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Acts of Conscience

World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors

Steven J. Taylor

Publication Year: 2009

In the mid- to late 1940s, a group of young men rattled the psychiatric establishment by beaming a public spotlight on the squalid conditions and brutality in our nation’s mental hospitals and training schools for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Bringing the abuses to the attention of newspapers and magazines across the country, they led a reform effort to change public attitudes and to improve the training and status of institutional staff. Prominent Americans, including Eleanor Roosevelt, ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, author Pearl S. Buck, actress Helen Hayes, and African-American activist Mary McLeod Bethune, supported the efforts of the young men. These young men were among the 12,000 World War II conscientious objectors who chose to perform civilian public service as an alternative to fighting in what is widely regarded as America’s "good war." Three thousand of these men volunteered to work at state institutions, where they found conditions appalling. Acting on conscience a second time, they challenged America’s treatment of its citizens with severe disabilities. Acts of Conscience brings to light the extraordinary efforts of these courageous men, drawing upon extensive archival research, interviews, and personal correspondence. The World War II conscientious objectors were not the first to expose public institutions, and they would not be the last. What distinguishes them from reformers of other eras is that their activities have faded from professional and popular memory. Steven J. Taylor’s moving account is an indispensable contribution to the historical record.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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Contents

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pp. vii-viii

Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiii

This book was made possible through a research sabbatical granted by Syracuse University in the spring of 2007. Thanks to Dean Doug Biklen for supporting my sabbatical and to Cyndy Colavita, Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri, Pam Walker, Arlene Kanter, Beth Ferri, Perri Harris, Sari Biklen, and Bob Ciota for filling in for me while I was on leave. Rachael and Cyndy also gave me invaluable assistance...

Abbreviations

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pp. xv-

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Introduction

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pp. 1-5

In the mid- to late 1940s, a group of young men rattled the psychiatric establishment by beaming a public spotlight on the squalid conditions and brutality in our nation’s mental hospitals and training schools for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. They brought about exposés reported in newspapers...

Part One. “We Won’t Murder”

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1. “Work of National Importance under Civilian Direction”

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pp. 9-21

It was January 1940, and war was on the horizon. In Europe, Germany had invaded Poland the previous September, leading Great Britain and France to declare war against the Nazi regime. Sensing that Nazis and fascists in Europe would only “respect force and force alone,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had begun...

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2. “Religious Training and Belief”

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pp. 22-42

In World War II, 10,110,104 men were drafted into the armed forces.1 At least 37,000 draft-age men were exempted from combatant or military service as conscientious objectors, or COs, under the Selective Training and Service Act. At least 25,000 men served in noncombatant roles in the military under an “I-A-O” draft classification....

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3. “An Experiment in Democracy”

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pp. 43-53

From the time of his appointment as director of the Selective Service in 1941 until the end of the draft, then brigadier general Lewis Blaine Hershey was a staunch supporter of the Civilian Public Service. The CPS represented a reasonable solution to the “problem” of the CO. On the one hand, the CPS would spare the...

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4. “A Significant Epoch in Your Life”

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pp. 54-72

Around the time COs received the order to report to the Civilian Public Service from the Selective Service, they received a letter welcoming them from the religious service committee sponsoring the camp to which they had been assigned. COs assigned to Brethren Service Committee camps received a letter from W....

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5. “Detached Units”

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pp. 73-102

When leaders of the peace churches first contemplated alternative public service, humanitarian projects were high on their list of priorities. The alleviation of human suffering was central to the missions of the Mennonites, Friends, and Brethren....

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6. “A Working Compromise Between Church and State”

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pp. 103-136

“The B.S.C. recognizes C.P.S. as a limited instrument that is inadequate for the achievement of all ends sought by pacifists,” read the statement on the Civilian Public Service by the Brethren Service Committee. The statement continued: “We consider C.P.S. further as a working compromise between church and state—the...

Part Two: “A Lasting Contribution in the Field”

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7. “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”

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pp. 139-151

In her popular “My Day” column published in newspapers across the country on July 22, 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of deceased president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gave a glowing endorsement of a recent book: “A book that everyone should read is ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind,’ by Frank L. Wright, Jr.” The book, which described conditions...

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8. “A Mind That Found Itself”

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pp. 152-173

Throughout its brief history, the National Mental Health Foundation, which had been founded by young COs, had an ambivalent relationship with the well-established and respectable National Committee for Mental Hygiene. On the one hand, the COs’ Mental Hygiene Program of the Civilian Public Service, the predecessor...

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9. “They Asked for a Hard Job”

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pp. 174-212

Frank Olmstead was fieldwork director of the War Resisters League and a frequent critic of the Civilian Public Service, the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, and the church committees administering camps and units. He had visited many CPS work camps and written a critical report in November 1942...

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10. “Bughousers” and “Conchies”

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pp. 213-236

Mental hospitals and training schools had been short-staffed on the wards prior to the war, but faced critical staff shortages once the war started. Many young men working as attendants were drafted into the military. Of those men who were not drafted, many, both men and women, took higher-paying jobs in industry and...

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11. “The Exposé as a Progressive Tool”

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pp. 237-271

The origins of Out of Sight, Out of Mind can be traced to the beginning of special service units at mental hospitals and training schools. Many COs were shocked by institutional conditions and dismayed by the treatment of patients. They told others about what they had observed at the institutions. Some went public with...

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12. “They Were Fighting Everybody”

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pp. 272-295

Four Byberry COs created a national movement to reform state mental hospitals and training schools and forced established organizations, including the National Committee for Mental Hygiene and the American Psychiatric Association, to take actions to address the plight of people languishing at America’s institutions.1 Len...

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13. “Mental Hospitals Are Again under Fire”

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pp. 296-316

The mid- to late 1940s was a difficult time for state institutions. They were barraged by a series of exposés and attacks. COs, literally outsiders to mental hygiene and psychiatry, brought public attention to conditions at individual institutions and eventually to the entire institutional system. The Life magazine and...

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14. “Another Growing Pain”

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pp. 317-359

The spring of 1946 should have been an exciting, even heady time for the founders of the National Mental Health Foundation. What had started as an off-duty project by a small handful of Byberry COs had evolved into a formidable national reform movement. Life magazine and PM newspaper had featured stories based...

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15. “Scandal Results in Real Reforms”

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pp. 360-380

The November 12, 1951, issue of Life magazine published another article by Albert Q. Maisel on state mental hospitals. This time the news was positive: “Scandal Results in Real Reforms.” Maisel reviewed the exposés of the mid-1940s and argued that they had made a concrete difference: “Five years ago shock and revulsion...

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Conclusion

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pp. 381-395

All history is told from a point of view. As Laurel Richardson argued, any form of knowledge is “partial and situated.” What we know about the world necessarily reflects the information we have at our disposal as well as our own social situations and past experiences. Richardson wrote, “There is no view from ‘nowhere,’...

Appendixes

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pp. 399-407

Notes

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pp. 409-451

Bibliography

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pp. 453-466

Name Index

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pp. 467-474

Subject Index

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pp. 475-484


E-ISBN-13: 9780815651406
E-ISBN-10: 0815651406
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815609155
Print-ISBN-10: 0815609159

Page Count: 504
Illustrations: 50 black and white illustrations
Publication Year: 2009

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Subject Headings

  • Psychiatric hospitals -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • People with mental disabilities -- Education -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civilian Public Service -- History.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Conscientious objectors -- United States.
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