Conscientious Objection and Opposition to the Vietnam War in the USA

By Elena (Lane) Deamant

Introduction: The Cultural Backdrop

The political, ideological, and ethical contentions of the Vietnam War led to the largest antiwar movement in history. Around 1964-5, when the US military began its full-throttle attacks on North Vietnam, the American public was already primed for protest activism by the ongoing civil rights and anti-nuclear movements.1 Core tenets of the civil rights movement, like non-violence, anti-militarism, justice and self-determination inspired and informed the nascent antiwar movement.2 Indeed, many of those on the left eventually became involved in both movements and forged connections between them.

In the early years, there was hesitation and concern among civil rights activists that antiwar organizing would take away resources and attention from the fight for racial justice.3 As the war went on, however, the civil rights leadership significantly increased its prominence in the peace movement. Bob Moses, a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, campaigned against the war as an extension of his opposition to the violence perpetuated by the US government against its own Black citizens in the South.4 In criticizing the government’s claims of bringing freedom to Vietnam, Moses said, ‘The rationale this nation uses to justify war in Vietnam turns out to be amazingly similar to the rationale that has been used by the white South to justify its opposition to the freedom movement.’5 The experience of oppression in the South thus provided a place for understanding about the violence taking place in Vietnam.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a key voice among civil rights activists who opposed the war. King’s seminal antiwar speech in 1967, entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” was necessary, in his own words, because ‘my conscience leaves me no other choice.’6 Not only did King feel that the war was a brutal and destructive act of colonialism in Vietnam, but that the war was hypocritical by ‘taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.’7 This helped build a shared rallying cry for the growing coalition of groups who opposed the war. 

Image: Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking against the Vietnam War to a crowd at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Draft Resistance 

            The collective antiwar movement, fueled also by students, artists and radicals who were organizing mass demonstrations, encouraged young men to resist the draft that was implemented under the National Service Act. This resistance took many different forms, some legal and some not, and was highly situated within existing power structures in American society. Outright draft violations, like burning draft cards, relocating to other countries or deserting the military altogether sent a provocative and powerful message about the participants’ views on the war.8 However, these actions could carry a punishment of up to five years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines that many simply could not afford. Draft card burning also connoted a harsh lack of patriotism that was untenable for some in the civil rights movement who were painstakingly fighting for progress to be cemented into national law.9 Ultimately, as many as 570,000 men became illegal ‘draft offenders’ during the war.10

Draft card burned outside Selective Service HQ: 1970
Image: A draft card being burned outside the headquarters of Selective Service, Washington, D.C., 1970. Source: Washington Area Spark on Flickr, licensed for reuse under CC BY-NC 2.0.

University and divinity students received legal deferment from the military and university enrollment significantly increased in response – but generations of unequal resource distribution and discrimination meant that more white students could attend university than Black students.11 Wealth and a network of connections often allowed the privileged to secure exemptions or favorable positions in the military, leaving the burden of service to fall disproportionately on working class and disadvantaged communities.12 Consequently, Black Americans made up 11% of the population, but 25% of all American combat deaths in Vietnam in 1965.13 The loss of family members, friends and organizational leaders in the war hit Black communities especially hard. 

Conscientious Objection

The Vietnam War was a significant tipping point in the definition and treatment of conscientious objectors (COs). In the First and Second World Wars, the procedures surrounding conscientious objection were ill-defined and stigmatized, leading to inconsistencies and brutality towards COs.14 This included being hung by one’s thumbs, long prison sentences or death for COs.15During the period of the Vietnam War, a series of court challenges and institutional rule changes led to both a higher number of CO registrants and also a greater social acceptability for COs than what was witnessed previously.16 The highly visible nature of the Vietnam War, alongside the vocal public demonstrations, produced a climate amongst tribunals and courts that tended to be more sympathetic to COs.17 The result was that about 170,000 men were officially registered as conscientious objectors by the Selective Service.18

An influential court case during this era was United States v. Seeger in 1965, which opened the door for more COs to apply on wider religious grounds. Prior to Seeger, a CO was defined by the Selective Service law as a person ‘who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.’19 In practice, in order to gain CO status, applicants had to profess a belief in God or a ‘Supreme Being.’20 Daniel Seeger, the defendant, wrote in his CO application that he was skeptical about the existence of God but that he had a ‘belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes, and a religious faith in a purely ethical creed.’21 His draft board denied him CO status twice, but his appeal wound up in the Supreme Court in 1963. The Court unanimously decided in favour of Seeger, on the grounds of what the Court called a more ‘modern’ view of religion wherein strong beliefs could be considered religious without an expressed belief in God.22 This made the CO application process more accessible to agnostic people and people of varying religions, but it took several years before the Seeger outcome was implemented into the actual CO application form. Again revealing systemic power discrepancies, in general only men who had access to professional draft counsellors knew about the implications of the Seeger decision and were able to apply accordingly.23 Applicants in the interim years before Seeger made it into the mainstream were at a disadvantage if they lacked such professional help. 

