Did Everybody in the Greatest Generation Fight?

Fact & Fiction

Published on 7-8-02


Dianne Lobes, Ed.D., is a writer, teacher and psychologist in Eugene, Oregon. A member of Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), she presents workshops on Conscious Choice.

My Uncle Harvey is one of 12,000 who joined the Civilian Public Service (CPS) during World War II to do"work of national importance," rather than agreeing to kill other young men like himself. He didn't believe, as the government advertised then, that he was"the good guy" and that the Germans and Japanese were the"bad guys," worthy only of being slaughtered. He was a" conscientious objector" (CO). Twenty-five thousand others were noncombatants assigned to military units, and six to seven thousand were imprisoned for refusing conscription. None fit the pattern of uber-nationalism that was evident then and is in danger of becoming institutionalized now. Perhaps this was their greatest legacy, though they have many, for they too were part of"the greatest generation".

Harvey and his wife endured the rigors of a CPS camp before volunteering for service at the mental hospital in Norwich, Connecticut, where they remained for four long years. They became part of the heroic group of CO's who humanized the barbaric mental hospital system through their principles, whistle-blowing, educational efforts, and professional and caring behavior. Other CO's smoke-jumped into forests to stop fires, began a soil conservation program to save farmlands from erosion and misuse, and offered their bodies, sometimes their lives, to"guinea pig" medical experimentation now considered unethical. Despite courageously providing national service that few would willingly do, for virtually no pay, they endured jeers of"yellow-belly" from children as well as adults, questioning of their patriotism, and constant scorn at home and in their assigned communities. It was considered a difficult war in which to live one's principles, as perhaps all are.

I visited my uncle last August, and recently saw the film"The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It" (PBS). This film and my own research have revealed to me the truth of the old saying,"The more things change, the more they stay the same." Everything didn't change on September 11th; much is only being recycled.

In World War II the government tried to insulate the public from criticisms of the war, without making martyrs of the interned CO's. CO's were vilified, misunderstood and unappreciated for the wide-ranging services they performed. Newspapers fraudulently reported that they were"sitting around" doing as little as possible. The energy, money and propaganda used to stifle anti-war sentiments, including knowledge about conscientious objectors, foreshadowed the methods of today. The Selective Service was expert at using"wartime hysteria" and the"hostility of 'super-patriot' groups" to control the CPS and keep it out of the public eye, according to historian Richard C. Anderson. The National Archives and Records Administration stated,"Words, posters, and films waged a constant battle for the hearts and minds of the American citizenry just as surely as military weapons engaged the enemy." World War II, however, had its share of protest marches, just like today; one million American students"struck" for peace with signs saying"War is mass murder" and"We want our fathers here, not over there".

Today, the corporate-controlled media inundate us with patriotic platitudes, failing to report on the many domestic and international anti-war protests, or to relate information about peaceful alternatives or the gruesome realities of war outside New York City. George Bush threateningly says"you're either with us or against us"--as if anything in life after kindergarten were that black and white--and John Ashcroft proclaims that anyone who speaks against"the war" is a traitor. Neither carries the moral weight to make such onerous statements. University professors and other authorities are harassed and intimidated by the likes of Lynne Cheney for doing their jobs--which is to encourage enlightened thinking and free speech, two principles upon which our nation was founded. Just as conscientious objectors and Japanese-American citizens were herded into camps back then and kept out of the public eye, rights to peaceful dissent and to the exercies of deeply held values are victimized today.

The threat grew greater as HR 3598, the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 2001, was introduced into Congress on December 20th, to reinstate the draft in the U.S. and U.S. territories for 9 million American males aged 18-20. If passed, conscientious objectors would be inducted and trained as non-combatants in a"war" with no clear-cut enemy, no objective goals, and no end in sight.

John F. Kennedy said,"Wars will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today." The legacy of the conscientious objectors of World War II is what should guide our era, rather than submission to government manipulation which suffocates us today.


This article first appeared in the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon.

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More Comments:

turnbull - 5/8/2003

I completely agree with you on this subject. Peaceful negotiation would be nice, but probably ineffective. In the case with Iraq we took up arms and put a stop on Saddam Hussein’s rule and the people of Iraq thank us greatly. Though we did kill innocent people we had no choice but to go to war. He forced us into this and we took him out. This could have turned out better, but we were put into the position to take him out.

E.M. Johnson - 2/14/2003

I am helping students do research for a history projects. suggestions primary sources?

nick mallory - 10/10/2002

Fine ideals are null if you refuse to fight to defend them. Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Laden, must be opposed on moral terms but also with concrete action. The Jewry of europe oppose Hitler in dignified, non violent ways, and were slaughtered. I don't think Tojo would have been persuaded of the error of his ways by an anger management workshop. A lot of people did try to oppose the rise of Hitler in Germany - they were murdered. Soviet Communism collapsed, almost overnight, when such regimes lost their will to massacre their populations in the street. Eric Honekar had the Stasi in vans, body bags ready, until Gorbechov told him he wouldn't support mass murder anymore. Peacefull resistance to tyranny is noble, it's better than no resistance at all, but it's not morally superior to armed resistance when attacked and it certainly isn't more effective. Hitler and Japan were defeated, and the Soviet's deterred, by force of arms, not the peace corp.
This argument contines today of course. The idea that it is more moral to allow Saddam Hussein to continue to oppress and murder the people of Iraq, to complete weapons of mass destruction which could be used to destroy civillian populations in the west, and to ignore the international community at the U.N. than to fight and remove him is ludicrous but still parroted by those who oppose any millitary action. The fact that US intervention freed the people of Afganistan from dreadful oppression is ignored by those who'd rather see America as the source of all evil, rather than our strongest bulwark against it. Having a principled opposition to violence is fine but it more often stems for an unwillingness to face personal danger than any other motivation. Bush is hated in Europe i think because he is taking decisive action, it's his confidence and strength which is resented, more than what it is used for.
You write about a brave man, but you disparage the sacrifice of millions of braver men too.

Dianne Lobes - 2/15/2002

If the proportions had been reversed, if Pearl Harbor had not been engineered to falsely get us into a war that was not popular in 1941 (much like it looks like 9-11 was engineered), if men and women of principle had stood up all over the world and said "no" or "nein" to violence and fascism, there would have been no war, and no Hitlerian regime. We need to wake up and say "no" to the creeping fascism of today before it's too late again.

Paul Siff - 2/7/2002

Peace to Uncle Harvey and his 12,000, but I find more admirable the 12 million Americans who wore uniforms during the Second World War. I shudder to speculate about the fate of this country if the proportions were reversed!

Deep GREWAL - 2/7/2002

Thank you for this article.
I have just come across this site - indeed this medium - and am reading and commenting on several.
Having alluded to my position in one of the above, it is heartening to come across people such as yourselves over and above forming guesses.
Deep Grewal