Conscientious Objectors

views updated May 14 2018


CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS. Unlike draft resisters or evaders, conscientious objectors make no secret of their desire not to participate in military service. Their objections rest on publicly stated and defended principles. Never a large number, conscientious objectors have always been more important as a symbol, especially during unpopular wars like Vietnam.

Conscientious objection has traditionally been closely related to pacifist religious groups. As early as 1661, the colony of Massachusetts made provisions for exempting men from military service on religious grounds. In 1790 a measure to guarantee the right of conscientious objection in the Bill of Rights passed the House but failed to pass in the Senate despite the support of James Madison. The Quakers received a group exemption in Pennsylvania in 1701 from William Penn. Other groups such as the Mennonites and the Dunkards (who ironically had a church badly damaged at the 1862 Civil War Battle of Antietam) received similar exemptions. During the Civil War, both sides allowed for conscientious objection if the objector could provide a substitute or pay a fine. In this manner, conscientious objectors differed little from anyone else trying to evade service. Despite their legal protection, conscientious objectors inevitably became objects of scorn and targets of charges of treason.

The Selective Service Act of 1917 recognized conscientious objectors and did not require them to bear arms. Men who belonged to historically pacifistic religious groups had guaranteed access to conscientious objector status. Nevertheless, the act authorized President Woodrow Wilson to conscript conscientious objectors for noncombatant service. Many men refused even this service, and the federal government tried 450 men for refusal to serve. Some received prison terms as long as twenty-five years, though nearly all received amnesty in 1919. Almost 4,000 men accepted the government's offer of noncombatant service, often in labor camps whose arduous routines resembled those of prison work gangs. Despite the active opposition of some groups to American entry into World War I, conscientious objectors amounted to just .0023 percent of all men required to register.

The numbers were also quite small in World War II, with conscientious objectors comprising just .0029 percent of all men required to register. Recognition of conscientious objector status became a hallmark of liberal ideology. None of the Axis powers recognized conscientious objection, nor did the Soviet Union. The United States and Great Britain, on the other hand, widened their definitions to include, in the United States, men with "religious training and belief" that compelled them to avoid military service. A connection with religion thus remained, but was broadened to encompass men who were not members of traditionally pacifistic religious groups like the Quakers.

Two court cases attempted to broaden the justification of conscientious objection beyond solely religious grounds to social, political, and intellectual grounds. In both cases (United States v. Kauten, 1943, and Berman v. United States, 1946), the courts disallowed nonreligious grounds for conscientious objection. As in World War I, most conscientious objectors served in work camps that resembled the Department of Corrections more than the Department of the Army. Only 6 percent of the nation's 100,000 conscientious objectors served any time in prison.

New draft legislation passed in 1948 specifically allowed for conscientious objection. In the same year, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors was founded, supplementing the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors, which had been founded in 1940. Between 1948 and 1965, the work camp model of alternate service disappeared in favor of service in hospitals or mental institutions. The number of conscientious objectors grew in proportion to those drafted but remained low. Fewer than 35,000 men declared conscientious objector status between 1948 and 1965.

In 1965 the Supreme Court heard the landmark conscientious objection case of United States v. Seeger. The two defendants claimed religious exemption but were not members of traditional pacifist religious groups and had no religious training as required under the 1948 legislation. One defendant professed that he believed in a "supreme reality" while the other asserted belief in "a universal reality." The court ruled that an individual's understanding of his own religious beliefs must be considered when determining conscientious objector status. The case greatly expanded the religious basis for conscientious objection to incorporate "people with general theistic belief systems" whether or not they had any formal religious training. The Court also included for the first time "nontraditional variances" of pacifist religious expression such as Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.

The unpopularity of the Vietnam War increased both the number and the visibility of conscientious objectors. Between 1965 and 1970 more than 170,000 registrants applied for conscientious objector status. The Seeger ruling did not have a wide impact on conscientious objection because local draft boards were free to interpret the ruling as they saw fit. The most celebrated case was that of boxer Muhammad Ali, who in 1966 claimed that military service was inconsistent with his conversion to Islam. Ali should have been covered under Seeger, but his local draft board found his beliefs to be insincere and sentenced him to five years in prison. He remained free on bond until his case was overturned in 1971, but hundreds of Muslims (especially black Muslims) went to jail because courts refused to accept their religion as the basis for conscientious objection.

