Pamphlet "Fred Briehl, Conscientious Objector"




Pamphlet "Fred Briehl, Conscientious Objector"




posthumous biography


WWI conscientious objection / objectors


Lyons, Matthew


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.






WWI conscientious objection / objectors




Number II

Summer 1981

Fred Briehl

Conscientious Objector

by Matthew Lyons


Occasional Papers of ACS, the Alternative Community School Students and Staff

Ithaca, New York

We have forgotten the very principle of our origin is we have forgotten how to object, how to resist, how to agitate, how to pull down and build up, even to the extent of revolutionary practices, if it is necessary to readjust matters.

—Woodrow Wilson

The average person when he reads or hears of a biography or autobiography invariable concludes that it must be of or by a person of some prominence in any number of fields -- political, scientific, exploration, literature, entertainment, etc., etc. While this is understandable it need not necessarily be the case and certainly is not in this instance. I have never written a great poem, composed a symphony or popular piece of music, never made a scientific discovery, never travelled [sic] widely to strange or unknown places; in short, never did anything to cause one to regard me with any degree of prominence, and yet I feel there are experiences in the lives of many which could be of interest to the reading public. I trust this to be so with these pages.

— Fred Briehl, in the introduction to his unfinished autobiography.

Several people have helped me with this project over the past sixteen months. First and foremost, I would like to thank Jon Orkin, my U.S. History teacher in 1979-80. Jon continually encouraged me to explore history in new ways, and it was at his suggestion that I went to the Cornell Department of Manuscripts and archives in April 1980. the head of the Department, Gould Colman, and the other staff there were very helpful to me while I was conducting the research. Cynthia Colman and Karen Adams, both ACS teachers, provided much useful criticism and advice about the project throughout my senior year in high school, 1980-81. Chris Sperry, another teacher at ACS, taught me how to make slides and prints and provided good suggestions for the preparation of the slide show. Fred Briehl's son (also named Fred Briehl) came to Ithaca with his wife and friends specially to meet with me to discuss his father. Many other people gave me suggestions and encouragement; my thanks to all of them.

Matthew Lyons

Ithaca, New York

July 1981


Fred Briehl was born on December 15, 1892, in Paterson, New Jersey. His parents were both German immigrants. His father, Alfred Fishfoch, had left Germany in order to avoid military conscription. His mother, Elfrieda Briehl, came over seeking work as a domestic servant.* Both of them found life in this country as hard as it had been in German. Fishfoch, who worked as a silk dyer and weaver, was blacklisted


  • Elfrieda had acquired the name Briehl from a previous marriage. I do not know why she retained and passed it on to the the three children of her second marriage.

by employers because he was a very militant labor union organizer. Most employers were very hostile to labor unions in those day, and the family was forced to move from town to town in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as Fishfoch sought work. Once, when Fred Briehl was about three, his father was arrested during a strike for putting up strike notices on company property. He was convicted of trespassing and sentenced to a year in jail. That left Elfrieda Briehl with the complete burden of supporting her four children. She took in washing and boarders and scrubbed floors, but the pressure was very great. She eventually collapsed and was taken to a hospital for several months. The Fred Briehl was still a child his father committed suicide. After that, his mother moved the family first to Manhattan, and then to Brooklyn.

His family's hardships and poverty, which he saw repeated in countless families around him, strongly affected Briehl's political outlook. From his own account, he was conscious from a very early age of social inequality. Since his father had radical political views, it would seem logical to attribute this to his father's influence. But Briehl himself, looking back on his childhood from old age, did not think this was the explanation. Rather, he believed that he acquire a radical viewpoint simply by observing the world around him.

He recalled one incident vividly, from when he was about four or five, of setting off from homw to see the world. After wandering for a while, he came to an affluent neighborhood of Patterson, where the family was then living. He walked up to big, white fence which surrounded an entire block. Within it he saw a huge, beautiful house, and a barn that looked nicer than his own house. There were two children on the drive playing with a pony and a little buggy. Briehl just stood at the fence and stared. But his reaction -- at least as he recalled it -- wasn't "I wish I had something like that." It was "why can't all kids have something like that?"

When Briehl was sixteen he joined the Socialist Party. He agreed very strongly with three aspects of the Socialist world view [sic]. One was the class struggle, the idea that the interests of the workers and capitalists were basically irreconcilable. because of their roles in society. In Briehl's eyes this was a straightforward fact: the capitalists sought to maximize their profits above all else, while the workers were forced to struggle to increase their low wages and improve their lives. Second, Briehl agreed that a socialist society was a ultimate goal of this struggle. Then industry and the economy -- and the government, too -- would be controlled, not by a capitalist minority out for profit, but by the working people, the majority of the population. Like many American Socialists, Briehl believed in nonviolent revolution through political action and education as a the way to achieve socialism.

The third aspect of the Socialist world view [sic] that was especially important to him was internationalism. He often referred to himself as an international Socialist to emphasize this. He believed that the working people of all countries had a common interest in socialism, and that capitalists manipulated nationalist feeling to turn the workers against each other. This was one of the main reasons why he later opposed World War I.

The Socialist Party in the years before World War I was the focal point of a large and influential radical movement in this country [sic]. In 1912 the Party had over 100,000 members, and its presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, polled 900,000 votes. Briehl himself ran for New York State Senator on the Socialist ticket in 1916. "We put on a slam-bang campaign," he later recalled, with parades, many speeches, and a thorough leafletting [sic] of mailboxes. Briehl came in a close third, almost in a three way tie with the Republican and Democratic candidates.


