The Civilian Public Service
in the United States an alternative to military service
World War II
. From 1941 to 1947, nearly
12,000 draftees, willing to serve their country in some capacity
but unwilling to do any type of military service, performed
work of national importance
in 152 CPS camps throughout
the United States and Puerto Rico
Draftees from the historic peace
and other faiths worked in areas such as soil conservation
, forestry, fire
fighting, agriculture, social services and mental health.
The CPS men served without wages and minimal support from the
federal government. The cost of maintaining the CPS camps and
providing for the needs of the men was the responsibility of their
congregations and families. CPS men served longer than regular
draftees, not being released until well past the end of the war.
Initially skeptical of the program, government agencies learned to
appreciate the men's service and requested more workers from the
program. CPS made significant contributions to forest fire
prevention, erosion and flood control
medical science and reform of the mental health system.
Civilian Public Service firefighting
crew at Snowline Camp near Camino, California, 1945.
Conscientious objectors (COs) refuse to participate in military
service because of religious training or belief. During wartime,
this stance conflicts with conscription
efforts. Those willing to accept non-combatant
roles, such as medical
personnel, are accommodated. There are few legal options for
draftees who cannot cooperate with the military in any way.
Experiences of World War I
The conscription law of World War I provided for noncombatant
service for members of a religious organization whose members were
forbidden from participating in war of any form. This exemption
effectively limited conscientious objector status to members of the
historic peace churches: Mennonites
such as Hutterites), Religious Society of Friends
(Quakers) and Church of the
. The law gave the President authority to assign such
draftees to any noncombatant military role.
Conscientious objectors who refused
noncombatant service during World War I were imprisoned in military
facilities such as Fort
Lewis (Washington), Alcatraz Island (California) and Fort Leavenworth (Kansas).
The government assumed that COs
could be converted into soldiers once they were exposed to life in
their assigned military camps. Simultaneously the Justice
Department was preparing to indict 181 Mennonite leaders for
violating the espionage act
because of a statement they adopted against performing military
The draftees' refusal to put on a uniform or
cooperate in any way caused difficulties for both the government
and the COs. The treatment received by nearly 2000 of these
absolute COs included short rations, solitary confinement and
physical abuse so severe as to cause the deaths of two Hutterite
Preparation for World War II
After World War I, and with another European war looming, leaders
from the historic peace churches met to strategize about how to
cooperate with the government to avoid the difficulties of World
War I. Holding a common view that any participation in military
service was not acceptable, they devised a plan of civilian
alternative service, based on experience gained by American Friends Service
work in Europe during and after World War I and also
in lieu of
military service in Tsarist Russia.
As the United States prepared for another war, the historic peace
churches, represented by Friends who understood inner dealings of
Washington D.C. politics, attempted to influence new draft bills to
ensure their men could fulfill their duty in an alternative,
non-military type of service. On 1940-06-20
, the Burke-Wadsworth Bill
Congress. The arrangements for conscientious objectors were almost
identical to the World War I provisions.
Selective Service Act
The Friends representatives continued attempting to make the bill
more favorable to the historic peace churches. The Burke-Wadsworth
Bill passed on September 14, 1940, becoming the Selective Training
and Service Act of 1940
. The influence of the churches was
evident in section 5(g), which says in part:
The bill offered four improvements from the perspective of the
churches over the World War I provisions. The exemption applied to
conscientious objection based on religious training or belief,
opening the door for members of any religious denomination to apply
for CO status. Draftees turned down by local draft board could
appeal under the new law. Assignments to work of national
would be under civilian, not military, control.
With COs under civilian control, violations of the law were subject
to federal, not military, courts. From the military perspective, it
removed the burden of dealing with thousands of uncooperative
draftees and the concern that their philosophy would spread to
others. Unlike harsher methods, the military found that this
gentler approach resulted in about one in eight eventually
transferring to military service.
When registration commenced on 1940-10-16
, no structure was in place to handle
thousands of anticipated conscientious objectors. Church
representatives meeting with government officials learned that
little thought had been put into the program, and the churches were
advised to create a plan. Because the government wanted to deal
with one body, not individual religious denominations, the National Council for Religious
was formed as a liaison between the
churches and the federal government. The historic peace churches
outlined a plan that included running and maintaining CPS camps
under church control. However, President Roosevelt
opposed any plan not
involving military control over the draftees. To save their plan
and retain civilian direction of the program, the churches offered
to fund the camps. Aides convinced Roosevelt that putting the COs
to work in out of the way camps was preferable to repeating the
difficulties of World War I. Selective Service
and the peace
churches agreed to a six-month trial of church supported and funded
camps for conscientious objectors and thus Civilian Public
The first camp opened on 1941-05-15
Baltimore, Maryland. A total of 152 camps and units were
established over the next six years. The federal government
provided work projects, housing, camp furnishings and paid for
transportation to the camps. The responsibilities of the churches
included day-to-day management of the camps, subsistence costs,
meals and healthcare for the men. When the young men arrived at the
first camps, they started a six month experiment that would extend
to six years.
