Lawrence Miller was born in New York City on the Upper East Side in 1920. He was raised Episcopalian and attended St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire as a boarding student. Lawrence subsequently followed his brother to Antioch College in Ohio. There, Lawrence became interested in Quakers and pacifism. By 1941, he had decided to register as a conscientious objector during World War II.
After working at a Civilian Public Service camp in New Hampshire, Lawrence participated in two “human guinea pig” (HGP) experiments. He was then sent to Orlando, Florida, to build privies to combat hookworm, which included working in African American neighborhoods. Seeking to avoid violence against the population he was serving by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)—who were agitated by the sight of white men working for and alongside black men—Lawrence volunteered to be part of another HGP experiment, where he was given pneumonia. Lawrence was then assigned to a camp in Trenton, North Dakota, until the completion of his service.
After the war, Lawrence enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary and earned a master’s degree in religious education. He was then hired by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia and later became secretary to the Friends General Conference. Lawrence coordinated projects in Asia and the Middle East, as well as representing Quakers at international conferences in Kenya, Romania, China, and the Soviet Union. He often spoke out for human rights and supported efforts to end world poverty.
Lawrence also participated in civil rights marches with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and both organized and marched in many anti-war protests. He moved with his wife, Ruth, to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to revive a Quaker community. There, he organized weekly peace vigils, among other actions. Lawrence further worked with the AFSC in Bangalore, India, as the director of a Quaker youth program, and oversaw health and agricultural projects. After retiring, he published a biography of Clarence Pickett, former executive secretary of the AFSC, called Witness for Humanity.
In this interview, Lawrence recalls being introduced to Quakers and pacifism while at Antioch College, and enlisting as a conscientious objector during World War II. He also describes working at a Civilian Public Service camp in New Hampshire, participating in three “guinea pig” experiments, and traveling to Florida to combat dysentery. He further discusses the work of the American Friends Service Committee and his involvement in the organization throughout his lifetime.
A Traveling Ministry
The more important thing that happened was that, as a rather isolated and lonely person, I attached myself—especially in the last year that I was there, the sixth form year—to one of the many ministers that were at the school. This particular minister was also living in the dormitory where I was. And I remember going in and asking him a lot of questions. He had sort of a rural ministry on the side, had nothing to do with the school, but he took me out on some of the visits, to go and see poor, rural people in New Hampshire.
Well, of course, this was an eye-opener for me, coming from an upper-class background in New York, and really knowing nothing about that, except that, of course, I lived in the time of the Depression when that came along. And my father did lose his broker’s business, so I was aware that there were things going on. But I was never, never in any dire straits of any sort.
Father’s Disapproval of Conscientious Objection
But the process of the F.B.I. [investigating me]—oh, they went to visit my girlfriends, they went to visit my parents, they went to visit anybody they could get their hands on to try to determine whether I was sincere. It was rather interesting that they went to visit my father in his office on Wall Street. I have no idea exactly what he said; I know that he was in strong disagreement with me. But he was not an authoritarian sort of person. He was a very amiable person.
But it was a great, great shock [for my father] to have—it was actually two sons who were going through the same process, who wanted to be conscientious objectors. Because he’d been in World War I, he’d been wounded and everything, and it was unbelievable for him. But the F.B.I. visit was I think a help to him because the F.B.I. man apparently said to him, “As long as your son seems to be associated with the Quakers, then we as a government don’t have to have any doubts about his sincerity. But have him stay away from some of these left groups, communist groups, and that kind of thing.” Well, I had no interest in those groups. In fact, I had some experience at Antioch College with students who were, I thought, manipulating the democratic process and all that [for] student government. I didn’t like that at all.
Preparing for CPS Camp
I do need to say, that at that point—with the war already on, with my special awareness of the classmates from St. Paul’s school, almost all of them going into the Armed Forces—there wasn’t a single other conscientious objector in my class. There were a few other conscientious objectors who came from St. Paul’s, but I didn’t really know that ‘til years later. So I was very much aware that they were going off into the service.
And I welcomed this final move; it was a very decisive move for me, to be going to camp. I wasn’t just playing around with the idea of being a CO; I was going to go, and wanted to very much make the best of it, and wanted to somewhat prove myself—prove myself that whatever came along, that I could handle it.
Champion of the Lice Experiment
I reached—according to the monograph that was published in a professional magazine—164 lice.
DN: And this was a great distinction?
And this was a great distinction because it was the champion. It was the most. And the Rockefeller Foundation generously gave me, as a prize, a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I have to this day.
DN: So, I think of this, of being infested with lice, as absolutely horrendous and horrible, but was it just awful?
It was not awful. I mean, it just was not. I kept something of a journal and wrote home about it, and it’s just that you sort of got used to the lice. I remember sleeping well. And some men apparently experienced some skin irritation, according to the report, to the monograph. But no, it just honestly was not—there was not discomfort involved.
Racial Tensions in Orlando
Some of the men were also working on helping paint some of the schoolhouses in the black districts. Seemingly the community was willing to tolerate conscientious objectors, but they were not willing to tolerate men who saw African Americans as equals. And we got into some real trouble, and there were Ku Klux Klan threats. It was especially hard on a black school principal, who with his wife came to have a meal with us, which these days seems like such an innocuous thing to have done, but was a great crime at that time. I honestly don’t know whether he lost his job, but if he didn’t, he was severely reprimanded.
Honestly, I was worried about the Ku Klux Klan coming down and just beating us up. There would have been nothing to prevent them. And this then became something of a motivation for me and some of the other men to volunteer for still another guinea pig experiment.
Reflections on Conscientious Objection
I was so deeply embedded in the conviction that I was making a long-term and even a lifetime witness, and that I did not—I mean, I never had a feeling of hostility to those persons who did go in to the Armed Forces. I understood, especially when there was that argument about that we’ve got to get rid of Hitler and the Nazi persecution, and all of that, and the dreadful things that they were doing.
But I was not constantly churning over in my mind as to whether I had taken the right position for me. And I think that that was also influenced by an appreciation of my own psychological condition, which was that I—in no way could I have been aggressive to the point of even learning to fight in the Armed Forces. I think I intuitively knew that this could break me up, that this could break me up. That I could well have become a 4-F on mental grounds if I had said, “Oh, well, yes, I’m going to do this, I’m going to make myself do this.” I was sufficiently aware of some of my interior life that I didn’t question my stand.
And haven’t really questioned it, as some of my friends, colleagues so to speak, in CPS camp have. I have a very good friend of mine who has said in later years he thought he should have signed up. But he was a birthright Quaker. His family—unlike my family—his family was expecting him to be a CO, so that he didn’t really seriously consider going into the Armed Forces.