When the First World War broke out in Europe in 1914, most people in the United States believed that the U.S. should stay neutral. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson was reelected on the campaign slogan, "he kept us out of war." But five months later, on April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany, and a climate of war hysteria and intolerance took over. Government and newspaper propaganda promoted an image of Germans as fiendish, bloodthirsty "Huns" out to destroy civilization. All traces of German culture were condemned. Anyone suspected of German or other foreign sympathies was liable to be labeled a traitor or a spy. Congress passed a series of espionage and sedition laws that made it a crime to publicly criticize the war effort or other government policies. About 6000 people were arrested and 1500 sentenced under these laws. Numerous semiofficial and private organizations helped to suppress and intimidate opposition. Foreigners, labor organizers and radicals were the primary targets.

It was in this context that Fred Briehl expressed his opposition to the war. He did not believe the government's claim that it was the "war to end all wars," and a war "to make the world safe for democracy." He shared the Socialist Party's official view, as stated in a resolution adopted the day after the U.S. entered the war:

Modern wars as a rule have been caused by the commercial and financial rivalry and intrigues of the capitalist interests in the different countries.... War brings wealth and power to the ruling classes and suffering, death and demoralization to the workers.*

For statements such as this, hundreds of Socialists and other radicals were imprisoned under


  • quoted in Peterson and Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918," p. 8 (see Bibliography for complete reference.)

the Espionage Act. But it is interesting to compare the Socialist resolution with a statement made by President Wilson in a speech in September, 1919, less than one year after the war ended:

Is there any man here or woman -- let me say is there any child -- who does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?... This was a commercial and industrial war.*


In 1917 Briehl lost his job with the Butterick Publishing House in New York City because he refused to buy government Liberty bonds to support the war effort. In January, 1918, he went to Washington, D.C. to work for the U.S. Signal Corps as an accountant. In leaving New York he was separated not only from his family and home, but also from this fiancee. He was engaged to Edna Krieger, another Socialist who he had known for many years. But by this time, he had to face a test of his beliefs even more difficult than losing his job. As a young man of 25 he was liable to be drafted soon. But because of his opposition to the war, he was not going to let himself become a soldier.

He decided to become a conscientious objector, because he felt that would be the clearest public statement of his antiwar position. He was already eligible for exemption from military duty, because the Selective Service Act of 1917 provided for such exemption for men in certain civil service positions, such as his. But he did not apply for it. Marriage was another possible way of avoiding the draft, for he knew that married men were less likely to be drafted than single men. But he later claimed that he actually delayed his marriage until May, 1918, at which


  • quoted in Boyer and Morais, Labor's Untold Story, p. 193

point he knew that it was too late to affect his chances of being drafted. He felt that seeking exemption for himself would be a cowardly way out. The war was so appalling to him that he felt it was necessary to make a strong political statement against it, even though he knew that would probably mean much hardship becoming a conscientious objector.

I find it interesting that Briehl apparently did not consider refusing to cooperate with the draft. This was an important form of war resistance during the Vietnam War, but it seems that during World War I Briehl did not see this as a political act. "I was no draft dodger," he later wrote with apparent pride. To dodge the draft would have been merely another way of avoiding the issue, in his eyes.

The term conscientious objector, or "CO" was used somewhat differently in 1918 than it is today. Then, as now, the United States government recognized as conscientious objectors men who had deeply held beliefs which prevented them from participating in war in any form. The government acknowledged that they could not simply be drafted along with everyone else. But while the modern law provides for objectors whose beliefs are either moral or religious in nature, the Selective service Act of 1917 only protected religious objectors. In addition, these men had to belong to certain officially recognized pacifist religious groups, such as the Quaker s and the Mennonites. While most COs today would be allowed to perform alternative service in civilian agencies if drafted, in World War I COs were not exempt from military duty, only from combat duty. Men who were recognized as sincere, religious objectors by their draft board would be given special certificates. If drafted they would be assigned to noncombatant duty in the Army.

Briehl was not religious and thus had no chance of obtaining a certificate from his draft board. But in March, 1918, President Wilson issued an executive

order which extended the government's definition of conscientious objection. From then on men who did not have CO certificated could simply declare themselves COs when they were drafted.* This is what Briehl did. Wilson's order was designed to provide for nonreligious objectors, but it left two important problems. The government had no way of knowing whether or not these men were sincerely under military control. That, in particular, was bound to cause trouble.

There were about 60,000 conscientious objectors certified by their draft boards during World War I, of which about 20,000 were eventually inducted into the Army. In addition, there were an unknown number of men, such as Briehl, who did not have certificates, but declared themselves COs when they were drafted. The conscientious objectors came from a great variety of places, occupations and backgrounds. The majority of them were religious objectors, many from pacifist religious groups which had come over from Europe partly in order to avoid military conscription. Probably the biggest group among the religious objectors were Mennonites. But, in addition, there were many nonreligious COs, many Socialists, anarchists, IWWs [sic],** and other radicals. They were called political objectors, because their opposition to the war was closely connected to their political opposition to capitalism.