Men seeking conscientious objection status during the Vietnam era were helped by lawyers who specialized in getting the exemptions. Many men saw conscientious objection in the Vietnam period less as a principled stand on religious grounds than as a legal way out of service. Good draft lawyers were well within the financial reach of most men from middle-class families, and they could at least tie up the conscription system with paperwork for months or even years. Most were successful in gaining conscientious objector status for their clients, who were normally ordered to perform an alternative service of two years of low-paying work in the public sector in a location beyond commuting distance from home. In reality, draft boards were so overwhelmed by their responsibilities that supervision of conscientious objectors was minimal.

Many men genuinely objected to the war in Vietnam on moral, but not religious, grounds. No law covered their beliefs until Welsh v. United States (1970). In that ruling, the Supreme Court held that a man could claim conscientious objector status based on the "depth and fervency" of his beliefs, even if they were not religious in character. Welsh himself had declared that his objection to Vietnam was based on historical and sociological grounds.

During the Gulf War of 1990–1991, a new problem arose as more than 2,000 men and women already in uniform claimed conscientious objection. Previously, the vast majority of cases revolved around the desire to avoid military service. These cases involved men and women already in the service who desired to avoid a combat theater. Since they had voluntarily enlisted (conscription having ended in 1973), they could not claim that military service was inconsistent with deeply held beliefs. The army chose to reassign or release most conscientious objectors, but the Marine Corps imprisoned fifty. As previously, the numbers remained small, but conscientious objectors maintained a visibility far beyond their size as America wrestled with the question of how to exempt those whose beliefs clash with their legal obligations to serve.


Baskir, Lawrence M., and William A. Strauss. Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Frazer, Heather, and John O'Sullivan. We Have Just Begun to Fight: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service During World War II. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Goossen, Rachel Waltner. Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front 1941–1947. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Moskos, Charles, and John Whiteclay Chambers II, eds. The New Conscientious Objection: From Sacred to Secular Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Schlissel, Lillian, ed. Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757–1967. New York: Dutton, 1968.

Michael S.Neiberg

See alsoPacifism .

Conscientious Objection

views updated Jun 11 2018

Conscientious Objection. Whenever government in America has employed compulsory military training or service, it has been confronted by those who, on principle, refuse to bear arms. The early colonists included many members of pacifist Protestant sects—Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren—who believed the Bible and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth prohibited them from participating in war or engaging in any violence against other human beings. Colonial officials fined them for refusing to serve in the militia, but since they were economically productive and otherwise law‐abiding, most colonial governments eventually exempted them from personally bearing arms.

In the Revolutionary War some objectors were forced into militia service, but several states recognized religious conscientious objection as a right and excused objectors if they paid a special tax. In 1790, James Madison sought to include protection for religious objectors in the Bill of Rights, a measure that passed the House, but failed in the Senate.

Both the North and South dealt with religious objectors in the Civil War. Some suffered severely, but ultimately both sides recognized their sincerity and stubbornness. Drafted members of the historic peace sects were allowed to purchase an exemption or hire a substitute. When some refused, the Lincoln administration gave them the option of aiding in the care of wounded soldiers or former slaves.

In World War I, the Selective Draft Act of 1917 recognized only members of the historical peace churches as “conscientious objectors” (COs), but required them to serve in the military in non‐arms‐bearing roles. Some 64,700 men, most of them not members of the pacifist sects, claimed CO status on religious or political grounds. Local draft boards classified 57,000 as COs, and 20,900 COs were inducted into the army. In the training camps, 80 percent abandoned their objections. Some 4,000 remained COs; ultimately most were furloughed into agricultural work, and 1,300 others served in the medical corps. But 450 “absolutists,” who refused to cooperate in any way, were court‐martialed and sent to military prisons.

The harsh and fumbling experience with COs during World War I contributed to a more liberal policy in World War II. The Selective Service Act of 1940 provided CO status for all religious objectors. It also allowed them to choose non‐arms‐bearing military service or alternative civilian service. In 1940–45, 50,000 draftees were classified as COs, most serving in the military, primarily the medical corps. Some 12,000 chose civilian alternative service, working without pay on soil erosion control, reforestation, and agricultural experimentation in one of seventy Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps operated for the Selective Service System by the historic peace churches. Another 2,000 COs worked in mental hospitals and 500 volunteered as subjects for medical experiments on disease. Some 5,000 absolutists refused to cooperate and went to federal prison—a majority of them Jehovah's Witnesses, but also some pacifist social activists such as A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and David Dellinger.

