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The New York Peace Society, founded in 1815 by David Low Dodge, was the first official peace society in America, but the true story of pacifism should begin with certain Native Americans who wished to live in peace. Since then, hundreds of peace groups and thousands of individuals have worked to promote peace and work against war, violence and injustice, following the voice of their consciences -- sometimes to the point of persecution and imprisonment. This page is intended as only a brief introduction to the historical setting for the topic of conscientious objection to war. More information should be sought from the links offered on other pages, as well as secondary published sources available from many libraries.

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second,
it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.


The first recorded conscientious objectors in America were members of religious sects whose faith principles forbade them the use of arms in warfare. The Quakers arrived first in 1656, with the Mennonites (and related groups, the Amish and the Hutterites) coming first in 1683; the Brethren (sometimes called Dunkards, Tunkers, Dunkers) arrived first in 1719. Smaller sects -- the Shakers, Christadelphians, Rogerenes -- joined them soon after. But America was not necessarily a safe haven for pacifists. At times they were considered heretics whose freethinking would be subversive to law and order.

During the years before the Revolutionary War, Quakers and Mennonites did not join in when their neighbors fought the Indians and worked on their forts. Their steadfast adherence to their stance against taking up arms eventually won them exemption from militia duty, and communities were generally content to let them stand aside, in part because they were also hard working and good neighbors who fulfilled all other civic duties.

Revolutionary War
Resistance to the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) came mostly from the groups mentioned above. According to their discipline, members who wished to remain in good standing neither fought themselves nor gave support to the war effort (of either side). The tax issue was a particular cause for much discussion and heart searching. Many Quakers refused to pay taxes, asserting that they went directly to pay for the war effort. In addition, many would not take the oath of loyalty, considering this as part of their witness for peace. The Revolutionary authorities responded by imprisoning conscientious objectors, occasionally for as long as two years. Some active opponents to the war were handled roughly. Over one hundred thousand pounds in goods and property were taken from the Quakers as penalties for their stance against war.

"John Bull's Glorious Return" excerpted from
a page of cartoons entitled "John Bull's
Progress," published June 3, 1793

The witness of the German peace sects was less political (and usually less educated) than the Quakers, so that their treatment by the authorities was more lenient. Few of them saw anything wrong with paying the fines for not mustering, nor did they speak out against military recruitment, though there were exceptions by some individuals. Mennonites and Dunkards were mostly farmers who were frequently called upon to supply horses and wagons for army transportation needs, to contribute food for the consumption of the troops, timber for construction purposes, and blankets and clothing to keep the soldiers warm in the winters. On the whole they complied willingly with these demands. It is possible that they felt that the use made of their goods was the responsibility solely of the authorities. It seems that the only tenet to which they consistently held fast was against being conscripted.

Civil War
The Civil War brought with it the first national conscription act; in March 1863, Congress took over from the states the entire administration of conscription. The original Act provided an exemption for anyone who could find a substitute for himself or provide a $300 commutation fee. In Feb. 1864, the Act was amended to recognize only those conscientious objectors who were members of religious denominations whose rules and articles of faith prohibited armed service. In the Confederacy, the draft law of 1862 exempted Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren and Nazarenes, with the understanding that they would either hire a substitute or pay $500. These conditions were clearly unsatisfactory, and many C.O.s could either not meet the monetary demand or would not hire someone else to go to war for them. The conscientious objector often found himself moved to camps in states where no one knew of him or his good reputation, in the hands of military officers who had little or no sympathy for his scruples. For the first time, there are records of C.O.s who were tortured, hung by their thumbs or pierced by bayonets for refusing to carry a musket; many others were imprisoned. Some C.O.s joined the army as cooks and/or would shoot over the heads of the enemy rather than kill them. Others, such as Mennonites in Virginia, hid out in the hills until the war was over.

World War I
By 1917, conscientious objectors had become a larger and more diverse group. The historic peace churches mentioned above were joined by pacifist sects from the newer waves of immigrants, such as the Molokans and the Doukhobors, who had come from Russia after 1903 to escape service in the Czar's army. There were also Jehovah's Witnesses, who claimed exemption from military service, not as conscientious objectors but as ministers (each JW adult male was considered a "minister"). In addition there were political objectors such as the Socialists and members of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), and those who simply did not believe in war.