Civilian Public Service men lived in barracks-style camps, such as
former Civilian Conservation
facilities. The camps served as a base of operations,
from which the COs departed to their daily assignments. Sites were
located typically in rural areas near the agricultural, soil
conservation and forestry projects where the work took place.
camp such as number 57 near Hill City, South Dakota, had five dormitories and housed as many as 172 men
building the Deerfield Dam.
Later, with projects located in
urban areas, the men lived in smaller units
housing near their assignments. CPS men typically worked nine
hours, six days per week.
In large CPS dormitories, each man had
a cot, simple desk with chair and a narrow set of shelves for
, American Friends Service Committee and Brethren
Service Committee administered almost all of the camps. Association
of Catholic Conscientious Objectors managed four camps and
Methodist World Peace Commission two. Each camp was assigned a
director responsible for supervising camp operation. The director
managed the needs of the men, oversaw maintenance of the camp
facilities, handled community relations and reported to Selective
Service officials. Initially a pastor had the camp director role.
Later, capable men from among the CPS workers directed the
Besides the director, a matron, business manager and dietitian
staffed a typical camp. An educational director was responsible for
creating recreational, social and educational programs for the men.
Church history, Bible and first aid were standard course topics.
The strength of instructional programs varied from camp to camp,
and after nine hours of physical labor, it could be difficult to
motivate the men to attend classes. Most camps had libraries, some showed
current films and camp number 56 near Waldport, Oregon had a particular emphasis on the arts.
produced newsletters and yearbooks documenting their
The camp dietitian, with the help of men assigned as cooks,
prepared all of the meals. Camps with large gardens provided their
own fresh vegetables. Sponsoring congregations also supplied home
and fresh produce. The camps were
subject to the same shortages and rationing
as the rest of the
Sunday worship services were organized by the camp director if he
was a pastor, by a visiting pastor, or by the CPS men themselves.
While the historic peace churches organized the CPS, 38% of the men
came from other denominations and 4% claimed no religious
Men spent their free time doing crafts such as woodworking,
rugmaking, leatherwork and photography. Outdoor activities included
hiking and swimming. Men formed choirs and music ensembles,
performing in neighboring towns when relations were good. The men
earned two days of furlough for each month of service. These days
could be saved to allow enough time to travel several hundred miles
home or in some cases traded to other men in exchange for
Men with wives and dependents found it difficult to support their
families. Beyond a small allowance, the men did not get paid for
their service, nor were their dependents given an allowance. To be
closer to their husbands, women sought employment near their
husband's assignment. Later, when jobs on dairy farms became
available, families could live together in housing provided for
Men who became uncooperative with the CPS system and were unable to
adjust to the church-managed camps were reassigned to a few camps
managed by the Selective Service System. These camps tended to be
the least productive and most difficult to administer.Men who felt
compelled to protest the restrictions of them by the conscription
law tried various techniques to disrupt the program, such as
initiating work slowdowns and labor strikes. Routine rule breaking
frustrated camp directors. The most difficult cases were given to
the federal court system and the men imprisoned.
Churches were primarily responsible for financing Civilian Public
Service, providing for the men's food, clothes, and other material
needs. The churches also provided and paid for the camp director.
The men received an allowance of between $2.50 and $5.00 monthly
for personal needs. When jobs were available in surrounding farms
and communities, those willing to work beyond their regular CPS
jobs could earn extra spending money. The federal government spent
$1.3 million on the CPS program. The men performed $6 million of
unpaid labor in return.
Men who worked for farmers or psychiatric hospitals received
regular wages, which they were required to give to the federal
government. Objections to this practice developed immediately
because the men felt they were helping to fund the war. A
compromise was reached where the wages were put into a special fund
that was unused until after the end of the war. At one point,
church representatives attempted unsuccessfully to have these funds
used for providing a living allowance for the men's
Types of work
The first Civilian Public Service projects were in rural areas
where the men performed tasks related to soil conservation,
agriculture and forestry. Later men were assigned to projects in
cities where they worked in hospitals, psychiatric wards, and
university research centers.
