Conscription, World War I

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In the world wars of the twentieth century, fighting could not be confined to a handful of volunteer and professional soldiers. Nations had to be mobilized to provide millions of men. Military service had to be made mandatory through the draft, or conscription. Conscription expanded the powers of government, and whereas it was generally accepted by the populace as a patriotic duty, it also produced conflict on the homefront between the majority and those opposed to war, as well as those who believed the draft was unfair or incompatible with liberty.

creation of the draft

In the spring of 1917, the peacetime U.S. Army totaled 135,000 men. After war was declared on Germany on April 6, 1917, patriotism in the country ran high. Many men were immediately moved to volunteer to join the U.S. forces and fight the war. Still, this added manpower was not nearly enough. General John Pershing, who had command of the American forces in Europe, asked for millions of men for his army. A draft was necessary, insisted Chief of Staff Hugh Scott. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker agreed and convinced President Woodrow Wilson. Meanwhile, former president Theodore Roosevelt was pushing the idea of including a provision to organize a division of volunteers. Baker rejected this idea, and was supported by Wilson, who for political reasons did not want to get Roosevelt involved in the raising of an army.

Wilson's draft bill next had to clear Congress, and some lawmakers were promising a fight. In rural regions, especially the South, people cared little about the distant European war. All over America, people wrote to their representatives by the hundreds of thousands, expressing opinions both for and against conscription. One alternate to the president's bill proposed a trial volunteer army for a few months. Another proposal suggested the raising of a volunteer army while simultaneously preparing to implement the draft. The latter, known as the Dent bill after its sponsor in Congress, was a compromise popular in the parts of the country that favored isolationism.

On April 28, the Dent bill was put up for a vote in the House and failed to pass. This signaled rejection of the idea of a volunteer army and cleared the way for a draft bill's victory. Still, there was wrangling over the details of the bill. The president was able to compromise on some of the finer points and ultimately managed to get the final version through Congress. The Selective Service Act was signed into law on May 18, 1917. It authorized President Wilson to increase the regular army, to bring into federal service the National Guard and National Guard Reserve, and to raise military force by a selective draft.

organization and logistics

The organization of the draft was relatively simple. Local draft boards would register men for the draft and decide on exemptions. The whole operation fell under the jurisdiction of the office of the Provost Marshal General in Washington. There were 4,648 local draft boards in the United States and the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico: at least one per county in every state, and more if the population density of the county was high. In New York City alone, for example, there were 189 draft boards. District boards were supervisory boards that oversaw about thirty local draft boards each. Draft board service was compulsory for those chosen; it was an unpaid post.

Initially men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one were required to register; later, registration included those aged eighteen through forty-five. The twosided registration cards asked for a variety of information such as date of birth, place of birth, father's place of birth, address of next of kin, eye and hair color, and race. On June 5, 1917, 9.5 million men were registered.

There were 10,500 different draft lottery numbers. On July 20, 1917, a blindfolded Secretary Baker drew the first number from a bowl, followed by other dignitaries over the course of sixteen and one-half hours. A total of 1,374,000 men were called up that day. Anyone with a number that was picked by the lottery had to immediately report to his local draft board. Three more draft registrations were held in 1918 which increased the number of potential draftees by 13 million men. While there were no protests on the scale of the New York City draft riot during the Civil War, there were incidents of violent opposition in the rural South and resistance to the draft in the form of refusal to register.

Eventually, a total of 24 million American men registered for the draft, and 2.8 million were inducted into service. The men selected formed the National Army of the American Expeditionary Force. Physical examinations were conducted for those men who were drafted. If they passed the examination, they were shipped to a training center. Those who were too thin or otherwise failed the physical were rejected. About half of the 1.3 million men called up on the first day of draft were rejected, mostly due to health reasons.

It was a slow process. Most draftees were assigned to National Army divisions, and the first group took many months to get overseas. Construction of camps and cantonments, mostly on the East Coast, was authorized in May 1917. All in all, thirty-two camps were hastily established, about half for the National Army and the others for the National Guard.

public reaction to the draft

During the Civil War, the draft had been a failure because a conscript could send a substitute to serve in his place or could buy an exemption. The Civil War draft had been seen largely as a poor man's draft. This time around there was more acceptance by the public because of the perceived fairness of the draft bill. Still, the legitimacy of the draft was challenged in the Supreme Court by a man who refused to register; it was upheld in an early 1918 decision.

The Committee on Public Information put out pamphlets to help the American public understand why the United States had entered the war. These free pamphlets included The Great War: From Spectator to Participant; A War of Self Defense; Why America Fights Germany; and

Ways to Serve the Nation. An advertisement for toothpaste in a 1918 boys' magazine was titled "The Twice a Day Draft" and featured an "Enlistment Blank for Good Teeth—Good Health." Another advertisement for bicycle tires told readers to "Keep in Fighting Trim … if you're called to the colors, you'll be ready."

The biggest proponent of the conscription movement was a military preparedness group called the National Security League, with 100,000 members and 250 branches nationwide. This group was financed by big-city millionaires and corporations and had considerable political clout. Organized resistance to the draft came mainly from religious groups and political organizations including the No Conscription League, the People's Council for Peace and Democracy, and the Socialist Party of America.

People in different regions of the country reacted differently to conscription. For example, some southerners felt disenfranchised by what they perceived as a violation of their rights as citizens. Many southerners had isolationist views and did not wish to participate in the draft. During congressional debate, the Speaker of the House, a Missourian named James Beauchamp Clark, gave a passionate speech in which he equated being a conscript to being a convict. Five hundred farmers in Oklahoma planned to march in Washington, D.C., but were arrested before they could take action.

Men who objected to military service on the basis of religious beliefs or political ideals were known as conscientious objectors. About 65,000 men claimed objector status. Some were opposed to killing, others to the idea of the draft, which they believed was contrary to principles of liberty and freedom. However, only those who belonged to the historic "peace churches" were exempted from combat. President Wilson defined certain areas of service that were classified as "non-combatant," to which these men must accept assignment or suffer punishment. About 65,000 men claimed objector status, but the number of objectors was whittled down as thousands of men changed their minds while in training camp, and thousands more did not pass the physical exam.

The remaining four thousand legally-recognized objectors considered non-combatant service unacceptable. To them, true opposition to the war meant avoiding any service that furthered the war effort in any way. By the end of the war, however, many of these men had capitulated and were placed into the Medical Corps or on civilian duty. Nearly five hundred of the most stubborn objectors (known as absolutists) were court-martialed and imprisoned.

legacy of the draft

After the armistice of November 1918, the Selective Service system was dismantled. Draft boards officially closed in March 1919, and the position of Provost Marshal General was discontinued in July 1919. The system was a success; during the Civil War, fifty years earlier, only 8 percent of the Army had been represented by draftees, compared with over 70 percent during World War I.

The end of the volunteer system as an effective means to raise a wartime army marked a change in the way America fought wars. This precedent was the forerunner of several drafts over the course of the twentieth century. Conscription was utilized again during World War II and during the Vietnam Conflict. With each rebirth of conscription, debate was reopened on the worthiness of the cause and the fairness of the system.


Adams, James Truslow. The March of Democracy. New York: Scribner, 1933.

Chambers, John Whiteclay. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America. New York: The Free Press, 1987.

Eisenhower, John S. D., with Eisenhower, Joanne T. Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I. New York: Free Press, 2001.

French, Paul Comly. We Won't Murder, Being the Story of Men Who Followed Their Conscientious Scruples and Helped Give Life to Democracy. New York: Hastings House, 1940.

Lawson, Don. The United States in World War I: The Story of General John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1963.

Richard Panchyk and

Caren Prommersberger

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Conscription, World War I

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