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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351.01


Review:                  Jailed for Peace: The History of American Draft Law Violators, 1658-1985, by Stephen M. Kohn (Greenwood Press, 1986).


Stephen Kohn's Jailed for Peace is intended to "fully document the history and political impact of anti-war conscientious objectors."  He devotes a chapter to each of what he sees as the significant periods of anti-draft activity, beginning with "Colonial Roots," then to "Draft Resistance and Abolitionism," then through the two World Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, and "The Reemergence of Registration Resistance" after 1980.  Unfortunately, this book fails in both of its two main objectives.  Up until Vietnam, the evidence he relies on is mostly anecdotal: reports of individual cases of abuse of jailed conscientious objectors, accounts of prison strikes organized by World War I draft resisters, etc.  He never goes beneath the surface of any of this evidence.  After reading about the mistreatment and torture of conscientious objectors held in military prisons during World War I, I was left wondering whether this was unusual, or if military prisons were generally brutal and inhumane to all their inmates.  Here is a typical example of this lack of analysis:


Court-martialed resisters came from a wide variety of religious and political persuasions, including Mennonites, Dunkards, Quakers, Huttrians, socialists, anarchists, Molokans, "humanitarians," and members of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union.  But regardless of their diverse backgrounds, they were united by a deep abhorrence of war and an absolutist refusal to cooperate with the military establishment.[1]


To Kohn, all the resisters were heroic and idealistic, and therefore no analysis is necessary.

His romanticism of the draft resisters carries over into his conclusions about the political impact of the anti-draft "movement."  First, he fails to justify treating draft resistance as a movement at all.  The World War I draft resisters were separated by half a century from the previous chapter about the abolitionists.  How do these two periods connect?  How do the "wide variety of religious and political persuasions" become a single, unified movement?  These kinds of unanswered questions multiply when he comes to Vietnam draft resistance.  During his discussion of the Vietnam period, he simply recounts events and gives statistics on the impressive numbers of draft resisters during the late '60s and early '70s, without going into the motivations and reasons for this sudden surge in civil disobedience.  All this proves to me is that the Vietnam War was very unpopular.  Yet in his concluding chapter, "The Draft and Social Change," Kohn states that "the anti-draft movement attacks both conscription and the standing army.  Unilateral disarmament is placed on the agenda.  The movement rejects the tactic of compromise and negotiation which structures so much of the mainstream political life . . ."[2]  The "anti-draft movement" may well hold those views, although he failed to give evidence to back this up.  More importantly, he failed to show that the large numbers of draft resisters had any more than a peripheral connection to the goals and views of such a movement.

He also overstates the political significance of draft resistance.  As a manifestation of popular displeasure with the Vietnam War, draft resistance certainly played a large part in the end of conscription in 1972, as Kohn demonstrates quite well.  Kohn goes much farther, however, and uses draft resistance to reject the "consensus theory" of American politics, which holds that "the United States' political tradition is one of substantial unity of opinion on all the basic questions concerning the body politic."[3]  By his own account, up through World War II "conscientious objectors  . . .were a tiny proportion of the American draft-age population."[4] , which is hardly a basis to throw out the consensus theory (surely there are much more convincing reasons to reject it).

In summary, this book is marred by extremely shallow analysis, over-generalization, and romanticizing of the draft resisters.  Kohn was undoubtedly hampered by a lack of evidence, but that is not an license to base conclusions on wishful thinking.  There is very little in this book to recommend it.  The best section, chapter 10, "The Evolution of the Draft Law," shows that Kohn can write well in his area of expertise (he is Professor of Law at the Antioch School of Law).  The best that can be said for Jailed for Peace is that it certainly points out the need for a truly comprehensive history of anti-war activity in the United States.

[1]  p. 26.

[2]  p. 129.

[3]  p. 128.

[4]  p. 46.

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