Congress created the Civilian Public Service in 1940 so that men opposed to combat could offer meaningful alternative service to their nation at war. The three historic peace churches (Quaker, Brethren, and Mennonite) partnered with the Selective Service to administer the organization. About 12,000 men participated, along with a significant number of women who volunteered.

Over time, CPS assignments ranged widely, as did the education and politics of the men serving. Some felt the need to sacrifice so keenly that they agreed to serve as human guinea pigs. They were subjected to disease, deprived of food and water, and exposed to hostile environments—all in the name of protecting their country nonviolently. 

Many other CPS workers simply spent long days at tedious jobs in rustic, remote camps. Approximately 2,000 worked in mental hospitals, or training schools for people with disabilities. Horrified by the conditions they found, the men and women of the CPS fought to change this status quo—both during and after the war—and they succeeded. Many Quaker leaders in education, service and peace building began their careers in Civilian Public Service.

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  • Worker driving a large piece of farm equipment
    CPS volunteers often served in essential jobs left open by men who were away at war.
  • Man in white coat feeding a piece of bread to a seated man
    CPS workers assigned to mental institutions were appalled at the treatment of residents. In some situations, they found people who weren’t clothed or kept clean, and they offered kindness and care.
  • Young adult men and women engaged in discussion
    CPS workers at the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry regularly gathered to discuss the poor state of mental health care. Eventually, such groups helped rouse public attention and changed facilities nationwide.
  • Young adult men standing, one with a tube and equipment attached to his head
    Some CPS members willingly signed up for hazardous medical experiments, eager to demonstrate their courage and patriotism in nonviolent ways.
  • Young man lying on table surrounded by medical professionals with measuring implements
    This experiment subjected volunteers to a starvation diet to measure the effects of severe malnutrition.
  • Four young men digging
    Digging ditches and other hard labor were common assignments for CO’s, often known as “conchies.”
  • Young child talking with an adult social worker in a suit
    A CPS social worker meets one of his young clients at the Home for Delinquent Boys in Cheltenham, PA.
  • Person in a parachute landing between trees
    CPS “smoke jumpers” parachuted into remote forested areas to help extinguish fires. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service.
  • Row of beds next to windows with sun coming in
    Living conditions in CPS camps were spartan, and the monthly pay of $2.50 took a toll on the entire family of a man following his conscience.
  • Group of young men talking and laughing inside a wooden building
    Despite the hardships, camaraderie developed and leadership skills emerged among many CPS members.
  • Group of young men outside a building holding a large sign that reads "Camp Rufus Jones"
    One participant wrote later that the CPS camps were “highly demanding experiments in group living by young pacifists, powerfully affecting our lives then and later.”
  • Line of adult men and women with buttons on their jackets standing outside a fence
    Steven G. Cary (right, at a 1980s anti-draft rally) recalls CPS as “part zoo, part bureaucratic battleground, and part school for pacifists.” He went on to play a significant leadership role in AFSC for decades.