* this is in complete contrast to the current policy. During the draft of the 1960's and 1970's, conscientious objectors not only had to be certified by their draft boards, but typically had to produce considerable documentation or testimony of others to support the depth and sincerity of their beliefs in order to get this certification.
** The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or "Wobblies" as they were often called, were a revolutionary labor organization that fluorished from 1905 to 1917. They used strikes, boycotts and other,


Briehl was drafted in June, 1918, less than one month after he and Edna Krieger were married. He reported to the Army's Camp Upton on Long Island, and promptly declared himself a conscientious objector. After about three weeks, he and the other thirty or so COs at Camp Upton were sent to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas where they appeared before the national Board of Inquiry, a special commission appointed by President Wilson. The Board, consisting of one officer and two civilians, was charged with investigating the sincerity of thousands of conscientious objectors held at Army camps across the country. By this time, the government was willing to give furloughs to some conscientious objectors to work on farms -- under military control -- or in the Friends Reconstruction Unit, which was helping to rebuild France as the war drew to a close. The Board recommended some of the men it interviewed for these furloughs, but Briehl was never given this option. He received about five minuted in which to state his case. He was asked a quick series of questions and was only allowed to give short answers, never to go into depth or explain his views in his own manner. At the end of the hearing he was told that he would either have to accept full military duty or be court martialed. He was classified as an "insincere" conscientious objector.

I have spent a lot of time trying to understand this judgement, and determine whether there was any justification for it. The question is not as simple as it at first seems. It is clear that -- in a literal sense -- the decision was false. Briehl's views were not in any way insincere. But from the


primarily nonviolent tactic in their struggle to improve wages and working conditions and eventually overthrow the capitalist system. Even more than the Socialist Party, the IWW was a target of the the red scare of 1917-1829, and declined sharply in numbers and influence.

Board's standpoint this was a secondary matter. What they meant was they he was not -- in their opinion -- opposed to all war. Therefore by declaring himself a conscientious objector he was, in effect, making a false claim.

It seems to me that Briehl's statements about war up to then did in fact support his claim to conscientious objector status. Since the Board only saw him for five minutes it is not difficult to see how they could have misunderstood his position. When Briehl later analyzed the hearing in his diary he concluded that it had happened in this way: At one point, after learning that he was a a Socialist, the Board asked him, "you would fight in a class war?" to which he replied, "yes." He meant "fight" in a figurative sense, and he tried to make it clear elsewhere in his testimony that his methods were strictly nonviolent. But it seems that the Board took him literally, and at that point concluded that he a was not opposed to all wars.

But simply to say that the Board was mistaken and that Briehl's views fit the government's definition of a CO is to distort his position, for two reasons. First, Briehl did not really begin with the general position that capitalism was wrong, but rather, that capitalism is wrong. War is immoral, certainly, but in his mind that was because it was the ultimate form of capitalist violence. Consequently, he was less concerned with demonstrating the consistency of his antiwar position than he was with showing that this was a was being waged in the interests of the capitalists, at the expense of the rest of the population.

Second, there is evidence that Briehl's position on the war changed somewhat in the year following his hearing at Fort Leavenworth. Like many Socialists, Briehl was very much influenced by the events in Russia following the October Revolution of 1917, which brought the Communists to power. During the first year of Briehl's imprisonment, 1918-19, the Soviet government was drawn into a civil war with several "White"

counterrevolutionary. Several other countries hostile to the Soviet government intervened with troops, including Britain, France, Japan and the United States, although the U.S. troops did not participate in the fighting. In July, 1918, Briehl had told the Board of Inquiry that he supported the Russian Revolution, but his position had apparently changed. He wrote an article for a CO publication in which he defended the Soviet government's use of conscription -- and, by implication, its prosecution of the war -- because he now saw it as a necessary part of the defense of the Soviet republic, a socialist state.

After the hearing, Briehl and the 120 conscientious objectors then at Fort Leavenworth were taken to Fort Riley, also in Kansas. Here Briehl was formally arrested, charged with refusing to perform military duty, and put in the guard house. A few weeks later, in late August, 1918, he and the fice other "insincere" objectors -- all Socialists -- with whom he had been arrested were court-martialed. Briehl was found guilty , and sentenced to thirty years in prison. He did not learn of his sentence until months later. In the meantime, Briehl remained in the guard house at Fort Riley. The war ended on November 11, 1918, but no move was made to release the COs, althought Briehl had hoped this would happen once the war was over. After six months at Fort Riley, he was transferred back to Fort Leavenworth, and then finally to Fort Douglas in Utah, where he remained until his release.


Although Briehl was imprisoned because the government did not recognize his CO claim as "sincere," there were many "sincere" conscientious objectors imprisoned as well. This was because all COs were expected to perform noncombatant work under military control, which many COs found unacceptable. They wanted no part in the Army. Out of the more than

20,000 conscientious objectors inducted, 4000 refused all military duty. Of these, about 500 were formally court-martialed and imprisoned. Seventeen of them were given death sentences (none of which were carries out), 142 were given life sentences, and the other 345 were given sentences averaging 16 1/2 years.

As was to be expected, the officers and soldiers in the Army generally did not take kindly to the conscientious objectors, especially those refusing all military duty. Many of them regarded the COs as cowards and slackers who were not worthy of respect. In many induction camps conscientious objectors were frequently maltreated -- with verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, forced cold showers and beatings -- to pressure them into renouncing their CO claims. Briehl had been taunted by soldiers at Camp Upton, but other than that he had not face such treatment himself. But at Fort Riley another cause of friction was added, even before Briehl was put in the guard house: he and many of the other conscientious objectors refused to obey orders. In part this was a protest against being put under military authority; in part it was because they did not want to help the Army in any way. Some of the COs refused orders only in specific situations, but Briehl soon identified himself with a group of COs who did so all the time. They were called "absolutists."

