views updated Jun 27 2018



Conscription, also known as the draft, is the compulsory enrollment of personnel, especially for the armed forces, based on national laws. Although ancient societies used conscription systems, and some forerunners existed in seventeenth-century Scandinavia, the beginnings of modern universal conscription are generally assigned to Revolutionary France with its levée en masse in 1793 and the Loi Jourdan-Delbrel of 1798. The levée en masse was not only an extraordinary measure to cope with both the necessities of the war since 1792 and the internal resistance to the Revolution; it was also a revolutionary means to mobilize the population. It created a myth of mass mobilization. While the German states, especially Prussia, introduced this system in their military reforms of 1806 to 1813 and kept it during peacetime, France after 1814 heavily restricted involuntary recruitment.

Starting in the 1860s, conscription was again high on the agenda in Europe, not only because of the instability of international relations, but also because of the consequences of nation building and industrial progress. Prussia and the German states cancelled all exemptions from 1867 on, the same year that Austria-Hungary introduced universal conscription after its defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866; and France reintroduced it in 1872 after its own defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). In Russia military service was part of the peasants' serfdom. Following Russia's defeat in the Crimean War and enactment of the 1861 land reform, military recruitment had to be put on a new basis, introduced in an 1874 law. Service in the Imperial Army still remained extremely long and harsh. Switzerland introduced conscription nationwide in 1874, but kept a specific militia system that embraced all men up till the age of sixty. In Italy conscription was introduced in 1907.

Universal conscription became a central factor of the security policy of these states. It also turned out to be a major institution of political socialization in the age of the national states, and thus a homogenizing experience for men from different regions, and even those speaking different languages. While for the longest time there were exemptions for certain ethnic groups and certain strata of society, this tendency declined toward the turn of the century. Even Great Britain, where a broad anticonscription mood prevailed, debates on mass recruitment evolved during the Boer War (1899–1902) and prior to World War I. International tensions, especially those arising since 1904, led to an intensified policy of conscription in most European states.


In the summer of 1914 universal conscription and volunteer recruitment led to the buildup of mass armies on an unprecedented scale. Over sixty million men were mobilized during World War I in Europe; almost nine million soldiers lost their lives.

Even in France, where the draft evasion rate had been almost 50 percent before the war, mobilization of men succeeded almost completely: only 1 percent failed to answer their call-up papers. With the murderous battles on the western front in 1916, mobilization had to be extended. Great Britain introduced universal conscription that year (although Ireland stayed exempt until April 1918), while Germany launched an overall mobilization of all men between the ages of seventeen and sixty for Patriotic Auxiliary Service (Vaterländischer Hilfsdienst). German military and industrial mobilization at this time contradicted each other. The Imperial Army even had to release more than three million soldiers in 1916 and 1917 in order to maintain a high level of industrial employment. Russia, on the other hand, extended conscription, so that at the end of 1916 even families' breadwinners had to join the army. This was one of the reasons for the disintegration of its Imperial Army, a process that had already started by 1915, and that stemmed from social inequality inside the army, unresolved problems of land reform, and logistical headaches in the army. This disintegration became a major factor leading to the two Russian Revolutions in 1917. While Pope Benedict XV (r. 1914–1922) criticized conscription in general, western and central European states were forced to legitimize mobilization through promises of welfare and political participation. Welfare for families, widows, and veterans had to expand on a broad basis. In Germany and Britain, the suffrage was reformed at the end of the war.


After 1918, most European states, except Great Britain, either kept or developed conscript armies. Only the defeated states—Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria—were restricted to volunteer armies. The interwar period saw two different developments: a decline of conscription in the democracies and the buildup of enormous mass armies by the dictatorships. In Russia, after the communist takeover in 1917, the Bolsheviks for a short period resorted to volunteer recruitment for

CountryNumber of mobilized menPercentage of all war-able men
Great Britain and Ireland6,100,00053

their new Red Army (Rabochye-Krestyanskaya Krasnaya Armiya), but already during the early stages of the Russian civil war (1918–1920), they returned to conscription. Thereby, they incorporated officers of the Imperial Army into the new Red Army. By 1920, the Red Army constituted the largest military force in the world, with 5.5 million enlisted men and women. Even after the civil war the Soviet leadership kept a giant army, the size of which rose from 600,000 soldiers in 1924 to 1.8 million in 1939. The age of liability to conscription was set at between twenty-one and thirty, and the men, predominantly from working-class or poor peasant families, had to serve for two years.