Muhammed Ali, professional boxer, made headlines when he refused induction into the military on the grounds of his religious and moral opposition to the war. A statement made by Ali said, ‘It is in the light of my consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted.’24 Elaborating on those personal convictions, Ali explained, ‘My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.’25 In Houston, the draft board was not convinced and they declared him in violation of the law, with a penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He also lost his boxing license and title for three years as a result. In the following few years, Ali and his lawyers appealed the decision, and Ali campaigned publicly against the war as a vocal CO.26 His case eventually escalated to the Supreme Court, where the justices were split over the nature of his religious convictions. Some were unclear about his objection, because the Nation of Islam does not preclude holy wars, but other law clerks provided books by writers like Malcolm X which ultimately led the Court to rule that Ali was a legitimate CO.27 Ali’s initial conviction, publicity, and favourable case outcome added considerable weight to the antiwar movement. 

Image: Boxer Muhammad Ali in 1966. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 3.0 NL.

The landmark case of the Vietnam War period came in 1970, when CO status was extended to those with moral and ethical antiwar beliefs, not just religious beliefs. In Welsh v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled in a divided decision that Elliott Welsh’s pacifist beliefs (i.e. that ‘killing in war was wrong, unethical, and immoral’) were sincere and strong enough to qualify him as a CO, despite his explicit lack of religious sentiments.28 The Court stated, ‘If an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content but that nevertheless impose upon him a duty of conscience to refrain from participating in any war at any time, those beliefs certainly occupy in the life of that individual “a place parallel to that filled by . .. God” in traditionally religious persons.’29 Objection was thus made possible for many more people and Welsh may have contributed to the skyrocketing numbers of COs towards the tail end of the war. In fact, in 1972, the last year of the draft, more men registered as COs than as conscripts.30

The Vietnam War also solidified, however, a significant restriction for COs: selective conscientious objection was decidedly not allowed. This meant that young men who opposed the Vietnam War in particular but not all wars or military campaigns were denied legal CO status.31 Reasons for opposition to the Vietnam War varied, but numerous objectors described their support for Vietnamese nationalist self-determination as well as their opposition to the brutality displayed on the battlefield in guerilla warfare that often led to civilian deaths.32 In the eyes of the US government, these constituted political beliefs, not broader ethical or moral beliefs that would exempt these young men from fulfilling the commands of their government.

In 1971, the Supreme Court confirmed this restriction in Gillette v. United States, where Guy Gillette was denied CO status for his selective opposition to the Vietnam War.33 Gillette said the Vietnam War was ‘unjust,’ but that he would serve in other wars if they were necessary for national defense, or in peace-keeping missions supported by the United Nations.34 Another CO involved in the case, Louis Negre, said that his Catholic duty required him to discriminate between ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ wars and to avoid participation in the latter.35 As the US government’s legal definition of a CO necessitates them being opposed to ‘war in any form,’ the Court interpreted ‘any’ to mean ‘all’ forms of war, and thus potential COs under selective conditions would not be eligible.36 The Court ruled against Gillette and Negre, concluding that ‘[i]t would strain good sense to read this phrase [opposing any form of war] otherwise than to mean “participation in all war.”’37 The reason for this decision involved multiple elements. First, the Court was concerned that allowing selective objection would deprive the government of sufficient manpower by opening the door for individuals to more easily avoid the draft.38 Second, the Court found selective objection to be too time-and-place specific, leading the objection to be unstable when politics changes. The Court stated, ‘The belief that a particular war at a particular time is unjust is by its nature changeable and subject to nullification by changing events.’39 The implication is that absolute pacifist beliefs are more reliable indicators of a person’s ‘genuine’ conscientious objection. Third, the Court believed that selective objection would undermine ‘the integrity of democratic decision-making against claims to individual noncompliance.’40 The reasoning is that if people can make individual, political decisions about whether they will follow the draft or not, they become ‘a law unto himself.’41 In general, but especially in times of war, the Court felt that centralized decision-making was crucial to uphold and that allowing selective conscientious objection would threaten the rule of law.

