Americans Stepping Up — Part I


The United States compelled military service in six wars: The Revolutionary War, Civil War, First World War, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.  In most of these instances, war was already upon us before we realized that our standing military didn’t have sufficient manpower resources to sustain a large number of battle casualties.  Before the United States entered into World War II, Congress passed, and President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, 1940.  It was the country’s first “peacetime” military draft.  Between 1940-1973, during peace and war, the government compelled military service because there were insufficient volunteers with which to fully staff a force-in-readiness, but the numbers of individuals needed have always been within the purview of the President of the United States because it is the President’s budget that decides staffing levels relative to the military’s tables of organization.[1]

Colonial and Early American Period

During the colonial period, the primary means of military defense involved militia units.  Colonial (and later, the law of the United States) required able-bodied men to enroll in a local militia, undergo minimal training, and serve for limited periods in times of war or emergency.  The bedrock of this system was the several states because, under the Articles of Confederation, the central government could not compel the states to do anything.  Nevertheless, the states had no hesitation in requiring their men to serve in the state’s militia.  Generally, these militia inductees would serve for one year after the states placed them into service with the Continental Army.

In ratifying the U. S. Constitution, states acknowledged the power of Congress to impose mandatory military service, particularly Article I, Section 8, Clauses 11 through 16.  Despite its authority to maintain a military force, Congress was not always disposed to doing so.  The House of Representatives publicly derided President James Madison when he asked for 40,000 men to serve during the War of 1812.

American Civil War

Although most of the Union forces were volunteers, the first national conscription occurred during the Civil War — about 2% of the 2.2 million men fighting for the Union Army.  Within the Confederate States, however, military officials imposed conscription almost immediately.  The popular reaction to this law was violent and widespread because many southern whites viewed it as a form of slavery.  There were more “desertions” in the southern states than in the north because the Confederacy (a) had far fewer volunteers, and (b) the application of conscription standards was much harsher.

World War I

Initially, President Woodrow Wilson (who campaigned on keeping the United States out of the European War) imagined he could rely on volunteers to man the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), but when 73,000 men responded to calls for military service, Wilson signed into law the Selective Service Act of 1917.  The law offered exemptions for married men, religious objectors, and essential occupations (such as railroad workers).  Initially, the law applied to males aged 21 to 31, but this later increased to include 18-45-year-old men.

In that year, ten million men registered for the draft.  By 1918, the government had registered 24 million men.  Ultimately, 3 million men found themselves in uniform … the success of which is frequently explained by the censorship laws imposed by the Wilson administration.  Despite these successes, there was widespread opposition to the military draft in 1917-18.  The Army court-martialed any draftee who refused to wear a uniform declined to bear arms or submit to military authority.  Some of these men received sentences of up to twenty years in prison, but those men were the fortunate cases.  Other convictions included 17 death sentences, 142 life sentences and sent 345 men to work in labor camps.  Other war protestors were arrested, charged, and convicted for sedition and obstruction of the law.

World War II

By the summer of 1940, Germany was marching through Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France.  Most Americans supported military conscription because 67% believed that the Axis Powers posed a danger to the security of the United States.  Roosevelt’s Selective Training and Service Act was the nation’s first peacetime military draft and established the Selective Service System (SSS) as an independent agency responsible for identifying and inducting young men for military service.  Initially, the law set a limitation on 900,000 men for training at any one time and mandated one year’s service.

After Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, Congress amended the STSA to require service for the duration of the war, plus six months for those between 18 to 64 years.  During World War II, the SSS registered 49 million men and inducted ten million.

Between 1942 and 1945, federal law enforcement agencies investigated 373,000 draft evaders, charging, and sentencing 16,000 men for draft evasion.  Of those opposed to the draft, most were of  African descent living in the northern cities who were encouraged to refuse service by the Nation of Islam.  Another minority group included 300 Japanese-Americans whom Roosevelt interned.  The government charged all of these men with felony draft evasion and most served time in federal prison.  Only 72,000 men registered as conscientious objectors in World War II; of those, 6,300 went to jail for refusing to answer their draft notices.