Per the terms of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, Germany was forced to abolish conscription and keep a professional army of one hundred thousand men. Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, however, brought fundamental changes. In 1935, to support the new Wehrmacht, he reintroduced universal conscription entailing two years of military service preceded by a half year of duty in the Labor Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst). All spheres of society were militarized, and male youth received paramilitary training in the Hitler-Jugend. Austria after 1919 was obliged to keep only a small professional army of less then thirty thousand men. It reintroduced conscription in 1936, but the new army was soon integrated into the Wehrmacht.

The Italian army after the war was once again enlarged to face the conflict over Trieste in 1920. The army was demobilized only in 1922. The new fascist regime did not intensify conscription, which in first place affected the southern Italian peasantry. Even during the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935 to 1936, the army did not expand.

During World War I, Polish men had been recruited into three different armies, the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian. Independent Poland in 1919 introduced universal conscription for its own army, which was heavily enlarged by volunteers in the Polish-Russian War of 1919 to 1920. The army held a comparatively high portion of 256,000 men in peacetime, which was raised to almost one million during the crisis of August 1939.

In the western democracies, conscription came to an end after World War I. Britain abolished universal conscription, generally considered an extraordinary measure interfering in the citizens' lives. In France during the 1920s pacifist thinking prevailed, and in 1926 obligatory military service was reduced from three years to one. That year the international pacifist movement signed its first anticonscription manifesto, thus hoping to reduce the risk of war.

All this changed after the Nazis came to power in 1933. In the face of Hitler's aggressive foreign policy, starting in 1935, but also because of the rise of right-wing militant movements all over Europe, conscription again became an important part of national security policy. Reluctantly, even the British government reintroduced it in early 1939.


Conscription during World War II differed heavily from the developments during World War I. On the one hand, conscription antedated the outbreak of war; on the other hand, conscription was ended in those areas that came rapidly under German control from 1940 until the spring and summer of 1941. Thereafter the Nazis themselves faced a manpower shortage. The newly created Waffen-SS conscripted men from Germany and from ethnic German minorities in Europe. Thus almost eighteen million men were recruited into the armed forces. In 1945 male youths and the elderly were mobilized for service in the Volkssturm militia without any prior military training.

United Kingdom7.66.14.2
West Germany3.44.5

The Soviet Union, which entered World War II on 17 September 1939, steadily increased the size of the Red Army from an initial force of 4.3 million men. Despite the loss of parts of the population after the German occupation of the western territories, the Soviet authorities were able to mobilize between thirty-five and forty million soldiers, among them approximately eight hundred thousand women, between 1941 and 1945. Irregular forms of conscription emerged in occupied eastern European countries, enforced by partisans, who forcibly recruited new personnel among the rural population.

The British conscription law recognized conscientious objection. It was also lenient in handling those who tried to avoid military service. In 1941 the government extended mobilization to civilians through the National Service Act, which established obligatory labor service for all men between eighteen and fifty years of age and for all women between the ages of twenty and thirty. The Nazi leadership, in order to avoid internal discontent, waited until 1944 to include women in compulsory labor systems.

In sum, an estimated seventy-five to eighty-five million men were mobilized in European armies during World War II (including those from non-European Russia). More than twenty million of these people died, at least half of them members of the Red Army.


The end of World War II led to general demobilization and an enormous task of reintegration and rehabilitation of those who had served as conscripts during the war. The Red Army (known as the Soviet Army starting in 1946) was kept at considerable strength in order to sustain Soviet influence in most of Eastern Europe and to counterbalance the strategic advantage of U.S. nuclear weapons. Germany and Austria were completely demilitarized, unlike the former Axis allies Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Conscription right after the war was unpopular, but even the British did not immediately return to a professional army.

From 1947 on, the Cold War dominated security policy and thus the debate on conscription. The British National Service remained in force until 1960; its last conscripts ended their duties in 1963. Every man at the age of eighteen was to serve eighteen months in the army. These men were required both for service in Europe, and therefore for deterrence against the Soviet Union, and for deployment in colonial conflicts. By the mid-1950s the strategy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was shifted to focus on nuclear deterrence, thus also aiming to reduce the enormous costs of conventional forces. The shift in strategy during the late 1960s gave more weight to conventional warfare, but the plans for expanding the armies were not realized. Instead negotiations on troop reductions prevailed.

In France, conscription was widely accepted only after 1948. Nevertheless, conscripts were generally not deployed in the First Indochina War of 1946 to 1954. But conscription was used in the Algerian War of 1954 to 1962, and the French army had one million men in uniform by 1960. Public debate on the necessity of conscription intensified during the 1960s and 1970s.

