On This Date: Woodrow Wilson Enacted the Draft for World War I
How do you feel about the Selective Service Act on its anniversary?
by Countable | 5.17.19
On May 18, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Selective Service Act into law in response to the U.S. entry into World War I. It created a draft to increase the manpower of the U.S. Armed Forces through compulsory enlistment, meaning that men who were drafted had to join the military or face legal consequences.
Why was the draft needed?
When World War I began in 1914, the U.S. army totaled less than 100,000 men and National Guard only 115,000 — far smaller than their major European peers whose armies ranged from about one million to nearly six million men. In response, Congress authorized spending on significantly higher troop levels, but by the time the U.S. entered the war in 1917 both the regular army and the National Guard combined were only 302,000 men and President Wilson was requesting one million men.
Entry into the war didn’t immediately fuel the growth of the military either — only 73,000 men volunteered for service in the six weeks after the declaration of war — which led Wilson to institute a draft. The Selective Service Act moved through Congress without much resistance, although there were some complications.
Former President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to assemble a force of volunteers to fight in Europe, but Wilson and others had misgivings and instead included a provision that gave the president an option of mobilizing four volunteer divisions (an option he didn’t take). Also, the U.S. military was entirely segregated at the time, and some southern Democrats in Congress opposed providing military training to blacks. Ultimately, African-Americans were included in the draft and made up nearly 10% of the pool for conscription.
What did the Selective Service Act do?
It required all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for military service, and established the Selective Service System which would organize and conduct the draft. Within the System there were 52 draft headquarters — one in each state or territory — and 4,648 local draft boards that were responsible for registering and classifying the men, considering their economic situation, medical fitness, ordering, and drafting the men before sending them off to training.
Potential draftees would have their medical and economic situations examined by their local draft board and were sorted into five classifications ranging from eligible, deferred, temporarily exempted, exempted due to hardship, and ineligible. Unlike the draft that occurred during the Civil War, it was no longer allowed for a draftee to hire a substitute to fight in their place.
What was its impact?
Congress had to broaden the age range of men eligible for the draft to include all men between 18 and 45 before the war’s end in November 1918, but the size of the U.S. military increased dramatically thanks in part to the draft. While 2.8 million men were drafted, another 2 million enlisted voluntarily, and there were fewer than 350,000 "slackers" (the era's term for "draft dodger") during WWI. In 1919, all activities of the Selective Service System of World War I were terminated.
The U.S. reinstated the draft during leadup to World War II, and maintained it in varying degrees from the Cold War's beginning in 1948 through the Vietnam War before finally being phased out in 1973 as part of the Nixon administration’s effort to end the war. Since then the U.S. has maintained an all-volunteer military.
Today, men are legally required to register with Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday, and all men between the ages of 18 and 25 must be registered despite the fact that a draft hasn’t occurred in over 40 years. Failure to register with Selective Service is a felony that can lead to five years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, or ineligibility for things like federal student loans, federal jobs or job training, or U.S. citizenship in the case of non-citizen residents.
In 2016, a bill was introduced in Congress that sought to impose Selective Service requirements on women after the Dept. of Defense lifted gender-based restrictions on military service, thereby allowing qualified women to serve in combat. The Draft America’s Daughters Act wasn’t considered, and was unsuccessfully proposed as an amendment to a defense spending bill, but the idea of requiring women to register for the draft gained the support of former President Barack Obama.
In early 2019, the all-male draft registration requirement was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in Texas, who wrote:
While historical restrictions on women in the military may have justified past discrimination, men and women are now 'similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft.'
The Trump administration is defending the male-only draft in court through an appeal, arguing that the issue should be left to Congress and the executive branch to reform the registration system.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: War Department / Public Domain)
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