Conscientious objector William White being dragged from his home in Sydney after being arrested, 1966
“When I chose to apply for conscientious objector status in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War, I was a teenager and in a quandary: How was I to prove my objection to conscription on non-religious grounds? Although I’d been raised a Catholic, at age 17 I began calling myself an agnostic. Years later I would reclaim my Christian identification. But that year the challenge was to prove my objections to war based on philosophical principles. Before 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court permitted conscientious objector status for men whose pacifism was not based on specific religious beliefs, the odds were definitely stacked against such a stance. A non-combatant status for COs was approved during World War I, but for pacifists who wanted no part of the military — even as a non-combatant — the only options were imprisonment in places like Fort Lewis, Alcatraz or Fort Leavenworth, or classification as mentally ill. Not until 1940 were COs who refused to be part of the military as non-combatants finally offered alternate service as fire fighters in Washington State or in menial jobs in psychiatric hospitals. The Vietnam War saw a marked increase of COs, largely because many young Americans were beginning to question the war’s whole ‘domino theory’ rationale. I remember telling my family that I admired the men who fled to Canada or who became COs rather than participate in an immoral war. We argued at the dinner table, at the breakfast table, and finally agreed to disagree without resolving the tension between us. So you can imagine the tension once I announced my decision to register as a CO. My father’s biggest concern was protecting the family name. At the time he was running for the Board of Supervisors in a very Republican suburb in Chester County; having a son who was a CO was a scandalous liability. My mother, in tears, pleaded with me to think of my father and his work as an architect. Would his business fail because of me? I was warned that becoming a CO would destroy my future career options. Employers would reject me outright or fire me once they learned my status. Intuitively I knew this wasn’t true. Time, I was certain, would provide a different scenario; surely beliefs about the value of the Vietnam War would change. When I formally applied for CO status, I was told by a counselor at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Philadelphia that my chances were not good. …”
TIME: Why I’m Still a Conscientious Objector, Almost 50 Years After the Vietnam Draft Lottery
The first Vietnam War conscientious objector to be jailed – excerpt from interview with Brian Ross (Audio)
John Lewis was a conscientious objector to war. Did you know that?