In both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, planning for rearmament had already started by 1950. On Soviet orders the East German authorities in 1952 installed a paramilitary force, the so-called Kasernierte Volkspolizei, which was turned into the National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee) in 1956. Public opinion in West Germany was sharply divided on rearmament, which finally started in 1956 with the buildup of the Federal Forces (Bundeswehr), a new conscript army, which did not recruit citizens of West Berlin. Universal conscription came only later, in 1962. A similar development occurred in Austria, where a new conscript army was introduced in 1955, after the nation had regained its sovereignty.

Only after Joseph Stalin's death in March 1953 did the size of the Soviet Army fall, from 5.3 million men to 3.6 million at the end of 1958. In 1960 Nikita Khrushchev started another troop reduction, but stopped it during the crisis over Berlin. Conscripts of the Soviet Army were deployed abroad, often in other member countries of the Warsaw Pact (1955). During the 1970s and 1980s a crisis of morale developed, caused by bad pay, poor housing, and brutal treatment, and visible in high rates of criminality and suicide. Especially starting in the mid-1980s, draft evasion increased considerably. This problem did not change after Mikhail Gorbachev's 1989 troop reductions and the transformation of the Soviet Army into the Russian Army in 1992.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Eastern European armies predominantly relied on the personnel of wartime communist underground movements. In Hungary, which had fought on the Axis side during the war, an army was established only in 1949. At the end of the 1950s, when the Soviet Army was reduced in size, the Warsaw Pact countries had to enlarge their national armed forces. When conscription restarted at the end of the 1940s, the communist regimes tried to shift the traditional patterns of recruiting by enacting preferences for young men from working-class or peasant backgrounds. The recruits could join either the regular army, the internal troops of the ministries of the interior, or the border troops. Soldiers in Warsaw Pact armies were to a considerable degree deployed in the economy, such as in construction work or in harvesting. Political education and indoctrination were constant features of Warsaw Pact armies. All states, in addition to their armies, kept paramilitary militias or territorial defense forces made up of older men and at times of women. Yugoslavia did not join the Warsaw Pact, but kept its giant army, which numbered 500,000 in 1951, under national control. It was finally reduced to 180,000 men during the 1980s. Nevertheless, Yugoslav conscripts were kept under constant communist indoctrination.


After the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, army sizes in Western and Eastern Europe were seriously reduced. The Soviet Army, in Europe divided into Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Moldovan, and Baltic armies, withdrew its troops from the former Warsaw Pact countries. Several former Warsaw Pact members joined NATO (Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland in 1999; Bulgaria, the Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004), and they thus now must use NATO standards of military service and training. All of these nations have considerably downsized their armies, reduced the length of service, and thus diminished the role of conscription in defense strategy.

After 1989 criticism of conscription was on the rise again. Both the reduction of dangerous political tensions inside Europe and troop reductions strengthened the arguments for a professional army. France began to revise its conscription policy in 1992 and finally started the process of turning its army into a volunteer force in 1997. Conscription ended in several European states, first in Belgium and the Netherlands, and since 2000 in France, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Italy. Other countries were in the process of planning to introduce professional armies.


Conscription is the most serious obligation a citizen has to fulfill, because it includes the loss of individual freedom and the risk of being killed. Thus conscription was always under debate within societies and among politicians. In societies with a functioning public sphere these discussions were led in public; in authoritarian or totalitarian systems draft evasion was the only way to express dissent.

In contrast to the nineteenth century, the significance of conscription for nation building and for the development of notions of citizenship declined during the twentieth century. Only new or reborn states such as Poland in 1918 or Ukraine or Slovakia in the post–Cold War era consider conscription to be part of modern state-building. Nevertheless, the idea of the citizen-soldier, born in the revolutionary era, was still alive in the French tradition, as well as during the revolutions of 1917 to 1919, and in the West German debates on army reform during the 1960s and 1970s. For conscripts, army service constitutes an important agent of conservative socialization. In the army, some critics believe, governments obtain full control of the young male population.

