Conscription and Recruitment

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CONSCRIPTION AND RECRUITMENT. The U.S. armed services fills most of its manpower needs either through draft or recruitment. The draft is the selection of some of the male population for compulsory military service. It is a peculiarly American concept, distinct from the European practice of conscription, which involves the regularized training of the entire male population, generation after generation. But since the reorganization of the armed forces for peacetime service in 1787, the U.S. armed services have depended for the greatest number of their troops on recruitment by voluntary enlistment. Throughout the history of the armed services, the number of recruits at any given time has varied greatly.

The practices of universal military training and of compulsory military service in time of emergency were established in the United States under the legal systems of all the colonial powers. But universal military training did not remain in practice for very long in the new nation. The colonies used compulsory militia laws sporadically during the Revolution both for local defense and for support of the Continental army. Individual colonies conducted selection of eligibles, often by use of a lottery, yet draftees could avoid service in the Continental force by

hiring a substitute or by direct payment of a fee. The new states wrote compulsory universal-militia service into their constitutions, and the concept remains a force in the majority of state codes to the present day. Additionally, the Constitution of the United states provides for the training of state militias under standards to be prescribed by Congress. The Militia Act of 8 May 1792 provided a broad organizational structure for the militia but contained no means of enforcing a program of training. The inadequacies of that legislation and the disappearance of any continuing military threat in the more populous eastern states led to disintegration of the old universal-militia concept.

From the end of the Revolution until 1863, American military manpower procurement for the regular services was based almost entirely on volunteers. Although the able-bodied manpower of the states was still enrolled in the militia and reported more or less regularly, the only viable units of the militia were also composed entirely of volunteers. During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the United States also mustered companies of Texas Rangers, the law enforcement body of the Republic of Texas, into the federal service for scouting, patrol, and raiding missions.

During the Civil War, the armies of both the Union and the Confederacy were organized on the same basis—a mass of state volunteer militia units organized around a nucleus of regulars from the prewar U.S. Army. The initial surge of enthusiasm for war on both sides wore off in the bloody campaigns of 1861 and 1862. Thereafter, the states sought to keep their original regiments up to strength and to create new units by resorting to the Revolutionary War formula of compulsion and bounties. Once again, those selected in the state lotteries could avoid service by hiring a substitute or by payment of a fee. Union recruitment involved, in many instances, paying recruits a sum of money for joining, a bounty. This practice was ineffective, because many people collected the money and then paid others only a small portion of it to take their places on the rolls.

When neither voluntary enlistment nor the erratic pattern of state compulsory service produced the manpower needed, both the North and the South resorted to a federal draft. The southern Congress enacted a draft in 1862. The U.S. Congress passed a militia law that same year and implemented a draft the next year through the Enrollment Act of 1863. The army administered the Union's Civil War draft through presidential quotas assigned to each congressional district. Voluntary enlistments were credited against the district quotas, with selection of the remainder by lot. The federal system continued to authorize hiring substitutes or paying fees in lieu of service. Resentment against the gross economic discrimination of the state system flared into open violence when those inequities were continued and expanded under the federal draft. Bitter opposition to the draft continued through the rest of the war. Only about 6 percent of the Union army was a direct product of the draft. The indirect pressures, notably through operation of the substitution and bounty systems, produced a substantially larger total of enlistments.

From the end of the Civil War until 1903, military manpower procurement reverted to the prewar voluntary system. During the Spanish-American War the army met its manpower needs by individual voluntary enlistments and by accepting entire units from the state volunteer militias as "U.S. Volunteers." The best-known volunteer force was Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders. The standing navy carried out most of the fighting and the decisive battles of the war.

Between 1903 and 1916, Congress enacted a number of changes in American military policy that helped lay the foundation for an army that, once mobilized, could be supported only by a federal draft. It brought the state volunteer militia—by now known as the National Guard—under greater federal control. It also created a federal military reserve under the direct control of the War and Navy departments. The idea behind these changes was that over a prolonged period of mobilization, the infusion of draft-produced replacements and the products of the then newly established Reserve Officer Training Corps would gradually eliminate the distinctions between units originally identified with the regular army, the National Guard, and the "national army" formed subsequent to mobilization. These changes would produce a much different force from the aggregation of state militias envisaged by the framers of the Constitution.

Organization of an effective army general staff as part of the pre–World War I reforms helped to make possible a thorough review of the mistakes of the Civil War draft and the development of plans for a more efficient and a more equitable system. These plans had scarcely been formulated when they were ordered into effect by the Selective Service Act of 1917. The army general staff developed manpower requirements and apportioned them as state quotas. A lottery determined the order of induction. And local civilian boards organized under federally appointed state directors and operating under uniform federal regulations, rather than soldiers as was the case during the Civil War, administered selection and enrollment. Civilians also established the categories of deferment and acted on appeals. The act outlawed the hiring of substitutes and the payment of bounties.

Despite the relatively short duration of American participation in World War I, the diffusion of drafted men throughout all units of the army was well under way at the time of the armistice. Of approximately 4 million men under arms, over half were draftees. The Supreme Court held that the World War I draft was constitutional (Arver v. United States [1918]). And in general, the public accepted the new Selective Service program as fair and reasonable. But opposition to any continuing program of compulsory service in peacetime continued to be over-whelming, and the several proposals to continue the program got nowhere.

