Tom Clark to Eleanor Roosevelt

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Tom Clark to Eleanor Roosevelt

29 July 1946 [Washington, DC]

My dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

In your letter of June 27 you inquired concerning the conscientious objectors in prison and I have delayed my reply in order to obtain the most recent information for you.

There are at present only about 175 persons in prison for violating the Selective Service Act who claim to be conscientious objectors, and not all of these can be described as bona fide conscientious objectors. Many of these were sentenced comparatively recently and most have not been in prison as long as they would have been required to serve in the armed forces or in alternative civilian service if they had complied with the law.6

In considering this question, it is very important to know the specific individuals who are involved and the facts in their cases. The factual situations vary widely, thus making it extremely difficult to consider or deal with them as a class. If you have any specific persons in mind we would be very glad to review their cases and advise you regarding them.

In addition to those mentioned above who claim to be conscientious objectors, there are now approximately 1,250 Jehovah's Witnesses in prison for violating the Selective Service Act. As you no doubt know, the Jehovah's Witnesses deny that they are conscientious objectors and refuse classification as such. We have made every effort to get them to accept civilian work assignments, such as work in hospitals, but they refuse civilian work as well as military service.7

When I took office a year ago, there were about 3,200 persons in prison who were Jehovah's Witnesses or who claimed to be conscientious objectors. In addition, during the past year there were about 500 new convictions in these categories. However, the number now in prison has been reduced to less than 1,500 and many more will be released in the near future.

Since V-J day I have given careful consideration to the possibility of a general amnesty, but a review of all the factors has indicated that such action would be inappropriate at this time. In the first place, men who complied with the law are still serving in the armed forces and in alternative civilian service. Those who violated the law could hardly expect to return to their homes before the veterans. In the second place, men are still subject to induction. Thus, many of those in prison would be called again for service if they were released. In the third place, it is necessary for the Department of Justice to continue to enforce the Act. A general amnesty for violators would seriously handicap proper future enforcement. In the fourth place, there are a number of old violations pending in various stages of litigation in court. In the fifth place, it is difficult to conceive of just how you would describe the group to be covered by a general amnesty. Lastly, a general amnesty is not necessary to bring about early release from prison in meritorious cases, since such releases can be brought about under the parole provisions.

During hostilities, conscientious objectors and Jehovah's Witnesses were required to perform some type of civilian service, such as work in a hospital, as a condition of parole. In fact, such parole was available after 60 days. This seemed like a reasonable proposition, but it developed that the Jehovah's Witnesses and some of the conscientious objectors would not accept parole under these conditions. I therefore suggested to the Parole Board late last year that those who have served one-third of their sentence, who are not insincere, and who are no longer subject to induction be given parole without any requirement of civilian service. The Parole Board adopted this suggestion and consequently most of those in this category have been released. This accounts in part for the large decrease in the number in prison in recent months.

There is a small group of conscientious objectors in prison who refuse to accept parole. We are working on this problem and may soon be able to find a solution. The largest group remaining in prison is composed of Jehovah's Witnesses who are still subject to service upon their release. This group of young men without children presents the most perplexing problem. Permitting them to return to their homes would likely result in their being called up again and it would also be difficult for their neighbors who are still in service or being inducted to understand the situation. Nevertheless, I am continuing to study the problem presented by this group so that they may be released when such action would not interfere with the future administration and enforcement of the Act. Any suggestions you may have as to this special problem would be deeply appreciated.

I hope that I have been able to give you some insight as to the number of conscientious objectors and Jehovah's Witnesses in prison and what we are doing to bring about their early releases. The fact that the Committee on Amnesty stated in a letter dated July 6, 1946, to the Editor of the New York Times and published July 14, 1946, that there are 2,100 conscientious objectors in prison discloses that even some of those most interested have failed to keep up with the large number of releases in recent months.8

Please let me know if there is any way in which I can be of further assistance to you. I want to assure you that your interest in writing about this matter is appreciated.

With kind personal regards,

                                        Sincerely yours,

                                         Tom C. Clark


1. The CO who died had also worked in a state mental hospital (MD, 5 September 1945; "Bilbo to Face More Picketing by Ex-Seaman," WP, 1 September 1945, 7).