The Cold War Period

While the American people were willing to accept compulsory military service when the nation was at war or responding to other national emergencies, they also expected that the government would universally apply mandatory service.  This sense of fairness began to erode in the 1960s when the government required service from some people but not others.  For example, the SSS compelled single men over married men, poor men over those from wealthy families, proportionally more blacks than whites and offered exemptions to college students when those with no interest in attending college received notices to appear.

Politically, Americans differed with one another over the concept of compulsory service.  Democrats, who’ve been most responsible for America’s involvement in lethal conflict, saw no problem forcing men into uniformed service, while Republicans and Libertarians insisted that the federal government had no right to impose military service on anyone.  War protestors not only demonstrated against the Vietnam War, but they also demonstrated against the draft.  Some of these men were even willing to serve a prison sentence (felony draft evasion) than serve in Vietnam, while others of their number simply moved to Canada.

(Continued next week)


[1] Officially, Table of Organization and Equipment, prescribes what a military unit should look like and how it should be equipped, to achieve its assigned combat mission.  Generally, within a service organization, all combat units are structured the same (infantry, artillery, armor, fighter vs. bomber groups, etc.) and non-combat organizations mirror one another according to their assigned roles and missions are part of the so-called supporting establishment.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

5 thoughts on “Americans Stepping Up — Part I”

  1. Excellent write-up and so happy to come here and renew my mind with our heritage and history. My dad was an Army and so was my husband, 181st Airborn. He was a paratrooper. My dad served during the Korean War. It was really sad how we went from WW11 and literally 5 years later into the Korean War. The list continues and waiting to read next week’s post. Excuse the sidebar, but I will be posting the Covid-19 survey results and also quoting some of your insight. It will go up tomorrow today was a rather busy and tiring day.

    Sempre fi

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Layla … yes, you’re right. War and taxes appear to be two things that Democrats can’t seem to get enough of. I think you did an excellent job on the survey; those are never easy to do and thank you too for your acknowledgments.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. No, the Confederacy did not impose a draft until April, 1862, when they started to run low on volunteers. No, the Southerners did not object to the draft. They objected to some provisions, such as if there were 20 or more slaves on the property, then one overseer or one owner could avoid the draft. The Conscription act of 1862 also allowed paid substitutes. That was very unpopular. So, in late 1863, the Confederate Congress abolished the paid substitute provision. The 20 Negro provision remained and was very unpopular. See:

    I have never read that desertion rates were higher in the Southern forces than in the Northern forces. But, that sure could be so. Desertion or what they called “plow furloughs” were fairly common. But, so long as the Confederate soldier was back for the next battle, all was ok. I assume that is what happens when your army is just a dozens of miles from your home, and the family cannot get the pl;ow going.


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    1. Thank you for your clarification/input. By “almost immediately,” I suppose I meant to say that the Confederate Provisional Congress began to consider ways and means of creating a national army early in 1861, the first to suggest conscription being General Lee who realized early on that volunteers would not sustain the southern military cause, particularly since many of the initial enlistees were not interested in serving beyond their initial year of service.

      As you suggest, hiring substitutes created a number of problems, not the least of which some suspicion that a “mercenary” was an untrustworthy combatant. Neither was the “exemption” scheme very popular among those who didn’t qualify — and since most southern agrarians weren’t slave owners, the “Twenty Negro” provision didn’t set very well, either. Consequently, as I understand it, there were “numerous” challenges to the law in state courts.

      George Rable argues that the discontent with conscription became widespread in the Carolinas, notably in the Appalachian region. As to the number of deserters, the problem was at least sufficient to convince Confederate authorities to detail military units to track deserters down, which was certainly the case in Texas.

      Again, thank you for weighing in.

      Note to others: “Irish Confederates” is an excellent blog. Check it out.

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