C.O.s at Fort Douglas (UT), Nov. 15, 1919: caption on back of photo "The Funston Boys Who Participated in the 'Reign of Terror'"; front row (l-r): Monsky, David Eichel, Bloch, Silver, Steiner; back row (l-r): Shotkin, Greenberg, Downey, Powell, Kaplan, Breger, Hennessey

The C.O.s in World War I were sent to army camps where they had to convince officers & other officials that they were sincere in their conscientious objection to war, which, at times, resulted in abuse from the enlisted men. The camps were Cody (New Mexico), Custer (Michigan), Deming (New Mexico), Devens (Massachusetts), Dix (New Jersey), Dodge (Iowa), Forrest (Georgia), Fremont (California), Ft. Douglas (Utah), Ft. Jay (New York), Ft. Leavenworth (Kansas), Ft. Lewis (Washington), Ft. Riley (Kansas), Ft. Sill, Ft. Thomas, Ft. Washington, Funston (Kansas), Gordon (Atlanta, Georgia), Grant (Rockford, Illinois), Greenleaf (Georgia), Hamilton (New York), Jackson (Columbia, South Carolina), Kearny (San Diego, California), Lee (Virginia), Meade (Maryland), McArthur (Waco, Texas), Merritt, Oglethorpe (Georgia), Pike (Little Rock, Arkansas), Sevier, Sherman (Chillicothe, Ohio), Slocum (New York), Spartansburg (South Carolina), [Zachary] Taylor (Kentucky), Travis (San Antonio, Texas), Upton (New York), Wadsworth (South Carolina), and Wheeler (Macon, Georgia). Occasionally, the C.O.s were taken to prisons instead of camps. One unofficial source states that 3,989 men declared themselves to be conscientious objectors when they had reached the camps: of these, 1,300 chose noncombatant service; 1,200 were given farm furloughs; 99 went to Europe to do reconstruction work for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); 450 were court-martialed and sent to prison; and 940 remained in camps until the Armistice was fully enacted.

The absolutist C.O.s who refused to drill or do any noncombatant service were court-martialed and sentenced to many years in federal prison at Alcatraz Island or Ft. Leavenworth U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, many suffering persecution, manacling, and solitary confinement. Most C.O.s who had been imprisoned were released by May of 1919, though some of those thought to be the most recalcitrant were kept until 1920. Some C.O.s were released in 1917-1918 from camps because of health problems or "mental" problems -- the latter were probably made up in order to get rid of these annoying men who would not cooperate. The camp psychologist at Camp Cody (____ Moore), on the other hand, seemed to go out of his way to find the C.O.s he interviewed to be unintelligent, defiant malingerers who did not deserve anything but imprisonment, and his "evidence" was used in courts-martial hearings.

World War II
During WWII, the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 dictated the terms by which more than 34 million American men, ages 18 to 44, participated in the war effort. Of the men who registered for the draft, there were 72,354 who applied for conscientious objector status. Of those, 25,000 accepted noncombatant service in the army, agreeing to work for the medical Corps or in anything that did not involve actual combat. Another 27,000 failed the basic physical examination. In the end, 6,086 C.O.s (4,441 of them Jehovah's Witnesses) went to prison for refusing to cooperate with Selective Service. Another 12,000 men entered Civilian Public Service (CPS), a program under civilian direction designed to accommodate C.O.s by having them do "work of national importance." [cf. Keim]

25 cent sticker produced by the American Friends Service Committee, ca. 1941-1946. "Civilian Public Service. 'To Substitute Order for Chaos and Creation for Destruction.'"

Some CPS camps were run by the three historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren), and some were run by the government. The first camp was opened in Patapsco (MD) on May 15, 1941. By the time CPS ended in 1947, CPS men had logged over 8 million man-days of work in over 150 camps. The C.O.s were not paid and their families and churches contributed over 7 million dollars for their support. The CPSers worked at a variety of projects, including conservation, forestry, and agricultural, and as government survey teams. Others built sanitary facilities for hook-worm ridden communities, or worked with juvenile delinquents. Some wished to do more risky things (in part, to prove that they were just as courageous as the men going into combat) and volunteered as firefighters, or as human guinea pigs for medical and scientific research in jaundice (infectious hepatitis), typhus, infantile paralysis, pneumonia, influenza, starvation, sea sickness, immersion and frostbite, and fly abatement experiments. Many C.O.s volunteered to work in hospitals for the mentally ill, where their exposé of the appalling conditions that existed in many of the facilities, and their nonviolent treatment and care of the patients, helped to revolutionize the way the hospitals were run.