Soil conservation and agriculture
Anticipating the rural background of most men, the initial camps
provided soil conservation and farming related projects. By August
1945, 550 men worked on dairy farms and with milk testing.
Labor-intensive farming operations like dairies were short of
workers and accepted COs to help fill the gap. Men assigned to the
Bureau of Reclamation
to prevent soil erosion,
constructed 164 reservoirs and 249 dams. A sixth of all CPS work
was performed in this area.
Forestry crews removed snow and
maintained roads when not fighting fires.
Forestry and National Parks
At Forest Service
National Park Service
CPS men were responsible for fire control. Between fires they built
forest trails, cared for nursery stock, planted thousands of
seedlings and engaged in pest control. Campgrounds and
roadways on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline
Drive of Virginia are products of CPS labor.
Hundreds of men volunteered for smoke
, showing their willingness to take great personal
risks. When fire was detected by a lookout
, smoke jumpers were flown directly to
the site and dropped by parachute to quickly contain and extinguish
the fire. From base camps scattered through the forests of Montana,
Idaho and Oregon, the men were flown as many as 200 miles to fire
sites, carrying firefighting tools and a two-day supply of K-rations
. For larger fires, additional men,
supplies and food were airdropped to expand the effort. Up to 240
CPS men served in this specialized program.
Civilian Public Service sites.
As the war progressed, a critical shortage of workers in psychiatric hospitals
because staff had left for better paying jobs with fewer hours and
improved working conditions. Understaffed wards at Philadelphia
State Hospital had one attendant member for 300 patients, the
minimum ratio being 10:1.The government balked at initial requests
that CPS workers have these positions, believing it better to keep
the men segregated in the rural camps to prevent the spread of
Eventually the men received permission to work for the mental
institutions as attendants or psychiatric aides. Individuals who
found jobs at the rural camps unfulfilling and meaningless,
volunteered for this new type of assignment. The mental health
field promised to provide the work of national importance
that the program was designed to produce. By the end of 1945, more
than 2000 CPS men worked in 41 institutions in 20 states.
The CPS men discovered appalling conditions in the mental hospital
wards. In an interview, a conscientious objector described his
experience when he first entered a mental hospital in October
The CPS men objected to the mistreatment and abuse of patients and
determined to improve conditions in the psychiatric wards. They
wanted to show other attendants alternatives to violence when
dealing with patients.
|Frank Olmstead, chairman of the War Resisters League observed:
One objector assigned to a violent ward refused to take the
broomstick offered by the Charge. When he entered the ward
the patients crowded around asking, "Where is your
broomstick?" He said he thought he would not need it.
"But suppose some of us gang up on you?" The CO
guessed they wouldn't do that and started talking about other
things. Within a few days the patients were seen gathering
around the unarmed attendant telling him of their troubles.
He felt much safer than the Charge who had only his broomstick
Outraged workers surveyed CPS men in other hospitals and learned of
the degree of abuse throughout the psychiatric care system.
Contacting church managers and government officials, the COs begin
advocating for reforms to end the abuses. Conditions were exposed
in institutions such as Cleveland State Hospital, Eastern State
Hospital in Virginia and Hudson River State Hospital.
The reformers were especially active at the Byberry
Hospital in Philadelphia where four Friends
initiated the The Attendant
magazine as a way to
communicate ideas and promote reform. This periodical later became
the The Psychiatric Aide
, a professional journal for
mental health workers. On 1946-05-06
exposé of the mental healthcare system based on the reports of COs.
Another effort of CPS, Mental Hygiene Project
the National Mental Health Foundation
. Initially skeptical
about the value of Civilian Public Service, Eleanor Roosevelt
, impressed by the
changes introduced by COs in the mental health system, became a
sponsor of the National Mental Health Foundation
actively inspired other prominent citizens including Owen J. Roberts
and Harry Emerson
to join her in advancing the organization's objectives
of reform and humane treatment of patients.
Draftees in Civilian Public Service became medical and scientific
research test subjects in human
under the direction of the Office of
Scientific Research and Development
and the Surgeon General
medical institutions such as Harvard Medical School, Yale and
Stanford Universities, and Massachusetts General Hospital. These
experiments involved a range of research topics, sometimes
endangering the health of the COs.
1940s the cause, method of communication and treatment of
infectious hepatitis was not well understood. Experimentation began
with COs working at psychiatric hospitals and was expanded to a
major research project with 30 to 60 test subjects at the University of
Pennsylvania and Yale University.