A few days after arriving at Fort Riley from Fort Leavenworth, Briehl and the other 120 COs were ordered to work in the kitchen, where food was prepared for both COs and regular soldiers. 55 of them, including Briehl, refused, and were promptly moved from the regular CO barrack to a tent colony some distance away away. It was quite hot in the open, and there were many flies. These COs were told that to receive their rations they would have to walk to the barrack for each meal. Rations would be issued uncooked to each man individually. All but four of the COs refused to do this. For over two days they received no food, except a little that they were able to buy in town by sneaking out of the camp. A few of them even went on hunger strike in protest. Finally the military

authorities gave in and sent them their rations in bulk, with a field kitchen in which to cook them. Some of the COs were unwilling even to prepare their own food, feeling that as they were there against their will it was the Army's responsibility to take care of them. But Briehl and the rest of the COs organized themselves into cook squads and prepared the food. They had no objection to working for their own upkeep, as long as they were not under military discipline and did not help the Army with other tasks.

This episode demonstrated to Briehl that successful defiance of the military was possible. From then on it was part of his code of conduct. After he was arrested Briehl was taken before the adjutant general to hear the charges against him. He wrote in his diary what happened:

When I was about to leave the General the guard ordered me to support my superior officer. I answered very calmly and firmly "With all due respect to the officer as a man I do not conform to military discipline. That is why I am a conscientious objector." The guard was so astounded at what he considered no doubt my audacity that he stood there speechless. My attitude was so firm that he realized I could not be coerced, so to help himself out he pleadingly looked at the general who quietly told him to let me go.*

To the soldiers and officers schooled in discipline, such disobedience was a shock. Their reactions varied. Seeing that the COs were adamant in their stand, many of them left the prisoners alone, as in the case above. But some of them tried to force the COs into submission. Occasionally guards would push or beat the COs when they resisted orders. Once Briehl was almost shot by a captain for resisting a guard who was forcing him to stand at attention. Fortunately Briehl saw the gun out of the corner of


* Fred Briehl, prison diary, August 7, 1918

his eye and froze. Another time Briehl and his cell-mates were blasted with a fire hose because one of them had gotten into an argument with a guard. They were left with several inches of water on the floor of their cell for days. And Briehl and his fellow absolutists spent several days in solitary confinement more than once for refusing to work when ordered.

Occasionally military men realized that such use of force was not very effective in dealing with the COs. Once, Briehl later recalled, a new group of prisoners was brought to a cell near his. The cell had not been occupied in some time, and was quite dirty. But when the guards ordered them to clean the cell, they refused. The guards then manacled them to the cell and put a water hose in their mouths. But still the COs refused. Briehl and his cell-mates, hearing their screams of pain, explained to the guards that the prisoners were simply resisting orders on principle, and advised the guards to just give them the brushed and mops and leave them alone. Finally the guards took the advice, and it worked. The prisoners cleaned their cell.

This was an exceptional case, but there were a few other times when the soldiers responded positively to the absolutists' actions. Once a regiment of black soldiers were assigned to guard duty at Fort Riley. Briehl and his cell-mates, all of whom were white, were apprehensive. They wondered if the soldiers would be rough with them, as a way of showing their dominance over white prisoners. But they were surprised to find the black guards exceptionally polite and considerate:

They showed not the least bit of bitterness or animosity towards us. It was simply their duty to see that we didn't escape, but apart from that there was an excellent relationship and rapport between us*


* Fred Briehl, "autobiography."


Even without harrassment [sic] from the military Briehl found life in prison to be a very difficult experience. He felt the lack of freedom very keenly. Boredom was a constant threat, but he made an effort to occupy his time in useful ways. He wrote many letters to his wife, his mother, and others at home. These letters had to be carefully worded, because all correspondence in and out of prison was censored. He also kept a diary, in which he could write more freely. Every so often he was able to smuggle pieces of this, as well as secret letters, out of prison to his wife, usually with a CO who was being discharged or sent home on furlough.* He devoted a lot of his time to study, which was an old interest for him. Although he had dropped out of school in ninth grade in order to get a job, he had continued his schooling as best as he could by studying on his own and attending night school for two years. In prison he was able to receive books from outside, and filled several notebooks with quotations, abstracts and other notes, as well as his own writings, including essays, poems and at least one play. His readings covered many areas in literature, history, philosophy and the natural and social sciences. He also taght [sic] classes for the other COs in several subjects, including math, writing and German. As a Socialist, he was particularly interested in political economy and philosophy. He and the other COs sometimes had long, engrossing discussions over these matters.

From Briehl's account, it appears that most of the COs with whom he was imprisoned did at least some studying. But in addition, most of them did a considerable amount of physical work, too, even the


* Briehl's letters and prison diary were my main sources of information on his experiences as a conscientious objector. The diary alone has about two hundred pages, written with a tiny handwriting in order to conserve paper.

absolutists. Although the absolutists refused to work under orders most of them had no objection to organizing their own work, such as cooking and cleaning. Briehl himself particularly enjoyed physical labor. He cut hair for the other performers and worked as a cook for the CO mess, among other things.

Briehl quickly formed a favorable impression of most of the conscientious objectors around him. Their company greatly helped him in maintaining good spirits. They were, by and large, friendly, intelligent, dedicated men; his main criticism of the group was that many of them were too individualistic -- too insistent on doing things their own way rather than working with others. Given their diversity, and the need for a strong will in standing up to the military, this outlook was not surprising, but it apparently caused a few heated arguments now and then.