Conscription is always dependent on the demographic structure of societies, especially on the availability of men between the ages of approximately seventeen and thirty. For example, in France until 1940 there was much concern about the country's demographic disadvantage in relation to Germany, with the latter's more dynamic population growth. Only in exceptional cases, as occurred in the Soviet Union and Great Britain during World War II, were women recruited for special branches of the army. In the 2000s, there were discussions in Sweden as to whether military conscription should be applied equally to men and women. A second important factor in the way conscription operates is the maintenance of standards of physical and mental fitness for military service. Countries with poorly structured economies in particular had problems in recruiting physically able young men; since the late twentieth century the general decline of physical fitness among youth has affected the conscription rate. Several countries had or have specific conscription rules according to the level of education, thus exempting men with higher education or reducing the length of their service.

Especially during the first half of the twentieth century social inequality often determined recruitment. While the professional officer corps had a disproportionate number of men from the aristocracy and upper strata of society, general conscription predominantly aimed at men of peasant origin. Especially in wartime, workers were recruited to a lesser extent, because they were considered important for the war economy. Only communist armies tended to deliberately recruit workers or sons of workers' families. After World War II these socially differentiated patterns of recruitment faded away, because of the rapid urbanization in Europe and the diminution of political tensions, but with certain notable exceptions as in the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s.

Ethnicity played an important role in conscription, especially up to World War II. During World War I all the empires, but especially Austria-Hungary and Russia, mobilized large numbers of minorities. Then the successor states had to cope with large minorities in their armies. Only the Red Army and later on the Yugoslav armies were able to integrate these centrifugal forces under communist coercion from the 1940s until the late 1980s.

The question of conscription has always been connected to conscientious objection. Most conscript armies introduced exemptions for specific, especially religious, groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses or Quakers; even the Red Army exempted certain groups of conscientious objectors until 1939. Prussia lifted all these regulations in 1867, and draft evasion was severely punished in Germany until 1945. During the Nazi period draft evaders were sent to concentration camps. The West German Basic Law of 1949 introduced an "alternative service" for conscientious objectors according to the British model. Since the 1990s this practice has been adopted by several European states.

See alsoArmies.


Flynn, George Q. "Conscription and Equity in Western Democracies, 1940–1975." Journal of Contemporary History 33, no. 1 (1998): 5–20.

——. Conscription and Democracy: The Draft in France, Great Britain, and the United States. Westport, Conn., 2002.

Foerster, Roland G., ed. Die Wehrpflicht: Entstehung, Erscheinungsformen und politisch-militärische Wirkung. Munich, 1994.

Frevert, Ute. A Nation in Barracks: Modern Germany, Military Conscription, and Civil Society. Translated by Andrew Boreham with Daniel Brückenhaus. Oxford, U.K., 2004.

Joenniemi, Pertti, ed. The Changing Face of European Conscription. Burlington, Vt., 2005.

Mjøset, Lars, and Stephen Van Holde, eds. The Comparative Study of Conscription in the Armed Forces. Amsterdam, 2002.

Moran, Daniel, and Arthur Waldron, eds. The People in Arms: Military Myth and National Mobilization since the French Revolution. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Sanborn, Joshua A. Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics, 1905–1925. DeKalb, Ill., 2003.

Dieter Pohl


views updated May 17 2018

Conscription. Compulsory military service has played a periodic and often controversial role in raising America's wartime forces. It has only rarely been used in peacetime in America.

English colonists revitalized the county militia system of compulsory, short‐term training and service for local defense. However, in the eighteenth century for longer‐term forces most colonies turned to ad hoc units composed primarily of volunteers with occasional draftees and legally hired substitutes.

During the Revolutionary War, state governments assumed the colonies' authority to raise their short‐term militias through drafts if necessary. They sometimes extended this to state units in the Continental Army, but they denied Gen. George Washington's request that the central government be empowered to conscript. As the initial volunteering slackened, states boosted enlistment bounties and held occasional drafts, producing more hired substitutes than actual draftees.

The Constitution neither mentioned nor prohibited national conscription, simply providing Congress with the power “to raise and support armies.” Most of the framers apparently believed that the United States, like England, would enlist rather than conscript its soldiers, paying for them through federal taxes.

For much of the nineteenth century, the United States relied upon a small, all‐volunteer regular army, augmented in wartime by the militia (renamed the National Guard) and by large numbers of temporary, locally organized, federally funded units—the U.S. Volunteers. During the War of 1812, however, the Madison administration tried unsuccessfully to adopt a national draft (which Daniel Webster, a New England Federalist, denounced as “Napoleonic despotism”).

National conscription came to America in the Civil War. With fewer people, the South adopted conscription in 1862, eventually applying it to white males seventeen to fifty years of age. Conscription raised 21 percent of the 1 million Confederate soldiers. But because it violated individual liberty and states' rights and included unpopular class‐based occupational exemptions, such as for overseers on large plantations, it eroded some popular support for the Confederacy.

