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Conscientious Objectors


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 .

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Conscientious Objection

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

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Conscientious Objector


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.

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conscientious objector

conscientious objector, person who, on the grounds of conscience, resists the authority of the state to compel military service. Such resistance, emerging in time of war, may be based on membership in a pacifistic religious sect, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Dukhobors, or Jehovah's Witnesses, or on personal religious or humanitarian convictions. Political opposition to the particular aim of conscription, such as that maintained by the Copperheads during the Civil War, by radical groups during World War I and, to a more limited extent, during World War II, and by large numbers during the Vietnam War, is usually considered in a separate category. The problem of conscientious objectors, although present in different forms since the beginning of the Christian era, became acute in World Wars I and II because of the urgent demands for manpower of the warring governments. The United States and Great Britain allowed members of recognized pacifistic religious groups to substitute for combat service: (1) noncombatant military service, (2) nonmilitary activity related to the war effort, or (3) activity considered socially valuable. Pacifists without recognized claim to exemption were liable to harsher treatment, and about 5,000 conscientious objectors were imprisoned in the United States between 1940 and 1945. The postwar Selective Service Act, passed in 1948 and amended in 1951, required that conscientious objection be based on religious belief and training that included belief in a Supreme Being. In 1970 the Supreme Court removed the religious requirement and allowed objection based on a deeply held and coherent ethical system with no reference to a Supreme Being. In 1971 the Supreme Court refused to allow objection to a particular war, a decision affecting thousands of objectors to the Vietnam War. Some 50,000–100,000 men are estimated to have left the United States to avoid being drafted to serve in that war.

See G. C. Field, Pacifism and Conscientious Objection (1945); M. Q. Sibley and P. E. Jacob, Conscription of Conscience (1952, repr. 1965); L. Schlissel, ed., Conscience in America (1968); G. C. Zahn, War, Conscience, and Dissent (1967); M. Ferber and S. Lynd, The Resistance (1971).

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"conscientious objector." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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conscientious objector

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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conscientious objector

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.

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