Civil Disobedience

The Militant Pacifists of World War II

War by Other Means tells the story of those conscientious objectors who did not cooperate with the government's alternative-service schemes.


War by Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance, by Daniel Akst, Melville House, 368 pages, $23.19

In 1940, during the twilight between peace and war, a divided Congress passed a law to conscript young men into the Army—the first federal "peacetime" draft, which lasted throughout American participation in World War II. Congress accommodated young pacifist men whose consciences wouldn't let them take part in the fighting: If they could convince the government that their pacifism was sincere, conscientious objectors would be assigned to either noncombatant military service or noncombatant civilian service.

Noncombatant military service generally meant being a medic, getting shot at without doing any shooting oneself. If a young man thought wearing a military uniform was too much of a concession to the war machine, he would be assigned to civilian service on the home front—usually working in rural work camps, doing difficult forestry work, or fighting fires. Other civilian service options included working in mental asylums or serving as human guinea pigs for dangerous scientific and medical experiments. Those in military service were paid; those in civilian service received no pay. Refusing to cooperate with this system meant a prison sentence.

In War by Other Means, journalist Daniel Akst does discuss young pacifists who cooperated with the government. But Akst is more interested in militant draft resistance—in those conscientious objectors who did not cooperate (or did not fully cooperate) with the government's alternative-service schemes. Some refused any kind of alternative service, which led to prison, where they staged protests when they saw injustice. Some initially accepted civilian work assignments but walked off the job—and into prison—when they were convinced they were collaborating too closely with an unjust system. Others stayed in the work camps while engaging in strikes and protests.

All these groups, which often kept in touch with and supported each other, used nonviolent protest techniques such as work strikes, hunger strikes, and sit-ins at segregated businesses and prison cafeterias. Akst argues that the nonviolent tactics and principles learned in these protests informed the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, gay liberation, and other movements of the 1960s and later. He describes David Dellinger and others who defied the draft at the Union Theological Seminary as "exemplars of the type [of draft resisters] who mattered most to history: the radical pacifists who would go on to play important roles in political and social change in the decades to come."

While sympathetic to the World War II resisters, Akst disagrees with them on a fairly important point. The resisters, as complete pacifists, opposed the war against Adolf Hitler's Germany, which Akst considers just and necessary. Akst rebukes pacifists who thought it feasible for the Allies to stop fighting Germany in exchange for Hitler's agreement to let the Jews escape his clutches. (More pragmatically, some pacifists suggested that America loosen its immigration restrictions to save some Jews from Hitler's slaughter.) Many resisters also posited a moral equivalence between America's flawed republic and Hitler's terror state.

During American participation in the war, pacifists were cut off from the social mainstream. For the figures Akst covers, their beleaguered minority status inspired them to new militance. They protested against intellectually unchallenging labor assignments in the work camps, against prison mail censorship, and against racial segregation in the prisons and in society as a whole.

The establishment did not always capitulate; prison authorities sometimes force-fed hunger strikers. Yet liberal prison administrators could sometimes be induced to meet protesters' demands. In the work camps, run by the pacifist Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren under government supervision, labor could be arduous. But during their respites from work, residents could socialize and organize. Such comparative lenience is more than one might have expected of a country at war and was probably a reaction against the repressive treatment of war opponents the last time around, in 1917–18.

Akst's chief characters are Dellinger, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, and Dwight Macdonald. These four pacifists provided organizational and intellectual leadership to the small but vocal group of draft resisters.

Dellinger refused to register for the draft even though, if he had, he could have claimed exemption as a religious seminarian. He went in and out of jail for this and other draft-law violations, agitating both on the inside and on the outside. During the intervals out of prison, Dellinger traded his seminarian berth for residence at Christian ashrams. The inspiration for Dellinger and many other resisters was Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian independence leader and champion of nonviolent resistance, who was himself imprisoned for opposing the war.

Rustin was an important link between the pacifist militants and the anti-segregation campaigns. He was a disciple of A.J. Muste, a minister turned full-time pacifist, whose group Fellowship of Reconciliation promoted nonviolent activism against war. Many of its members, inspired in part by Rustin, branched out and formed a racial justice organization called the Congress of Racial Equality, focusing on Gandhian/Mustian tactics against segregation.

Rustin himself was an expert organizer who rallied the troops (as it were) both within and outside of prison. Like Dellinger, he alternated between prison and freedom, gaining a relatively high profile as a speaker when on the outside and as a striker when behind bars. Although he supposedly had a steady boyfriend, Rustin indulged in promiscuous sexual behavior both in and out of prison, a habit that damaged his position in the anti-war and anti-segregation movements. His colleagues nonetheless continued to rely on his behind-the-scenes organizing after the war.

Day was a Catholic laywoman who, with the approval or at least the acquiescence of American bishops, formed a network of settlement houses for the poor. Her Catholic Worker movement attacked the injustices of the day, which as Day conceived them included all war. Her uncompromising wartime pacifism split Day's movement, as she refused to countenance war supporters under the Catholic Worker tent. Day made a gesture toward reconciling her pacifism with the church's "just war" teachings: While Christianity does not categorically reject all war, she argued, it does reject war under modern conditions of deadlier weapons and killing techniques. She also was an anarchist and was opposed to abortion, having repented of her own terminated pregnancy.

Macdonald was a New York intellectual who, as New York intellectuals tend to do, ran a journal or two during the war. He evolved over time from a Trotskyist to an anarchist. During the war he was going through a pacifist phase, and he promoted pacifist ideas in the Partisan Review and in Politics, a new magazine he founded in 1944.

Dellinger, Rustin, Day, and Macdonald were all familiar figures on the 1960s left, speaking out against segregation and then against the Vietnam War. Their anti-segregation protests partook of the Gandhian spirit that the resisters had tried to apply during World War II. But in the postwar years, their paths forked: Macdonald declared a few years into the Cold War that he supported (albeit with some caveats and exceptions) "the political, economic, and military struggle of the West against the East," while Dellinger showed a distinctly nonpacifist sympathy for Third World communist movements, often contorting himself to reconcile their violent statism with his anarcho-pacifist ideals. At some point that old 1940s emphasis on peace and nonviolence had gone astray.

By constantly highlighting the connections between the revolts of World War II and the revolts of the Vietnam era, Akst at times veers close to writing boomer history, a variation of Whig history in which everything is part of a pattern of progress that culminates in the 1960s. But at its best, War by Other Means paints a compelling portrait of World War II–era pacifist militance.