Conscientious Objection to War in WWI

[This article first appeared in the Centennial Issue of the Center on Conscience and War’s periodical in 2017]

Conscientious objection in America is rooted in the immigration patterns that took place through the centuries. Many religious groups came here to live out their principles without reprisals. For instance, there were thousands of immigrants from Anabaptist groups from the 1630s on. William Penn invited them to Pennsylvania with the promise that they would never have to bear arms. In the 19th century, America had also become the home of a large influx of Mennonites and others from Russia, who had been given the choice of either serving in the military or exile. To them, America represented a land of freedom, where there would be no punishments if they did not go to war. They were joined by others from various countries, such as the British Quakers, who also held peace and nonresistance dear.

Europe became engulfed in war in 1914, and was officially joined by the United States on April 6, 1917, in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” Protestors to the war arose from a wide swath of American society, including both the educated and those with little schooling; from the professions as well as farmers and other laborers. A large portion of dissenters were from the historic peace churches, namely Mennonites, Dunkards and Quakers, as well as the Amish. But there were also hundreds of C.O.s from other Protestant denominations; from such sects as Christadelphians, Russellites (later called Jehovah’s Witnesses), and Seventh Day Adventists; and from other religions. There were also the non-religious, who made their C.O. claim from political or humanitarian convictions, such as the Socialists and members of the International Workers of the World.

Some resisted even registering for the draft. William Jasmagy, a Lutheran and member of the Socialist Party, wrote to his local draft board in Long Island, New York, on Dec. 4, 1917: “I am in receipt of the green card, notifying me to report for military service and that I am hereafter subject to military law. I have all my life been a conscientious objector to war and have had a sincere abhorrence to all military affairs and institutions. If I were to obey your call, I would be a traitor to my conscience. Forced into the army, my state of mind would cause me to be a very inefficient soldier and almost useless to the authorities. Furthermore, President Wilson has stated that this would not be a conscription of the unwilling and I am decidedly unwilling, in the full sense of the word. I desire to inform you that for these reasons, I deem it inadvisable for me to report as per your notice. You can find me at all times at my home.” A.P. Shubin, of the Molokans in Arizona, also called the Holy Jumpers, wrote on Jan. 20, 1918 [circa]: “Sheriff Young questioned [those who would not register about their decision...] They quietly replied, ‘We cannot register because the Holy Spirit has forbidden it.’ He then attempted to frighten them by saying, ‘If you do not register, you will be sent into the army and go to France where you may be shot and killed.’ Filled with the power and strength of the Lord they answered, ‘Do with us as you wish but we shall never sign our names.’” Samuel Halperin stated to his draft board in New York City: “As a Socialist and a member of the Working Class, I…declare that I must refused to submit to Militarism, which aims to make the Worker the tool of the Capitalist in acquiring new markets, or all markets. All wars are fought for exploitation for the continuance of the Profit System, upon whose altar, millions of Workers are sacrificed… The Workers of the World are my brothers, in fact. Because some ruler draws a line, and tells us that all over the line are enemies, is no reason why I should kill my brother. We have but one enemy, the exploiting groups wherever located.”

Julius Eichel later wrote: “Men refused to be conscripted for a multitude of reasons, but in all instances they were actuated by ideals and motives as noble and unselfish as those who were willing to be conscripted, and the ardor of the objectors could at least equal that of the militarist. As a group they would not concede that government is something they must kill for or die for. On the whole they exhibited a liberal attitude towards those who thought war necessary and permitted those who wished to volunteer for service [to do so]. They hoped to receive the same consideration from their government, but whenever an objector insisted on personal liberty, he suffered, in one way or another, as I did.”

On June 5, 1917, about 6,000 men registered as conscientious objectors. Then it was up to the local draft boards to interview them and send them off to army camps. Occasionally, C.O.s were deferred immediately for farm or other work if the draft board was sympathetic to their beliefs. In some cases, if the boards were particularly unsympathetic, the C.O.s were put directly in local jails and other facilities for long periods. But for the most part, C.O.s who spoke their convictions to these boards were ignored and made to report to the army camps like all other enlisted men. This catapulted conscientious objectors into the very lap of war fervor.

These C.O.s were usually offered non-combatant work after their arrival in army camps in the Medical, Engineering and Quartermasters’ Corps here and abroad, and some 4,000 in all accepted.On September 15, 1917, the Secretary of War ordered Camp Commanders to hold the remaining C.O.s segregated, forbidding any “punitive hardship” pending further disposition. Unfortunately, this order did not make it into the hands of all camp personnel, or else it was ignored. The C.O.s themselves were often confused about what to expect and what to do.

Some C.O.s had gotten letters from their home pastors or others to verify that they had held conscientious convictions before the war broke out (so that they could not be accused of cowardice, joining a church just to be excused from war duty); some brought along a statement of the tenets of their religion or denomination to show on what they based their beliefs. But the C.O.s realized quickly after their arrival in camp that there were many questions that they had not gotten advice on how to handle. For instance,should one agree to a physical examination and to inoculation and vaccination when it was being ordered by the military and one considered oneself an involuntary conscript?Was it all right to go on drill when it was a matter of bayoneting bags of sticks, or did this indicate a willingness to carry weapons into combat? All of these, and more, were seen as tests by army officials to prove the C.O.’s sincerity and plagued many of the C.O.s throughout their tenure at the army camps and later in prison. Some men were worn down by it all, and agreed to put on the military uniform, or to work in the camps, or to accept noncombatant roles in the army, even though they did not entirely approve of these decisions for themselves or others. But for some C.O.s, these were unacceptable compromises, and no amount of persuasion could make them change their minds.

