Selective Service Act

views updated May 18 2018


The Selective Service Act was passed by Congress in May 1917; it required the registration of all American males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty for possible draft into military service. When the United States entered World War I (191418) on April 6, 1917, the U.S. armed forces were comprised of roughly 200,000 volunteers. In the weeks following Congress's declaration of war on Germany, not enough men signed up for service so Congress responded by enacting legislation to boost the number of enlisted men. Secretary of War Newton Baker (18711937) made clear that the registration could not be evaded. And George Creel, the head of the newly created Committee on Public Information, oversaw the production of an astounding output of propaganda including 75 million pamphlets and posters whose aim was to stimulate patriotism and hatred of anything German.

By June 5, 1917, more than nine million men had registered. Congress widened the registration requirement to include all men between the ages of eighteen and fortyfive, and by the end of the war twentyfour million men had signed up. While 340,000 men failed to show up when called and four thousand were classified as conscientious objectors, nearly five million men served in the armed forces during World War I, two million of them in France alone. The typical soldier was a drafted man between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-three; he was white, single, and poorly educated. 400,000 soldiers were black and roughly 18 percent of the soldiers were foreign-born.

To ensure that the troops knew what they were fighting for, a copy of President Woodrow Wilson's (19131921) war message was included in every soldier's gear. Women volunteered in the navy as clerks and they joined the U.S. Signal Corps and Nurse Corps. Although defense-industry workers were able to receive deferments of service, the draft depleted the male labor force by 16 percent. Women stepped in to pick up the slack. When the fighting ended with Germany's surrender and the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, countries tallied their dead and wounded. Some 50,000 American soldiers died in battle; another 62,000 died from disease (a worldwide flu epidemic claimed many American soldiers' lives); and 200,000 were wounded.

Two decades later, in 1940 the United States braced itself for possible involvement in World War II (19391945). The first peacetime military draft in U.S. history began after the passage of the Selective Service Act of 1940. This system was in effect from 1940 to 1973. When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the number of people on active duty was less than two million. In 1945 the number of men and women serving in the armed forces peaked at over twelve million. Both in 1942 and 1943, over three million men were inducted into the armed forces. Such numbers were required in fighting a war on two fronts one in Europe and another in the Pacific.

At the end of World War II in 1945 the U.S. military had quickly demobilized almost 7 million soldiers. Only three years later, however, the Cold War extended the life of the Selective Service System. In 1948, in response to deteriorating relations between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)and the United States, Congress restored the Selective Service System. It required the registration of all U.S. men between the ages of eighteen and twentyfive, with men between nineteen and twentyfive to be inducted for a twentyone-month period of service. Registration began August 30, 1948; the program continued for twenty-five years.

During the Vietnam conflict, the numbers of soldiers peaked during the late 1960s. The Selective Service System inducted 382,010 young men into the armed forces in the single year of 1966. As a result of criticism that the student deferment allowed the more affluent members of society to avoid the draft, President Richard Nixon instituted reforms in the way that the Selective Service System was run. First, in 1971, Nixon eliminated the student draft deferment. Rather than the local draft board determining who would be drafted, the system was nationalized through a draft "lottery." When a young man turned 19 years old, he immediately knew his likelihood of being drafted, depending on his birthdate in relation to a nationally run lottery drawing. This was a politically prudent move on President Nixon's part, because it was the uncertainty of being drafted that agitated the Vietnam generation. Eliminating this uncertainty went a long way towards containing the antiwar movement.

In 1973, as the U.S. shifted to the "all volunteer army," the draft ended. The Selective Service System remained in place, however, in case the U.S. ever gets involved in a big war.

See also: Vietnam War, War and the Economy, World War I, World War II


Johnson, R. Charles Draft, Registration, and the Law. Occidental, CA: Nolo Press, c1985.

United States. Congress. House. Committee on Education and Labor. Subcommittee on Post-secondary Education. Legislative Hearing. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1984.