There were some men in CPS who found the program intensely frustrating. How could digging ditches or blowing up tree stumps be considered "work of national importance"? How did it express their pacifism and/or objection to war and militarism? Often these men ended up walking out of CPS and going to prison instead.

Click here for images from CPS camps.

Korean War
At the end of WWII, there was much debate about the efficacy of Civilian Public Service and whether there were alternatives to this that C.O.s could engage in. The I-W program [called "one-w"; the first digit is a roman numeral, not the number 1 or the letter I] became official in July 1952, and it made a wide variety of service opportunities open to draftees. A number of farmers were assigned to dairy or experimental farms. Brethren Service arranged opportunities in relief and welfare work in Europe, and the Mennonites created PAX service, which employed C.O.s around the world in construction, agricultural development, and relief. Most of the I-W men accepted low-level jobs in health facilities; by 1954 more than 80% of the men held hospital jobs. By the summer of 1953 Selective Service had approved more than 1200 institutions and agencies for I-W service, with over 3000 men enrolled. Overall, the Mennonites and Brethren were quite happy with the programs. Many of these C.O.s went on to careers in education and social service because of this introduction to systemic ways of helping others. Of the nearly 10,000 I-W men from 1952-1955, only about 25 men left their jobs without authorization; of them, 20 were Jehovah's Witnesses.

sticker produced by GIs:free, n.d.

Vietnam War
The Vietnam War, as it is popularly called although war was never officially declared by the United States, produced a very organized network of draft resisters and supporters [for more information about the history of the Vietnam War, click here]. Rejection of conscription stemmed from opposition to militarism and war itself, to disagreement with the United States' foreign policy in Indochina, and/or to the belief that the draft epitomized injustice as it was weighted heavily against African Americans, the poor, and the less educated. Whatever the reason, a sizable contingent of young men declared that this armed conflict at least had no claim on them. During this time, draft counseling services expanded sizably, and groups were formed all over the country to provide support for draft resisters. As dissent spread, it polarized new constituencies among professionals, civil rights groups, and women's organizations. Massive anti-war rallies were held, as well as rallies in which hundreds of young men turned in or burned their draft cards. GI resister groups spread, so that dissent was coming from the armed forces as well as those not yet in the military.

The language of the conscription law had specifically excluded the C.O. who did not believe in a Supreme Being; thus, the agnostic and atheist had no legal basis on which to claim exemption. It also excluded selective objection, those whose objection was based on the specific war involved rather than on long-standing religious pacifism. This held true until 1965, when the Supreme Court ruled that C.O.s need not believe in a Supreme Being; this was expanded in 1970 to say that any individual may object to military service on ethical and moral grounds, if such convictions "are deeply felt." A total of 170,000 men received C.O. deferments; as many as 300,000 other applicants were denied deferment. Nearly 600,000 illegally evaded the draft; about 200,000 were formally accused of draft offenses. Between 30,000 and 50,000 fled to Canada; another 20,000 fled to other countries or lived underground in America.

Conscription stopped three years before U.S. involvement in Vietnam did (Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced on January 27, 1973 that the draft was to end, as of that date, in favor of voluntary enlistment). President Nixon thought that ending the draft would end the massive opposition to that war, but in this he erred.

Post-Vietnam Era / Persian Gulf War
The first years of the post-Vietnam era were dedicated by pacifists to calling for amnesty for draft resisters and draft dodgers. Draft registration was reinstituted in July 1980; from then until 1985, over 500,000 men refused or failed to register. Twenty persons were prosecuted for not registering from 1980 through 1990. Students who did not register generally could not receive federal student loans, grants or work-study money; some states also denied educational financial aid. After 1986, no new cases were brought against non-registrants, and draft registration became almost a non-issue, until the Persian Gulf War.

By the time the war was launched against Iraq in Jan. 1991, several dozen men and women in the armed forces or the reserves had publicly refused orders to deploy. In Nov.-Dec. 1990, the military gave less than honorable discharges to a number of resisters, but as the war began, there were rapid trials and jail sentences imposed. The cease-fire came in March 1991, by which time about 2,500 soldiers had sought C.O. discharges; in the months ahead, military courts sentenced at least 42 Marines to terms of six to 36 months in prison.