Image: Vietnam War Protest in Washington, D.C., 1967. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Some churches and faith-based groups on the other hand, voiced their support for selective COs. Among other denominations, the Lutheran Church of America stated, ‘In the best interest of the civil community, conscientious objectors to particular wars, as well as conscientious objectors to all wars, ought to be granted exemption from military duty and opportunity should be provided them for alternative service,’ and the United Church of Christ’s General Synod supported the ‘right of conscientious objection to participation in a particular war.’42 Rabbi Arthur Gilbert, former president of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, declared, ‘The Jewish religious position would be that a man shouldn’t have to profess, at the age of eighteen, a once-and-for-all-time position on the morality of war. He should be given the right to make a judgment in good conscience with regard to his predisposition at that moment and with regard to that war.’43 Civil society groups and political organizations at the time also lent their support for selective conscientious objection on the grounds that it was a valid expression of political, ethical, and moral sentiments that should not be distinguished from absolute pacifism.44 Without the support of the Supreme Court, however, the following choices thus remained for those opposed to the Vietnam War and not to wars in general: lie and say they were absolute pacifists, serve in the military against their own conscience, or go to jail.45

Image: Christian antiwar protestor outside the U.S. Embassy in New South Wales, Australia, 1966. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse under CC BY 4.0.

Conscientious objection, and the war in general, sparked intense debates and court rulings about ethics, religion, violence, and when/if war is ever justified. The effects of the Vietnam War era are entrenched today – as there is no longer a draft, court cases like Gillette have had the last word on defining COs and their rights. Should the draft be reinstated again at a future point, those cases would impact draftees immediately. Furthermore, the Vietnam War altered the psyche of the American public by sparking a widespread antiwar movement that held the US government and military accountable for its actions undertaken in Southeast Asia, and in other regions of the world. 

Notes / Further Reading

  1. Cortright, D. (2008). Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  2. Lucks, D. (2014). Vietnam and Civil Rights: The Great Diversion, 1965. In: Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. University Press of Kentucky. 
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. “A Talk with Bob Parris,” Southern Patriot, October 1965, 3.
  6. King, M. L. Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City. 
  7. Ibid.
  8. Cortright, (2008).
  9. Lucks, (2014).
  10. Cortright, (2008).
  11. Lucks, (2014).
  12. Cortright, (2008).
  13. Goodwin, G. (2017). Black and White in Vietnam. The New York Times. [Online]. [Accessed14 May, 2021]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/18/opinion/racism-vietnam-war.html 
  14. Mansavage, J. A. (2000). “A Sincere and Meaningful Belief”: Legal Conscientious Objection During the Vietnam War (Order No. 9968962). Ph.D Thesis, Texas A&M University. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. 
  15. Fox, R. (1982). Conscientious Objection to War: The Background and a Current Appraisal. Cleveland State Law Review31(77), pp.77-106.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Mansavage, (2000).
  18. Cortright, (2008).
  19. Mansavage, (2000).
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24.  Brown, D. (2018). ‘Shoot Them For What?’ How Muhammad Ali Won His Greatest Fight. The Washington Post. [Online]. [Accessed 14 May 2021]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/15/shoot-them-for-what-how-muhammad-ali-won-his-greatest-fight/ 
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Wills, M. (2021). How Muhammad Ali Prevailed as a Conscientious Objector. JSTOR Daily. [Online]. [Accessed 14 May 2021]. Available at: https://daily.jstor.org/how-muhammad-ali-prevailed-as-a-conscientious-objector/ 
  28. Haile, A. (2018). Reconsidering Selective Conscientious Objection. University of Richmond Law Review, 52(4), pp.831-886.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Cortright, (2008).
  31. Ibid.
  32. Smith, H. (1990). Conscientious Objection to Particular Wars: Australia’s Experience during the Vietnam War, 1965–1972. War & Society8(1), pp.118-134.
  33. Haile, (2018).
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36.  Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Griggs, W. (1979). The Selective Conscientious Objector: A Vietnam Legacy. Journal of Church and State, 21(1), pp.91-107. 
  43. Ibid.
  44. Murray, J.C. (1994). Selective Conscientious Objection. In: Bridging the Sacred and the Secular. Washington, D.C.: Woodstock Theological Library, Georgetown University. 
  45. Griggs, (1979).

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