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Noncombatant Service: Conscientious Objectors’ Fight for Mental Health Reform during WWII

When the United States entered World War II, some American men of draft age — led by moral and religious convictions — believed it was their duty not to pick up a gun and fight. These men were called Conscientious Objectors (COs). In response, congress, in conjunction with “historic peace churches”  (Brethren, Mennonite, and Society of Friends), developed the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program. Under the CPS, COs would stay stateside, completing “work of national importance” in jobs from agriculture to aides in state-run mental hospitals. 

In the early part of the twentieth century, mental hospitals were crude, dirty, and unsafe. Many people with mental illness endured unthinkable conditions. During World War II, some COs made reforming the mental health system their battleground, spurred on by their convictions and compassion. By the end of the war, the changes they began laid the groundwork for widespread reform, and created frameworks used in many mental health institutions and clinical practices today.

Before World War II, there were no concessions for those who did not want to fight. From the Revolutionary War through World War I, COs were either imprisoned or coerced into military service. After World War I, members of historic peace churches worked to make sure that future generations would have the freedom to follow the moral values laid out by their faith. The peace churches, along with other like-minded organizations, lobbied congress for an alternative to military service, and in September 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act was passed. This act allowed the conscription of young men, but it also included a brief section concerning conscientious objection:

Nothing contained in this Act shall be constructed to require any person to be subject to combatant training and service…who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form…Any such person claiming such exemption…[will] be assigned to noncombatant service…[or] be assigned to work of national importance.

The bill did not specify what the “work of national importance” would be. That task fell to the Selective Service, who partnered with the newly formed National Service Board for Religious Objectors. Together they developed Civilian Public Service (CPS) where COs would live in “camps” doing mostly manual labor work. They worked as irrigation diggers, planted ground cover, built dams, worked on forest fire control, and maintained trails.

During WWII, Over 12,000 COs were assigned to 151 camps and soon, some of the men started asking for more meaningful work. Seeing a need, CPS offered interested COs the opportunity to work at state mental hospitals across the country, which were understaffed due to the war. Approximately three-thousand COs volunteered for these positions.

The state-run mental health system in America during this time was a travesty. Albert Q. Maisel reported in his 1946 Life Magazine exposé (titled "Bedlam 1946") that “through public neglect and legislative penny-pinching, state after state has allowed its institutions for the care and cure of the mentally sick to degenerate into little more than concentration camps.”

There were upwards of 400,000 patients in this overstrained system who were on a starvation diet, had little to no clothing, and were often put in restraints due to the lack of trained staff. Patients were managed like animals; their treatment at the whim of underpaid and often brutal aides. Facilities were overcrowded, patients were beaten, neglected, and even murdered. In some rooms, patients were found naked on the floor in their own filth.

It was into these desperate environs that the COs brought their belief in the dignity of human life. Warren Sawyer, a 22 year old Quaker who had asked to serve in the Philadelphia State Hospital, recalled that when he first arrived, “the patients seemed to be in a constant state of fright. They were especially afraid of the physical abuse to which they had been subjected by uncaring attendants…I want to spend time talking with them so I can relate to them as persons.” After only a few months under the care of COs he saw a marked difference. “Since we've taken over the ward, and this is also true of other wards and buildings for which we are in complete charge, the patients have come to trust us and have become responsive to our requests.” It was through humane acts such as this, that true care could be provided.

COs in hospitals across the country were looking for ways to correct the hostility and inhumanity that patients suffered daily. J. Willard Linscheild, a CO at the Hudson River State Hospital related, “we were all fired with a desire to expose mental hospital conditions to the general public in the hope that such an exposé would lead to action toward the improvement of such institutions.” Linscheild’s desire was soon fulfilled.

 In Williamsburg Virginia a CO by the name of Van Cleve Geiger was serving at Eastern State Hospital, the first CPS mental hospital unit authorized by Selective Service in June 1942.  Through his friend Marshall Suther, Van Cleve and other COs were introduced to a lawyer sympathetic to their cause for reform. Van Cleve went on to recount in a letter that:

“...several of us at the hospital [we’re invited] to join with [Marshall] in a meeting with…the lawyer to explore next steps. We were asked to supply them with particulars about conditions at the hospital which they could then draw upon at a planned meeting with the state's chief executive, Governor Darden. Governor Darden listened sympathetically…and arranged for [Marshall] to meet with Dr. Henry, the State Hospital Commissioner. He in turn arranged for [a meeting] with the State Hospital Board…the Board decided that a formal investigation of Eastern State Hospital was in order and set in motion steps to convene a formal hearing." 

