Draft Resistance and Evasion

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Draft Resistance and Evasion. Draft resistance in American history has taken many forms, including deliberate lawbreaking for the sake of conscience (civil disobedience); direct action to disrupt the draft; noncooperation; and individual efforts to avoid military service (draft evasion).

Draft resisters in America have emerged from several distinct traditions. These have included Quakers, and other religious pacifists, who have been active since the colonial period; abolitionists, who opposed slavery from 1815 until the Civil War; the social progressive movements from 1880 until World War II; the trade union movement from the turn of the century until the 1950s; and the civil rights and peace and antiwar movements after World War II.

The Colonial Period and the American Revolution.

In the colonial period and the early days of the republic, middle‐ and upper‐class unwillingness to serve in the military was widespread. Despite George Washington's frequent complaints about his inability to raise an adequate army, the early Congresses refused to institute a national draft. At the state level, state militias were staffed largely by volunteers, but during specific emergencies such as the Indian wars and the Revolutionary War, coercive methods were also used. However, men who could afford it could pay fees or hire substitutes to fight in their place.

It was in response to local and state militias that the first draft resisters appeared. The earliest resisters were primarily from religious groups, including the Quakers, who arrived in the 1650s; the Mennonites, including the Amish and Hutterites (1683); and the Brethren (1719). These early religious pacifists refused to fight in the Native American Wars. Widely considered to be heretics, they suffered many forms of punishment, including fines, whippings, and occasionally executions. Gradually, however, their consistent commitment to nonviolence won grudging acknowledgment from colonial legislatures, which increasingly permitted them exemption from service in militias—Massachusetts in 1661, Rhode Island in 1673, and Pennsylvania in 1757. Such exemptions began the tradition that continued until the 1960s of providing legal exemptions for religious groups while denying them to secular objectors.

The Abolitionist Movement and the Civil War.

Opposition to war and a compulsory draft remained widespread in the early days of America, exemplified in the Madison administration's unsuccessful attempt at a national draft for the War of 1812. From 1812 to 1860, abolitionist organizations such as the American Anti‐Slavery Society (1833) and the New England Non‐Resistance Society (1838), as well as pacifist organizations such as the Massachusetts Peace Society (1812) and the American Peace Society (1828), included many individuals who opposed war and conscription. During this period, all states and territories required men who wanted to avoid military service in the militias to pay fees or to hire substitutes.

An important influence on draft resistance was Henry Thoreau's article on “Civil Disobedience” (1849). Written during the Mexican War, the essay was a classic analysis of the individual's duty to refuse to cooperate with immoral government policies.

The Civil War brought the first national draft, with both the North and the South passing conscription laws. A popular means of avoiding military service was physical disability: of almost 777,000 names drawn in four Northern drafts in 1863 and 1864, 159,400 men gained physical exemptions. Draftees could also hire a substitute or pay a commutation fee ($500 in the South, $300 in the North). In the North, 86,700 men paid the fee, while 73,600 provided substitutes. But the most common form of evasion was failing to report. More than 161,000 of the 777,000 draftees simply did not show up for service.

The system of fees and exemptions meant that most soldiers were recent immigrants and the poor. Such a system met violent resistance, most significantly in the 1863 antidraft riots, the worst rioting in the nation's history, in which armed resistance to the draft and to government authority erupted in New York City, Boston, Albany, and elsewhere from the East Coast to the Midwest. Hundreds were killed, including thirty‐eight federal draft officials. In the New York City antidraft riots, poor and working‐class immigrants overwhelmed the police for four days, finally retreating only when six regiments of troops brought from the Battle of Gettysburg arrived to restore order.

An additional form of evasion was flight to Canada. Although the total number is unknown, accounts of local draft board proceedings in states bordering Canada are filled with references to men fleeing to Canada to avoid conscription.

Civil War inductees who refused to cooperate were sent to military camps, where many were subject to starvation and torture at the hands of hostile military commanders. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the first law offering religious resisters alternative service in hospitals or with freed slaves. Still, a core of “absolutists” refused to cooperate with the draft in any way. Eventually, the Union government exempted them from fees or service of any kind for the duration of the war.

Industrialization and World War I.

After 1880, economic and labor conflicts associated with industrialization increasingly influenced the movement against war and conscription. The World War I draft law of 1917 provided exemptions from combat only for “well recognized” religious groups. Payment for substitutes was not permitted. Exempt individuals were required to report for noncombatant service in military camps, where conditions were harsh and pacifists were often treated poorly. Resisters who refused such service were sent to federal prisons, where many were chained to prison walls, sprayed with cold water from fire hoses, made to stand naked outside at night, and beaten. Some prisoners died.

Near the end of World War I, “alternative service” was made available only to members of a small group of traditional religious organizations, thereby splitting opponents of the draft into two groups: those legally qualified for exemption, who were now called conscientious objectors (COs), and those with no legal means of gaining exemption.

