Conscientious Objectors of WWII

“Mental Hospitals Are Again Under Fire” read an editorial describing critiques of state institutions for people with psychiatric, developmental, and other disabilities. It was published in a leading mental health journal in 1946. It was written in response to a long series of exposés of state institutions across the country. The editorial acknowledged that the psychiatric establishment had tolerated squalid conditions and brutality at the nation’s institutions for too long. The exposés had been brought about through the efforts of young conscientious objectors (COs) during what is widely regarded as America’s “good war.”  The editorial could have been written yesterday. On May 17, a group of self-described mental health clients and psychiatric survivors staged a rally at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in San Francisco protesting medical coercion and forced treatment. Ninety-nine disability rights activists were arrested at a Capitol Hill protest on April 28 urging passage of federal legislation guaranteeing the right to receive services in the community rather than nursing homes and other institutions. Groups around the country have endorsed the right to community living for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Today’s struggles give us a chance to recall the heroic works of the conscientious objectors of World War II. About 12,000 men performed civilian public service as an alternative to serving in the military during that war. Initially, they labored at forest, park, and soil conservation camps located in remote areas. Eventually, the Selective Service approved the establishment of “detached” units at which COs served as human guinea pigs in medical experiments, worked on public health projects in the rural south, and performed other forms of service. Approximately 3,000 men were assigned to work at mental hospitals and training schools that faced severe labor shortages during the war.  Civilian public service projects, including mental hospital and training school units, were sponsored by the historic peace churches–the Mennonites, Friends or Quakers, and Brethren–and a smattering of other religious groups, including an association affiliated with the Catholic Workers. Although the majority of the men came from the peace churches, their ranks represented over 120 religions, including Jews and African American Muslims.
The young COs were appalled by the conditions they found at the institutions. Wards contained as many as 350 severely disabled patients crammed into dark, depressing dayrooms and dormitories, with as few as one or two attendants on duty. Brutality was rampant at the institutions. Many of the regular attendants were drifters and so-called misfits who could not find employment elsewhere. Beatings of
patients–with fists, pipes, or rubber hoses filled with buck shot–were commonplace.  Institutional conditions and the brutal treatment of patients challenged the pacifist and humanitarian beliefs of the COs. Most tried to counter the violence at the institutions through individual acts of kindness and caring. The COs held endless debates about the difference between cruelty and force necessary to protect patients from harming themselves or others. Some Mennonites questioned whether their religious philosophy of nonresistance permitted the use of any form of coercion against another human being. At Quaker units, COs were inclined to bring institutional conditions to the attention of public officials and the press. At Philadelphia State Hospital, COs launched a national movement to reform state institutions. Reports on institutions they collected from other COs formed the basis for Life’s “Bedlam 1946” article, an abridged copy of which was published in Reader’s Digest.
After the end of the war, the Philadelphia COs established a national foundation to further their aims. Included among their supporters were Eleanor Roosevelt, ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, actress Helen Hayes, and author Pearl Buck. From 1946 to 1950, their foundation
published educational materials for attendants and the public, created a legal division to reform state commitment laws, and sponsored radio dramas broadcast nationally on CBS and NBC. Then, in 1950, faced by chronic financial problems and led by a board of directors lacking the passion and zeal of its founders, the foundation formed by the COs merged with two mainstream organizations to create a new mental health organization. Within a brief period of time, the new organization lost interest in institutional conditions and turned its attention to other matters. The institutions became out of sight, out of mind once more. The efforts of World War II COs to reform the nation’s care of people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities have since faded from professional and public memory.
The late 1960s and early 1970s issued in a new era of attacks on institutions that continues to this day. The idealistic young COs of World War II were unsuccessful in making lasting reforms at mental hospitals and training schools. Perhaps their efforts were doomed from the start. There are limits to the degree to which institutions can be made to be pleasant places to live. Further, the COs never developed what would have been their natural constituency: people with disabilities and their family members. This is what makes the COs’ efforts stand out from current reform movements that are led by those most directly affected by how services are structured. On Memorial Day, we remembered those individuals who have served the country in times of crisis. The World War II COs who sought to improve the plight of some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens should be counted among what Tom Brokaw called the “greatest generation.”
Steven J. Taylor, Ph.D. is professor of cultural foundations of education at Syracuse University and co-director of SU’s Center on Human Policy, Law and Disability Studies. He is the author of “Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors.”

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