For his own part, it seems that Briehl generally tried to avoid friction with other prisoners. His opinions differed from those of many of the other COs, but generally that did not prevent him from forming friendships. He found that even he could have congenial, interesting discussions even with men who were deeply religious, which I suspect may have been a new experience for him. He took a particular interest in a few of the religious objectors, such as one man named Jacob Wipf, a Hutterite whom he met at Fort Leavenworth in 1919. Wipf's story of imprisonment was the most horrifying that Briehl had yet heard from a CO. It prompted him to write an article about the persecution of "The Hutterian Colony of South Dakota," which he submitted to The New York Call, a leading Socialist newspaper.

The Hutterite Brethren are a pacifist Christian sect which orinated [sic] in central Europe. Religious persecution led many of them to migrate to Russia, and then, in the late nineteenth century, to the United States, particularly South Dakota. During World War I many Hutterites were denied CO certificates and put in military prisons when they refused to serve in the Army. Wipf himself spent.

several months at Alcatraz, during which he and three other Hutterites spent five days in a dungeon-like cell below the prison for refusing to work or wear uniforms. The cell was damp, dark, stale and cold. They were left there in only their underwear, with no blankets, no washing or toilet facilities, and no food -- only a glass of water each every 24 hours. The guards periodically came in to beat them, and for the first 36 hours their hands were continually manacled above their heads. After five days they were released from this ordeal, barely able to walk and covered with open sores from scurvy. They were soon transferred to Fort Leavenworth. Since they remained defiant, they were put in solitary confinement for refusing to work, but conditions were not as bad as before. But in their weakened state they caught pneumonia, from which two of them soon died. A third was then released, leaving only Wipf. Sometime after telling Briehl his story, he too died at Fort Leavenworth, of pneumonia.

Although Fred Briehl never experienced any mistreatment comparable to Wipf's, he too found the pressures of prison life very oppressive. In one letter to his wife he expressed it this way:

Have you been informed... as to when the imprisoned COs would be released?... I don't know when exactly but I do know it will not be after 20 years [This was before Briehl knew the exact term of his sentence.] for I would not last that long. Not that I am physically unwell in the least but because the pressure on one's mentality is too great. It is heavy, relentless, merciless, inexorably so. Each day in here is like a day of death; a day's happiness robbed from me.*

Briehl felt this was partly because of the continual conflict with the military, but I think


* Fred Briehl, letter to Edna Krieger Briehl, December 23, 1918.

that, even more, it was because he often felt homesick and isolated. He wrote frequently to the people at home, because this was his only link to them. He was often frustrated with the prison censorship and the delays in correspondence. He sometimes complained to the people at home that they did not write to him often enough, or that they were not doing enough to try to get him released. I think this was mainly because of his homesickness.*

His feelings of political isolation were almost as great. The period of his imprisonment, from 1918 to 1920, saw much revolutionary crises around the world, and much political upheaval in the U.S. The government's campaign against radicals, begun in 1917, was intensified, culminating in the Palmer Raids of January . 1920 (named after Attorney General Palmer), in which 10,000 radicals and trade unionists were arrested. But in 1919, 4,000,000 workers participated in strikes, at a time when every strike was labeled a revolutionary conspiracy. In that year the pressures of the war and the red scare broke the unite of the Socialist Party, and its left wind split off to form two small Communist parties. But in 1920, Eugene Debs, in his last campaign as Socialist Party presidential candidate, received almost 1,000,000 votes from his cell in prison, where he had been sent for speaking out against the war. The Left was struggling to stay alive and Briehl felt helpless because he could not be part of the struggle.

All of the imprisoned conscientious objectors must have felt isolated in one way or another. For those objectors who saw themselves as part of a


* It seems that Edna Briehl actually did a great deal to try to get him released. She belonged to an organization seeking to raise public awareness of the imprisoned conscientious objectors -- possibly the National Civil Liberties Bureau, which in January, 1920 was recognized as the American Civil Liberties Union. She also wrote many letters to the War Department asking for a review of his case.

broader war resistance movement, this must have been particularly hard. They were cut off from what little was left of the antiwar movement outside; they did not know how long they would be in prison; they did not even know to what extent the outside world was aware that they were imprisoned. Some of them probably despaired under this pressure, but many of them did not. Ironically, I think that it probably spurred their resistance to military authority. Since they were cut off from the outside, they drew in their political frame of reference to fit their own actions. They found strength in each other and in their continuing efforts to undermine military authority.


One form that this resistance took, the one which Briehl chose, was absolute refusal to obey orders. But many other conscientious objectors who were not absolutists used the tactic of disobedience as a way of confronting specific injustice. For example, in October, 1918, a group of Molokans -- religious objectors who had emigrated from Russia -- were put in solitary confinement at Fort Leavenworth for their absolutism in refusing to work under orders. They were forced to stand manacled to their cell bars for nine hours a day, and prohibited from sending or receiving mail. In November another group of COs at Fort Leavenworth went on work strike to protest the Molokans' treatment.* The strikers were themselves put in solitary and manacled. They were not even allowed to speak to one another, but the guards refused to enforce this rule. After seven weeks,


* This strike was led by Evan Thomas, a religious objector serving a life sentence. He later became chairman of the War Resisters League. His brother, Norman Thomas, was head of the Socialist Party from 1924 on, by which time it was a much more moderate organization.

during which news of the situation brought many protests from outside the prison, the Molokans and the strikers were both released from solitary. Furthermore, the War Department then abolished manacling as a form of punishment for military prisoners, citing its lack of effectiveness as a "deterrent."