The 1948 draft law in effect reiterated the 1940 CO provisions throughout the Cold War; but with no CPS camps, most of the 35,000 COs performing alternative service between 1951 and 1965 worked in local hospitals or mental institutions. During the Korean War, the percentage of inductees exempted as COs grew to nearly 1.5 percent, compared with 0.15 percent in each world war.

In the Vietnam War, the traditionally small group of religious objectors was succeeded by massive numbers of secular and religious young men applying for CO status or simply refusing to cooperate in the draft. The new COs tended to come from better‐educated and higher socioeconomic groups. They received support from mainline religions—Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic—plus antiwar and antidraft groups. Established antidraft organizations included the War Resisters League (founded 1919); the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (1940); and the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (1948). Numbers of African Americans applied as COs, most prominently Muhammad Ali, a Black Muslim and heavyweight boxing champion, who was sent to prison when he refused military service after his CO claim was rejected.

The Supreme Court, in the Seeger (1965) and Welsh (1970) decisions, expanded the criteria for CO status from religious to secular moral or ethical beliefs. More than 170,000 registrants were classified as COs between 1965 and 1970. CO exemptions granted to registrants as compared to actual inductions soared from 8 percent of inductions in 1967 to 43 percent in 1971, to three times that ratio in 1972, when more people were being exempted as COs than were being drafted into the army. Additionally, between 1965 and 1973, approximately 17,500 members of the armed forces applied for noncombatant status or discharge as COs.

Compulsory draft registration was reactivated in 1980. When 500,000 failed to register between 1982 and 1984, the Reagan administration prosecuted a few of those who publicly proclaimed their refusal to register. The Justice Department soon abandoned such an approach. Instead, Congress, adopting an amendment by Representative Gerald Solomon (Rep.‐N.Y.) penalized nonregistrants by denying them student financial assistance from federal funds.

Within the armed services, even without conscription, conscientious objection became a public issue again during the preparation for the Persian Gulf War, when between 1,500 and 2,000 persons in reserve and regular military units applied for discharge as COs. The army eventually reassigned or released these soldiers, but the Marine Corps court‐martialed and imprisoned nearly fifty Marine COs.

In the 1990s, the right of conscientious objection in many other Western nations was being expanded to include recognition of secular and religious COs in and out of uniform and in some countries, selective objection. Derived from the Vietnam War and new directions in Western political and ethical thought, this trend demonstrated that the tension between concepts of freedom of conscience and the citizen‐soldier continued to redefine conscientious objection in America.
[See also Conscription; Draft Resistance and Evasion; Pacificism; Peace and Antiwar Movements; Selective Draft Cases.]


Edward Needles Wright , Conscientious Objectors in the Civil War, 1931.
Mulford Q. Sibley and and Philip E. Jacob , Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940–1947, 1952.
Lillian Schlissel , Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757–1967, 1968.
Michael F. Noone, Jr., ed., Selective Conscientious Objection: Accommodating Conscience and Security, 1989.
Cynthia Eller , Conscientious Objectors and the Second World War, 1991.
Charles C. Moskos and John Whiteclay Chambers II, eds., The New Conscientious Objection: From Sacred to Secular Resistance, 1993.
James W. Tollefson , The Strength Not to Fight: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors of the Vietnam War, 1993.
Heather T. Frazer and and John O'sullivan , “We Have Just Begun to Fight”: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service During World War II, 1996.
Rachel Goossen , Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941–1947, 1997.

John Whiteclay Chambers II

Conscientious Objection

views updated May 14 2018


The term "conscientious objection" was coined in the 1890s in reference to objections to mandatory vaccinations, but during the 20th century the term became generally known as the objection, for reasons of conscience, to participating in war and military service, in the actual or potential intentional killing of other human beings. The term has also been used concerning the refusal to pay taxes for war and military expenditures, for the same reasons. Categories of conscientious objection include absolute conscientious objection (opposition to military service and war in any form), selective conscientious objection (objection to a particular war or to particular methods of fighting the war, e.g., the use of nuclear, biological or chemical "weapons of mass destruction."), and in-service conscientious objection (those who undergo a "crystallization of conscience" while serving in the armed forces and obtain a discharge, as opposed to conscripts who claim conscientious objector status prior to entrance into the military and who then perform alternative civilian service).

In support of their position, Catholic conscientious objectors often point to the statements of Jesus found in the Gospels that summon his followers to do "the things that make for peace" (Lk 19:42). "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God," he proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:9). "You have heard it said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies" (Mt 5:4344). Commenting on the Gospel call to be peacemakers, the U.S. bishops declared, in their 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace: "We believe work to develop non-violent means of fending off aggression and resolving conflict best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and to justice." Historically, the emphasis of the Christian teaching during the first three centuries was toward peace, though it is not clear that the Church condemned

participation in war. maximillian and martin of tours were declared saints in part due to their renunciation of military service; "I am a soldier of Jesus Christ; it is not lawful for me to fight," declared Martin. However, with the recognition given the Church by the Emperor Constantine and with the barbarian invasions, the emphasis was toward legitimate defense by war. From the time of St. Augustine until recently the main teaching in the Catholic Church has been the just-war theory. Still, even in the most militant of times there were pockets of pacifism honored by the Church, as exemplified by the papal privilege given to Franciscan lay tertiaries in the Middle Ages not to fight in feudal wars, or the recognition that clerics, because of the unique dignity and responsibility of their state in life, justly claim an exemption from full military service. In the 20th century, however, the development of increasingly destructive weapons and their intentional and indiscriminate use on civilian populations led many Catholics to regard conscientious objection in general more favorably.

The Catholic Church has never taught that war is intrinsically evil or that the use of force is always a contravention of the evangelical law of love. The Christian is obliged to love his enemy and to suffer violence patiently when this is conducive to his own salvation and the salvation of others. But if nonviolence is "understood as patiently tolerating injuries done to others, it would be an imperfection, even a vice, if one could efficaciously resist the aggressor" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae 188.3 ad 1). In the present order of human life, marked by sin, violence does exist. The natural right of self-defense cannot be denied to the individual or to society (cf. Rom 13:17). As a general rule, therefore, a Christian living in the world does not have the objective right to adopt an attitude of total nonviolence as the basis for a refusal to fulfill his lawful duties as a citizen. In his Christmas message of 1956, Pope Pius XII affirmed that if a decision to undertake military operations within the limits imposed by the exigencies of legitimate defense against injustice is reached by the freely elected leaders of government, "a Catholic citizen may not appeal to his conscience as grounds for refusing to serve and to fulfill duties fixed by law." However, this explicit statement cannot be taken as a definitive and universal condemnation of the principle of conscientious objection. The pope spoke of a possible situation. The individual, in forming his conscience on the question of his obligation to serve in the defense of his country, must consider the concrete realities of the existing situation.

Basic to the solution of the problem of conscientious objection is the principle of legitimate authority. The authority of civil governments has its source in nature and, consequently, has God for its author. "Those, therefore, who have authority in the state may oblige men in conscience only if their authority is intrinsically related with the authority of God and shares in it. It follows that if civil authority legislates for anything that is contrary to the moral order and therefore contrary to the will of God, these laws cannot be binding on the consciences of the citizens" (Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris 49, 51). It is evident that no rational man could in good conscience take part in any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their populations. The just-war tradition not only provides justification for those who are willing to fight; it also serves as a basis for selective conscientious objection by recognizing that some wars, and some methods of conducting warfare, are unjust.

Vatican Council II, after reaffirming the "right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted," nevertheless warned of excesses in waging war. They called on governments to recognize the legitimacy of conscientious objection: "it seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided, however, that they accept some other form of service to the human community" (ibid. 79). In 1980, after issuing several statements during the Vietnam War in support of conscientious objection, the bishops of the United States declared: "We regard this question [conscientious objection] in all its dimensions as a central element in Catholic teaching on the morality of war" ("Statement on Registration and Conscription for Military Service," 1980). The bishops specifically stated their support for the right of selective conscientious objection. Such selective objection has never been legally recognized by the U.S. government. More generally, conscientious objection to military service has been declared by a series of United Nations resolutions, beginning in 1987, as a "universal human right."

Bibliography: r. b. potter, War and Moral Discourse (Richmond 1973), see the "bibliographial essay" pp. 87123 for extensive references to works on war and peace. j. r. jennings, ed., Just War and Pacifism: A Catholic Dialogue (Washington 1973). r. h. bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (Nashville 1960). j. w. douglass, The Non-Violent Cross (New York 1968). j. j. fahey, Christian Conscience (New York 1969). l. s. cahill, Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory (Minneapolis 1994). d. hollenbach, Nuclear Ethics (New York 1983). c. c. moskos and j. w. chambers iii, The New Conscientious Objection (New York 1993). r. g. musto, The Catholic Peace Tradition (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1986). national conference of catholic bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response (Washington, D.C. 1983). t. a. shannon, Render To God: A Theology of Selective Obedience (New York 1974). l j. swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service (Wilmington 1983). j. h. yoder, When War Is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1996).

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Conscientious Objector

views updated Jun 08 2018

Conscientious Objector

Pacifism in America in the 1930s


By: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Date: 1934

Source: Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Collected Poems. New York; Harper and Row, 1956.

About the Author: Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) was among the most celebrated American female poets of her generation. In 1923, Millay became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Her work was widely published during her lifetime and her poems, particularly her sonnets, have been the subject of significant academic study since her death.


Edna St. Vincent Millay was a life-long poet and literary figure. Her first work was published when Millay was twenty years old, and the themes explored throughout her career were often contentious, including her explorations of female sexuality, feminism, pacifism, and the American justice system.

Millay moved to the Greenwich Village district of New York City in 1920. Greenwich Village had developed at that time into a significant community of artists, writers, and intellectuals, and it was a relative hotbed of political radicalism. Millay was politically active after she was established in Greenwich Village, not seeking elected office or a leadership role in any organization, but supporter of a number of radical causes.

A notable example of a Millay cause was her opposition to the 1927 execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and avowed anarchists who had been convicted in Boston of a robbery and subsequent murder on evidence that appeared to be significantly flawed. Millay's poem, 'Justice Denied in Massachusetts' captured the spirit of the protests that had engaged the attention of the radical aspects of American society.

In the 1930s, as the Great Depression gripped the United States in a prolonged period of economic stagnation, the focus of American government was the resolution of its pressing domestic problems. Public opinion in America favored isolationism with respect to the country's involvement in foreign disputes. Millay remained a committed pacifist during this period; her work "Conscientious Objector" was followed by a series of works where Millay comments upon the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and the rise of fascism in Europe.

Millay was an influential thinker and writer throughout her entire career. Her poems sold remarkably well; the book of sonnets including "Conscientious Objector" sold over 35,000 copies within the first two weeks of its release in 1934. Millay was voted one of the ten most famous women in America in 1938; the United States Postal Service later issued a stamp in her honor.


    Conscientious Objector  
    I shall die, but
    that is all that I shall do for Death.
    I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
    I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
    He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
    business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
    But I will not hold the bridle
    while he clinches the girth.
    And he may mount by himself:
    I will not give him a leg up.
    Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
    I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
    With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
    the black boy hides in the swamp.
    I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
    I am not on his pay-roll.
    I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
    nor of my enemies either.
    Though he promise me much,
    I will not map him the route to any man's door.
    Am I a spy in the land of the living,
    that I should deliver men to Death?
    Brother, the password and the plans of our city
    are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.


As a literary creation, Millay weaves together references in "Conscientious Objector" to world conflict and the duty of the conscientious objector not to involve themselves in any capacity with the military actions of any power. This portrayal by Millay of the role of the pacifist when faced with the threat of armed conflict can be taken as a metaphor for the position of the United States in relation to international armed conflicts in the early 1930s. It is clear that for Millay, a conscientious objector and a pacifist would remain disengaged and aloof from any struggle.

When Millay wrote this work in 1934, a conscientious objector under American law had to demonstrate an appropriate religious belief as the underlying basis for their objection to military service. Millay's depiction of the conscientious objector as one motivated by a personal moral belief as opposed to a strictly religious basis anticipated the United States Supreme Court's 1970 ruling, where the Court held that a conscientious objection could be sustained absent religious grounds.

A companion notion expressed by Millay is the sense of brotherhood among those who oppose fighting and the resultant cost of human life. This sentiment was a cornerstone of the pacifist movement to which Millay was aligned. The supporters of pacifism believed that theirs was a philosophy that was not limited to a nation; it was a concept that transcended all borders.

The rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s caused Millay and other pacifists to re-examine their world view. Fascism is a philosophy of government that places the interests of the nation-state ahead of those of the individual. Italy had been placed under a Fascist dictatorship by Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) by degrees in the early 1930s. The rise of Adolph Hitler (1889–1945) and his Nazi party in 1933 was the second example of the growth of fascism in Europe. The Spanish Civil War and the victory of the Fascist forces lead by General Francisco Franco (1892–1975) was a graphic example to American pacifists and isolationists alike that fascism posed a significant threat to personal freedoms and the security of the world. It had become apparent to Millay and others in America by 1939 that pacifism would be an inadequate response to the obvious ambitions of leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini.