Selective Service Act of 1917

views updated May 17 2018

Selective Service Act of 1917

Adam P. Plant

The Selective Service Act of 1917 (P.L. 65-12, 40 Stat. 76) was the first act mandating American military service since the Civil War. In April 1917, before the act's passage, there were only 110,000 servicemen who could be deployed if America joined the war then raging in Europe. An army of this size would have been destroyed within months considering the brutal trench warfare employed during the Great War. All told, there were 116,516 American casualties in World War Imore than were in the service at the time war was declared.

President Woodrow Wilson, who had avoided American entry in the war for about three years, initially wanted to use only volunteers to augment the forces needed to fight and win the war. In his address before Congress calling for a declaration of war, Wilson stated:

Our object now ... is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles.

However, three weeks after war was declared, only 32,000 Americans had volunteered for service. Wilson realized that this was not enough military strength to win the war, so he called for a draft, which was decried by many members of his own party. Progressive Democrats, who usually sided with the president, asserted that a draft would destroy "democracy at home while fighting for it abroad." Republicans attacked Wilson on the draft issue to take political advantage of the Democrat's wartime leadership.


Wilson, however, would not lose on the issue of the draft. With the aid of Newton Baker, his secretary of war, Wilson brought about passage of the act, which allowed him to raise all branches of the armed forces to a level that could compete with the Axis powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. All males aged twenty-one to thirty were required to register at local polling stations. The age limits were later changed to include all men from ages eighteen to forty-five. The drafts carried out during World War I led to the successful registration of almost 24 million American men. Because of a concerted effort to invoke a sense of patriotism in all Americans, the U.S. enlisted many to fight against the Axis powers. Less than 350,000 men "dodged" the World War I draft.

The 1917 act also contained a significant change from the Civil War draft: replacements could not be hired to fight in a person's place. Section 3 stated:

No person liable to military service shall hereafter be permitted or allowed to furnish a substitute for such service; nor shall any substitute be received, enlisted, or enrolled in the military service of the United States; and no such person shall be permitted to escape such service or to be discharged therefrom prior to the expiration of his term of service by the payment of money or any other valuable thing whatsoever as consideration for his release from military service or liability thereto.

This provision meant that wealthy people could not buy their way out of service. It was designed to ensure that all Americans fought in the war, not just the poor who could not buy their way out.


Black Americans, of whom nearly 2.3 million were drafted, made a special sacrifice for the war effort. Conditions in America during the 1910s were in direct opposition to the ideals of the Republic: equality in voting rights, education, and use of public accommodations would not come for many black Americans for almost another half-century. Yet blacks were called on to defend the rights of Europeans while their own rights as America's citizen-soldiers were denied. This dichotomy was even the subject of a German propaganda campaign. However, many black Americans felt that their service would be rewarded with a concerted push for civil rights upon their return. W.E.B. DuBois, the famous black activist, spoke out in support of the war: "Let us, while the war lasts, forget our special grievances and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens ... fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly."

Many black soldiers would not receive the honors they deserved back home, although some did in Europe. The French government awarded Croix de Guerre medals, high honors for bravery, to members of New York's 396th Infantry, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters. Sadly, though they made no ordinary sacrifice, many of the returning veterans were denied the basic opportunities and rights they fought for in Europe. Some were even subjected to lynching and mob brutality as they reentered the American workforce because white workers feared the black veterans would take their jobs.


American servicemen were supported by a patriotic push on the homefront. Wilson called for farmers, miners, housewives, and other domestic workers to keep the nation's armed forces well supplied by treating their everyday jobs as a part of the war effort. Because of the manpower the act brought into service, America and its allies emerged victorious from World War I.



Evans, Harold. The American Century. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Mullen, R.W. Blacks in America's Wars. New York: Monad Press, 1975.

Wilson, Woodrow. "Joint Address to Congress Leading to a Declaration of War Against Germany (1917)." <>.

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