By early 1919, the tactic of disobedience had spread to other military prisoners. At the end of January -- about the same time that Briehl was transferred to Fort Leavenworth -- a group of regular prisoners there struck from work; soon virtually all of the inmates had joined the strike. The U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth was at that time the principal military prison in the country, and housed 3500 prisoners. The strikers were protesting against the long sentences and poor prison conditions. While I do not have any direct evidence, it seems likely that the three hundred COs among the prisoners were particularly helpful in bringing about the strike, if only by demonstrating that disobedience could work.

The strikers demanded a general amnesty for all military prisoners, the immediate release of all strikers from solitary confinement, and the creation of a permanent grievance committee elected by the prisoners to discuss improvement of prison officials agreed to most of the demands after three days. There was a general reduction in sentences, some prisoners were freed, all those in solitary confinement were released, and a grievance committee was set up. In addition, the prison authorities granted several major reforms in mess, hospital, and sanitary regulations.

There is a gap of a few days in Briehl's diary at this time, so I do not know whether he arrived at Fort Leavenworth before during or shortly after the strike. The strike did not directly affect his action, for he and the other absolutists transferred with him simply continued refusing to work under

orders. (Briehl later recalled how, upon arrival, they were put in yellow uniforms to signify their misbehavior. The "good" prisoners wore white.) Strangely, I have been able to find only passing references in Briehl's diary to the strike and its results. Perhaps he did not feel very affected by it. But it may have had at least one important effect on his case, for five months later he learned that his sentence had been reduced from thirty years to five years.

The military authorities apparently saw the troublesome COs as behind the strike, or at least decided it was too dangerous to have them mingling with the regular prisoners. In June and July, 1919, almost all of the conscientious objectors were removed from For Leavenworth. Most of them, including Briehl, were transferred to the Army's new "internment" camp for them at Fort Douglas, Utah, near Salt Lake City. Two week later ther was another strike by the remaining prisoners at Fort Leavenworth, to press demands for additional reforms. This strike was put down with force, all the reforms were revoked, the grievance committee was abolished, and the strikers given severe penalties. Briehl did refer to this second strike in his diary while at Fort Douglas. After reading a newspaper article about it he commented that the removal of the COs from Fort Leavenworth had been in preparation for a general crackdown there.


At the time of their transfer, however, the COs did not foresee these implications of the move. They were excited that finally there would be some change in their situation. After arriving at Fort Douglas, they found that conditions there were indeed significantly better than they had been in Kansas. For Douglas was a large, fenced area of low buildings and open fields, just below the Wasatch Mountains of the Rocky Mountain chain. In addition to the conscientious objectors, there were many Germans imprisoned there for suspected disloyalty to the

United States. The two groups of prisoners were house in separate parts of the compound, but had some contact with each other and generally got along very well together. The COs had more freedom of movement within the camp than they had had previously, and more space both outdoors and indoors. Briehl's group of absolutists, who were kept in separate quarters from the other COs, used the outdoors to play baseball, horseshoes and other games, and even planted a garden in the spring. Their indoor space included two barracks, their own kitchen and mess facilities, and a recreation area, which they also used as a library.

Most importantly, the Army generally left the absolutists more to themselves than in the past. There were no guards in the barracks, and the COs had full control of their own cooking, cleaning and maintenance. They ran their affairs through general meetings and elected officials, whose responsibilities included supervising a work schedule for the COs and talking to the military authorities whenever the need arose. It was here, at Fort Douglas, that Briehl was able to bring in a camera, take pictures, and set up a darkroom. For a time he even had the use of an expensive violin loaned to him by one of the German prisoners.

All of this was quite a change after the harshness of the Kansas prisons, and one which Briehl, understandably, seems to have enjoyed. As we have seen, one probable factor in the Army's decision to move the COs was their role in the strike at Fort Leavenworth. Another was the time. This was the summer of 1919; the war had been over for eight months. During the war, the imprisoned conscientious objectors had been useful to the Army as a warning to soldiers of what would happen to "slackers"; but once it was over, the COs were not so useful, for there were far fewer soldiers to keep in line. As political prisoners the COs were an embarrassment to the Army and the government, and they were still causing trouble, especially the absolutists such as Briehl. The military was unwilling to simply free these prisoners, so they put

them in Fort Douglas, which was more isolated and where conditions were better, hoping that they would be more cooperative there.

The military authorities used other methods, too, to pressure the absolutists to accept military discipline. After about five weeks of relative leniency at Fort Douglas, the commandant of the compound, Colonel Byron, informed the absolutists that he expected them to perform prison work in accordance with their sentenced at "hard labor." Many of the prisoners sentences had been reduced and some were expecting release soon. Byron told them that they would have to serve out their original sentences -- and perhaps even be court-martialed again -- unless they accepted orders to work. Given this choice, a few of the absolutists did accept work, and were transferred to another barrack. In his diary Briehl described the predicament of one such prisoner:

As Kammen stepped out [of the line, to accept work], he had a pale nervous and hard set expression. I could see the mental strain he was undergoing. His time is up in a few weeks and he has a mother and girl who are very worried over him and though he refused to work in the D[isciplinary] B[arracks at Fort Leavenworth] he has made a compromise here in order to get out. I really pities him from the bottom of my heart.*

On the majority of the absolutists, who remained defiant, the colonel imposed two weeks of bread and water diet. This proved quite ineffective, not only because the prisoners were used to such treatment but also because they supplemented their diet with canned and dried foods that they had hidden, and with cooked dishes which the German prisoners smuggled to them each night. At the end of two weeks regular rations were quietly restored.

