No-Conscription League Manifesto
No-Conscription League Manifesto
By: Emma Goldman
Source: Goldman, Emma. "No-Conscription League Manifesto." Records of the Department of War and Military Intelligence Division, Record Group 165, National Archives, 1917.
About the Author: Emma Goldman (1869–1940), also known as Red Emma, was one of the most famed anarchists of the early twentieth century. A speaker and writer, Goldman had immigrated to the United States from Lithuania in 1885. Imprisoned during World War I for obstructing conscription, she was deported in 1919 for being an alien radical.
The No Conscription League only lasted for six weeks during 1917. Founded and led by anarchist Emma Goldman in New York City, the league specialized in anti-draft manifestos, mass meetings, and defiant rhetoric. The stated purpose of the organization was to simply stand by those who had already decided to refuse military service.
Shortly after its entry into World War I in April 1917, the United States instituted a draft. As had happened with the first draft during the Civil War, the issue of forcing men to put their lives and limbs at risk quickly became controversial. When Great Britain began conscription in 1916, the law created the category of conscientious objector to allow pacifists to serve their country in a noncombatant role if they could convince a tribunal of the quality of their objection. The U.S. Selective Service Act of May 1917 provided for religious conscientious objectors but had no formal mechanism for recognizing such men. In practice, the exemption did not work well. During the war about three thousand members of recognized peace churches, such as the Quakers, were granted noncombatant alternatives to military service. Those who belonged to religious sects without a traditional antiwar stance, who opposed war for political reasons, or who refused any form of compulsory service were forcibly inducted. The political objectors included socialists, anarchists, members of the International Workers of the World, and radicals.
As an anarchist, Goldman did not want to tell anyone what to do. As a woman and therefore ineligible for conscription, she refused to tell men not to fight. Accordingly, the No Conscription League did not counsel anyone against compliance with the draft.
NO CONSCRIPTION! CONSCRIPTION has now become a fact in this country. It took England fully 18 months after she engaged in the war to impose compulsory military service on her people. It was left for "free" America to pass a conscription bill six weeks after she declared war against Germany.
What becomes of the patriotic boast of America to have entered the European war in behalf of the principle of democracy? But that is not all. Every country in Europe has recognized the right of conscientious objectors—of men who refuse to engage in war on the ground that they are opposed to taking life. Yet this democratic country makes no such provision for those who will not commit murder at the behest of the war profiteers. Thus the "land of the free and the home of the brave" is ready to coerce free men into the military yoke.
No one to whom the fundamental principle of liberty and justice is more than an idle phrase, can help but realize that the patriotic clap-trap now shouted by press, pulpit and the authorities, betrays a desperate effort of the ruling class in this country to throw sand in the eyes of the masses and to blind them to the real issue confronting them. That issue is the Prussianizing of America so as to destroy whatever few liberties the people have achieved through an incessant struggle of many years.
Already all labor protective laws have been abrogated, which means that while husbands, fathers and sons are butchered on the battlefield, the women and children will be exploited in our industrial bastiles to the heart's content of the American patriots for gain and power.
Freedom of speech, of press and assembly is about to be thrown upon the dungheap of political guarantees. But crime of all crimes, the flower of the country is to be forced into murder whether or not they believe in war or in the efficacy of saving democracy in Europe by the destruction of democracy at home.
Liberty of conscience is the most fundamental of all human rights, the pivot of all progress. No man may be deprived of it without losing every vestige of freedom of thought and action. In these days when every principle and conception of democracy and individual liberty is being cast overboard under the pretext of democratizing Germany, it behooves every liberty-loving man and woman to insist on his or her right of individual choice in the ordering of his life and actions.
The NO-CONSCRIPTION LEAGUE has been formed for the purpose of encouraging conscientious objectors to affirm their liberty of conscience and to make their objection to human slaughter effective by refusing to participate in the killing of their fellow men.
The NO-CONSCRIPTION LEAGUE is to be the voice of protest against the coercion of conscientious objectors to participate in the war. Our platform may be summarized as follows:
We oppose conscription because we are internationalists, anti-militarists, and opposed to all wars waged by capitalistic governments.
We will fight for what we choose to fight for; we will never fight simply because we are ordered to fight.
We believe that the militarization of America is an evil that far outweighs, in its anti-social and anti-libertarian effects, any good that may come from America's participation in the war.
We will resist conscription by every means in our power, and we will sustain those who, for similar reasons, refuse to be conscripted.
We are not unmindful of the difficulties in our way. But we have resolved to go ahead and spare no effort to make the voice of protest a moral force in the life of this country. The initial efforts of the conscientious objectors in England were fraught with many hardships and danger, but finally the government of Great Britain was forced to give heed to the steadily increasing volume of public protest against the coercion of conscientious objectors. So we, too, in America, will doubtless meet the full severity of the government and the condemnation of the war-mad jingoes, but we are nevertheless determined to go ahead. We feel confident in arousing thousands of people who are conscientious objectors to the murder of their fellow men and to whom a principle represents the most vital thing in life.
Resist conscription. Organize meetings. Join our League. Send us money. Help us to give assistance to those who come in conflict with the government. Help us to publish literature against militarism and against conscription.
After organizing two public rallies against conscription, Goldman became the subject of a government investigation. However, Goldman had immigrated to America because the country promised free choice and she would not be intimidated into silence. Having learned that federal agents had infiltrated her rallies to entrap nonregistrants, she vowed to limit her future league activities to the written word. The government had other plans. On June 15, 1917, Goldman was arrested under the Alien and Sedition Acts for obstructing the war effort and organizing anti-conscription rallies. Promptly convicted, she received a sentence of two years in prison. In 1919, Goldman was deported. She settled in Britain and continued to advocate for the rights of the working class until her death during a speaking tour in Canada.
A number of war objectors were court-martialed and sentenced to terms in military camps and prison. Of the five hundred American men who were court-martialed for resisting the draft, seventeen received death sentences and 142 received life terms. Although none of the death sentences was ever carried out, physical abuse of objectors in military camps was commonplace. Guards subjected objectors to compulsory exercise, solitary confinement, inadequate rations and cruel punishment. About twenty-five objectors died in prison. Meanwhile, more than 1,500 Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish fled to Canada to avoid military service. The American Union Against Militarism and the American Civil Liberties Union (then known as the National Civil Liberties Bureau) were founded in part to provide legal aid to these men.
The suppression of free speech and brutal treatment accorded objectors during World War I became a matter of public discussion and concern as the United States debated the merits of isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s. By the time of World War II, most major countries in the West had passed legislation regulating conscientious objection. The abuses of World War I would not be repeated in the United States.
Harries, Meiron and Susie Harries. The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917–1918. New York: Vintage, 1997.
McKay, Ernest A. Against Wilson and War, 1914–1917. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1996.
Moritz, Theresa and Albert Moritz. The World's Most Dangerous Woman: A New Biography of Emma Goldman. Vancouver: Subway, 2001.
Schlissel, Lillian. Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757–1967. New York: Dutton, 1968.