The United States declared a "war on terrorism" after thousands of people were killed at the Pentagon (DC) and the World Trade Center (NY) by terrorists who flew airplanes into those buildings on Sept. 11, 2001 (also, one of their hijacked planes crashed in rural Pennsylvania). Since then, an era of fear has arisen, with much concern, among those who long for peace, over the loss of civil liberties, the build-up of national weapons systems, and the institution of such government efforts as the new Department of Homeland Security. At this time (Feb. 2003), as the President urges the United States into another war against Iraq, the threat to conscientious objectors is greater than it has been in many years. Though a great many peace groups and thousands of pacifists have been vocal in expressing their opposition to war, it seems unlikely that it is having much effect on the President and Congress. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) introduced a bill to the House on January 7th that, if passed, would reinstate the draft, and establish "Universal National Service." Groups such as the Center on Conscience and War are working to reintroduce the Military Conscientious Objector Act, which would broaden the legal definition of conscientious objection.

Historic Peace Churches
The roots of the historic peace churches began during the Reformation, where Christians were renewing a voluntary faith (as opposed to state-sponsored religion) that included nonparticipation in warfare. Primary among them were the Anabaptists dating from 1525 in Switzerland. The Mennonites -- named after Dutch priest Menno Simons who joined the movement in 1536 -- survive to the present, in spite of much persecution, and even martyrdom by Catholic and Protestant states throughout Europe in the first centuries of their existence. Fleeing Europe to escape this treatment, many responded to William Penn's invitation to join the migration to America where they could live in peace without being subjected to military service. Many Mennonites have come in subsequent years to the United States and Canada for similar reasons, especially from Russia and Prussia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Amish began in Europe in the late 1600s as a protest against the Mennonites in Germany and Switzerland for their perceived failure to relinquish practices that would separate them more clearly from the world and the state. They began arriving in America in the 1700s where they settled into tight-knit, mostly agricultural, communities where they could retain their separatist way of life and their pacifism.

During the mid-17th century, George Fox led a pacifist-oriented movement against what he saw as the compromises of the Protestant majority in England, which became known as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Al Keim writes in his book The Politics of Conscience: "The Quaker objection to war was based as much on feeling and intuition as it was on rational arguments or scriptural authority. Fox stressed the 'Light Within' -- something not quite the same as conscience but rather 'that which shines into conscience.' Combined with this mystical understanding of the Christian faith was deep reverence for human personality of which the classic formula was Fox's: 'There is that of God in every man.' This first principle of Quakerism was to become a basic tenet from which flowed many Quaker enterprises in subsequent generations...." The development of alternative service for C.O.s in the United States and Great Britain in WWI and WWII owes much to these Quaker tenets.

A third pacifist group to survive until today is the Church of the Brethren, founded in 1708 in the German village of Schwarzenau. It was led by Alexander Mack who also sought to bring the church back to its roots in early Christianity. Claiming no creed but the New Testament, they espoused peace as a fundamental principle. This took shape in opposition to war, no coercion in religion, and no litigation in court. The Brethren began migrating to the United States in the 18th century.

Since 1935 the three groups have been known as the "historic peace churches." In both world wars their young men constituted the large majority of C.O.s. In WWI, the Quakers designed an alternative service program by which C.O.s and others could engage in relief and reconstruction efforts in France and elsewhere. At the outset of WWII, the historic peace churches cooperated in developing an alternative service for C.O.s called Civilian Public Service (CPS). In later years, C.O.s were able to engage in similar alternative service, such as PAX and I-W service.

Because the historic peace churches have been so involved in the issues that surround conscientious objection, and because so many of their men have been C.O.s during war times, it should be no surprise that the preponderance of archival material about this subject is in the archives of the Mennonites, Brethren and Religious Society of Friends.

sticker produced by WILPF, n.d.

Until recently, women who have opposed war have not been, in any legal sense, conscientious objectors. Currently, however, women who join the armed forces, and then become opposed to war, may be designated as C.O.s. Threats of drafting women have loomed over the years, particularly when there was a need to ease the "manpower" situation during WWII, but women have not yet been conscripted for service. Though their pacifist sentiments were not usually officially recorded, a limited amount of information about female conscientious objectors can be found in their memoirs, in the files of women's peace organizations such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom or Women Strike for Peace, and in newspaper articles and letters to the editor that relate their activities and sentiments.

