On this day in 1946, President Harry S. Truman appoints an amnesty board to review cases of conscientious objectors (CO’s) who were imprisoned after refusing to serve during World War II.
Truman’s predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, had pardoned select World War I “draft dodgers” in 1933. In preparation for the Second World War, Roosevelt tried to avoid jailing CO’s by offering them the opportunity to participate in a domestic civil-service program instead that included work on farms and in hospitals. Although approximately 25,000 men did take FDR up on his offer or joined the military and served in non-combat roles, 15,000 more chose not to support the war effort at all–some of these were charged with violating federal conscription law and imprisoned. Truman, in the spirit of forgiveness, appointed the board to review individual cases of those who were jailed, with the idea that anyone who had been unjustly punished would be pardoned.
A year later, the board reported back to Truman. Of the 15,000 violators of the World War II Selective Service Act, only 1,500 were considered entitled to full amnesty. Most were members of historically “pacifist” religious sects such as the Quakers and Mennonites. On December 23, 1947, Truman granted pardons to those 1,500 and restored their political and civil rights. (Those who had originally been jailed as convicted “felons” lost voting rights, and even after their release were prevented from obtaining certain jobs or holding public office.) As the board was given the power to define what constituted a legitimate “religious organization,” hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses were not considered, nor were those who protested the war for personal reasons other than religion, including the belief that the draft violated the U.S. Constitution.
In 1948, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, then a human rights activist, was approached by several religious and civil rights organizations, including the American Friends Service Committee, the Federal Council of Churches and the American Civil Liberties Union to advocate on their behalf for broader amnesty. Eleanor wrote to Truman and asked for a review of the thousands who had yet to be considered for pardons. Truman wrote back, admitting that he had little sympathy for the majority of conscientious objectors; in fact, he viewed them with contempt, believing them to be “just plain cowards or shirkers.” Truman believed that many CO’s used religion as an excuse to avoid service and told Eleanor that he thought all the “honest” conscientious objectors had been identified by his Amnesty Board. Truman was not the only president to grant clemency to draft dodgers: Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter offered pardons in 1974 and 1977 respectively.