The story of the National Committee on Conscientious Objectors (1940-1946) involves many groups and individuals interested in CO problems and begins really with experiences of similar organizations in World War I.
During the first World War, the American Union Against Militarism, a highly efficient group organized to combat military training in schools and colleges, set up the Civil Liberties Bureau to defend war objectors and other pacifists whose constitutional rights were being ignored as war hysteria mounted. Soon this program had grown to such an extent and attracted so much attention that a friendly division was accomplished and the bureau became the National Civil Liberties Bureau, completely independent of the AUAM. As the war ended and objectors were released from prison, more and more of the NCLB's attention went to cases involving other than war resisters. In 1920 the Bureau was reorganized and became the American Civil Liberties Bureau.
To this day the ACLU is the largest, most prominent, and most inclusive agency working to uphold civil liberties in the United States and U.S. possessions. While Congress was shaping conscription legislation in preparation for United States participation in World War II, representatives of the ACLU appeared at committee hearings and proposed provisions for conscientious objectors which would parallel those of England, with complete exemption for sincere "absolutist" objectors and equal recognition of political and religious objection to war. These provisions were not incorporated in the conscription law as enacted.
Shortly after conscription began, the ACLU organized a special division, the National Committee on Conscientious Objectors, to concentrate on the problems of this particular class of draftees. Non-pacifists, as well as pacifists were included in its membership. Ernest Angell, a New York attorney and a member of the American Legion, was named chairman and continued in that office throughout the existence of the committee.
From its inception, there has been much misunderstanding of the role the NCCO chose to play. The committee deliberately chose to restrict its assistance to those objectors discriminated against in ways clearly unconstitutional. For instance, the NCCO advised objectors to register as prescribed by law, and it did not handle the cases of men who had refused to register. Pacifists generally, whatever their views on the constitutionality of conscription, were willing to support non-registrants out of sympathy with the motivation of the latter. The NCCO, however, was not a defender of pacifism as such and was concerned only when civil liberties clearly were violated.
Meanwhile the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO) had been set up in Washington with the three largest historic peace churches -- Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers -- taking the lead to administer Civilian Public Service, the "work of national importance, under civilian direction" which conscription laws prescribed for conscientious objectors. Because of its quasi-governmental aspect and the tolerance with which it was viewed in official Washington, NSBRO came to play the dominant role in the relations of war objectors with government. Its sponsorship was almost entirely religious and before long NSBRO was regarded by some objectors, particularly those of philosophical or political motivation, as an improper agent to represent them. this was one evidence of cleavage among pacifists that is obvious in most anti-war activities and groups and that sometimes is described as "left wing vs. right wing," sometimes as "religious vs. political," sometimes "fundamentalist vs. radical." None of these labels is exact.
Two members of the NSBRO staff, R. Boland Brooks and George Reeves, resigned in November 1942, each remarking in the process of resigning upon the need for an agency not connect with the government to handle the legal difficulties of the objectors who did not feel themselves to be well represented by NSBRO. At the time of resignation, Brooks was head of the NSBRO Appeals Section and Reeves was head of the Placement Division.
Brooks had gone to NSBRO under the sponsorship of the Temporary Committee for Legal Aid to Conscientious Objectors, formed in 1940 to provide bail and defray legal expenses in certain test cases involving objectors. The latter committee, alarmed at the failure of the presidential appeal system to function in the cases of many wrongly classified objectors, sent Brooks to Washington as a volunteer with NSBRO, to expedite appeals and try to prod officials into a more efficient operation of the appeal system. After some months, Brooks became a regular staff member of NSBRO.
This relationship of Brooks and the Legal Aid Committee was re-established after the resignations from NSBRO. Reorganizing as Legal Service to Conscientious Objectors, the Committee agreed to sponsor a Washington service bureau, with Brooks as director and Reeves as assistant director. An office was opened at 1734 F Street NW, Washington (DC) in the building occupied by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. The address of the sponsoring committee was that of its chairman, A.J. Muste, 2920 Broadway, New York City (NY). Other committee members were Evan W. Thomas, Treasurer; Abraham Kaufman, Secretary; Roger N. Baldwin, Charles F. Boss Jr., Allen Knight Chalmers, Harrison DeSilver, Richard B. Gregg, Georgia Harkness, John Haynes Holmes, Frank Olmsted, John Nevin Sayre, Arthur Sheehan and Norman Thomas.
