Perhaps surprisingly, given the rampant pacifism of the 1920s that followed the great bloodletting of World War I, COs were too few in number in World War II to have any impact on the war effort of their respective countries. The Axis states refused to recognize CO status, as did the Soviet Union and many others of the warring states.
Conscientious objector status was most honored in North America, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian states. In the United Kingdom during World War II, CO status was granted on a more fair basis than it had been in World War I. Unconditional exemptions were granted to 6.1 percent of COs there, and alternate service was allowed in civilian jobs. Fewer than 10 percent of British COs were jailed, compared to 33 percent in World War I. The United Kingdom had 60,000 COs, or 1.2 percent of the number drafted, compared with 0.125 percent in World War I.
The United States also widened its interpretation of CO status in World War II. At the time Congress was about to vote on the Selective Service Act in 1940, there was uncertainty about how the draft would treat men who wanted to be exempted from military service on grounds of conscientious objection. A third of all Americans had indicated in polls that they favored either jailing COs or forcing them to fight in combat units, but Congress instead adopted a plan conceived by religious groups and known as Civilian Public Service (CPS).
The exact details of the CPS program were not worked out until early 1942, but it put COs to work on a variety of domestic tasks. Representatives of the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Brethren, and the Mennonites supervised those in CPS, and the costs of the program were paid by these three church organizations at the rate of $35 per month for each CO. CPS members sometimes received a few dollars a month for expenses from church groups but were otherwise not paid. Those seeking to obtain CO status had to file a special document, Form 47, along with their draft information. Local draft boards could and often did reject these requests, but an appeals procedure existed for such cases.
In all, about 37,000 American men obtained CO status. Most were Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren. There were also Jehovah's Witnesses, socialists, communists, and others who professed pacifism. An additional 6,000 men who either did not receive CO status or turned it down were prosecuted for refusing to be inducted into the military and served some time in prison.
In many parts of the country, COs took up tasks that previously were assigned to members of the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps, such as reforestation, road building, and repairing drought damage. Other COs performed excellent service in mental hospitals. A few volunteered as guinea pigs for medical research, and some valuable advances in battling malaria and other tropical diseases came from these experiments. Although Major General Louis Hershey, head of the Selective Service, testified before Congress that, overall, COs were making valuable contributions in the nation, they generally were not welcome in most localities.
Some COs did enter the military and served overseas in noncombat roles, including the dangerous job of combat medic. Among them was Desmond Doss, a CO who declined a chance to be in the CPS program and entered the U.S. Army as a medic. Private First Class Doss landed on Okinawa with the 77th Infantry Division. There, on 2 May 1945, he pulled as many as 70 wounded soldiers off an escarpment while under heavy fire, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
After the war ended, COs returned to civilian life, and their wartime status was generally forgotten. The CPS program, however, served as the model for subsequent objector programs during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
Terry Shoptaugh and Spencer C. Tucker
Eller, Cynthia. Conscientious Objectors and the Second World War. New York: Praeger, 1991.; Gara, Larry, and Lenna Mae Gara. A Few Small Candles: War Resisters of World War II Tell Their Stories. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999.