Twenty years later, the fall of France and the worsening of U.S. relations with Japan prompted Congress to enact the nation's first peacetime draft—the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. This act incorporated all the principal features of the World War I model. The impact of the World War II draft was pervasive. Over 10 million men were inducted, representing the most extensive mobilization of the nation's manpower in its history. Draftees were assigned to all the armed services, including the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps—services that had previously maintained themselves by voluntary recruitment even in time of war. By 1946 the armed forces were a homogeneous instrument of federal power. That power represented a blend of all the traditional elements of American military strength, both state and federal, but the influence of the federal draft was at once dominant and indispensable.

With the exception of one year (March 1947 to March 1948), the draft was in continuous operation from 1940 to early January 1973. The administrative machinery established during World War II was modified but never dismantled. From 1940 until 1967, the Selective Service System was geared to the requirements of total war and total mobilization. Therein lay the seeds of political turmoil. The system's reputation for fairness had been built upon the near total use of the nation's manpower during the two world wars. The military manpower requirements of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts were much smaller. Requirements during the intervals of international tension between those wars were even more limited. Successive administrations chose to deal with this problem by liberalizing deferments, there by reducing the pool of eligibles to the size needed.

By the end of the 1960s, the pool of those eligible for the draft came to consist largely of young men who had not chosen to marry and to father a child in their teens, who were not successfully enrolled in a college or university, who had not enlisted in the National Guard or reserve forces, and who, upon graduation from college, had not taken jobs in teaching or in one of the other exempted occupations. So long as this system resulted only in a period of active service with little or no personal risk, its obvious inequities were tolerated or ignored. But, as the manpower requirements of the Vietnam War and the personal risks of service increased, the consequences of the deferment policies could no longer be accepted. A significant percentage of draftees were poor and black. By 1967, Martin Luther King and the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee supported resistance to the draft. The initial response by the successive administrations of presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon was a return to the lottery as a substitute for some of the most obviously discriminatory deferments. The counterresponse was an escalation of protest and resistence.

On 27 January 1973 the Nixon administration ended the draft but maintained the Selective Service System in a standby, or "zero draft," status. The manpower requirements of the active and reserve forces were met by large increases in pay and related incentives and expanded job training opportunities. In 1972 the navy offered training in fifteen occupational categories and had sixty-six schools and courses. The air force offered four major fields of study and guaranteed the availability of assignments in any field in which the recruit qualified on the aptitude exams. An army recruit in the 1970s could also choose from among four specialized fields of study. The army also devised a new recruiting slogan to replace the World War I legend "Uncle Same Wants You!" The new slogan—"Today's Army Wants to Join You"—was designed to avoid the impersonality of the old-style recruitment as well as the feeling of authority, which many young people found objectionable.

Beginning with the decline in inductions in 1972, the National Guard and reserve forces experienced great difficulty in maintaining strength. Even when total authorizations were met, imbalances existed between units, and the quality of the recruits was subject to frequent criticism. Critics in Congress and elsewhere claimed that an outbreak of violence and sabotage aboard ships of the U.S. Navy in 1972 reflected a reduction in moral and mental standards in order to meet recruiting goals. They also alleged that in order to create an appearance of success, the authorized manpower of the army was being adjusted steadily downward to conform to the number of recruits available. After local draft boards were dismantled in 1973, the diversion of cadres from training to recruiting duties further weakend unit performance. And critics charged that reliance on economic incentives to generate volunteers was the old Civil War substitution system in a new and vastly more expensive form.

With the all-volunteer force plagued by inadequate numbers and disproportionate representation of minorities, the administration of President Jimmy Carter reinstituted compulsory draft registration for eighteen-year-old males in 1980, partly as a political response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In Rostker v. Goldberg (1981) the Supreme Court held that the registration of only men and not women was constitutional because women could not be assigned to combat duty. About 9 percent of those men required to register failed to do so. President Ronald Reagan, who had campaigned against the draft as an un-necessary infringement on individual liberty, nonetheless continued compulsory registration and prosecuted those who refused to register. Congress subsequently tied registration to federal education benefits.

Reagan relied on higher pay to increase enlistments. Some observers, however, urged a return to the draft to ensure that the armed forces were socially representative and to overcome the isolation of the military from society. Opponents continued to characterize the draft as un-democratic, expensive, and unprofessional. Furthermore, the General Accounting Office reported that the all-volunteer force cost much less than conscript forces. The end of the Cold War temporarily muted the debate, but it reemerged at the end of the twentieth century in calls for a period of mandatory national service for young adults either in the military or through a civilian service organization such as the Peace Corps. The successes of the all-volunteer force in the Gulf War of 1991 and in the Afghanistan War of 2002 did not necessarily settle the question of how armed forces should be raised in a post–Cold War era.


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Dunnigan, James F., and Raymond Macedonia. Getting It Right: American Military Reforms After Vietnam to the Persian Gulf and Beyond. New York: Morrow, 1993.

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

Keene, Jennifer D. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Moore, Albert Burton. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Murdock, Eugene Converse. One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971.

Segal, David R. Recruiting for Uncle Sam: Citizenship and Military Manpower Policy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.

Small, Melvin, and William D. Hoover, eds. Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. Essays from the Charles DeBenedetti Memorial Conference. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

J. GarryClifford

William V.Kennedy

Loring D.Wilson/c. p.

See alsoCivil War ; Military Service and Minorities: African Americans ; Militias ; Minutemen ; National Guard ; Persian Gulf War of 1991 ; Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) ; Rough Riders ; Substitutes, Civil War ; Texas Rangers ; Volunteer Army ; Women in Military Service ; andvol. 9:Pardon for Vietnam Draft Evaders .