In this context, "Conscientious Objector" takes on an additional significance. Millay expressed her opposition to the Spanish fascism in a series of poems published in 1939. She also became an advocate of an early entry by the United States into the European war that commenced in September 1939. Millay wrote poems commissioned by the United States government in 1941 to address various aspects of the war. The most powerful of these works was "Murder at Lidice," written in 1942 to describe the reprisal killings carried out by the German occupational forces in Lidice, Czechoslovakia, where members of the Czech underground had assisted in the killing of German Gestapo (secret police) chief Reinhardt Heydrich.

It is of interest that after World War II (1938–1945), Millay distanced herself artistically from these war works. She expressed the view that as they were essentially commissioned for wartime, they should have remained within the context of the war.



Bennett, Scott H. Radical Pacifism: the War Resisters League and Gandian Nonviolence in America, 1915–1963. Syracuse, New York; Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York; Random House, 2001.


Cook, Blanche Weisen. "Women and Peace: The Legacy." Ms. Magazine. Winter 2006.

Web sites

California State University, Stanislaus. "Perspectives in American Literature / Early 20th Century." January 7, 2003. 〈〉 (accessed May 29, 2006).

Conscientious Objection

views updated May 29 2018


A conscientious objector is a person who is opposed in conscience to engaging in socially required behavior. Since the genuine objector will not be easily forced into acts he abhors and since compelling people to violate their own moral scruples is usually undesirable in a liberal society, those who formulate legal rules face the question whether conscientious objectors should be excused from legal requirements imposed on others. The issue is most striking in relation to compulsory military service: should those whose consciences forbid killing be conscripted for combat? Historically, conscientious objection has been considered mainly in that context, and the clash has been understood as between secular obligation and the sense of religious duty felt by members of pacifist sects. The Constitution says nothing directly about conscientious objection, and for most of the country's existence Congress was thought to have a free hand in deciding whether to afford any exemption and how to define the class of persons who would benefit. By now, it is evident that the religion clauses of the first amendment impose significant constraints on how Congress may draw lines between those who receive an exemption from military service and those who do not. The Supreme Court has never accepted the argument that Congress is constitutionally required to establish an exemption from military service, but it has indicated that the Constitution does entitle some individuals to exemption from certain other sorts of compulsory laws.

The principle that society should excuse conscientious objectors from military service was widely recognized in the colonies and states prior to adoption of the Constitution. james madison's original proposal for the bill of rights included a clause that "no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person," but that clause was dropped, partly because conscription was considered a state function. The 1864 Draft Act and the selective service act of 1917 both contained exemptions limited to members of religious denominations whose creeds forbade participation in war. The 1917 act excused objectors only from combatant service, but the War Department permitted some of those also opposed to noncombatant military service to be released for civilian service.

The 1940 Selective Service Act set the basic terms of exemption from the system of compulsory military service that operated during world war ii, the korean war, and the vietnam war, and during the intervening periods of uneasy peace. A person was eligible "who, by reason of religious training and belief, [was] conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form." Someone opposed even to noncombatant service could perform alternate civilian service. In response to a court of appeals decision interpreting "religious training and belief" very broadly, Congress in 1948 said that religious belief meant belief "in relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation.…" What Congress had attempted to do was relatively clear. It wanted to excuse only persons opposed to participation in all wars, not those opposed to particular wars, and it wanted to excuse only those whose opposition derived from religious belief in a rather traditional sense. The important Supreme Court cases have dealt with these lines of distinction.

By dint of strained interpretation of the statute, the Court has avoided a clear decision whether Congress could limit the exemption to traditional religious believers. First, in united states v. seeger (1965), a large majority said that an applicant who spoke of a "religious faith in a purely ethical creed" was entitled to the exemption because his belief occupied a place in his life parallel to that of a belief in God for the more orthodox. Then, in Welsh v. United States (1970), four Justices held that someone who laid no claim to being religious at all qualified because his ethical beliefs occupied a place in his life parallel to that of religious beliefs for others. Four other Justices acknowledged that Congress had explicitly meant to exclude such applicants. Justice john marshall harlan urged that an attempt to distinguish religious objectors from equally sincere nonreligious ones constituted a forbidden establishment of religion; the three other Justices thought that Congress could favor religious objectors in order to promote the free exercise of religion. Because the plurality's view of the statute was so implausible, most observers have supposed that its members probably agreed with Justice Harlan about the ultimate constitutional issue, but this particular tension between "no establishment" and "free exercise" concepts has not yet been decisively resolved.