Rachel Waltner Goossen writes: "In 1943, Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, decried what she believed to be an insidious campaign enslaving women to 'work in the factories throughout the land to make the bombers, the torpedoes, the explosives, the tools of war.' Day echoed the sentiments of Jane Addams, who earlier in the century had proposed a 'moral substitute for war' and had envisioned a time when women would be coequal, enfranchised citizens engaging in building a peaceful society on the basis of volunteerism rather than coercion. U.S. Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a contemporary of both Addams and Day, was first elected to Congress in 1916; a year later she voted against the United States' entry to war. She lost her seat in Congress during the next campaign but was reelected in 1940 and cast the only vote against the United States' entrance into World War II." Queen Marie of Roumania wrote: "Cannot we women who in our hearts hate war and undeserved death, do something to save the future from folly more hideous even than the folly of the past?" [click here to read more]. These famous women were joined by hundreds and even thousands of women from all walks of life who opposed war publicly, or did so in their homes and work sites.

If only half the women of the United States would stand together unflinchingly in opposition to war, as conscientious objectors should war be contemplated, would they not gain the great victory of all the ages?
Lydia G. Wentworth, ca. WWI

Women have often had to bear the burden for their own and their children's upkeep while their C.O. husbands were away. At times this was a cause for divorce, especially if the wife did not support her husband in his convictions. Other women moved so that they could be close to their men and then tried to find jobs nearby. Some women made long treks to visit the men in CPS camps or in prisons as allowed by whatever travel restrictions were in place at the time (or those put in place by the prisons etc.). Other women worked with relief agencies overseas, or served alongside C.O.s in hospitals for the mentally ill, as dieticians and nurses in CPS camps, or as co-directors of CPS camps along with their husbands. Many C.O.s gained a great deal of encouragement for their stance from women friends, sisters, mothers, fiancees and wives, through their letters, telephone calls and visits. For instance, twice a month Florence Andrews traveled ten hours on two trains to visit her husband, who was a C.O. in prison at Danbury (CT) during WWII, for a half hour each visit, all that was allowed. She wrote to him every day while he was in prison, a total of 973 letters, giving him the news of the day, telling of her life at home (on a very small budget) and the office, reflecting on her beliefs about God and about peace, and using humorous stories and drawings to help keep up his spirits. Igal Roodenko and his sister, Vivian Lang (who worked at the National Committee on Conscription of the American Civil Liberties Union), exchanged dozens of letters during the years he was in prison; her analysis of the C.O. situation and her encouragement helped him crystallize his own convictions that carried him into life-long peace activism.

In the 1980s, women's outrage over war and the build-up of nuclear weapons, took many to women's peace camps set up in Europe and in the United States, the most famous being the Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace & Justice at Seneca Falls (NY) and the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp in England. These, and other camps, drew women from all walks of life to speak out together against the arms race and empowered them to find alternatives to violence.

Sources for this page:
The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism by Charles Chatfield (Twayne Publishers, NY, 1992), p. 127-131

Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757-1967 ed. by Lilian Schlissel (E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., NY, 1968), p. 15-26

The CPS Story: An Illustrated History of Civilian Public Service by Albert N. Keim (Good Books, Intercourse, PA, 1990), p. 8-9, 39-40

Freedom from Violence: Sectarian Nonresistance from the Middle Ages to the Great War by Peter Brock (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada, 1991), p. 191-210

The Politics of Conscience: The Historic Peace Churches and America at War, 1917-1955 by Albert N. Keim and Grant M. Stoltzfus (Herald Press, Scottdale, PA, 1988), p. 19-26, 144-146

The Roots of War Resistance: Pacifism from the Early Church to Tolstoy by Peter Brock (distributed by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Nyack, NY, 1981), p. 53-55

The Strength Not to Fight: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors of the Vietnam War by James W. Tollefson (Little, Brown & Company, Boston, MA, 1993), p. 6-7

Swarthmore College Peace Collection: subject files on Civilian Public Service, conscientious objection, and on women and peace.

Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 by Rachel Waltner Goossen (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1997), p. 1-7


Created by Anne M. Yoder (Archivist, Swarthmore College Peace Collection), Feb. 2003; modified Nov. 2007