Pacifism in America, part two: Refusing the “good war”

Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2019

In the aftermath of the First World War, called at the time “the Great War” (but only briefly, since it was eclipsed by the war that soon followed), pacifism (as in the principled opposition to war) emerged with unprecedented prominence. Five new pacifist organizations were founded. Their influence remained small in the big picture of American society, but at the end of the 20th century each one remained active and fruitful.

Interwar pacifism

These five organizations—American Friends Service Committee, Catholic Worker, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Mennonite Central Committee, and War Resisters League—represented distinct streams of philosophy and practice. They do not exhaust the varieties of pacifism, but did reflect a wide spectrum—from the explicitly Christian and confessional character of the CW and MCC to the explicitly non-religious WRL with the more ecumenical AFSC and FOR somewhere in between.

Even with their diversity, these five pacifist streams shared important characteristics. Each of them, in its own way, rejected the assumption that the only two options in response to evildoing are to fight or to flee. At the heart of the appeal of America’s warist policymakers to their country’s citizens has been an implicit assumption that military force is the first-choice option for dealing with international conflicts. All too often it was the only option considered. The other part of the appeal for support and participation in warfare has been the articulation of high ideals for democracy and civilization and self-determination. These ideals provided the motivational bases for engaging in warfare—and tend to be linked with an assumption that military force is necessary to achieve those ideals.

Our pacifist groups challenged those war-supporting assumptions on several levels. They generally agreed with the ideals of democracy that underwrote the propaganda in favor of American participation in World War II. However, they rejected the assumptions of “fight or flee” in response to wrongdoing and of the necessity of using war in order to achieve the ideals of self-determination and disarmament. In fact, these pacifists argued that war is incompatible with democracy. They believed the ways democracy had been achieved in the past several centuries had been in spite of warfare, not because of it.

Probably the main commonality all five groups have shared from their inception is the conviction that constructive work in the world is possible, that ideals such as self-determination and disarmament are worth pursuing and may be pursued fruitfully—and that this work may be (indeed must be, to be truly fruitful over the long run) nonviolent.

When our state (appropriately) challenges us to take up the moral task of helping further democracy, we still have options about how we will do that. The option of seeking to fulfill this moral task through warfare has in fact proved to be deeply problematic in practice. Instead of being an agent for the spread of genuine democracy “everywhere on earth” as promised by those who accepted the necessity of involvement in the world wars (and numerous other small wars), the American nation-state has instead all too often been an agent for massive violence and injustice. It has thereby undermined possibilities of the peoples of the earth finding self-determination and disarmament.

The story of active nonviolence shows that the path of warfare and nation-state violence is not the only possible way to take up the moral task of helping to further social health. The 20th century, the “century of total war,” nonetheless (and not coincidently) has also been the century where the principled rejection of warfare expanded beyond what the world had ever before seen (see Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People). In the 1920s and 1930s, for the first time, large numbers of diverse people (going way beyond the Peace Churches) stated publicly that should their nation go to war they would not participate. Of course, when war did actually come, most of these professed pacifists did end up supporting and even participating in the War—but not all. And towards the end of the century, American opposition to participation in the Vietnam War pushed the government to call an end to conscription, with the strong likelihood that it will not return.

Along with the rejection of warfare, and the willingness of increasing numbers to embody that rejection by suffering if necessary, the 20th century also saw the unprecedented expansion of two different powerful types of nonviolent action: (1) nonviolent activism for social change inspired by the philosophy and practice of Mahatma Gandhi and (2) widespread investment in relief and development work explicitly undertaken out of pacifist convictions by organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and Mennonite Central Committee.

Before expanding their peacemaking work, however, American pacifists were forced to live through the dark times of all out warfare. By the late 1930s, the likelihood of large scale war seemingly increased by the day. Many politically engaged pacifist Americans spoke against American participation in such a war. These pacifists rejected the arguments of the isolationist strand of American neutralism because they did not accept the notion of “America First.” Rather, they rejected the idea that warfare could genuinely solve the problem of international conflict.