In Gillette v. United States (1971), a decision covering both religious and nonreligious objectors to the Vietnam War, the Court upheld Congress's determination not to exempt those opposed to participation in particular wars. Against the claim that the distinction between "general" and "selective" objectors was impermissible, the Court responded that the distinction was supported by the public interest in a fairly administered system, given the difficulty officials would have dealing consistently with the variety of objections to particular wars. The Court also rejected the claim that the selective objector's entitlement to free exercise of his religion created a constitutionally grounded right to avoid military service.

In other limited areas, the Court has taken the step of acknowledging a free exercise right to be exempt from a generally imposed obligation. Those religiously opposed to jury duty cannot be compelled to serve, and adherents of traditional religious groups that provide an alternative way of life for members cannot be required to send children to school beyond the eighth grade. (See wisconsin v. yoder.) Nor can a person be deprived of unemployment benefits when an unwillingness to work on Saturday is religiously based, though receptivity to jobs including Saturday work is a usual condition of eligibility. (See sherbert v. verner.) What these cases suggest is that if no powerful secular reason can be advanced for demanding uniform compliance, the Constitution may require that persons with substantial religious objections be excused. To this degree the Constitution itself requires special treatment for conscientious objectors. Beyond that, its recognition of religious liberty and of governmental impartiality toward religions provides a source of values for legislative choice and constrains the classifications legislatures may make.

Kent Greenawalt


Finn, James, ed. 1968 A Conflict of Loyalties. New York: Pegasus.

Greenawalt, Kent 1972 All or Nothing At All. Supreme Court Review 1971: 31–94.

Sibley, Mulford Quickert and Jacob, Philip E. 1952 Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940–1947. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Conscientious Objection

views updated May 14 2018

Conscientious Objection

All religions must decide how "worldly" they will be, including the stance they will take toward the state. Within this larger issue is the issue of the religion's participation in war when the state undertakes military action. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has long entertained the notion of "just" versus "unjust" war, the implication being that faithful Catholics should not fight in "unjust" wars. In Protestantism, objection to war became a central tenet of that branch most suspicious of worldly, secular authority, which gave rise to such denominations as the Amish, the Mennonites, the Brethren, and the Quakers.

In America, the Continental Congress in 1775, noting the presence in the colonies of conscientious objectors to war, passed a resolution that read: "As there are some people who, from religious principles, cannot bear arms in any case, this Congress intends no violence to their consciences, but earnestly recommends it to them, to contribute liberally in this time of universal calamity, to the relief of their distressed brethren in the several colonies. . . . ( Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774 –1789, vol. 2, p. 169).

The U.S. Constitution makes no reference to conscientious objection, its authors having decided to leave the matter to the individual states. Because there was no military draft in either the War of 1812 or the Mexican War, the fate of conscientious objectors depended on local opinion and whatever laws had been passed by state legislatures. In the Civil War, however, compulsory military service existed in both North and South, which made conscientious objections an unavoidable legal issue. Both sides adopted a policy recognizing that any person belonging to a recognized "peace" church had the choice of paying another person to substitute for him or else accept noncombatant duties.

World War I saw a similar resolution. Ordained ministers were exempt from the draft, and members of recognized "peace" churches were exempt from "combatant duty." This policy was challenged on the ground that it unconstitutionally "established" religion by failing to exempt persons of like belief who were not members of a recognized pacifist church. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that argument, however.

Several legal battles took place after World War I, most involving pacifists applying for citizenship in the United States. However, with the knowledge that another world war was looming, Congress expanded its definition of eligibility for exemption from the draft. In 1940 the legislation that brought the Selective Service into existence exempted from combatant service any person "who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form." During World War II, draft boards had difficulty interpreting those words when claims were made in the name not of "religious training" but of ethical, philosophical, or political belief.

In 1948, therefore, Congress amended the law by declaring that "religious training and belief" means "an individual's belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but [excluding] essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code."

In 1965, in a case known as United States v. Seeger (380 U.S. 163), but in reality a combination of three similar cases, this 1948 language was challenged. All three defendants claimed to have no traditional concept of God or necessarily of a Supreme Being. Seeger, for example, stated his "belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sake, and a religious faith in a purely ethical creed." In a unanimous decision, the Court responded affirmatively, saying that the question is "whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God with one who clearly qualifies for the exemption." In this remarkable decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that conscientious objector eligibility rests on the validity of conscience, not on the particular language used to express it.

