As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 111 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Pacifism and Dissent in Times of War

Johnny Got His Gun Logo

In 1917, George Cohan wrote a propaganda tune, Johnny Get Your Gun, to encourage young American men to enlist in the U.S. army. Remember, this was not a popular war - it was a war that Woodrow Wilson had to "sell" to the American people. This song was one of many efforts to counter the anti-war efforts of some Americans.

As we begin our discussion of pacifism and anti-war efforts in the U.S., keep this potent propaganda in mind so that you can better understand the difficulties encountered by anti-war activists.

Discussion Goals: Pacifism and Dissent in Times of War

  1. To define relevant terms related to the anti-war movement.
  2. To illustrate the historical evolution of anti-war and anti-draft dissent, as well as official and public responses to such actions.
  3. To examine the various ways the U.S. government has tried to stop anti-war dissent during various crises.

Goal #1: To define relevant terms related to the anti-war movement.

In general, those who use dissent, civil disobedience, or pacifism to question U.S. involvement in war or conscription have done so for:

Goal #2: To illustrate the historical evolution of anti-war and anti-draft dissent, as well as official and public responses to such actions

Ever since war began to be waged by Euro-Americans when they came to North America, people have either voluntarily or involuntarily Anti-War Posterserved in the military. The role of the military in our society historically and contemporarily is to protect our nation's territory, protect our freedom as citizens, and provide an example of strength in the international community.

Throughout our history, very few people have questioned the need for military protection – but some have questioned two aspects of military service:

Consequently, we have a long history of both anti-war and anti-draft activity.

Timeline of Anti-War and Anti-Draft Activity and Government Response

First Era, 1607-1783: Colonial, then state militias – volunteer and conscripted – served short-term military needs at the national level. From the earliest Euro-American colonial period, settlers refused to fight with the Indians or expropriate their land or to be drafted by the King’s army during times of war.  The vast majority were Quakers and conscientious objectors.  The purpose of their pacifism was to make a personal religious statement for peace and to set a personal example of pacifism and commitment to God.  They primarily sought personal exemptions from involvement in the war and thereby refused to cooperate with the draft law.

Second Era, 1862-1917: First wartime conscription was enacted at the national level to meet the national emergency of the Civil War. During this era, a few small movements arose of people who were against being drafted to fight in a war that was not of their choosing.

Third Era, 1917-1940: First mandatory all-male registration was required for conscription in times of WWI national emergency. The vast majority of dissenters were personally and philosophically opposed to war, as well as morally and politically opposed to war.  The purpose of their pacifism was to create a social force for civil disobedience based upon the belief in the power of individuals and the ability of individual action to inspire others to follow.  They primarily sought to disobey the law by refusing to participate within a system in order to frustrate its ability to function.

Some individuals also responded with vigilante-style violence aimed at those who opposed World War I.

Anti-war propaganda songs also became popular, especially those using the appeal of "the voice of motherhood, "such as Don't Take My Darling Boy Away. The message came through loud and clear in the title of I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier (subtitled A Mothers Plea for Peace, respectfully dedicated to every Mother- everywhere). The lyrics preached to mothers worldwide that if they united in the cause, they could put an end to the fighting and save the lives of millions of young soldiers. For instance, "There'd be no war today If mothers all would say, 'I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier'." The cover of the sheet music portrays exploding shells bursting around an old gray-haired woman protecting her son.

Fourth Era, 1940-1948: First peacetime conscription and lottery system was established at the national level.  Most opposition to war came from Conscientious Objectors, all of whom were personally, philosophically, and politically opposed to war.

Fifth Era, 1848-1973: Peacetime and wartime conscription was enacted to fill vacancies in the armed forces that could not be filled by volunteers. Most dissenters were both anti-war and anti-draft and were personally, philosophically, and politically opposed to war.  Opposition mounted during the Vietnam War with rising draft calls and casualty rates.  By the late 1960s, a strong anti-war coalition existed of students, pacifists, clergy, civil rights and feminist activists, and various other groups who regularly engaged in civil disobedience demonstrations and sit-ins at induction centers, as well as illegal activities such as break-ins at local draft boards and draft-card burnings.

