Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Igal Roodenko, April 11, 1974. Interview B-0010. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Experiences in a conscientious objector camp during WWII

Rodenko describes his experiences in a camp for conscientious objectors during World War II. The camp Rodenko stayed at was in Colorado, but several such camps were scattered around the nation. Rodenko explains that these work camps, which were run by the Selective Service, were organized by the federal government to stave off anti-war activism and organization. For Rodenko and other conscientious objectors, these years were formative in terms of developing a political consciousness regarding pacifism and civil disobedience. According to Rodenko, this experience helped to form ideas about civil rights and racism later on.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Igal Roodenko, April 11, 1974. Interview B-0010. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

The question I started to ask you a minute ago, Igal, was a very complex one. After you got recognized as a conscientious objector, you went to the CO camp. While you were in the CO camp, something very important to the pacifist movement happened, and a bunch of you went to jail from the camps. What were the camps like? What about this big shift in the pacifist position in this period, and what happened in the prisons.
What was it that turned you to the question of race at this point?
Well, race was before that.
For the pacifist movement in general?
I thought you were talking about me personally. I was, like a lot of good folk, thinking of the horror of racialism back in the thirties, when I was a kid. I want to alter one of the things you said. You said a whole group of people left the camps. It was not a whole group, there were ones, and twos, and threes. Each went by himself. The camps, to go back historically, the administration recognized that they were going to have a lot of CO's, and they didn't want to go through the terrible things that happened in World War I, when several dozen people were sentenced to death for refusing to participate. That whole period of the thirties, the anti-war movement, sort of modified and created a much more open situation. Whatever the reasons may be, they wanted a looser structure for dissidents, and when they set up the Selective Service System, wondering what to do with the CO's, they fell back on the very simple pattern. The Quakers and some other groups had work camps all through the twenties and thirties, in which largely middle-class white kids would go and spend their summers building a community center in some little Mexican village or working in Appalachia or in Algeria, or something. This was helping our poor brothers.
What were they called:
They were called work camps. Selective Service, and I think the President of Michigan State University was the original director of Selective Service, and a very decent guy, I think he had worked with the [American Friends] Service Committee, set up this pattern of work camps. But the guy died, and this was when Hershey was appointed. Hershey ran the thing for several decades. The thing that these people didn't understand, the Service Committee and the church groups that supported the camp program didn't understand, and this was the basic error, was that there is all the difference in the world between a voluntary program and an enforced program. When they tried to enforce this work camp system on the CO's they ran into an enormous amount of trouble, although large numbers accepted it. In the camps, they said they would ask the CO's to prove their sincerity by supporting themselves while they were in these camps, and they asked all of us to pay thirty dollars a month for our board and keep. The peace churches agreed if the young man couldn't supply this, they would ask his family, they would ask his church and finally, if they couldn't find the money elsewhere, the underwrote the program. They must have put $9,000,000 in this program in the course of World War II. Many of the camps worked, but there were, from the very beginning, dissidents. It started perhaps, or was highlighted by a group of Union Theological students, led by Dave Dellinger and George Houser and a few others, who refused to register in the very beginning, when the draft was signed, the day that people were asked to register. They were looked on as absolute freaks. As we got deeper into the war, we began to realize - we being a very small number of less church types in the CO camps - that the camps were set up not because the government values conscience and respects it, but were set up because the government recognizes that the CO's were a bunch of troublemakers and dissidents, and even if they could force them into the army, they would be more trouble than they were worth, and the camp system was a means of getting us out of circulation. They had rules that you could do your alternative service, but you had to be at least fifty miles away from any place you had ever lived in. So you wouldn't be a focus for anti-war activity of any kind. The other problem is that conscientious objection is pretty much of a middle class phenomenon. Here are people who are idealistic and dedicated and competent in one way or another, and they found themselves digging ditches. We didn't object to digging ditches per se, we objected to the tremendous waste of competence when there was a shortage. There were a lot of teachers who were CO's, and there were a lot of places in America that needed teachers and needed them badly. We weren't given anything in which we could put our efforts and our abilities. This kind of accentuated a growing dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the camp system. The other thing that happened was that guys like Dellinger and Peck and others, who refused to have anything to do with conscription to begin with, went into the prisons, and then started a series of actions within prisons. The first was in Danbury, Connecticut, at the Federal priosn there, where a group of our people went on strike finally because of the racial segregation in the dining room. This was Connecticut, not North Carolina or Georgia. Finally, that was broken down. What was happening, you see, was that the heroes of the CO movement were all in prison and not in these camps. I know what happened within me, and I think this is fairly typical. There is a great deal of apprehension because, I wasn't part of this crusade against this ultimate evil of Hitler, and there is this guilt feeling. Two, I wasn't serving in any other way. I was cutting brush down in the Eastern Shore of Maryland in a project, and later driving a truck on someproject in Colorado where the resident engineer said the only reason they are doing this thing was that they had free labor. If they didn't have our free labor, they wouldn't do it, it wouldn't be justified, the earthen dam we were building. There was the guilt feeling about not being part of our generation fighting Hitler, there was the frustration of our energies and abilities not being used. Then there was the rationalization that the Selective Service System was not interested in recognizing conscience, but in keeping us out of circulation. Then, finally, I know I had the very conscious feeling that if the war suddenly ended and I hadn't made the prison scene, I would feel cheated. Having come to that conclusion, I had to wait for the right moment. In this Colorado camp, there were a lot of troublemakers and we were running a contest with the camp administration. They were trying to get guys to leave and go in the army, and we were trying to get guys to leave and go into prison. We had a big score-board outside on the wall of the latrine, and we were always two or three ahead of them. * Administration In the course of several months, about thirty guys broke, and refused to cooperate, left and didn't come back and were ultimately arrested and jailed. Finally, and it was a moment of - one has to wait for a moment of total ripeness, it isn't simply intellectualism, it is not simply a gut decision, it is something that you have to live with - when we got word that a group of our people and Dellinger was one of them at Lewisberg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania had gone on a hunger strike because of excessive mail censorship. This mail censorship can be really petty. They will let Playboy in and won't let the Peacemaker in, or something like that. That was it. I'd never met Dellinger, but he was one of my heroes. Murphy and Taylor in that Danbury thing were my heroes. Suddenly, that was the last straw. I went on a hunger strike and a work strike. In due time, in about ten days or two weeks, I was arrested, and charged, and released on bail. I went on trial and appeal, and I finally lost. I had to start serving a three year sentence. By this time, it was all down hill. The difficult moment was, am I or am I not a CO, which occurred years before. Then one thing follows another fairly easily.