means of solving international disputes by refusing to do military service. Thus, when war came in 1939, many military planners and politicians assumed they would face major problems in recruiting soldiers. They expected large numbers of conscientious objectors. As it turned out their fears were largely unfounded. Most of the vocal pacifists of the 1930s disappeared when the war began, and the expected wave of conscientious objectors never materialized.
But even small numbers of conscientious objectors can cause problems for governments at war. During World War I there were fewer than 2,000 absolute conscientious objectors, but they created big headaches for the American army. The conscription law had recognized religious conscientious objection to war but left to the President and the War Department the decision of what to do with the conscientious objectors. As a result, COs were drafted into the army and posted to military camps with the hope that many of them would decide to adopt noncombatant service. [continued]
Table of ContentsTable of Contents
Chapter 1 -- No Room for COs
Chapter 2 -- Legislating a Policy for Conscientious Objectors
Chapter 3 -- Designing Civilian Public Service
Chapter 4 -- "Work of National Importance"
Chapter 5 -- Mental Health
Chapter 6 -- Social Work
Chapter 7 -- Life in an Alternative Community
Chapter 8 -- The Price of Conscience
Chapter 9 -- A Wife's Story
Chapter 10 -- Map of CPS Camp Sites
Chapter 11 -- Civilian Public Service Camp
Chapter 12 -- A Gallery of Photos
Chapter 13 -- About the Author