The North adopted the draft in 1863, making it applicable to males twenty to forty‐five. Avoiding unpopular occupational exemptions, Congress permitted draftees to hire a substitute or pay a commutation fee of $300, then comparable to a worker's annual wages. Peace Democrats denounced it as a “rich man's war but a poor man's fight,” and thousands evaded or resisted when military provost marshals began conscripting. Bloody draft riots erupted New York and other cities.

Four federal drafts produced only 46,000 conscripts and 118,000 substitutes (2 and 6%, respectively, of the 2.1 million Union troops). Most soldiers were U.S. Volunteers. However, the draft was credited, along with $600 million in enlistment bounties, with prodding volunteers, encouraging reenlistments, and demonstrating political will.

Not until World War I did the United States rely primarily upon conscription. A civilian‐led “Preparedness” movement helped persuade many Americans that national compulsion was more equitable and efficient than local voluntarism for an industrial society to raise a mass army. President Woodrow Wilson overcame considerable opposition—particularly from agrarian isolationists and ethnic and ideological opponents of U.S. involvement—to obtain a temporary wartime, national, selective draft.

The Selective Service Act of 1917 prohibited enlistment bounties and hiring substitutes but authorized deferments on the grounds of dependency or essential work in industry or agriculture. The draft was implemented by a Selective Service System composed of a national headquarters commanded by Gen. Enoch Crowder and some 4,000 local draft boards staffed by civilian volunteers. The boards decided, within overall national guidelines, on the induction or deferment of particular individuals.

In 1917–18, Selective Service registered and classified 23.9 million men, eighteen to forty‐five, and drafted 2.8 million of them. In all, 72 percent of the 3.5 million‐man wartime army were draftees. Despite the initial divisions over the war, there were no draft riots. Authorities arrested those who counseled draft resistance, including the anarchist Emma Goldman and Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs. Except for a few rural incidents, opposition took the form of draft evasion or registration as conscientious objectors (COs). Apparently between 2 and 3 million men never registered, and 338,000 (12% of those drafted) failed to report when called or deserted after arrival at training camp. In addition, 64,700 registrants sought CO status. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the draft law in 1918.

In World War II, following the German defeat of France, Congress in 1940 adopted the nation's first prewar conscription act, the result of a campaign headed by old “Preparedness” leaders. The draft system was set to operate through 1945, but because of intense opposition from isolationists, Congress obligated the 1940 draftees to serve only one year, for training purposes. A year later, the lawmakers voted (203–202 in the House) to retain the 600,000 draftees. After Pearl Harbor, the Congress extended the draft to men aged eighteen to thirty‐eight (and briefly to forty‐five), and prolonged military duty for the duration.

Headed by Gen. Lewis Hershey, Selective Service drafted a total of 10.1 million men in World War II, the majority for the army. Nearly 6 million other men and women joined voluntarily, primarily in the Army Air Corps, the navy, and the Marines. Deferments were limited primarily to war industries, hardship cases, and agriculture.

Still there was dissent, reflected in the 72,000 registrants who applied for CO status and in antidraft incidents in Chicago and other cities. The latter included protests by African Americans against discrimination and segregation in the armed forces. In addition, the Justice Department investigated 373,000 cases of draft evasion; 16,000 evaders were convicted.

After the war, until Congress let the induction authority expire in 1947, conscription was extended to help maintain the much‐reduced military. Escalation of Cold War tensions led Congress to adopt a new draft law in 1948. It required twenty‐one months of military training and service by individuals selected by their local draft boards. The Cold War military was composed of volunteers, draftees, and draft‐induced volunteers.

During the Korean War, 1.5 million men, eighteen to twenty‐five, were drafted; another 1.3 volunteered, primarily for the navy and air force. Discontent led to an increase in the number of COs, and there were 80,000 reported cases of draft evasion.

Cold War conscription became a casualty of the Vietnam War. The draft enabled President Lyndon B. Johnson to build up U.S. forces in Vietnam between 1964 and 1968 from 23,000 military advisers to 543,000 troops. In 1964–66, annual draft calls soared from 100,000 to 400,000.

Although draftees were a small minority (16%) in the U.S. armed forces, they comprised the bulk of infantry riflemen in Vietnam (88% in 1969). They accounted for more than half the army's battle deaths. Because of stu‐dent and other deferments, the draft and the casualties fell disproportionately upon working‐class youths, black and white.