2. The ten were: Malcolm Parker, Walter Gormly, Charles Worley, David Jensen, Bill Taber, Richard Zumwinkle, Henry Dyer, Glenn Hutchinson, Igal Roodenko, and John E. Hampton.

3. They also quoted a letter dated June 7, 1946, to President Truman from James Loeb, Jr., national director of the Union for Democratic Action, which asked for amnesty for the 2,400 COs still in prison and the 4,000 in Civilian Public Service camps. ER, they pointed out, was an honorary sponsor of the UDA.

4. Malcom Parker, et al., to ER, 20 June 1946, AERP. The COs also suggested that ER raise their case before the UN as part of the larger issue of freeing political prisoners:

We hope that you will do what you can on this problem of human rights. Perhaps it would be best to bring before the Economic and Social Council the larger problem of the necessity for freeing all political prisoners yet remaining in prisons in this and some other countries. Perhaps you would wish to suggest to some non-governmental organization that it make representations on behalf of political prisoners in this country, principally objectors to war.

5. The Selective Service Act of 1940 included provisions for exemptions from combat for conscientious objectors. COs could apply for exemptions and their local board would, based on consideration of the applicant's beliefs, assign the applicant noncombatant status (1-A-O classification) or conscientious objector status (4-E classification). 1-A-Os served in the military in positions which did not require them to bear arms. Those classified as 4-E were required to perform unpaid "civilian public service." Twelve thousand of these men relocated to Civilian Public Service camps where they worked on agricultural or reforestation projects. A much smaller number of those classified as 4-Es worked in mental hospitals or volunteered to participate as subjects in medical experiments. Although the government hoped that the provisions for COs would alleviate the problem of dealing with those who refused to serve in the military, approximately 15,000 men were in violation of the Selective Service Act. These men either were not granted CO status by their local boards and refused to bear arms after they were drafted into military service, or they were COs who refused to perform their public service or left the camps before completing their required terms of service. Around 6,000 of those who violated the act served prison sentences (OCAMH; Brock and Young, 171-203). For ER's continued involvement in the issue of amnesty for COs, see Document 344 and Document 345.

6. For the requirements of the 1940 Selective Service Act applicable to COs, see n5 above.

7. Most Jehovah Witnesses refused 4-E (conscientious objector) status outright. They insisted that they be granted ministerial status (4-D) with the unconditional exemption that accompanied such status. In most cases, the local boards refused to grant the Witnesses ministerial status, and approximately 4,300 Witnesses chose to go to prison rather than work in the Civilian Public Service Camps ("Report of the President's Amnesty Board," 7-9, HSTSF, HSTL; Brock and Young, 174).

8. The July 6 letter to the New York Times from Dorothy Canfield Fisher, honorary chairman of the Committee for Amnesty, was part of an ongoing campaign to obtain amnesty for conscientious objectors. The letter argued that the recent granting of amnesty to some groups of political prisoners in Germany by American occupying forces should lead to a reexamination of the continued detention of conscientious objectors in the United States, whom the Committee for Amnesty regarded as political prisoners ("Political Prisoners," NYT, 14 July 1946, 72).

Women and the Truman Administration

Newsweek reported June 17, 1946, that as part of a government reorganization plan, President Truman "has told his advisers to be on the lookout for women who are qualified to take over several top spots," including the posts of assistant secretary of state, secretary of the proposed Department of Welfare, assistant secretary of labor, and special assistant to the president. Despite what appeared as an attempt at diversification, Truman's effort worried a number of women who saw the reorganization "as part of a plot to push them out of high level jobs." The magazine maintained that in "addition to half a dozen top Federal posts lost by women since Truman became President, his organization program would abolish the jobs of Mrs. Jewell W. Swofford and former Sen. Hattie W. Caraway, both members of the Employees Compensation Commission; Mrs. Ellen S. Woodward of the Social Security Board, and Bess Goodykoontz, Assistant Commissioner of Education." Responding to the Newsweek article in the following letter, ER applauds Truman for his decision to appoint women to top positions in the administration, but also reminds him to continue promoting the interests of women voters, whose support and involvement were integral to the success of the Democratic Party.1