They had been among the first to raise concerns about Nazism—especially rejecting the tendency among American and British business and political leaders to welcome the Nazis as a bulwark against Communism. These internationalist pacifists recognized the evils of Hitler’s philosophy and practice and challenged the American economic interests that were linked closely with German Nazism. However, the pacifists also feared that efforts to meet Nazi militarism with a military response would likely only lead to the victory of militarism, not democracy.

Negotiating with the state

It has been estimated that in 1938 the peace movement in the United States had twelve million adherents and an income of over one million dollars per year. However, with the advent of World War II, the vast majority of those twelve million came to support the War as at worst a necessary evil. The loss of pacifists’ influence can be illustrated by the sudden change of heart among the leaders of the Methodist Church. In May 1939, they proclaimed that the Church “would never officially support, endorse, or participate in war.” A mere nineteen months later, they affirmed that “the Methodists of America will loyally support our President and our nation” as it enters World War II.

Ultimately, when the pressure became acute, for most American Protestants nationalism in 1941 exerted more influence than a Christian ethical system that told them that war was always wrong. Many so identified the United States as a Christian nation that they assumed that the will of God would be mediated through the leaders of the country. Historically, little precedent existed for Christians actually saying no to a particular government calling on them to support a war. So it stood to reason that a peace movement within Christian churches would lose its influence once people actually faced a choice where serving their country could require rejecting their ethic of peacemaking.

Once it became clear that the United States would go to war, the energies of the remaining pacifist leaders increasingly turned toward working to secure adequate provision for conscientious objectors (COs). This especially characterized peace church leaders, including the previously politically withdrawn Mennonites. Representatives from the peace churches had begun meeting together in the mid-1930s to plan for what seemed to them to be the high likelihood of the government beginning conscription. Their concern from the start included not only their own members, but also religious pacifists of other denominations, as well as absolutist objectors who refused both non-combatant and alternative service.

When draft legislation passed on August 28, 1940, under the label of the Burke-Wadsworth Bill, its provisions disappointed many pacifists. Nonetheless the peace churches and their friends did effect some changes in the draft vis-à-vis World War I. Four of the major advances included: (1) CO status, while still being tied to religion, no longer required affiliation with a recognized peace church. This meant, most obviously, that any religious pacifist could be a CO. But it also meant that lenient draft boards (of which there were a few) that understood “religion” in a broad way could recognize all pacifists who applied for CO status, even those not affiliated with any kind of organized religion. (2) COs could now appeal local boards’ classification to the national Selective Service. (3) The law explicitly made provision for alternative service to include work “of national importance” that would be under civilian control and not related to the military. (4) Prosecution for draft law violation would be handled by the Federal Court system and not military courts.

The law allowed for alternative service of a civilian character, but included nothing regarding the nature of that service, leaving resolution of that to the “discretion of the President.” The law said nothing about how the work would be financed and whether, and if so, how, the COs would be compensated for their work. In retrospect, bases for discord existed from the beginning. The establishment of the Selective Service as the ultimate supervisor of the alternative service program, called Civilian Public Service (CPS), placed a serious contradiction at the heart of the program.

On the one hand, idealistic COs and the Service Committees of the three peace churches saw CPS as a means for witnessing against war, growing in their pacifist beliefs and practices, and performing meaningful humanitarian service of genuine “national importance.” On the other hand, the Selective Service from the very beginning pragmatically sought to avoid any lessening of national unity in support of the War. Selective Service “tolerated” COs because it perceived that not to do so would hinder its primary mission—to draft soldiers to fight in the War. So, though Selective Service willingly allowed for COs, it did so with the basic attitude of keeping COs out of sight and out of mind. To allow the COs freedom of action and a public role (as, for example, might have happened through foreign relief service) had the potential, in Selective Service’s eyes, to alienate the vast majority of American citizens who “willingly made sacrifices” (see Mulford Q. Sibley and Philip E. Jacob, Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940-1947).