Norman Thomas later reported: “Things that men would gladly have done as gentlemen to help in the common life of the camp they could not do when obedience to any military order was interpreted as a sign of submission. So it came to pass that a course of action which objectors had pictured to themselves as unflinching testimony to their dearest beliefs often degenerated into a long wrangle with officers on potato paring or saluting.”

Though C.O.s wrote about humane officers who treated them respectfully, many times both officers and enlisted men did everything they could to show their distaste for the C.O.s. and their determination to break the C.O.s of their convictions, or at least get them to agree to noncombatant service. They administered beatings, soakings with water hoses, hangings by the neck over tree branches and railings or head-down into a cesspit, orders to stand at attention in extreme heat or cold for many hours, as well as shouts, kicks and curses.

Major Walter Kellogg excused and trivialized this behavior thusly: “....Generally, the hazings were undertaken in a spirit of fun; they very probably, on the whole, did little harm to the objector, however much they may have been contrary to the regulations of the Department and the discipline of the Army. Indeed, it is to the great credit of the Army that they were not far more common.”

Pardonably, the C.O.s found this treatment less than amusing or needed. Some took it as a way of suffering for their faith. Some accepted it as what they must go through in order to prove the rightness of their cause. The vast majority were determined not to retaliate in word or deed, thus proving their sincere desire to be nonviolent. George Miller, a Mennonite at Camp Upton, New York, wrote about one ordeal he went through for refusing to obey military commands, this time to sweep the main floor of his barracks. “I again gave my reasons in detail why I could not obey the orders. Then the Sergeant in charge and a Guard dragged me downstairs.... They tied a broom to my hands and told me that if I would not sweep they would compel me to do so. The sergeant then began to beat and torture me, using his fists, ...[for] two hours, slapping and punching me. He also thrust his bayonet into me several times and used it on my hands.... At times he rested up so as to regain energy and to resume beating me again.... The injuries I sustained....were a bruised and black eye, my face was swollen to twice its normal size and my nose was fractured or broken and I now find difficulty in breathing.... At no time did I offer any resistance because as a conscientious objector I am opposed to violence.” The next night, after Miller was in bed, a mob descended and took him and four other C.O.s to the shower room where they were deluged with freezing cold water until they put on uniforms, which they would not agree to. Miller’s nightclothes were torn off of him and he was scrubbed with stiff brushes and hit with brooms till his body was raw. When he still refused the uniform, they held him upside down in a full tub of water until he was nearly asphyxiated. It took three months for Miller to heal from this abuse. Later he wrote: "I am going through life with a physical defect which was caused by mistreatment in camp, but I am happy I was taught to uphold the principle of nonresistance as Christ taught and lived, and those of our heroes of faith who have gone before. Returning good for evil will still have its effect upon a nation and church if only put into practice."

C.O.s were subjected to frequent arguments from military personnel about their stance, and also from visitors to the camps and prisons. William Marx Kantor, a Socialist from Philadelphia who later became a Quaker, wrote in his memoir about being interviewed by an army psychiatrist who “tried to give me the customary ‘line’ about why I should be proud to die for my country. Before I got through with him, he was a very enlightened man and discomfited too. He asked me what my objection was to wearing the U.S. uniform, and I promptly informed him that it was an insignia of murder; any man wearing that uniform was regarded as a potential killer and that I had been taught that murder was a capital offense....”

Eventually camp commanders found the absolutist C.O.s, those who would not comply with any military order, too much trouble to keep around, and a Board of Inquiry was established to interview the C.O.s about their “sincerity.” Out of this, some were offered farm furloughs or the opportunity to go to Europe to do reconstruction work. The rest were told to appear for courts-martial hearings, where they were grilled about their beliefs and actions from when they were boys. Many of these men were farmers or laborers who had only had a few years of schooling and it was easy for the defense lawyers to find holes in their testimony and thus quickly establish their supposed insincerity. Some C.O.s were more educated or, like the Socialists, had discussed the war and their response to it in detail, and were able to defend themselves and answer the questions put to them with a great deal of aplomb, not that it made any difference in the end. The absolutist C.O.s, about 450, were sent to federal prisons at Alcatraz Island, California; Ft. Jay on Governor’s Island, New York; or at the Ft. Leavenworth U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Kansas, where some continued to carry out their principles by refusing to work as forced labor, which resulted in long bouts of solitary confinement in dark, cold cells on a bread and water diet. Even worse was the manacling that took place at Alcatraz and elsewhere, in which such prisoners were shackled to the doors of their cells so that their arms were held above their heads for nine hours a day during work hours, with only their toes touching the damp floor of their cells. News of this practice was smuggled out by a C.O. and it was brought to the attention of the U.S. President, who prohibited it in December 1918. Thus the protests of C.O.s led to the abolishment of an inhumane practice for all prisoners in federal prisons.

The majority of C.O.s who had been imprisoned at Alcatraz or Leavenworth or elsewhere were eventually transferred to the prison at Ft. Douglas, Utah, where a sustained effort was made to get the C.O.s to agree to things that were against their consciences. Some C.O.s did finally compromise in order to get out, or were released by May 1919 through a Presidential amnesty. Some of those thought to be the most recalcitrant, but who were really the most true to their C.O. stance, such as Socialists David Eichel and Howard Moore, were kept in prison until 1920.

C.O. Harold Studley Gray wrote of the “majesty of conscience” and he and thousands of others paid a price to protect it. This legacy is one we should honor and learn from as instrumental in ensuring a place for dissent from majority opinion in our country, which is an important gift to a free society.

Conscientious Objection to War in WWI