Wednesday, October 5, 2016

CPS in Iowa

By Bill Douglas

            This is the field where the battle did not happen
            ...Where no monument stands.
--William Stafford, CPS participant; put to music by John Gorka

The Bill Galvin article in the summer issue of Dovetail provided a good national overview of the Civilian Public Service, which was organized to give conscientious objectors options for alternative service during World War II.

 There are two relatively recent outstanding books on pacifism in the U. S. during the first half of the twentieth century, that provide a broad picture and argue for pacifism’s lasting impact on American culture: Patricia Appelbaum, Kingdom to Commune, and Joseph Kopek, Acts of Conscience.  What follows is not so much an article as a report on some of my research on pacifism in Iowa during the 1940’s as it relates to CPS. 
Iowa’s historic peace churches--principally the Church of the Brethren, Mennonite and Amish, programmed and unprogrammed Quakers--came into the Second World War much more prepared than into the First. Primarily, they had the negative example of the treatment of c.o.’s during World War I. But also, they had more time to prepare--the nation’s first peacetime draft was instituted in 1940, and Iowa’s first draft registration resister of that era, James Ball, a member of First Friends Church in Des Moines, actually served a one-year prison sentence and was released before the U. S. entered the war.
 Another difference from World War I was the presence of conscientious objectors from mainline Protestant denominations. Two of the most prominent Protestant clergy in the state were pacifist: Stoddard Lane at Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines, and Sam Nichols at Collegiate Methodist Church in Ames.

Pentecostal pacifism, evident in World War I, was almost entirely lacking in Iowa (and elsewhere) in the 1940’s. Seventh Day Adventists accepted non-combatant roles within the military. Jehovah’s Witnesses refused alternative service and took prison terms; Iowa federal judge Charles Dewey routinely sentenced them to two years. Political objectors were less prominent than in World War I, and still not recognized.
Mennonites set up one of the first camps in the country at a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Denison, CPS 18. In the spring of 1942, when the Missouri River threatened to flood Council Bluffs, c.o.’s successfully sandbagged it. The following story sounds apocryphal, but was documented the next morning by the local newspaper: A grateful local official tried to reward the objectors with cigarettes and movie passes. After these were politely refused, finally dish towels for the camp were accepted as tokens of appreciation. But not everyone was satisfied at CPS 18. Methodist c..o. Albert Dietrich felt more at home at a place with more political discussion that was more democratically run.
In April 1943 Quakers organized a camp (104) that oversaw Iowa State’s agricultural research near Ames, and at an outlying farm in Hancock County.
Iowa novelist Ruth Suckow, a member of Cedar Falls Quaker meeting, went on a tour of CPS camps to teach creative writing.
The scope of accepted activities for alternative service expanded as the war went on. Since work in mental hospitals was difficult and for low pay, the war-caused worker shortage created job openings that were filled by two polar opposites: pacifists (beginning in 1943, this included women) seeking to do good, and serial sexual abusers who could move from institution to institution with impunity. This was the situation that confronted Mennonite objectors at the mental hospital at Mt. Pleasant (Camp 86).
In July 1944, Kirby Page, a nationally-known pacifist, “social evangelist,” and graduate of Drake’s Divinity School, led a workshop that included the option of visiting Mt. Pleasant’s mental hospital. Whether it was the reticence of the Mennonite objectors, or more likely the ineptness of their interlocutors, the proposed expose’ to the press was botched, in several ways. Rev. L. L. Dunnington of First Methodist Church of Iowa City got the press release out, but failed to respect the anonymity of the objectors as they had requested. Nor did he highlight their chief concern--”the immorality” of the other workers, as they put it, but more precisely the sexual abuse of patients by guards. Moreover, he sent out the release while leaving town on vacation; the Iowa Board of Control had little difficulty contradicting an absent adversary.
This public relations fiasco also delayed the plans of several mainline Protestant denominations to sponsor CPS camps in Iowa. (By sponsoring work at mental institutions, they could do it on the cheap.) Despite the setback, the only Evangelical and Reformed and one of two Methodist CPS efforts were in Iowa, at the Independence (Camp 137) and Cherokee (Camp 131) hospitals.
At Cherokee and Independence, objectors identified the systemic problems of Iowa’s mental health system and brought them to light. Women’s religious groups took up the cause after the war.   The advance in psychiatric treatment also contributed to the return to the community of many mental patients, but it took political action spurred by conscientious objectors’ insider reports and church women’s pressure to make an overwhelmingly (106 out of 118 in the lower house) Republican legislature act in 1948. By the early 1950’s, the population numbers in Iowa’s mental institutions had dropped significantly.
Nobody thought that one of the main achievements of conscientious objectors in Iowa would be increased freedom for the mentally ill. Nor could pacifists anticipate that they would successfully advocate for Japanese-American students, shelter Jewish refugees, argue against indiscriminate bombing, or decry the use of the atomic bomb. Remaining faithful to nonviolence had unexpected consequences which seem to have been vindicated by history.

--Bill R. Douglas is a historian working on Iowa religious history and a member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. He served on the War Resisters League National Committee in the early 1980’s. Quaker History published his article “Penn in Technicolor: Cecil Hinshaw’s Radical Pacifist-Perfectionist Experiment at William Penn College, 1944-1949” in 2007.
Sources available on request:

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