Poorest Americans were often drafted first


Editor’s note: This is part two of a six-part series on conscription (the draft).

In 1917, the administration of President Woodrow Wilson decided to rely primarily on conscription, rather than voluntary enlistment, to raise military manpower for World War I when only 73,000 volunteers enlisted out of the initial 1 million target in the first six weeks of the war.

The Selective Service Act of 1917 was carefully drawn to remedy the defects in the Civil War system and (by allowing exemptions for dependency, essential occupations and religious scruples) to place each man in his proper niche in a national war effort. The act established a “liability for military service of all male citizens:” authorized a selective draft of all those between 21 and 31 years of age (later from 18 to 45); and prohibited all forms of bounties, substitutions, or purchase of exemptions.

In 1917, 10 million men were registered. This was deemed to be inadequate, so age ranges were increased and exemptions reduced, and so by the end of 1918, this increased to 24 million men that were registered with nearly 3 million inducted into the military services, with little of the resistance that characterized the Civil War, thanks to a well-received campaign by the government to increase support for the war and shut down newspapers and magazines that published articles against the war.

The draft was universal and included Blacks on the same terms as whites, although they served in different units. In all, 367,710 Black Americans were drafted (13.0% of the total), compared to 2,442,586 white (86.9%). Along with a general opposition to American involvement in a foreign conflict, southern farmers objected to perceived unfair conscription practices that exempted members of the upper class and industrial workers.

Draft boards were localized and based their decisions on social class. The poorest were the most often conscripted because they were considered the least likely to be the skilled labor needed for the war effort. Poor men were also less likely to convince local boards they were primary breadwinners who could be deferred to support dependents. Those of African descent in particular were often disproportionately drafted, though they generally were conscripted as laborers.

Nearly half-a-million immigrants were drafted, which forced the military to develop training procedures that took ethnic differences into account. Military leaders invited progressive reformers and ethnic group leaders to assist in formulating new military policies. The military attempted to socialize and Americanize young immigrant recruits, not by forcing Americanization, but by showing remarkable sensitivity and respect for ethnic values and traditions, and a concern for the morale of immigrant troops, with the aim of blending them into the larger society.

The Conscription Act of 1917 was passed in June. Conscripts were court-martialed by the Army if they refused to wear uniforms, bear arms, perform basic duties, or submit to military authority. Convicted objectors were often given long sentences of 20 years in Fort Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas. In 1918, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker created the Board of Inquiry to question the conscientious objectors’ sincerity. Military tribunals tried men found by the board to be insincere for a variety of offenses; sentencing 17 to death, 142 to life imprisonment, and 345 to penal labor camps. Many of these sentences were commuted after the war’s end.

In 1917, a number of radicals and anarchists, including Emma Goldman, tried to challenge the new draft law in federal court, arguing that it was a direct violation of the 13th Amendment’s prohibition against slavery and involuntary servitude. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the draft act in the Selective Draft Law Cases on Jan. 7, 1918. The decision said the United States Constitution gave Congress the power to declare war and to raise and support armies.

Conscription was unpopular from left-wing sectors at the start, with many socialists jailed for “obstructing the recruitment or enlistment service.” The most famous was Eugene Debs, head of the Socialist Party of America, who ran for president in 1920 from his Atlanta prison cell. He had his sentence commuted to time served and was released on Dec. 25, 1921, by President Warren G. Harding. Also notably, the Industrial Workers of the World attempted to obstruct the war effort through strikes in war-related industries and not registering, but it did not meet with large success.

Although draft riots were not widespread, an estimated 171,000 people never registered for the draft, while another 360,000 people never responded to induction orders.

Conscientious Objector (CO) exemptions were allowed for the Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren only. All other religious and political objectors were forced to participate.

The draft ended in 1918, but the Army designed the modern draft mechanism in 1926 and built it based on military needs, despite an era of pacifism. Working where Congress would not, it gathered a small group of officers for its new Joint Army-Navy Selective Service Committee, most of whom were commissioned based on social standing rather than military experience. This effort did not receive congressionally approved funding until 1934, when Major Gen. Lewis B. Hershey was assigned to the organization. Much of Hershey’s work was codified into law with the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (STSA).

By the summer of 1940, as Germany conquered France, Americans supported the return of conscription. One national survey found that 67% of respondents believed that a German-Italian victory would endanger the United States, and that 71% supported “the immediate adoption of compulsory military training for all young men.” Similarly, a November 1942 survey of American high school students found that 69% favored compulsory postwar military training.

The World War I system served as a model for that of World War II. The 1940 law instituted conscription in peacetime, requiring the registration of all men between 21 and 35. President Roosevelt’s signing of the Selective Training and Service Act on Sept. 16, 1940, began the first peacetime draft in the United States. It also reestablished the Selective Service System (SSS) as an independent agency responsible for identifying young men and facilitating their military service.

The act set a cap of 900,000 men to be in training at any given time and limited military service to 12 months unless Congress deemed it necessary to extend such service in the interest of national defense. An amendment added 18 more months to this service period on Aug. 18, 1941. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the STSA was further amended (Dec. 19, 1941), extending the term of service to the duration of the war plus six months, and requiring the registration of all men 18 to 64 years of age. During World War II, 49 million men were registered, 36 million classified, and 10 million inducted. Eighteen- and 19-year-olds were made liable for induction on Nov. 13, 1942. By late 1942, the SSS moved away from a national lottery to administrative selection by its more than 6,000 local boards.


By Harold B. Wolford

Veterans Corner

Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.

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