The authorities soon extended their ultimatum to all absolutists -- accept work orders in exchange for


* Fred Briehl, prison diary, August 19, 1919.

a speedy release, or serve out your full sentence. At about the same time, they apparently began gradually to release the "working" (nonabsolutist) COs, which showed the absolutists that there must be some sincerity behind the offer. But still most of them stood form.

From the perspective of today this dispute over work orders may seem obscure or trivial to some. But at the time, both sides felt that they had a great deal invested in it. The Army -- while it had begun to realize that it was futile to continue holding the COs prisoner -- was still determined to make the absolutists submit, for it could not tolerate disobedience. The prisoners, for their part, had too much anger toward the Army, and too much pride in their stand of disobedience, to give in so readily. For some of them -- particularly some of the religious objectors -- it was simply out of the question to submit to military discipline. In addition, as I have said, the COs' isolation tended to limit their perspective to the success or failure of their own actions, so that defiance of the military often became an end in itself.


Early in 1920, several months after the bread and water diet, Fred Briehl and a few of the other absolutists finally began to question their position. They came to believe that there was no longer enough principle involved in the absolutist position to outweigh all the costs of imprisonment. The war was long over, so that they could not possibly contribute to it by workingm and the work required was not very great. Also, they were becoming more and more upset with the atmosphere among the absolutists. After months or years together, the group spirit was beginning to wear very thin: COs were continually arguing with each other over petty matters; there were complaints and bickering about the daily tasks because of laziness; there were even a few fights. Ironically, some of the prisoners who were the most

obnoxious and inconsiderate were the came ones who exclaimed most loudly against any sort of cooperation with the military. They would not listen to other opinions on the matter; anyone who accepted prison work was in their eyes a deserter from the cause.

This atmosphere inclined Briehl more and more toward accepting work orders and getting out of the absolutist barracks. He held back, however, partly because there were still many among the absolutist COs whom he respected very highly, and partly because he hoped for some change in the COs' situation. Also, he felt a responsibility toward the group, for in late December, 1919, he had been elected marshal of the absolutist barracks. This was the elected position of greatest responsibility. Briehl was kept very busy by his dealings on the COs' behalf with Colonel Byron and his subordinate, Lieutenant Colonel Graham (who was more sympathetic to the COs), and by his efforts to smooth the many conflicts among the COs as they arose. His own account of these experiences suggests that he was very good at the job: industious, organized, diplomatic toward the military and fair toward the other prisoners, but ready to tell them off when he felt it was necessary.

At the same time, Briehl embarked on a scheme with his friend, William Sandberg, another political objector who was an IWW, to gradually get the absolutists to accept prison work in order to be released soon. They could not do this publicly, because they would have been ridiculed and insulted as renegades. Instead, they began speaking in private to carefully chosen COs individually, urging them to consider accepting prison work in order to get out. Briehl and Sandberg were well respected by most of the prisoners, and they probably encouraged many men who were beginning to question the absolutist position but felt isolated in their doubts and intimidated by the pressure to conform. At any rate there was a slow but steady trickle of prisoners out of the absolutist barracks. Between January and March, for example, the number of absolutists at Fort Douglas declined from 71 to 54. By then there were only a handful of "working"

COs still held at Fort Douglas.

As the spring advanced, Briehl increasingly felt the pull to get out himself. In March and April all of the German prisoners were released, leaving only the COs. The letters from home were discouraging: Briehl's wife had reached a dead end in her appeals to the War Department on his behalf and was about ready to give up. In May, Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union visited the COs and told Briehl that most people outside were indifferent to their imprisonment.* Later that month Briehl received word that Colonel Byron was being retired, and surmised that it might be because of his policy toward the COs, which was unsympathetic but relatively lenient. On May 27th he went to see Colonel Byron about the War Department's unresponsiveness concerning his wife's request for a reduction in his sentence. The Colonel restated the current military policy: is Briehl recognized the Army's authority and accepted order to work, he would be released soon. The two of them talked and argued for about an hour about many things, including Byron's contention that "life is a compromise." Briehl said he would decide soon.

The next day Briehl went back to the Colonel with another CO and agreed to accept orders to work. The two of them were transferred to a barrack occupied by about five other "working" COs. Briehl found the space and atmosphere here much more pleasant than at their old quarters. Life was quieter, with only a light workload, and Briehl wrote very infrequently in his diary, something he had never done before. Two months later, on July 25th, 1920, he was released and given a dishonorable discharge from the Army. The day before his release, he wrote in his diary:


* Baldwin, who had also headed the National Civil Liberties Bureau, had himself been a conscientious objector during the war. Unlike Briehl, however, he had turned himself over to the civilian authorities rather than be drafted. He was given a one year sentence.
I have not deluded myself into thinking that I go back into never-ending happiness and bliss for certain it is that some parts of the journey will be rough. With all the obstacles however I believe it to be better to spend my life's time in the struggle, to be with my people, than to spend it by just marking time serving a sentence.*


