Historical Markers
Civilian Public Service Historical Marker
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Civilian Public Service

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Friends Center at 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

Even before the United States' entrance into the Second World War, some Americans were expressing their outrage at the thought of allowing conscientious objectors (COs), whom they derisively called "conchies," the right to refrain from military service. A January 1940 Gallup poll found that 9 percent of Americans felt the COs should "be shot or put in jail" for their unpatriotic behavior. Twenty-four percent argued that, religious convictions or not, COs should be forced to engage in military operations.

Image of men and women sitting in chairs, on the floor, and standing while attending a meeting
Civilian Public Service conscientious objectors participating in a weekly discussion...
But Congress disagreed, and in the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 announced that "nothing contained in this act shall be construed to require any person to be subject to combatant training and service in the land and naval forces of the United States, who by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form."

From this law, three groups of COs eventually emerged. Some refused any cooperation with the war effort and were imprisoned. Others joined the armed services but served in non-combatant positions. Still others took a middle path and joined the government sanctioned Civilian Public Service.

During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Lewis B. Hershey to direct the Selective Service program. A man with Mennonite ancestors and a defender of the principle of freedom of conscience, Hershey sought to strike a balance between national security and freedom of conscience. Working together with the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO), they established the Civilian Public Service (CPS), camps where pacifists could conduct "work of national importance under civilian direction" in lieu of military duty. The NSBRO organized a number of camps where COs worked on projects for the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and other agricultural and conservation industries. As the war progressed, CPS camps sent men to work in mental hospitals and schools for the disabled. A select few became human guinea pigs, aiding in experiments on nutrition and vitamin levels. One CO died while involved in an experiment on infantile paralysis, a crippling disease better known as polio.

Former Yale Law School student who opposed the war, contracted hepatitis for the sake of science, bares his arm for the nurse's blood taking needle.
A former Yale Law School student who contracted hepatitis for the sake of science...
Approximately 12,000 men, a majority of them farmers, served as COs in close to eighty CPS camps during World War II. Mennonites were the largest group–more than 1,121 of them were in CPS camps by July 1942–followed by Church of the Brethren, Quakers, and Methodists. By 1944, close to 800 served in Pennsylvania CO camps, doing soil and forest conservation work, some in what they called the "ice box" of McKean County, and working on farms in Centre County.

Other COs were attached to state marker mental hospitals, where they drew attention to the horrible conditions of the institutions, particularly Philadelphia State Hospital, and brought about important changes and improvements in the mental-health field. Partially at the instigation of CPS men, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Philadelphia State Hospital in 1944 to examine conditions there.

Pennsylvania was the historic home of the peace churches in the United States, so it led the nation in the number of conscientious objectors, with more than 1,000 in 1944. (In 1944, the peak year, more than 7,000 COs served in seventy-eight camps.) Conscientious objectors could not serve in their native state, so Pennsylvania COs served elsewhere in the nation.

After the United States entered the war, the term of service for COs was extended from one year to the duration of the war plus one year. Although Hershey initially won funds to pay the men, public and governmental opposition often prevented the workers from being paid. Outraged at the whole system, some COs staged protests within the CPS camps. Dedicated to peace, the majority of the objectors followed the government's stipulations. Leaving homes and families, they served throughout the duration of the war.

Though critics from both sides of the issue found fault with the program, Hershey sought to find the balance between security and conscience. Answering a grieving mother who had just lost her son in combat and questioned why the CO could remain home, he wrote, "[We should feel proud to know] that we live today in a country where the small minority can enjoy freedom of conscience and not be placed in concentration camps on account of their belief."

National map of Mennonite CPS camps
National map of Mennonite CPS camps, 1944.
Hershey also introduced the right for individuals to claim religious exemption without being a part of one of the nation's four traditionally pacifist churches: the markerAmish, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Church, and the markerReligious Society of Friends (Quakers). His words to gathered Army officers echoed the theme that William Penn and the Quakers had sought to establish in Pennsylvania almost 300 years earlier. "To find anybody in the country who believes in something clear through, even though it may be quite simple and even though you may disagree with the thing he believes in, makes you feel a little better." Though the CPS disappointed many, the ideals of toleration and freedom of conscience embraced by Quakers and other pacifists did secure for the COs during World War II governmental accommodation and respect for freedom of conscience.

Also in the tradition of early Quakers, some pacifists were unwilling to perform alternative service. The most radical among them, including Pennsylvania civil-rights activist markerBayard Rustin and many Jehovah Witnesses, chose jail rather than participate in any activity that would assist in the conduct of war.
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