Dissent increased, along with soaring draft calls and casualty rates. Supported by an antiwar coalition of students, pacifists, and clergy, and many liberal and radical groups, draft evasion and resistance increased dramatically. There were antidraft demonstrations, draft card burnings, sit‐ins at induction centers, break‐ins and destruction of records at a dozen local draft boards.

In 1965–75, confronted with well over 100,000 instances of draft evasion or resistance, the federal government indicted 22,500 persons. Some 8,800 were convicted and 4,000 imprisoned. As the Supreme Court expanded the criteria for conscientious objection, CO exemptions rose to more than 170,000 between 1965 and 1970.

An estimated 571,000 young men illegally evaded the draft. Of these, 360,000 were never caught, and another 198,000 had their cases dismissed, but some 9,000 were convicted and 4,000 sent to prison. Between 30,000 and 50,000 others fled into exile, mainly to Canada, Britain, and Sweden.

Congress came under pressure to reform or eliminate the draft. With conservative support, however, General Hershey, Selective Service director since 1941, blocked any significant changes, including recommendations for national uniformity by a 1967 presidential commis‐sion headed by former Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall.

Having criticized the draft in his 1968 campaign, President Richard M. Nixon removed Hershey, ended new occupational and dependency deferments, and initiated an annual draft lottery in 1969 among eighteen‐year‐olds (to reduce prolonged uncertainty). He also appointed a commission, headed by former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates, which in 1970 recommended an All‐Volunteer Force (AVF), with a standby draft for emergency use.

President Nixon reduced draft calls while gradually withdrawing troops from Vietnam. However, his dispatch of American units into Cambodia in 1970 triggered massive new public protests. Only reluctantly did Congress in 1971 extend the draft for two more years. The lawmakers also eliminated student deferments, deemed a class‐based privilege, and voted a major pay increase ($2.4 million) for the lower ranks of the military to achieve an AVF by mid‐1973. During the 1972 election campaign, Nixon cut draft calls to 50,000 and stopped requiring draftees to go to Vietnam. On 27 January 1973, the day a cease‐fire was announced, the administration stopped drafting, six months before induction authority expired on 1 July 1973.

Even without induction, Selective Service maintained compulsory draft registration until 1975, when President Ford suspended the process. President Jimmy Carter resumed it in 1980 in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. With local draft boards dismantled, Selective Service headquarters directed the program. In response to a suit that women, as equal citizens, should also have to register, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of male‐only draft registration. In 1980–84, half a million young men did not register, and under President Ronald Reagan the Justice Department prosecuted a few of those who publicly refused to register.

In the post‐Vietnam era, the military relied entirely on volunteers. However, in the 1990 buildup for the Persian Gulf War, Selective Service headquarters prepared contingency plans to call up 100,000 men in 30 days if reactivation of the draft was required to obtain replacements if there were massive American casualties. In November 1990, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney issued orders preventing any military personnel from leaving even if their enlistment contracts had expired, in effect, making the AVF temporarily less voluntary. The quick victory against Iraq in 1991 did not produce massive American casualties; the draft was not reactivated; and after the war, military personnel were allowed to leave the service.

By 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, debate resumed over whether to maintain even a semblance of Selective Service. The House of Representatives voted in 1993 to eliminate Selective Service headquarters and end compulsory draft registration, but the Defense Department successfully argued the need to retain Selective Service and draft registra‐tion, and the measure to end them died in the Senate. Appropriations were reduced in the 1990s and evaders were not prosecuted.
[See also Conscientious Objection; Draft Resistance and Evasion; New York City Draft Riots; Peace and Antiwar Movements; Selective Draft Cases; Volunteers, U.S.]


Albert B. Moore , Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy, 1924.
Eugene C. Murdock , Patriotism Limited, 1862–1865: The Civil War Draft and the Bounty System, 1967.
Eugene C. Murdock , One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North, 1971.
John Whiteclay Chambers II, ed., Draftees or Volunteers: A Documentary History of the Debate Over Military Conscription in the United States, 1787–1973, 1975.
Lawrence M. Baskir and and William A. Strauss , Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation, 1978.
John O'sullivan , From Voluntarism to Conscription: Congress and Selective Service, 1940–1945, 1982.
Eliot A. Cohen , Citizens and Soldiers: The Dilemmas of Military Service, 1985.
George Q. Flynn , Mr. Selective Service: Lewis B. Hershey, 1985.
John Garry Clifford and and Samuel R. Spencer, Jr. , The First Peacetime Draft, 1986.
John Whiteclay Chambers II , To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America, 1987.
James W. Geary , We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War, 1991.
George Q. Flynn , America and the Draft, 1940–1973, 1993.