The first CPS camps opened in May, 1941. The first few months of the program saw morale at its highest level. The entire dynamic of the situation changed in early December 1941, with the entry of the U.S. into World War II. Public opinion strongly favored fighting the war—a poll on December 10 showed only two percent opposed to entry. Certainly, by implication, public opinion appeared very unlikely to have much sympathy for those whose convictions forbade them to fight. The American churches, even those most influenced by the interwar peace movement, rallied to the flag.

The CPS program greatly expanded during 1942. Along with the growth in numbers came an increasing dissatisfaction with the CPS program. COs who had entered CPS with hopes of doing “meaningful” work unhappily found themselves relegated to farm and forestry projects. By March 1942, CPS began to create “detached service” projects. By the end of the War the majority of CPSers served in these projects rather than remaining in the “base camps.” Selective Service limited the options available for detached service due to perceived public opinion constraints. Working as attendants in mental hospitals became by far the COs’ most popular detached service option.

The issue of church cooperation with the government in carrying out the draft emerged as increasingly fraught. Eventually, those opposing such cooperation—representatives of the Federal Council of Churches, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and War Resisters League—all withdrew from involvement in the CPS program, leaving it to the Peace Churches to administer. At the very end of the war, AFSC also withdrew.

The existence of CPS did not keep COs out of jail. By the end of the War, the government imprisoned nine times more COs than it had in World War I, three times more in proportion to total draftees. Tellingly, those who refused induction on pacifist grounds received more severe treatment than other types of draft evaders, receiving lengthier sentences, being liable to being re-imprisoned upon release if they still refused induction, and simply being more apt to be prosecuted.

With the conclusion of the European war in May 1945 and the Asian war in August, CPSers could now see the end in sight. However, Selective Service only very slowly began to demobilize CPS. Despite early hopes that CPSers would be demobilized at the same rate as the military, they were not, partly because Congress insisted that soldiers get priority. On March 29, 1947, the CPS program formally ended.

Not only did the CPS program meet with much less governmental tolerance and freedom than initially envisioned by its founders, it also ended up costing the Peace Churches and other supporting groups much more money than initially estimated. The Peace Churches expected the government to pick up part of the tab for administering the camps, especially for those CPSers not members of a Peace Church, and COs expected to be required only to give one year of service. As events proved, except for the few government camps established more than halfway into the War, the Peace Churches and other church groups provided all the administrative funds for CPS, an amount that totaled over $7 million for the three Peace Churches. Small donations from generally rural people with limited financial resources provided most of this money.

Varieties of pacifism

The five main streams of pacifism during this time had somewhat different responses to the events of the War (see Ted Grimsrud, “An Ethical Analysis of Conscientious Objection to World War II”). The Mennonites (along with many Quakers and Brethren) tended toward what I call the “servant tendency.” Most of them welcomed the option of performing “work of national importance” as an alternative to fighting and strongly supported the CPS program. Not quite 50% of the 12,000 young men who were part of CPS were Mennonites.

The small, rural church communities where most Mennonite COs came from offered a great deal of support for their young men—both materially in providing donations to run the camps and in supplying the camps with food and fellowship and emotional support in endorsing the willingness of the young men to say no to fighting. Beyond this witness, though, Mennonites tended not to engage in political advocacy in opposition to the War.

Many Quakers and those Christians sympathetic toward the FOR tended toward what I call the “transformer tendency.” These COs were motivated by a desire to transform American society and the world in general in a more peaceable direction. Their experience of CPS was more mixed than the “servants.” They tended to appreciate the opportunity to do constructive work instead of fighting, such as in the early years of the war doing conservation work in forestry and agriculture and when the opportunities were provided later to work in mental health facilities.

However, many transformers became frustrated at not being able to do work that had a wider social and political relevance. Some of these members of CPS actually decided to leave the program and enlist in the military in hopes of having a more direct impact on resisting the injustices of the Nazis and Japanese Empire.

An interesting comparison between the servant and transformer tendencies may be seen in the experience during and following the War with the mental health work. Thousands of CPSers ended up serving in mental health facilities, mainly as staff workers replacing those who had left to join the military. All of those who did such work were shocked with the terrible conditions they observed and many resolved to try to bring changes. But they tended to follow two quite different strategies.

