Reflecting on Service

Conscientious objectors occupied a precarious position during the wartime years, tasked with carving out a space to engage in public service work that benefited their country without contributing to the violence of war they believed was inimical to solving the world’s problems. At a time when service in the armed forces was seen as the pinnacle of patriotism for all able-bodied men, and as many of their friends and brothers answered this call and were deployed overseas, conscientious objectors found ways to—in the words of Malcolm Nichols—“live for their country” rather than die for it.


Becoming a “Guinea Pig”—Robert McCullagh

I was in Lima [Ohio] for, it was about eight months at Lima through that summer. By that time, I’d done all the printing that they needed done. The print shop had been run by a patient prior to my coming there, and he apparently did not work too hard. And I didn’t have any trouble doing all the work they needed.

That was after D-Day in Europe. I had friends who were in the invasion and were going through Europe at that time, and I really didn’t feel I was doing much in the hospital in Lima. So I walked into the office of the CPS administrator—and we were a small unit, only about twelve men—and went in to him to tell him that I was at about the point where I would give up my 4-E classification, and that I would go as a noncombatant into military service, probably as a medical corpsman.

And before I could say anything to him about what I was thinking, he said, “We’ve got a letter from the [Mennonite] Central Committee. They want to know if you would be interested in being a guinea pig in an experiment?” So, I didn’t say anything about what was on my mind. I said, “Well, what’s the experiment?” And he said, “It’s going to be done at the University of Minnesota, and they want to study semi-starvation.” And so, I said, “Yeah, go ahead, send the papers through and see if they want me.” So, in that sense, it was very fortunate that I was in a Mennonite camp because the Mennonites, really, actually volunteered me for the experiment. Whereas men in Quaker camps, there were all sorts of men who wanted to get into the units. There was real competition to get into the starvation.

Reflections on Conscientious Objection—Lawrence Miller

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.

From CO Service to Social Work—James Griffith

Out of my experience, it led me into a certain area of professional service. The social service program that existed in the ‘40s, when I first started with the state mental health, and the program today is two or three worlds different. But at that time, that was where our society was at. I have always felt that my life in those professions and as a social worker with the schools, I have felt it was a rewarding life.

DN: Do you feel that this work that you did in the Civilian Public Service was work of national importance, then?

Yes, it was, because the manpower shortage was such that we were very much needed.

“Live for My Country”—Malcolm Nichols

DN: So, did people do anything to show that they were unhappy that you were a conscientious objector? I mean, some of the stories say that some people spit and, you know, were really rude.

Well, they never said nothing too much about me. Only this one time I was washing windows, and this lady asked me when I was going to get drafted. She didn’t realize I’d been hard of hearing all my life, see. But I was foreman in this company, a window washing company, and she asked me, “When are you gonna go?”

And I said, “Well, I haven’t been called.” “But if you go, where will you go?” And I said, “Civilian Public Service.” She didn’t even know what that meant. And when I explained to her, “It’s for conscientious objectors to war.” “Oh, you won’t fight for your country?” I said, “I’m trying to live for my country.”

War and Forest Fires—Robert McCullagh

I think that somebody has to make a statement that we’ve gotta find out other ways to solve these difficulties than going to war. War may stop things, but it doesn’t solve the basic problems. And we just have to keep working at that, to see if we can’t discover ways to solve these basic problems. And we do that in the—well, even in the Park Service, you work out ways of trying to prevent fires. You’d rather not fight the fires; it’s better to work out something to prevent the fires. I think the same thing holds in the world situation, that we need to work out ways to prevent this from happening.