Soon other COs would follow the example of the men at Eastern.  In Cleveland, a series of  exposés were written in 1943 by Walter Lerch of the Cleveland Press. Lerch had been presented with affidavits from a group of anonymous COs working in the Cleveland State Hospital. These articles led to grand jury investigations, the dismissal of the hospital's superintendent, Dr. Hans Lee, and a reform movement by concerned citizens (see pgs. 66-71 in Alex Sareyen’s book The Turning Point).

Meanwhile, other COs decided to take direct action. With the help of their churches, they created the Mental Hygiene Program (MHP). This program’s aim was to educate mental health aides about proper care, as well as change the perception of the mentally ill in society’s eyes.

MHP experienced quick success and soon had its own office in the Selective Service Department. In June 1944, it began publishing a magazine entitled The Attendant; the first periodical specifically designed to teach mental health aides proper care techniques. At its height, the magazine was in every hospital in the United States.

The work of COs even reached the attention of first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. After a visit to Hudson River State Hospital in 1945 she reported: “The superintendent of the hospital told me that they [the COs] had undoubtedly raised the standards of care for the patients, and they had been of tremendous help in disclosing certain practices…He said if they could stay longer, they would probably improve the standards even more.”

As the war came to an end and COs returned to their homes, the historic peace churches and the MHP refocused their efforts. To fill the voids at mental hospitals left by COs, the churches encouraged college students to take their places. Approximately ten thousand students, recruited by the Unitarian and American Friends Service Committees, worked in mental health care facilities from 1945 to 1965. There was also a shift in focus from flaws in individual hospitals to the nationwide systemic problems. Nationally known doctors, as well as celebrities — such as novelist Pearl Buck — began endorsing the work of the MHP. The organization soon stepped onto a larger stage, changing its name to the National Mental Health Foundation (NMHF) with Supreme Court Justice, Owen Josephus Roberts, as its chairman.

The NMHF aimed to educate and advocate. It wrote the first manuals for mental health aides, as well as other educational materials for hospitals and the general public. It also produced the highly praised radio drama series, For These We Speak and The Tenth Man. Both were hosted by celebrities such as Eleanor Roosevelt, actress Helen Hayes, and novelist Mary Jane Ward. NMHF was also responsible for creating the first National Mental Health Week in 1949.

The NMHF, was also able to gain the support of Barry Bingham, the president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, who wrote a letter to every newspaper editor in the United States. Bingham asked for their support in publishing clear and concise articles concerning the state of mental health care in the country. Now, with a huge spotlight on the topic, legislators had no choice but to become involved, which led to the formation of the National Institute of Mental Health.

In 1950, NMHF merged with two other mental health organizations to create the National Association for Mental Health (NAMH). Constantly working to press for improvements in national mental health laws, the NAMH worked closely with the state of Minnesota, which enacted the first statewide reforms in mental health in 1949.

The historic peace churches, with a new appreciation for the dire needs in mental health, looked inwardly and discovered a desire to start their own hospitals and clinics. Even before the end of the war, the Mennonite Church had initiated conversations about how they could continue to address the mental health crisis. By 1946, they planned to open three new clinics, which over the years have branched into numerous facilities, including Prairie View in Newton, KS,  Brooklane in Hagerstown, MD, King’s View in Fresno, CA and many more  across various states.

Perhaps the legacy of CO efforts to impact mental health care in the United States was best summarized in a poem written by a former patient at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan.

A big change has taken place

In the hospital here

That has taken away

All worry and fear.

They have got some new help

They’re a fine bunch of men

And there’s surely a difference

Between now and then.

They call them COs

And a fine Christian bunch

Who believe in kindness

With no kick or punch

So we can all be thankful 

They sent the COs

For it’s more like home

As everyone knows

Nate Barker is a freelance creator specializing in writing and video production. 


Further Reading

Bender, Titus W., (2011), The Mennonite Mental Health Movement and the Wider Society in the United States, 1942-1965. Journal of Mennonite Studies, 29

Keim, Albert, The CPS Story: An Illustrated History of Civilian Public Service. Good Books, 1990.

Krehbiel, Nicholas A., The Story Begins.

Lehman, Harold, (2013), Conscientious Objectors and the Transformation of Mental Healthcare. Mennonite Health Journal, 15,2.

Maisel, Albert Q., (1946). Bedlam May 6, 1946: Most U.S. Mental Hospitals Are A Shame And A Disgrace. Life, (102-118).

Sareyan, Alex, The Turning Point, How Men of Conscious Brought About Major Change In The Care of America’s Mentally Ill. American Psychiatric Press, 1994.

Swalm, E.J., Nonresistance Under Test, A Compilation of Experiences of Conscientious Objectors as Encountered in Two World Wars. E.V. Publishing House, 1949.


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