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Teaching Objection

by Zachary Bullock

The 43,000 draftees Selective Service classified as conscientious objectors were categorized within three sub-groups: those who served as noncombatants in the military (approximately 25,000); those who worked in Civilian Public Service (CPS) (approximately 12,000); and those imprisoned by the U.S. government for refusing to register for the draft or refusing to serve in alternative service (approximately 6,000). My grandfather served as a CO in Civilian Public Service.

Of the 21 texts recommended by the College Board for AP U.S. history courses that I reviewed, only three mention World War II conscientious objectors. Houghton Mifflin's The Enduring Vision devotes one paragraph to CO history out of a 28-page chapter on World War II. Houghton Mifflin's A People and a Nation also offers a single paragraph on conscientious objectors out of an 18-page chapter. Longman's The American Nation devotes a single sentence to conscientious objectors out of its 21-page chapter. The other 18 texts reviewed suggest, by omission, that war resisters were completely irrelevant to the conflict. Twelve of these, slightly more than half of my sample, indirectly legitimate this absence by arguing that the U.S. citizenry unanimously supported the war. W.W. Norton's America, for example, claims that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor "silenced America's debate on neutrality, and a suddenly unified and vengeful nation prepared for the struggle."

As a result of this inadequate coverage, textbook accounts of World War II COs fail to address two important aspects of the CO experience. First, textbooks do not address the harsh treatment COs received from the federal government and the civilian population. Indeed, Longman's The American Nation claims, without evidence, that COs "met with little hostility" during World War II. This claim is an outright falsehood.

The government imprisoned roughly 6,000 men who refused to cooperate with Selective Service because of their beliefs. Cynthia Eller, in Conscientious Objectors and the Second World War, states that these objectors accounted for one sixth of the federal prison population and could serve prison terms up to five years and be fined up to $10,000. The United States government imprisoned conscientious objectors for refusing military induction, refusing service in CPS, refusing draft registration, or for walking out of service. Even recalcitrant COs in CPS were sometimes imprisoned. If released, a CO could be imprisoned again for refusal to cooperate with Selective Service. For example, Dave Dellinger, a lifelong champion of nonviolence, was imprisoned twice during World War II for draft resistance. During this period, Dellinger consciously embraced a life course dedicated to peace and social justice advocacy, one that he anticipated would be filled with sacrifices like those he endured as a conscientious objector.

Civilian Public Service Camp 37 at Coleville, Calif.

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