In their preliminary announcement, Legal Service to Conscientious Objectors proposed to concentrate on obtaining paroles for and improving prison conditions of objector prisoners, and on providing bail, counsel and legal [aid] in matters concerning selective service, appeal boards and courts. This prospectus differed from that of the ACLU's NCCO in that it did not propose to limit assistance to those being deprived of constitutional liberties, but would aid also "those who have refused to conform with existing laws and regulations."
During this period of the organization of the Legal Aid to Conscientious Objectors, the NCCO also was arranging for a Washington service. At its meeting of December 21, 1942, it was decided to appoint an expediter and lobbyist to work toward removal of certain discriminatory restricts of COs. Dorothy Detzer was selected.
At the next meeting of Legal Service, January 11, 1943, the prospective overlap of the Brooks-Reeves and Detzer programs was considered and it was decided to ask the NCCO to take over the whole job in Washington. This proposal the NCCO promptly accepted at its next meeting, January 15th, and in February the changeover was accomplished.
While the Washington office was open only three years, from December 1942 through January 1946, they were critical years in the affairs of war objectors, as of the rest of the world. In this group of records will be found material on the numerous celebrated cases of COs that nearly every week during the war were handled sensationally by the newspapers.
The times produced many organizational crises for the Washington office, for the directorship of the program was a way-point no the way to prison or Civilian Public Service (CPS). Directors during the three years were Brooks, Reeves, Frank Olmsted, Lewis Hill, Randolph Phillips, Arthur Billings and Joseph Summers. During the crises produced by the sudden departure of directors, the program was administered by whomever happened to be working in the Washington office. Three of these office workers made particularly significant contributions to the service: Agnes Young (who resigned to marry an imprisoned objector, Charles Butcher); Marjorie Kendrick (who resigned to marry an imprisoned objector, Robert Swann); and Vivien Roodenko (the sister of Igal Roodenko, who was one of the absolutist objectors in Sandstone prison). They, like other NCCO employees, were working out of concern for the men involved, rather than for the salary, and their devotion and ability to equal theirs is not often found among office workers.
Most objectors opposed war and/or conscription with a conviction that did not take into account the penalties that might be exacted upon the individuals; therefore, fewer calls for NCCO service came from COs themselves than from their relatives and friends. The most frequent requests were for: (1) information as to how to deal with draft boards which ignored the legal provisions for conscientious objectors; (2) information as to the rights of men who had ceased cooperating with conscription; and (3) assistance in arranging paroles and jobs for imprisoned objectors. However, those these were the most frequent patterns, the NCCO records are rich with out-of-the-ordinary cases that explored new areas. (Here are a few random samples: A school board requests the resignation of a CO teacher; a man who has ceased to be a conscientious objector is rejected when he attempts to join the army and is confined in a CPS camp; a civilian CO arrested for a traffic violation is removed from a city jail to an army prison and declared to be inducted.)
In answer to these requests the Washington office was able to offer advice as to legal rights, to provide bail where needed, to make job arrangements for parolees, and showed a willingness to take the problems of objectors before all government officials who would give them a hearing. When a CO was discriminated against in a way which by previous court decisions clearly was illegal, the request for help was likely passed on to the ACLU and the New York NCCO office. The people of the Washington office, however, were inclined to agree (tacitly, at least) with the proposition that the entire CPS arrangement was illegal. Therefore, out of their pacifist convictions, the Washington office accepted and handled cases which did not come within the scope of the ACLU.
Judges, like administrative officials, are human and influenced by the temper of their times. While American courts have gone far to uphold the rights of individual conscience, such decisions generally have come after the damage to the individual was done, after the war was over. The NCCO functioned in wartime and has not a record of brilliant success in the application of its legal services. From the standpoint of the CO its value lay rather in its day-to-day service of advice and assistance; and to absolutist objectors, especially in the feeling of relative security in knowing that they had an agency working in Washington on their behalf. Many of these men did not want to be represented by NSBRO, a religious group, nor by any agency which maintained any official relationship with the government, nor any group that showed itself to be disapproving of an absolutist position. The War Resisters League (WRL) met the requirements of most such men, but the WRL was a New York agency. It did much, however, in sending Frieda Lazarus frequently to Washington on behalf of absolutist objectors.
One natural result of the frequency of personnel turnover in the NCCO office, and the lack of employment overlap, is an inconsistency at record filing techniques. Whether to file case file fashion or correspondent fashion , whether to file under name of individual correspondent, or under name of agency , whether to emphasize subject files or correspondence files -- there were different answers at different times.