Sixth Era, 1973 to the present: Conscription ended and the All Volunteer Army was established. Notable anti-war efforts did not surface until a year after the War in Iraq began.  Most endeavors came from enlisted men and women who had served their time, but who did not accept Stop Loss and who did not wish to be sent back to Iraq.

For more information see the GI Rights Hotline at and the following:

Goal #3: To examine the various ways the U.S. government has tried to stop anti-war dissent during various crises.

Un-American” Dangerous Dissenters before, during, and after WWI: As we just learned, for the first time in history, the federal government responded to dissent during WWI - dissent that was perceived to threaten the very structure of the American way of life. Its initial response was to target at least four groups of Americans were perceived to be dangerous dissenters:

All four groups were generally lumped into a single negative category - "Un-American" in thought as well as deed. Their thoughts were believed to be anti-war and anti-American; and their deeds were considered to fall short of the contemporary demand that everyone be "100% American."

Federal actions used to stop “un-American” dissent and the anti-war movement, 1917 - 1920. The federal government used three effective avenues to quell such "un-American" dissent:

1. Passing Congressional Acts designed to prohibit and punish “disloyalty’.

2.  Creating federal agencies to enforce the Congressional acts, assemble information on those suspected of disloyalty, and arrest and punish offenders.

3.  Using the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the government’s actions.

The press was equally as intolerant of pacifists, as illustrated in the Washington Post editorial of April 1, 1917.

"Large advertisements are appearing in the metropolitan newspapers, skillfully written for the purpose of stirring up class hatred and suspicion and thus dissuading Americans from enlisting in the war that is coming... At this time, when the United States is on the verge of war, the Washington Post believes that the advertisements in question are an abuse of the right of free speech. It does not presume to judge other newspapers which print these advertisements, but for itself, it will not print them... An effort to prevent the voluntary enlistment of American citizens for the defense of their country is treasonable in time of war.  It is sedition at any time.  'The hope of impunity is a strong incitement to sedition,' said Hamilton.  The pacifists will not long enjoy impunity.  If they are wise they will cease their agitation before they are legally classified as public enemies and punished accordingly."

Source:  Quoted in Jim R. McClellan, Changing Interpretations of America’s Past, Volume II (p. 201)


Pacifism and Dissent in Times of War

  1. Anti-war and anti-draft dissent in America, as well as official and public responses to such dissent, has played a long role in U.S. history.  Indeed, the growth of dissent, has been evolutionary - moving from personal religious statements during the colonial period, to collective political and ideological actions during the 19th Century, a melding of the two earlier strategies with the outbreak of World War I and beyond.
  2. The growth of governmental intervention with anti-war and anti-draft dissenters has been evolutionary.  Not until World War I when dissent was perceived as a threat to the status quo did the government move from tolerance to oppression. 
  3. In contrast to the federal government, the public reaction to dissent has been constant.  From the beginning of our history, Americans have rarely tolerated people who deviate from the status quo - people who refused to fight American Indians; who refused to fight King George for independence; who balked at fighting in the Civil War to free the slaves; who refused to fight for political, economic, and ideological convictions during WWI; and who fled to Canada rather than fight the war in Vietnam.
  4. With the outbreak of World War I and the refusal of some Americans to enlist in the war effort, the federal government legalized political repression against anti-war and anti-draft dissenters.  Such repression was responsible for two major consequences. 
    • First, political repression allowed the federal government to institutionalize laws that were designed to destroy popular dissident organizations and imprison their leaders.
    • Second, political repression provided the ideological and legal underpinnings of the Red Scare and of future governmental intrusions into the political and religious activities of millions of Americans throughout the 20th Century.
  5. Since World War I, the federal government has continued to deploy the legislative, executive, and judicial branches in the legalized battle against anti-war and anti-draft dissenters.