Selective Service

Selective Service

With President Roosevelt’s executive order placing the responsibility for COs in the hands of the Director of Selective Service, CPS assignees were under the control of a militarized organization that classified and drafted civilians for military service. This created a convoluted and problematic administrative structure. The Peace Church service committees were responsible for the administration and daily operation of the individual camps. However, ultimate authority over CPS was in the Selective Service national headquarters. NSBRO served as the liaison between the two.

The classification of COs was the responsibility of local draft boards, who received their instructions from the Selective Service’s national headquarters in Washington. This tied them to the national office, but they exercised a great deal of autonomy. A man appearing in front of his local board when the Selective Service called his number could claim CO status and it was up to the local board to determine the validity of his beliefs. The two classifications the board could grant were I-A-O (available for noncombatant service) and IV-E (available for alternative service). Some boards were sympathetic and granted the status to most who applied while others were hostile to the stance and refused most claims. Often times, the board was populated by local business leaders, veterans, or members of patriotic clubs who often held views antithetical to the CO’s stance. As a result of this decentralized classification method, the granting of CO status was inconsistent from board to board.

Despite the problems, the Director of Selective Service for the majority of the war, General Lewis B. Hershey, defended and protected the privilege of conscientious objection. Though he was a military officer, he believed in the mission of CPS and labeled it as “an experiment in democracy.” He believed that a person who sincerely objected to war on religious grounds should be permitted to perform alternative service. This does not mean his tenure was without controversy, however. He sought to ensure that CPS camps were in remote locations and out of the national eye so as not to arouse negative public opinion. Some men saw this as a form of punishment for taking an unpopular stance. Furthermore, some blamed the lack of pay for CPS assignees on the unwillingness of General Hershey to try and establish some kind of provision for CO pay. 

Though not without criticism, the actions of the Selective Service during World War II represented a vast improvement over the policies of the First World War. COs now had a program of alternative service that allowed for them to hold to their convictions and maintain their peace witness. Only those who rejected any form of service to the government during wartime (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses) found themselves imprisoned due to their objection. However, there were strains in the relationship between the Peace Churches and the Selective Service, particularly over the ambiguities involving camp administration and the lack of pay for the assignees. This resulted in the American Friends Service Committee withdrawing from CPS late in the program due to their frustrations over the relationship with the Selective Service. The overall result is a mixed legacy. CPS provided an alternative form of service for those who rejected violence and war-making. Though the program ended after World War II, it was precedent setting as the concept of alternative service lasted throughout the remaining years of conscription in the United States. However, it also led men to question the “national importance” of the “make-work” programs and the legitimacy of forcing men to work without pay. Even with its controversies CPS served as a small, yet significant program that provided a peaceful alternative to military service. In doing so, it reveals one way the United States sought to reconcile religious liberties and dissent with the requirements of the state during wartime.


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