After his release, Briehl rejoined his wife and family in Brooklyn. He was active for a time as a public speaker for the new Communist and Communist Labor parties, but soon dropped out of active political life with the rapid decline of the Left after 1920. A few years later Fred and Edna Briehl bought a dairy farm in Wallkill, New York, in Ulster County. During the Depression of the 1930s Briehl helped to organize the small dairy farmers of New York and Pennsylvania into a milk marketing association. In 1934 he joined the Communist Party and was their candidate for State Attorney General. He was later a Communist candidate for Assembly (1935) and Lieutenant Governor (1936). For many years he was a major link between the Communist Party and the dairy farmers' organizations in New York. In 1945 the Briehls sold their dairy herd and opened a guest farm on their land. They retired in 1962. Edna Briehl died in 1968; Fred Briehl in 1974. Although his life and political career were long and colorful, Fred Briehl always looked back on his two years as a conscientious objector as one of the most important periods in his life.

Why are Fred Briehl's experiences as a conscientious objector important? There are several ways of looking at this question. Clearly, this period was personally important to Briehl, because it was the most dramatic and difficult of his many experienced, and


* Fred Briehl, prison diary, July 24, 1920.

focused and confirmed his basic political outlook. Another way to answer the question is to consider what impact Briehl and the other COs had on our society. While they did not produce any great changes, I think that they did make significant contributions. First, they helpef to bring about certain important reforms in military prisons, such as the abolition of manacling. Briehl was very much a part of the "disobedience movement" which pushed the War Department to make such reforms.

Second, the COs' determination in opposing military authority may have helped to bring about better treatment for war opponents in later years. Never again were COs as a group put under military control. In World War II conscientious objectors at least had the opportunity to work in Civilian Public Service camps under non-military control. (Although 6000 men were imprisoned in civilian prisons for refusing to cooperate with the draft.) From the Korean War on, COs have been able to work for regular civilian agencies. The government;s definition of conscientious objection has also been clearly expanded to include nonreligious objectors. It may be that these changes would have occurred in any case, as the government found it more desirable to make better provision for COs, and as public attitudes toward conscientious objection shifted. But I think that the COs of World War I contributed something to this process.

A third way to look at the question is to consider what we can learn from Briehl's experiences. This, too, has two aspects. First, Briehl's experience gives us a clearer picture of a little-known, but important aspect of U.S. history. It is not often remembered that the U.S. entry into World War I was highly controversial in this country, and was accompanied by sharp suppression of dissent. So often our government, our press, our schools, our people take pride in this country's traditions of democracy and tolerance. We need to remember that there is also an uglier side to our history, so that those traditions may be more fully realized today.

Second, Briehl's experience tells us some important things about Briehl himself. He was a person of deeply held principles, who actions completely belief the label of "insincere," as well as the more general epithets of "coward" and "slacker" which were so often thrown at the COs. Because he believed that the war was wrong, he took a public stand against it, even though to do so was unpopular and dangerous.

At the same time, Briehl was flexible in applying his principles. Twice during his imprisonment -- once regarding the Soviet government's use of force, once regarding the absolutist position -- his views changed in significant ways. This does not mean that he was capricious, or that he believed things half-heartedly, but that he tried to approach these matters with an open mind, and was willing to change his position if he felt that circumstances warranted it. While we may or may not agree with Briehl's views, we can admire him for this.

But Briehl's experience is more than just an interesting story -- it is very relevant today. The situation is different now in many ways -- in part, because the United States is not at war. But the basic threat of war is still all too real, and the events of the past few years suggest that it is growing. That prospect is far more frightening than it was six decades ago, and it affects all of us, for nuclear weapons have made it possible to kill hundreds of millions of people in a few hours. While Briehl made a conscious decision to face the question of war, we may not have a choice. We would do well to think as seriously as Briehl did about our responsibilities and the alternatives facing us.


The Briehl Collection (#3474) at the Cornell Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, located in Olin Library at Cornell University, was my primary source for this project. The soctions of the collection which I relied on the most were the Edna Krieger (Briehl) -Fred Breihl Correspondence (1911-1920), Prison Diaries, Prison Publications, Court-Martial Statements, Fred's Autobiography, Pamphlets, and the Prison Camp Photo Album. Also of special interest is "Fred Briehl," a video tape on Briehl's life by Michael Mitchell and Charles Gershwin, 1971.

Other sources which were particularly useful include:

Boyer, Richard O. and Herbert M. Morais, Labor's Untold Story. New York: Cameron Associates, 1955. Chapter VII, "Murder and Millions," describes the impact or World War I and the red scare on the Socialist and labor movements in the United States.
Cooney, Robert and Helen Michalowski, The Power of the People. Culver City, Calif.: Peace Press, Inc., 1977. A History of twentieth century active nonviolence in the United States. Chapter 1, "World War I and American Opposition," has a section on the conscientious objectors.
Gray, Harold Studley, Character "Bad", the Story of a Conscientious Objector, ed. by Kenneth Irving Brown. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1934. From the letters of Gray, a religious objector imprisoned 1918-19.
Kellogg, Walter Guest, The Conscientious Objector. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919, with an introduction by Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War. Major Kellogg was Chairman of the Board of Inquiry.
Peterson, H.C. and Gilbert C. Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1957. Chapter XII is on "The Conscientious Objector."


Lyons, Matthew, “Pamphlet "Fred Briehl, Conscientious Objector" ,” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed April 20, 2021,

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