To the Editors of the Dial




To the Editors of the Dial




newsclipping of Letter to the Editor explaining different types of C.O.s and amnesty needed for those remaining in prison


WWI conscientious objection / objectors


United States


Sayre, John Nevin


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Copyright for this material may have been transferred to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection or may have been retained by the creators/authors (or their descendants) of this set of papers or records, as stipulated by United States copyright law. Please contact SCPC staff for further information.








November 27, 1918

To the Editors of The Dial:-

Your editorial on amnesty to political prisoners in the November 30th issue of The Dial gives me hope that perhaps you will print a letter telling of the present status of conscientious objectors in the prisons of the United States. As a minister of the Gospel believing in the hope of social progress through enlightenment by individual conscience, I have followed the history of conscientious objection with some care. I beg to submit the following facts which I think can be proved:

When the armistice was signed conscientious objectors in the United States roughly fell into the following groups:

1. Those who had accepted noncombatant service in the army, perhaps 4,000 men in all.

2. Those who had accepted farm furlough or furloughs for work in the Friends’ Reconstruction Unit, after their cases had been passed upon favorably by the Board of Inquiry of the War Department. These men numbered roughly some 1,000 or 1,200. They were under military control, but were furloughed from the army and did not wear uniform.

3. Men still held in camp pending hearing before the Board of Inquiry. A few of these men were in guardhouse awaiting ultimate trial by courtmartial.

4. Men sentenced to military prisons.

Secretary Baker’s demobilization order apparently provided for all but this last group, and so the numerous unsolved problems connected with the third group more or less disappear.

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The fourth group comprising conscientious objectors in prison is at present mainly located at the Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks, where there are about 280 of these men. A few are at the Fort Jay Disciplinary Barracks on Governors Island, and there may be some others at Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay. According to the last report from Fort Leavenworth which has reached me, 25 of the conscientious objectors were in solitary confinement, in dark cells in the cellar; sleeping on the cement floor between foul blankets; forbidden to read, write or talk; fed on bread and water; manacled nine hours a day to the bars of the cell; and in some cases beaten or otherwise tortured by the guards.

This is the form of punishment for all recalcitrant prisoners, whether they are conscientious objectors or not. Originally three Russian sectarians and one orthodox Jew refused to work under military discipline because it violated their religious convictions. The torture inflicted upon them provoked a sympathetic refusal to work on the part of other conscientious objectors who believed: (1) that this system of prison punishment should be changed, and (2) that the consciences of their comrades should not be coerced.

Contrary to general belief, the men in Fort Leavenworth are not morally different from the other conscientious objectors who are now to go free. If anything, as many competent observers have testified, they are of higher quality. They include Russian sectarians, Mennonites, Socialist workmen, college students and graduates, social workers, a professor in philosophy, and a winner of a Carnegie Hero Medal. The majority of them are in prison because hasty courtmartials tried and sentenced them to 10, 15, 20 and 25 years before they even saw the Board of Inquiry. Others are in prison because, although they were adjudged sincere by the Board of Inquiry, no farm furloughs were forthcoming, and after nearly three months segregation at Fort Riley where efforts were made to compel them to take some form of noncombatant service they still refused. Upon this refusal

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they were courtmartialed, although luckier comrades, who held exactly the same point of view, had been sent to work on various farms. A very few men are extreme absolutists, who felt that even to accept the farm furlough offered them by the Board of Inquiry, was to acknowledge the right of the State to conscript them for military service.

Another small group is composed of men adjudged insincere by the Board of Inquiry and ordered to accept either combatant or noncombatant service. This last group is particularly interesting because in spite of brutal treatment in guardhouse at Fort Riley and Camp Funston, and the threat of courtmartial, they have steadfastly refused to accept noncombatant service. This simple fact would seem to refute the charge that these men were insincere.

The immediate need of the situation is that people should urge the Government

1. To at once reform the brutalities of its treatment to all prisoners, irrespective of whether they are conscientious objectors or not;

2. To recognize that there is a distinction between acts committee in selfish crime, and those that were urged by conscience. In many European countries political prisoners are not treated as criminals. They ought not to be so treated here.

In the end, there can be no righteous solution of this thing, short of pardon. The inequities of the treatment of conscientious objectors for what is at bottom the same offence [sic], is in itself a scandal. For instance: Two men whose course of action was identically the same, received – the one 5 years, the other 25. A third man was first condemned to death and then the sentence was set aside, and ultimately he was granted a farm furlough. These arbitrary acts are the natural effects of the attempt to penalize men for

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loyalty to conscience. I believe that every one of the men now in prison would be useful in civil life. Every one has proved his courage and steadfastness by facing imprisonment if not torture. Is it not now time for the Government to grant a just, generous and general pardon?

[signed] John Nevin Sayre

Suffern, N. Y.


Sayre, John Nevin, “To the Editors of the Dial,” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed September 21, 2021,

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