Peace Matters Index

acts of conscience

ONLINE contents

- conscripting conscience
- to vote or not to vote
- climate science: a peace-studies lesson
- climate change and conflict
- unarmed resistance
- acts of conscience
- a sunny day in prague
- human abuse map

complete issue pdf

In the mid to late 1940s a group of young men upset the psychiatric establishment in the United States by revealing the squalid conditions and brutality in the nation’s mental hospitals and training schools for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Bringing the abuse to the attention of newspapers and magazines they led a reform effort to change public attitudes and to improve the training and status of institution staff. Prominent Americans such as Eleanor Roosevelt supported their efforts.

These young men were among 12,000 World War Two conscientious objectors who chose to perform civilian public service as an alternative to fighting in what was widely regarded as America’s ‘good war’. Three thousand of these men volunteered to work in state institutions where they discovered appalling conditions. Their response was to challenge America’s treatment of its citizens with severe disabilities. This book, which draws on archival research, interviews and correspondence, brings to light the extraordinary efforts of these courageous men.

The World War Two conscientious objectors were not the first to expose the failings of public institutions and they were not the last. What distinguishes them from reformers of other periods is that their activities have faded from professional and popular memory.

In the US as in Britain COs volunteered to act as ‘human guinea pigs’ (see Peace Matters xx also online) and were subjected to some questionable medical experiments. ‘My future wife visited me,’ recalls Charles Lord, ‘I got so sick, I told her that I wished to die.’ ‘At about four I was very cold and nauseated,’ writes Warren Sawyer, ‘ I thought that I would choke to death, my nose and throat were filled with mucous. I could not swallow.’ C. Everett Koop, later appointed surgeon general in the Regan administration admitted that had he known then what he knows now he would not have done the experiments. He thought that they were too dangerous.

Stephen Taylor’s book shows us through the eyes of these young men the unimagined brutality and degradation that the establishment perpetrated and which their compatriots in the military were, in effect, fighting to ‘defend’.

Acts of Conscience. Steven J Taylor. Syracuse University Press 2009

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