One of the most distinctive aspects of Mennonites is their stance on pacifism. They oppose most violence, most notably their stance on war. The world would call them Conscientious Objectors. But the idea of pacifism didn’t start with the Anabaptist movement in the 1500s. Even though pacifism has its roots in the Early Church, the Civilian Public Service Program created during World War II ushered in a new era of government acceptance of conscientious objectors.

All of the Early Christians were pacifists. This view didn’t change until Constantine made Christianity the state religion in 313 CE. It is there that Christians started debating whether it is okay to kill or not. During the Crusades the Catholic Church settled the dispute for awhile, stating that it is okay to kill non-Christians. Thus pacifism wasn’t revived until the Reformation.

Most of the pacifists come from the Historic Peace Churches: the Quakers, Amish Hutterites, Mennonites and Brethren.1 In the past, these groups were persecuted, had their property destroyed or were killed. During the Revolutionary War they were called traitors, even though some of them helped feed the army. People just despised them because they refused to fight. It’s probably because of their not fighting in the Revolutionary War that led to James Madison’s proposed Conscience Objector clause being nixed from the Constitution. It stated, no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms can be forced to do so.2

In the Civil War, every man in the North was subject to the first military draft in American history.3 The Historic Peace Churches had only two choices: join the military or pay for a replacement. During World War I, they were called unpatriotic. Men of draft age faced the choice of noncombatant service, jail, and in some rare instances death. It...did not occur to...Washington...that objection was anything more than an objection to the direct killing of people....we are opposed to the military system... stated Rufus Jones, a Quaker peace spokesman during World War I.4

This false belief began to change in the 1930s when a peace movement started across the nation. There was even a pacifist movie made called All Quiet on the Western Front.5 Lew Ayres, the starring actor in the film, became a pacifist because of his work in the film. There will be more on him later. But then World War II began in 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Germany.

The United States government knew they faced the prospect of war. So in 1940, they passed the Selective Training and Service Act, the first peacetime draft in American history.6 This act included a Conscientious Objector clause. Those who would be classified as 4-E were destined for the civilian alternative service option, Civilian Public Service. The first camp would open on May 15, 1941, in Patapsco State Park in Baltimore, Md.7

Civilian Public Service, or CPS, was a church funded program run by the National Service Board for Religious Objectors.8 Most of the projects focused on forestry or soil conservation projects and were run out of former Civilian Conservation Corps camps. Each camp had its own Historic Peace Church denomination that ran that camp. For example, all Mennonite camps were overseen by MCC.M9

Not all conscientious objectors entered CPS. The majority ended up doing noncombatant service, such as battlefield medics, military mechanics and the Signal Corps. One such conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, won the Congressional Medal of Honor for courage under fire. He was a battlefield medic.10 However, all conscientious objectors, including CPSers, were draftees. Of the 34.5 million American men drafted, only 72,354 were conscientious objectors. Of those, 25,000 entered noncombatant service, 27,000 failed their medical physical, 6,086 were jailed and 12,000 joined the CPS. Of those 6,000 jailed, 4,441 were Jehovah’s Witnesses who claimed ministerial exemption to war, which the U.S government didn’t recognize.11

Of the 12,000 men in CPS, 4,665 were Mennonite, the largest group by far. Amish, Hutterites, Brethren and Quakers rounded out most of the rest, though there were a few Catholics, Jews, Muslims and others who claimed conscientious objector status. But the most famous CPSer would have to be Lew Ayres.13

Lew Ayres may have been a Conscientious objector, but when the war started, he was clambering for a medic spot. But when his local draft board told him they couldn’t guarantee him a spot as a medic, he asked to join CPS. He was in CPS for only a short while, when the government decided to grant him his desired medic spot. The government was worried having a famous person in CPS would cause too much public unrest.14

It was this public unrest fear that kept most of the 152 CPS camps that operated from 1941-1946 in isolated areas. Camps were located mostly in the northern states, ranging from Washington to Maine. Camps were also located as far south as Puerto Rico. In most camps, the workers were allowed three sets of work clothes, a rain jacket and overcoat, a set of clothes for Sunday and evenings, bedding, basic toiletries and such personal items as an instrument, books, writing supplies, etc., as they so desired.15

Since all the camps were church funded, the individual churches were responsible for wages, supplies and any other costs the camps required. Had the government fully funded the camps, they would have spent $22 million. Instead they only spent $4,731,000 for administration expenses while the churches contributed $7,202,000.16 While most camps dealt with forestry and soil conservation, there were also smoke jumping units, mental health orderlies and medical guinea pigs.