The transformers focused on working within the existing system in order to bring much-needed reforms—and met with significant success. The servants focused their energies on creating new mental health facilities that provided an alternative to existing institutions. Mennonites created a number of mental health facilities that initially focused on Mennonite patients but opened their doors to many others in time.

A third tendency, what I call the “resister tendency,” was more characteristic of WRL members and others of like mind. These COs opposed war in principle and also opposed cooperating with the war system. A number of them did join CPS but of these quite a few left and went to prison as draft resisters. Some went straight to prison without joining CPS. Imprisoned politically oriented war resisters totaled about 1,500. These thoroughgoing resisters saw war as intrinsically evil and not to be compromised with in any way. They saw conscription as inextricably tied with war itself.

Igal Roodenko, a longtime WRL leader, summarized two basic reasons for resisters not compromising with Selective Service and the direction of the draft and CPS program. He first reasoned that the absolute evil of war depends upon conscription, hence conscription itself must be resisted. He also reasoned that since the individual is the basic unit in society and not to be violated, the way in which conscription sacrifices the individual to the altar of the state must be resisted. Conscription, he believed, led to totalitarianism. For many, resistance to compromise with conscription meant refusing to be drafted at all, since they saw accepting alternative service as too much of a compromise.

Resisters criticized the Peace Church involvement in CPS as compromising the separation of church and state, seeing the Peace Churches as involved in the enforcement of conscription. Resisters saw conscription as intrinsically coercive of the individual conscience. A group of them issued a statement in 1943:

“Instead of clamoring for personal privilege and exemption, pacifists who see pacifism as active resistance feel they should take the offensive by placing their message before the people of the world. This at times would seem to lead to negative action – refusing to register, refusing to take a physical exam, refusing to go to camp, walking out of camp. But it also demands what is easily recognized as positive action—becoming involved in the non-violent fight for racial justice, participating in all kinds of symbolic acts such as publicly demanding a people’s peace, uncompromisingly opposing conscription of labor, and campaigning for a democratic world by opposing imperialism in India and elsewhere.”

Notions of non-violent resistance greatly influenced many resisters, especially those formulated and practiced by Gandhi. For others, simply their own sense of unwillingness to cooperate in any way with the war-making state and its instruments influenced them most. Indirectly, at least, such earlier champions of individual conscience as Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy influenced all resisters (see James Tracy, Direct Action: Radical Pacifism from the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven).

The Catholic Worker movement remained resolutely pacifist during World War II, and it suffered a tremendous loss of support at as result. Only a handful of Catholic young men actually took a conscientious objector stance. The Catholic Worker did sponsor a CPS camp, but did not have the resources or interest of CPSers to sustain the camp. It closed within a year of opening.

Though the War was a difficult time for pacifists, the five main pacifist organizations all survived and resolved even before the War ended to give renewed energy to their work during peacetime. As we will see, beginning with the next post, this energy was quite fruitful.

[This post is part of a series of posts on the history of pacifism in the United States adapted from the third section (“Alternatives”) of Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy (Cascade Books, 2014). Here is a list of the posts in the series:

  1. The roots of war resistance
  2. Pacifism in face of the “good war”
  3. Making peace through service
  4. The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
  5. Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War
  6. Civil society and peacebuilding
  7. A pacifist agenda

Check out this link for more on that book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters.]

8 thoughts on “Pacifism in America, part two: Refusing the “good war”

  1. I’m somewhat disappointed that you have chosen to exclude WILPF from the organizations whose work against war you are covering. While WILPF may not have described itself as pacifist, from its beginning it opposed all war, and was generally considered one of the 3 historic peace groups (along with FOR and WRL). It always supported conscientious objection, including during WWII.

    1. Thanks for the heads up, Bill. It was a judgment call not to say more about WILPF. You speak to the criterion when you note it was not explicitly pacifist—though certainly an important peacemaking movement.

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