The men were inoculated with infected blood
plasma, swallowed nose and throat washings and the human body
wastes of infected patients, and drank contaminated water.
As a young surgeon, C. Everett Koop
was part of the research team
at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He relates
his experience with CPS test subjects:
The hepatitis research was instrumental in determining a virus is
responsible for the disease and that it is transmitted through
human filth, serum and drinking water.
During the early
was the chief anti-malarial
drug. Made from the bark of the South American cinchona tree
, quinine was in short supply during
the war, so scientists began searching for an alternative
treatment. The test subjects allowed themselves to be bitten by
malarial mosquitoes and when the fever reached its peak in three to
four days, were given experimental treatments. At the University of
Minnesota, twelve CPS men underwent tests to determine the
recovery period for those infected with malaria.
research documented the debilitating effects of the disease and the
amount of time required for a complete recovery.
: A hundred CPS men participated with tests
such that they inhaled or drank throat washings from soldiers with
colds and pneumonia. This research proved that colds and some types
of pneumonia are cause by a virus, not bacteria.
: To study the effects of diet
and nutrition, Dr. Ancel Keys
University of Minnesota Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene placed
32 conscientious objectors on a controlled diet. For three months
they were given a normal 3200 calorie diet. This was followed by
six months of an 1800 calorie diet, fewer calories than provided by
the famine diet experienced by the civilian population in wartime
Europe. The research documented the men's ability to maintain
physical output and the psychological effects such as introversion,
lethargy, irritability and severe depression. The study then
followed the men's long recovery as they returned to a normal diet
and regained the weight lost during the experimentation.
The study provided valuable insights into hunger and starvation and
the results were made available to all major relief agencies
concerned with postwar food and nutrition problems, helping to
inspire the Marshall Plan
Musical instruments provided a
diversion during off-duty hours.
Civilian Public Service men were released from their assignments
and the camps closed during March 1947, nineteen months after the
end of the war in the Pacific. Reforms in the mental health system
continued after the war. The experience of Mennonite COs was
instrumental in creating regional mental health facilities in
California, Kansas and Maryland.
, who was in CPS camp number 37
near Coleville, California, together with several other COs founded
Radio in Berkeley, California, the world's first
listener-sponsored radio station. Poets William Everson
and William Stafford
were both in CPS
camps. Actor Francis William Weaver
spent time in the Big Flats (New York) CPS Camp number 46.
Men from the historic peace churches volunteered for relief and
reconstruction after their release from CPS. The 1947 Nobel Peace Prize
was awarded to American
and British Friends Service Committees for their relief work in
Europe after the war. Mennonite Central Committee redirected its
effort from camp administration to relief and reconstruction in
Europe after the war.
Civilian Public Service created a precedent for the Alternative Service Program
conscientious objectors in the United States during the Korean
. Although CPS would not be duplicated, the idea of
offering men an opportunity to do work of national
instead of military service was established.
- Dyck, John M. (1997). Faith Under Test: Alternative Service
During World War II in the U.S. and Canada, Gospel
- Gingerich, Melvin (1949), Service for Peace, A History of
Mennonite Civilian Public Service, Mennonite Central
- Juhnke, James C. (1975), A People of Two Kingdoms: the
Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites, Faith and
Life Press. ISBN 0-87303-662-X
- Keim, Albert N. (1990). The CPS Story, Good Books.
- Krahn, Cornelius, Gingerich, Melvin & Harms, Orlando (Eds.)
(1955). The Mennonite Encyclopedia, Volume I,
pp. 604-611. Mennonite Publishing House.
- Mock, Melanie Springer (2003). Writing Peace: The Unheard
Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors, Cascadia Publishing
House. ISBN 1-931038-09-0
- Swarthmore College Peace Collection:
- Alexander, Paul (2008) Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances
in the Assemblies of God. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing.
- Van Dyck, Harry R. (1990) Exercise of Conscience: A World
War II Objector Remembers. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN
- Schlabach, Mose A. (2003) Memories of CPS Camp Days,
Volumes I and II. Sugarcreek, OH: Carlisle Printing.
- Various (2002) I Couldn't Fight and Other CO Stories
1917—1960. Ephrata, PA.: Eastern Mennonite Publications.
- Wittlinger, Carlton (1978) Quest for Piety and Obedience:
The Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel
Press. ISBN 0916035050
- Cottrell, Robert C. (2006) Smokejumpers of the Civilian
Public Service in World War II: Conscientious Objectors As
Firefighters. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. ISBN