John Whiteclay Chambers II


views updated May 18 2018


Compulsory enrollment and induction into the military service.

Conscription is commonly known as the draft, but the concepts are not exactly the same. Conscription is the compulsory induction of individuals into the armed services, whereas the draft is the procedure by which individuals are chosen for conscription. Men within a certain age group must register with the Selective Service for possible conscription, but conscription itself was suspended in 1973.

Conscription first came into use as a legal term in France in 1798. It derives from the Latin conscriptionem, which refers to the gathering of troops by written orders, and conscribere, which means "to put a name on a list or roll, especially a list of soldiers." A person who becomes a member of the armed forces through the process of conscription is called a conscript.

Conscription typically involves individuals who are deemed fit for military service. At times, however, governments have instituted universal military service, in which all men or all people of a certain age are conscripted.

Most governments use conscription at some time, usually when the voluntary enlistment of soldiers fails to meet military needs. Conscription by national governments became widespread in Europe during the nineteenth century.

Some of the American colonies employed conscription. During the Revolutionary War, the American government used selective, temporary conscription to fill the ranks of its military.

The United States used conscription again briefly during the Civil War. The Union Enrollment Act of 1863 drafted all able-bodied men between twenty and forty-five years of age. The act provoked a hostile public response because it excused from military service those who were able to pay a fee of three hundred dollars. The law incited violent public disturbances, called the Draft Riots, in New York City between July 13 and 16, 1863. One thousand people were injured in the riots.

In 1917, one month after the entry of the United States into world war i, Congress passed the Selective Draft Act (40 Stat. 76). The act created a government office to oversee conscription. It also authorized local draft boards to select eligible individuals for conscription. The following year, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of conscription, noting that Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to "raise and support Armies" (SelectiveDraft cases, 245 U.S. 366, 38 S. Ct. 159, 62 L. Ed. 349 [1918]).

Congress instituted the first peacetime use of conscription in 1940 when it passed the Selective Training and Service Act (54 Stat. 885). This act, which expired in 1947, enrolled those who served in U.S. armed forces during world war ii. In 1948, Congress passed the Selective Service Act (50 U.S.C.A. app. § 451 et seq.), which was used to induct individuals for service in the korean war (1950–53) and the vietnam war (1954–75). Presidential authority to conscript individuals into the U.S. armed forces ended in 1973. No individual has been conscripted into the military since then.

In 1976, the selective service system was placed on a standby status, and local offices of the agency were closed. President jimmy carter issued a proclamation in 1980 requiring all males who were born after January 1, 1960, and who had attained age eighteen to register with the Selective Service at their local post office or at a U.S. embassy or consulate outside the United States (Presidential Proclamation No. 4771, 3 C.F.R. 82 [1981]). Those who fail to register are subject to prosecution by the federal government.

In 1981, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of requiring only men, and not women, to register with the Selective Service (rostker v. goldberg, 453 U.S. 57, 101 S. Ct. 2646, 69 L. Ed. 2d 478). The United States has never conscripted women into military service, nor has it ever instituted universal military service. It has conscripted only individuals meeting certain age, mental, and physical standards. Congress has allowed the deferral of conscription for certain individuals, including those who need to support dependents or are pursuing an education. Among those who have been declared exempt from service are sole surviving sons, conscientious objectors to war, and ministers of religion.

The U.S. government also has the power to conscript property in times of emergency.

further readings

Brophy, Alfred L. 2000. "'Necessity Knows No Law': Vested Rights and the Styles of Reasoning in the Confederate Conscription Cases." Mississippi Law Journal 69 (spring): 1123–80.


Involuntary Servitude; Solomon Amendment; Thirteenth Amendment.


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The power of the federal government to conscript may derive either from its power to raise armies or, more debatably, from its broadly interpreted power to regulate commerce. It is restricted by the thirteenth amendment's prohibition of involuntary servitude or, conceivably, by the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of liberty. The manner in which conscription is conducted must comport with a familiar range of constitutional protections, notably those that guarantee equal protection and religious liberty.

Though the nation has employed systems of military conscription during the civil war, world war i, world war ii, and for all but twelve months between 1945 and 1972, the interplay of these different constitutional considerations has been remarkably underdeveloped. Two hundred years after the Constitution was written, at least two fundamental questions about conscription remain unresolved. What is the power of Congress (or the states) to conscript for civilian purposes? How, if at all, is a conscription system obliged to take account of conscientious objection ?