Despite harsh government repression during World War I, opposition to military conscription expanded beyond the traditional religious groups. Large numbers of political resisters appeared, including socialists and members of labor groups such as the International Workers of the World (IWW), who believed that the war primarily benefitted big business, and the United Mine Workers (UMW), who resented use of the military to break strikes. Among the political resisters, Eugene V. Debs (of the railway workers union, the IWW, and the Socialist Party of America) was especially influential. Though imprisoned for his speeches urging opposition to the war and the draft, he ran for president while in the Atlanta Penitentiary, receiving nearly 1 million votes in the 1920 election.

Many important antiwar and antidraft organizations were founded during this period, including the War Resisters League, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, begun by Jane Addams. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), created in 1920, grew out of the American Union Against Militarism. Roger Baldwin, ACLU director until 1950, served a year in prison for refusing induction in 1918.

Although 24 million men registered for the draft during World War I, as many as 3.5 million failed to do so, thereby successfully evading induction. Most of these were poor or working‐class agricultural and industrial laborers. Among draft resisters, at least 17 were sentenced to death (none was executed) and approximately 150 received life sentences; hundreds of others received sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years. It was not until 1933 that the last World War I draft resister was released from prison, pardoned by President Roosevelt.

World War II and the 1950s.

World War II was the only period in which the draft did not offer middle‐ and upper‐class men legal means for avoiding conscription through deferments or payment of substitutes. With the draft law permitting conscientious objection on religious grounds, approximately 5,000 men were imprisoned for draft offenses. This group included those who were denied CO deferments, as well as resisters who refused to cooperate with the draft or with alternative service.

Four important trends characterized draft resistance after World War II, culminating in the massive resistance to the Vietnam War. First, secular resisters became more numerous than religious pacifists and, in a series of important Supreme Courts cases, gradually gained limited legal acceptance. In the most important case, the Supreme Court ruled in its Seeger decision (1965) that philosophical and moral—rather than religious—beliefs were sufficient to justify exemption from military service.

Second, “selective” objection to a specific war rather than to all wars became widespread, with many individuals basing claims for exemption upon the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. To date, however, the courts have refused to permit selective objection.

Third, opposition to the draft spread to many new groups, including opponents of the testing and proliferation of nuclear weapons. These groups wrote letters to politicians and the press, lobbied Congress, organized protests, and provided direct assistance to draft resisters and military deserters.

Fourth, opposition to the draft was predominantly a middle‐class phenomenon, yet the system of channeling upper‐ and middle‐class men into educational and occupational categories that permitted draft deferments meant that draftees were drawn primarily from among the poor and minorities.

The Vietnam War.

With opponents of the Vietnam War arguing that draft resistance was a moral and civic duty, opposition to the draft reached a peak in 1964–73. Because so many Americans opposed the draft, individual avoidance of induction became a popular form of resistance. Many men publicly burned their draft cards or illegally returned them to the government; draftees either did not appear for physical exams or devised innovative ways to fail their exams; thousands refused induction. Between 30,000 and 50,000 men fled to Canada or Sweden to avoid conscription. Approximately 600,000 individuals violated the draft laws during this period; 210,000 were formally charged. During the height of prosecutions, draft cases accounted for approximately 10 percent of all cases in the federal courts. Among the hundreds of groups that advocated draft resistance were radicals such as the Resistance and Students for a Democratic Society; liberals such as Clergy and Laity Concerned; local and regional groups such as New England Resistance; and dozens of groups on college campuses.

Despite the scope of opposition to the draft, the baby boom surplus of draft‐age men meant that the Selective Service System was able to provide sufficient manpower for the military. Nevertheless, widespread draft resistance was a significant influence upon President Nixon's decision in 1973 to end the draft, thereby eliminating one of the major reasons for protest.

In 1980, a system of compulsory registration for the draft was instituted. The major issue facing draft resisters was whether eighteen‐year‐olds should register with the government, as required by law. Despite the failure of several hundred thousand men to register, only a few outspoken resisters were prosecuted.

In their classic book Nonviolence in America, Staughton and Alice Lynd observe that draft resistance has been linked throughout American history to civil rights and labor movements. The Quakers who refused to fight in the French and Indian War of 1756 also opposed slavery. Labor leaders and social progressives were among the most outspoken opponents of the World War I draft. Many of the early leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), formed in 1943, were from the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation. Abraham J. Muste, one of the signers of the influential 1964 “Declaration of Conscience” pledging support for men refusing service in Vietnam, began his activism as a labor organizer during the 1930s. The national director of the 1967 Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam was James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was directed by Martin Luther King, Jr. From the long history of such links, it is clear that draft resistance and evasion in America have not only been the acts of individuals seeking to avoid military service, but have often been important expressions of broadly based movements for social change.
[See also Pacifism; Selective Draft Cases; Supreme Court, War, and the Military.]


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Edward Needles Wright , Conscientious Objectors in the Civil War, 1961.
Lillian Schlissel, ed., Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757–1967, 1968.
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Adrian Cook , The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863, 1974.
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Charles C. Moskos and and John Whiteclay Chambers II , The New Conscientious Objection: From Sacred to Secular Resistance, 1993.

James W. Tollefson