The Seed Bank of Democracy: Conscientious Objection, Compromise, and the Defense of Liberty during “The Good War”

In Personal, Political Theory, Politics on 2014/10/06 at 16:21

During the final year of my undergraduate work I was named a Scholar at the George C Marshall Research Library. Upon re-reading the resulting paper years later I realized that what was one of my best pieces of academic work was never shared beyond a select circle. Below is an exerpt from the beginning of the paper. A PDF of the work in its entirety follows.


Jessie Wallace Hughan, one of the founding members of the pacifist group the War Resisters League, sent a message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, urging him to keep the United States out of the war despite the attack.[1] Wallace’s plea was, obviously, ignored, and her organization, as well as and pacifism in general, had little influence in the public mind for years to come. Historian Scott Bennett points out, “Most studies on the World War II home front either ignore pacifism and conscientious objection, or mention them in passing, offering only a cursory discussion of them and treating both as issues of civil liberty.”[2]

American pacifism and conscientious objection during World War Two is an underexplored topic. An exploration of pacifism and conscientious objection during World War Two provides an interesting critique and reevaluation of the American war effort, and a fascinating glimpse at the practical application of the, sometimes contradictory, American values of individualism and patriotism. Pacifism during World War Two had a disproportionately large effect on American democracy in the 20th century compared to the small number of people involved in conscientious objection.

To understand the importance of pacifism and conscientious objection as an alternative view, or even a critique, it is first necessary to acknowledge the power, and examine the basic outline, of the concept of America’s “Good War.” In the collective national psyche of the United States, and in the glitzy materialization of that psyche that is American popular culture, perceptions and depictions of the Second World War largely fall within the bounds of a doctrine, which, for the most part, goes largely unquestioned. That doctrine is, of course, that World War Two was the 20th century’s “Good War,” that American involvement in the war was just, that those who participated in the war effort make up “The Greatest Generation,” and that to have refused to fight the expansionist forces of European fascism and Japanese imperialism would have been to shirk the moral obligations of American greatness.

The story of the Allied struggle in World War Two is one of America’s favorite stories. World War Two is a powerful meme in American culture, in print, in film, and in the ever increasingly important medium of electronic gaming. Culturally speaking, the war is an opportunity for the storyteller to place a near mythic sheen on a tale of actual historical events. The sheer horror of many of the crimes of the Axis powers makes it easy to paint the war as an epic battle between heroism and villainy. Set against this backdrop of uncomplicated, almost Manichaean struggle, the war is the symbolic crowning achievement of the United States’ journey towards becoming a world power.

One humorous example of the power and near sacred status of the meme of “The Good War” in American pop culture is a mock PSA at the close of an episode of The Simpsons television show. The episode’s plot revolves around a schoolyard battle and Bart Simpson reminds viewers that, contrary to what has just been seen; “War is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners; only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War Two, and the Star Wars Trilogy.”[3] This is just one example, yet it is the quintessence of America’s pop culture obsession with World War Two. The addition of a fictional story of the fantasy genre to the list of “good wars” humorously underscores the extent to which World War Two has attained a status in American culture almost akin to that of a sacred legend.

President Roosevelt wanted America to be Democracy’s Arsenal. There were some in the United States who believed that, by it’s very nature, Democracy cannot be protected by an arsenal. That true Democracy is not established by force of arms, but is grown. They saw Democracy as arising naturally from a free society, and the seeds of that free society are the individual liberties of each of its citizens. The refusal of those who opposed violence on moral grounds to give up their individual right to maintain their consciences protected these seeds of a free society thought should be sacrificed for the short term gain of a nation fully mobilized for war. Is there such a thing as a good war? Is the militarization of a society for the purposes of violent conflict justified in certain situations? And should minorities who disagree be silenced for a time, in the interest of the greater good? A small group of Americans during World War Two answered “no.” An outline of the argument for the “Good War” narrative, juxtaposed with the words and actions of conscientious objectors, complicates, and deepens our understanding of this iconic era. The nuances of the differences in opinion between the many different groups of conscientious objectors and their respective supporters, will lead to a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of the importance of pacifism and conscientious objection to the seeds of Democracy, individual liberties.

Read the full paper here:

Seed Bank of Democracy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: