Conscription, World War II

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The draft, or more accurately, selective military conscription, was the primary means by which men were inducted into the American armed forces during World War II. The Selective Service Act of 1940 established the first peacetime military conscription in the nation's history and provided the blueprint by which men were drafted for the next thirty years.

debates surrounding peacetime draft, 1940

When first proposed in 1940, pre-war conscription was extremely controversial. The push for draft legislation came from a small group of leaders that had been in the pre-World War I "Preparedness" movement. Led by attorney Grenville Clark, the Military Training Camps Association (MTCA) started a lobbying campaign for compulsory military service in May. On June 20, 1940, Senator Ed Burke (D., NE) introduced a modified version of the MCTA bill in the Senate with Congressman James Wadsworth (R., NY) introducing similar legislation in the House. The fall of France on June 22, combined with President Roosevelt's appointment of Henry L. Stimson as the Secretary of War, tilted the political balance towards passage.

Opponents included organized labor, major religious groups, the peace movement, most of the educational establishment, and Republican isolationist legislators. Some argued that the draft was unconstitutional, because in 1918 the Supreme Court had upheld conscription only in wartime. Labor leaders argued that the elitist interests pushing a draft were concerned with profit, not democratic principles. Many legislators wanted to see a volunteer effort tried before resorting to conscription. The bill passed in both houses of Congress by decisive majorities and was signed into law on September 16, 1940. It is generally accepted that Hitler's advance across Europe was the primary reason the law was enacted.


The Selective Service Act of 1940 limited service to one year, and forbad duty outside the Western Hemisphere.

These restrictions on service reflected the nation's suspicions of militarism, its isolationism, and its reluctance to engage in military buildup except for defensive purposes. The act required every male from age 21 to 36 years old to register, and prohibited racial discrimination. Registered men could volunteer before called and pick their branch of service. The president could authorize deferments as he deemed necessary for the maintenance of public health, safety, or interest. An appeal system was established to dispute local board classification. Ministers and divinity students were exempted from service but not registration. Conscientious objectors (CO) were recognized "based on religious training and belief" and not required to be members of historic peace churches. Some 50,000 men were granted CO status and offered a choice between noncombatant military duty or alternate service.

The president was authorized to create a Selective Service System, eventually under the direction of General Lewis B. Hershey. Local civilian boards, composed of unpaid volunteers, were responsible for the actual classification and calls. National headquarters established the order of call via lottery, the priority of classification, and state quotas.

The draft revealed several problems. By the summer of 1941 half of the men drafted (mainly older men) had been rejected for medical exams or illiteracy. Based on this experience, the army affirmed its position that 18-to-21-year-olds made the best soldiers. Rapid expansion also created a backlog of inductees because training facilities were inadequate. The army asked Congress to extend term and service to train these men. Often misconstrued, the major congressional contest over the Service Extension Act of 1941 (passed by only one vote in the House) focused on the length of service for the first 600,000 draftees, not the existence of the draft itself.

After Pearl Harbor, Congress extended registration to ages 18 to 38, removed the overseas prohibition, and increased service to the duration of the war plus six months. In 1942 registration was expanded to ages 18 to 45, the Navy began using draftees, and volunteering was terminated. Yet by 1944 the draft was experiencing major shortages. Racism hampered mobilization. The army's policy of segregating facilities and military units limited the number of black men who could be trained for service and restricted their roles in the military. Ironically, southern draft boards complained that military segregation forced them to induct mainly white men and to exclude eligible Blacks from service. While shortfalls were due to increased manpower requirements for the planned invasion of Europe and a continued 50 percent rejection rate, a primary factor was the deferment policy.

controversies over exemptions

Despite the theme of universal sacrifice, at the height of the war in 1944, critics claimed that the deferment process had become captive to politics, special interests, and to local biases. Selective Service was used as an indirect agent to keep labor in line by threatening induction. It was also used to balance the needs for industrial and military manpower. Occupation was a direct factor in determining deferment eligibility. Throughout the war various groups demanded and received deferments, including the medical community, college students, educators, scientists, agriculture, and the war industry.


Persons who have objected to war on religious or personal grounds have resided in the United States since the earliest colonization of America. Many have been part of particular religious groups, such as the Church of the Brethren, Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites. During the Revolutionary War conscription did not yet exist, yet non-participants might have been viewed as Tory sympathizers. Certain people were given exemptions from military service resister status at other points throughout history: in the Massachusetts colony in 1661 and in 1673 in Rhode Island. Yet some of the objectors were fined for their nonparticipation.

During the Civil War the Confederate government enacted conscription, though many well-to-do men paid to have other men take their places in the military forces, and objectors on religious grounds might have paid a $500 fine. In 1863 the Union passed the Conscription Act, which allowed an exemption if a person paid $300 to the War Department or supplied a substitute, and the following year it amended the act to allow individuals who objected on religious grounds to serve as noncombatants. However, as in the Revolutionary War, objectors—from both North and South—were often viewed as supporters of the enemy's cause.

The World Wars saw many changes in conscription. When the Selective Service Act was passed in 1917, only those objectors who were part of religious organizations known for opposing military activity were excused from military service. Some 4,000 objectors were drafted for noncombatant service, and some 450 objectors who refused to serve as noncombatants were tried in military courts and sentenced to serve prison time, though President Woodrow Wilson pardoned these objectors at the war's end. During World War II, the definition of a conscientious objector was changed to include those persons who chose not to fight for personal reasons, not only those who were part of established pacifist religious groups. The federal government also expanded opportunities for noncombatant service with the creation of Civilian Public Service Camps. Nevertheless, some 6,000 noncombatants—many members of the Jehovah's Witness religious group—were tried and imprisoned for declining to participate in alternative service.

During the 1960s and the Vietnam War, objectors on religious grounds received exemptions from combat, yet many others voiced their objections based on moral grounds and were still subject to the draft. Many of those who refused to serve in the military fled to Canada or Europe and became known as draft evaders. In 1974 President Gerald Ford offered evaders of the Vietnam War the opportunity to do two years of public service work in return for amnesty and repatriation.

Certain classes experienced significantly lower induction rates, notably farmers, fathers, and physicians. Of these, dependency deferments for fatherhood enjoyed especially strong public support. Because of a manpower shortage in early 1943, Hershey instructed local boards to disregard dependency deferments to meet calls. In response, Congress passed a bill that deferred all fathers until all other eligible men were taken. To fill the shortfall, induction was expanded to eighteen-year-olds. Nonetheless, by 1945 nearly one million fathers were drafted.


Conscription affected virtually every aspect of American life, from professional athletes such as Joe Lewis and Ted Williams to women's participation in the workforce. Once volunteering was prohibited in late 1942, the draft became the only way to enter the armed forces. Although it is difficult to separate the effects of military service itself from the entry method, the fact that the majority of men donned the uniform via the draft resulted in this becoming a common and normative experience for an entire generation. Public approval of the draft signaled a dramatic shift from pre-war attitudes. Perhaps the most fundamental postwar change was the American people's acceptance of keeping a large standing army in peacetime that included conscription.

The draft made an important contribution to victory in World War II. Selective Service registered 49 million men, selected 19 million, and inducted 10.1 million into an armed force of approximately 15 million. Public opinion polls consistently indicated the draft was perceived as fair. The deferment system managed manpower without destroying the nation's social structure. Because local boards controlled classification, Congress ensured national leadership was responsive to citizens' values over who fought and who did not. However, after VJ Day, congressional and public support for the draft waned as traditional opposition to peacetime conscription returned. Following several extensions, the World War II draft was allowed to expire March 31, 1947.


Blum, Albert A. Drafted or Deferred: Practices Past and Present. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1967.

Flynn, George. Q. The Draft, 1940–1973. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

Clifford, Gary, and Samuel R. Spencer, Jr. The First Peacetime Draft. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1956.

O'Sullivan, John, and Alan M. Meckler, eds. The Draft and Its Enemies. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

Rosemary Bryant Mariner

See also:Civil Liberties, World War II; Labor, World War II.

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