In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) signed the Selective Training and Service Act, which created America's first peacetime draft and established the Selective Service System as an independent federal agency. The military draft is a form of conscription, or the involuntary requirement, of all males to serve in the armed forces. Although there are some restrictions such as age and medical and mental conditions, men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are required to register with the Selective Service so that they can be more easily located in time of need.
The draft was first used during the American Civil War (1861–65). It was met with widespread resistance, however, and men who could afford to hire substitutes to fight in their place were allowed to do so.
Conscription was again used after America entered World War I (1914–18) in 1917. Initially, the required length of service time was twelve months. This was expanded to eighteen months in 1941. Those men drafted during World War II (1939–45) were required to serve until six months after the war's end. Because of the need for additional soldiers during this war, the minimum age for the draft was lowered to seventeen.
The wartime draft expired in 1947 but was reinstated the following year. The draft was used again to supply American soldiers to fight the Korean War (1950–53). From the mid-1950s and throughout the 1960s, the draft continued, though on a much smaller basis. There simply was not a need to force men into military service during this relatively uneventful period in history. Although it is widely believed that the draft was heavily used throughout the Vietnam War (1954–75), draftees were actually in the minority during the early years of the conflict. The reason for the misperception is because most draftees were conscripted into the U.S. Army and formed the majority of infantry riflemen. By 1969, 88 percent of Army riflemen had been drafted, and they were the soldiers who were most often killed in action. But by the end of the war, when all the numbers were totaled, two-thirds of those Americans who served in the Vietnam War were volunteers. Even celebrities were drafted, including Elvis Presley (1935–1977) and baseball hero Willie Mays (1931–).
Vietnam and the conscientious objector
During the Vietnam War, even before troops were sent overseas, the American public was divided about the draft. Because some college students were exempt from being drafted, there was much resentment among the working class and the poor who could not afford to attend college. Although the guidelines for determining who was exempt from the draft were not completely clear and not strictly enforced, some of those who were exempt or could defer (postpone) their service included students studying for the ministry and those who were mid-year in their studies. Some men were exempt from service because of the importance of their occupation. Police officers fell into this category. Other young men—students or not—came from influential families whose doctors would declare them physically unable to serve. By 1969, the government realized the draft as it was set up was not working, and it implemented a lottery system. While there was still room for exemptions and deferments, the rules were more clear.
Although young men still had to register for the draft, they could do so as conscientious objectors (COs). A CO opposes serving in the armed forces due to religious or moral principles. These men would still have to serve, but they would be more likely to be given a job that did not involve direct battle.
Millions of Americans protested against the Vietnam War because they did not believe their country should be involved. The antiwar movement included many types of protests; one of the most frequent forms was the burning of draft registration cards. This was a crime and punishable by a fine and/or jail time. Thousands of young men who did not want to serve in the Vietnam War went to Canada, a country that did not support the war.
End of the draft
The draft formally ended in 1973; young men no longer had to register with the Selective Service System. In 1980, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and American president Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81) reinstated the registration requirement. All males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who were born on or after January 1, 1960, were required to register. This law remained in place into the twenty-first century. Because prosecuting those who fail to register is cost prohibitive and counterproductive for the government, many young men fail to register on their eighteenth birthday or do not register at all.
If America instituted a draft in current society, it would be handled differently than it was in the past. Reforms have made the draft more equitable, and it is much harder to be excused from service. Students would no longer be exempt from service. College students could only postpone their induction into the military until the end of the current semester, and seniors could only postpone until the end of the academic year.
Men used to be drafted according to their age, with the oldest being chosen first. Now the rules state that men be drafted by a lottery system. Under this system, a man would spend one year in first priority for the draft. Each year that follows, his name is placed in a lower-priority group. This way, the probability of being drafted lessens as the years pass.
When America attacked Iraq in 2003, several congressmen introduced legislation to reinstate the draft for both men and women. The bill did not receive much support. An attempt to reinstate the draft was made again in 2006, and again it failed.