Five years later, in Welsh v. United States (398 U.S. 333), a divided (5–4) Court reaffirmed this view that the key element was conscientious conviction, not the method by which such conviction comes about or is expressed. Welsh, more than Seeger, upheld conscientious objection based on beliefs that were wholly and unambiguously nonreligious.

One further case deserves mention. In 1971 the Court decided Gillette v. United States (401 U.S. 437), in which the plaintiff, a devout Roman Catholic, invoked his church's "just war" doctrine—that is, he was prepared to be drafted into some wars but not into the war against Vietnam because it was not a just war. By a vote of eight to one the Court said that such "selective" conscientious objection was not constitutionally protected.

Without a Selective Service Act, when the U.S. government has only a voluntary military, conscientious objection tends to fade away as an issue. Should the draft be reinstated, however, the nation would once again face the issue. If so, perhaps it might take yet another step away from its earliest positions on conscientious objection, when only members of pacifist churches qualified.

See alsoAmish; Church and State; Civil Religion; Freedom of Religion; Mennonites; Pacifism; Peace Churches.


Moskos, Charles C., and J. W. Chambers II, eds. TheNew Conscientious Objection: From Sacred to Secular Resistance. 1993.

O'Gorman, J., ed. The Universal Bends Toward Justice: AReader of Christian Nonviolence in the U.S. 1990.

Schlaback, Theron F., and R. T. Hughes, eds. ProclaimPeace. 1997.

Phillip Hammond

Conscientious Objector

views updated May 14 2018


A person who, because of principles of religious training and moral belief, is opposed to all war regardless of its cause.

A conscientious objector may be released from the obligation to serve in the armed forces or to participate in selective service registration. A conscientious objector must oppose war in any form, and not just a particular war, in order to avoid military service. He does not have to be a member of a religious congregation that forbids participation in war. Under the Military Selective Service Act (50 App. U.S.C.A. § 451 et seq. [1967]), a registrant needs only a conscientious scruple against war in all forms to obtain conscientious objector status. A conscientious scruple against war is an objection to war based on moral beliefs. A conviction that war is wrong, arrived at solely on intellectual and rational grounds, does not entitle one to exemption as a conscientious objector.

Under prior draft laws, conscientious objectors were divided into two classes. One class was composed of those who were opposed to all military service, regardless of whether it was combatant or noncombatant. This class was required to serve in civilian work that contributed to the national welfare, such as the Red Cross, but was exempt from military service. The other class was opposed to only combatant military service. These conscientious objectors were drafted into the armed services for noncombatant duty, such as in the medical corps.

Today there is no draft law; however, males are required to register for the Selective Service at the age of eighteen. Registrants can obtain a discharge, or a release, from the armed services on the ground of conscientious objection. A person who seeks a discharge on this basis must satisfy certain tests established by the federal courts. He must oppose all forms of war and object to any type of service in the armed forces. Total pacifism, however, is not required. Willingness to use force in self-defense to protect oneself and family does not defeat a claim of opposition to all war. Enlistment in the military service is also not inconsistent with a claim of conscientious objection.

The objection must be founded on deeply held moral, ethical, and religious convictions about right or wrong. Although this limits discharges to those persons who object to war for essentially religious reasons, which are individually held beliefs, it does not restrict discharges to only those who participate in organized religion. The test of a religious belief is not measured by traditional religious concepts but is based upon whether the belief is sincere and has an effect on the life of the nonconforming believer that is comparable with or parallel to traditional religious beliefs held by persons who believe in God. The objective or actual truth of the beliefs is not the standard used to measure the sincerity of the individual in his beliefs; the test is completely subjective, determined by what the individual actually believes. A military board's skepticism as to the sincerity of an objector's belief is not enough to deny a discharge; some objective evidence is required.

Conscientious objectors can be ordered to report for civilian duty in lieu of military service.


Selective Service System.

conscientious objector

views updated May 23 2018

con·sci·en·tious ob·jec·tor • n. a person who for reasons of conscience objects to serving in the armed forces.DERIVATIVES: con·sci·en·tious ob·jec·tion n.

conscientious objector

views updated May 29 2018

conscientious objector a person who for reasons of conscience refuses to conform to the requirements of law, especially one who objects to serving in the armed forces. The term is recorded from the late 19th century, but came to prominence with national conscription in the First World War, when those claiming to be conscientious objectors had to establish their status before a tribunal; the derogatory shortening conchy dates from this period.

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