When the war started, not everyone was eager to serve. Many had to be drafted. And others objected to war in any form. Some of these objectors came to their beliefs on their own; others were members of several Christian denominations that are known as the historic peace churches. These include the Quakers, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Seventh Day Adventists. In York County, Nebraska, Henderson is a predominantly Mennonite community.
The question was what to do with these objectors when the country was fighting for its survival. During the Civil War, Quakers pressured Congress to allow members of the peace churches to perform alternate service, usually acting as medics who would care for wounded soldiers but not fight themselves.
The World War I draft law recognized the peace churches, but prosecuted anyone else who objected on the basis of their own beliefs. Five hundred objectors were court-martialed – 17 received death sentences for refusing to fight. Although none of death sentences was carried out, almost 150 objectors were jailed for life, and others were harassed and beaten.
Finally, in World War II, the draft law exempted from military service those who “by reason of religious training and belief” opposed war. The objectors still served. They were assigned to “work of national importance.” This service fell into two types:
- First, about 25,000 objectors served in the military in “noncombatant” roles. They were medics who were in the Army but didn’t carry a gun.
- Second, those who objected to being the military served on the home front. About 20,000 objectors fought forest fires, built conservation projects in rural areas, or took care of the mentally ill in hospitals.
Gordon Schmidt grew up in a Mennonite community in South Dakota and decided to register as a CO when he reached 18. He says the decision to be a conscientious objector was not necessarily popular. “It was considered as being non-patriotic. That was not the case, but it was perceived as such.”
Gordan’s wife Diena notes that the COs serving in mental hospitals during the war helped shed light on the deplorable conditions in many mental hospitals. “[Before,] the treatment of the patients had been done with force and with beating and with withholding, with punishment,” Diena says. “And our fellows went in there with love and with concern for the person.”
All across the country, COs were appalled at the conditions of the mental institutions and began getting the word out locally. In Iowa, COs wrote to the Des Moines Register, and eventually a state commission was set up to reform mental health in the state. LIFE magazine published an exposé, calling the worst mental health hospitals “snake pits.” The article documented mentally ill patients living in their own feces. Others were bound in straight jackets for days.
A reform movement sprang up to improve the hospitals and develop community-based alternatives.