Smoke jumping was one of the most popular programs the CPS offered. As smoke jumping to fight fires is very dangerous, many CPSers used this program to show Americans that they weren’t cowards; they just refused to kill another human being. The first smoke jumping camp opened in Missoula, Mont. This was really an experiment, as smoke jumping was a relatively new way to fight forest fires. But the program showed enough potential that there were 240 CPS smoke jumpers by the end of the war.17

Another popular program to show they weren’t cowards was the medical experiments. More than 500 CPS men volunteered to be human guinea pigs for all types of experiments such as typhus control, the cause of hepatitis, shipwreck survival and starvation. Even though the experiments were overseen by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), all the guinea pigs were taken from various CPS camps.18

One of these experiments took place on the University of Illinois campus in the Old Ag Building during 1941. Seven men, aged 21-28, volunteered for this experiment. It was overseen by Professor H.H. Mitchell, chief of animal nutrition, who wanted to find out the effects of hot temperatures on human nutrition requirements. The volunteers would set in a climate controlled room, either hot and dry, to simulate a desert, or hot and humid to simulate the tropics, for up to eight hours a day. Sometimes their diets would be altered as different variables.19

Such experiments were dangerous. H.H. Mitchell called his experiment during his interview as dangerous as military service.20 Duane Hougham, one of the volunteers, said they sometimes lost as much as 22 pounds of sweat after eight hours in the chamber. It was an unpleasant experiment for the men, but they never shied away from their duty.

While smoke jumping and taking part in experiments were dangerous, there was a lot greater need for orderlies in mental health facilities. When the war started in 1941, many of the mental health doctors left the facilities to find better paying work. When they left, there was an average of 1 doctor per 300 patients (the American Psychiatric Association states there should be 1 per 10). Often conditions were filthy and the CPS men helped change the facilities to more respectable standards.22

While they did do a lot of good, the CPS orderlies weren’t without controversy. When a few of the CPS orderlies reported violence and physical abuse of patients on the part of regular employees at Hudson River State Hospital, four of those employees were released, two of whom were war veterans. While the CPSers had acted in accordance with the law, locals demanded that the CPSers be reprimanded and dismissed. But that was cleared up.23

CPS had many successes during its years of existence. General Lewis Hershey called it a noble experiment in democracy, happy that pacifists could express their beliefs even during war.24 The medical experiments and conservation efforts left a long lasting impact. They found better cures for diseases, better pest control methods, new method of mapping trees and so much more. Many of the participants said that their CPS experience greatly impacted their spiritual growth.25

CPS helped shed some better light onto conscientious objectors. By war’s end, 75 percent of Americans believed the conscientious objectors had a right to express their beliefs.26

With all its successes, CPS was not without its problems. As conscientious objector status was decided by local draft boards, rulings were inconsistent. As many boards were more concerned with service over civil justice, they sometimes used trickery to weed out as many COs as possible. One example of such trickery was that they would show a fake headline proclaiming Hitler’s death and watched the reaction of the man claiming to be pacifist. Many eventually had to appeal to courts to reverse these decisions. And despite the fact that many Americans eventually supported pacifists, there was still much public hatred. There were many complaints about the yellow conchies as they were sometimes called.28 On hitchhiking back to Waldport...a car with a sailor and a girl stopped and let me in. Are you in the military? they asked. No, I’m a conscientious objector.... Well then, he said, you get right out here! ... Well he turned around...and I fell down in the gutter...and just missed being run over. Adrian Wilson’s example of persecution is just one of many such examples.29

CPSers also had money issues. Only 5 percent of those eligible received dependency payments of $25 for their wife and $10 for each child. Not only was their pay low, at only $2.50/month, much of what they earned from their work went to the Treasury Department. Many complained that this helps fund the war effort, but there was no such luck in getting this changed. As if they weren’t getting paid enough, they had the further embarrassing fact that German prisoners were getting $0.80/day for their labor. To many CPSers this was unfair, but there was nothing they could do about it.30

Finally, there were complaints from the CPSers themselves. When they had joined the program they were told they’d be doing work of National importance. For many of them, soil conservation and forestry work wasn’t the work they were looking for. Because they worked at a much faster rate than the CCC, they were often bored and out of work, complaining the work wasn’t hard enough to what they were used to. Many camps would start work at 9 and end at 3.31

While the CPS Program was far from perfect, it did usher in a new era of acceptance for conscientious objectors. By the Vietnam War, there were 170,000 legally recognized conscientious objectors. Now if they were all really conscientious objectors or just didn’t want to get shot at may never be known. After the Vietnam War, the U.S military became all volunteer force. Still, there were soldiers who wanted to get out after seeing how horrible war was. During the Gulf War, 2,500 soldiers asked for CO status.32 While this is a good sign that pacifism is gaining a foothold, we still have a long way to go before pacifism is fully recognized as a choice. One of those 2,500 soldiers, Marine Eric Larson was charged with desertion in time of war, a crime punishable by death.33 But we can thank CPS for starting us off on the right track towards peaceful alternative services.