The ambiguity surrounding these questions derives in part from the fact that although the constitutionality of military conscription is well settled, the issue has not been settled well. In selective draft law cases (1917) the Supreme Court reviewed the World War I military conscription statute and declared that it was "unable to conceive" how the performance of the "supreme and noble duty" of military service in time of war "can be said to be the imposition of involuntary servitude." Therefore, in its view, this contention was "precluded by its mere statement."

This terse comment establishes no conceptual basis for the analysis of later questions. Unfortunately, also, history is not a particularly helpful guide. The intention of the Framers is not clear. At the time of the Constitution, it was accepted that state militias could conscript soldiers, but the central government could not do so. At the same time, the Constitution gave the Congress the power to "raise armies" and it was widely recognized that it could not tenably rely on volunteers. On the basis of this evidence some scholars have argued that to conclude that conscription (as opposed to enlistment) was a power given to Congress is logical, and others have called this conclusion absurd.

Legislative history and judicial precedent in this first century of the Republic are similarly uninformative. When the Supreme Court decided the Selective Draft Law Cases it had only two precedents for a military draft: first, Secretary of War james monroe's proposal for conscription during the War of 1812, a proposal still under compromise deliberation by Congress when peace arrived; and, second, the Civil War Enrollment Act, the constitutionality of which had been ruled on only by a sharply divided and perplexed Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

The most significant judicial precedent, Butler v. Perry (1916), had been decided only a year before by the Supreme Court itself. Here the Court rejected a Thirteenth Amendment challenge to a Florida statute requiring adult men to work one week a year on public roads: "from colonial days to the present time, conscripted labor has been much relied on for the construction and maintenance of public roads," and the Thirteenth Amendment "certainly was not intended to interdict enforcement of those duties which individuals owe to the state."

No subsequent Supreme Court decision limits this sweeping view of the power to conscript. To the contrary, the Court held in United States v. Macintosh (1931) that the right of conscientious objection is only statutory and in rostker v. goldberg (1981) that the government can compel an all-male military registration in the face of equal protection contentions founded on a theory of sex discrimination.

Notwithstanding these decisions, it seems likely that a major constitutional issue would arise if the power to conscript were asserted more aggressively. Such an issue might arise if, for example, participation were coerced in a system of civilian national service or if the statutory right of conscientious objection were abolished. In that event, the question thus far begged—what "duties … individuals owe to the state"—would have to be, for the first time, seriously addressed.

Richard Danzig

Ira Nerken


Anderson, Martin and Bloom, Valerie 1976 Conscription: A Select and Annotated Bibliography. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press.

Friedman, Leon 1969 Conscription and the Constitution: The Original Understanding. Michigan Law Review 67:1493–1552.

Malbin, Michael J. 1972 Conscription, the Constitution, and the Framers: An Historial Analysis. Fordham Law Review 40: 805–826.


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conscription. In 1914 Britain was the only great power which relied upon volunteers to man its army. This tradition was continued until January 1916, by when nearly 2.5 million men had volunteered to join Kitchener's New Armies. But by the summer of 1915 the flow of volunteers was failing to keep pace with the anticipated rate of casualties. Between June 1915 and May 1916 the Asquith coalition government was convulsed by the conscription debate. Anti-conscriptionists argued that if more men were taken for the army, industry would have too little labour and Britain would be bankrupted before the army won the war. Pro-conscriptionists retorted that without conscription there would be no military victory. Asquith compromised. In January 1916 legislation was passed conscripting single men, followed in May by a second Act conscripting married men. By the end of the war nearly 2.3 million men had been conscripted, and without their efforts the British army would have collapsed long before the armistice. In 1939, conscription was introduced at once.

David French


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con·scrip·tion / kənˈskripshən/ • n. compulsory enlistment for state service, typically into the armed forces.ORIGIN: early 19th cent.: via French (conscription was introduced in France in 1798), from late Latin conscriptio(n-) ‘levying of troops,’ from Latin conscribere ‘write down together, enroll,’ from con- ‘together’ + scribere ‘write.’


views updated May 18 2018

conscription (draft) Compulsory enlistment of people for service in the armed forces. In Britain, conscription was used in both World Wars and continued as National Service until 1962. In the United States, conscription was used during the Civil War, but dropped until 1940, when it was reintroduced and continued until 1973. Draft registration resumed in 1980.

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