United States Conscription Over the Years

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US Conscription during the 20th Century

This exhibition will delve into the use of conscription in the United States throughout pivotal periods of history. Specifically, it will examine the different groups that were protected or vulnerable during draft periods as well as how the overall public opinion of the draft changed from one war to the next. In addition to focusing on times of war, interwar or “peacetime” periods will help explain the progression of conscription in the United States during the 20th century.

World War I

Discussion of conscription logically begins with World War I as the Selective Service Act of 1917 propelled the draft into the spotlight. In a time of uncertainty and fear, conscription was a method to instill loyalty and stability among the American people. With WWI in full force, President Woodrow Wilson was eager to show the strength of America on the global stage. 73,000 Americans had voluntarily signed up to serve; a disappointing number compared to the original goal of one million men [3]. Thus, the Selective Service Act of 1917 not only covered the deficit but led to an initial 10 million registered through local draft boards [3]. Controversy over the implementation of the draft led to a heated debate between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives felt that preparedness should be America’s primary goal despite no direct involvement in war. They also referenced the voluntary army in Britain resulting in an uneven drawing from the skilled worker population [3]. However, the anti-preparedness group, comprised of socialists, feminists, and pacifists, considered the peacetime call for action as a violation of American military tradition and felt it was too tempting to power-hungry politicians trying to assert their dominance [3]. Nonetheless, the draft was implemented as America prepared for the Great War.

At first, the age range was established as 21 to 31 years old and granted deferment to those who could prove dependency, essential occupation, or religious opposition [8]. Local draft boards held all power in determining who was likely to be called upon versus given deferment. These restrictions led to the disproportionate drafting of poor white men, especially those in the south [3]. Industry was valued over farming and rich, married men were valued over single, poor men. Thus, most farmers were chosen because they could not prove dependency due to their low earnings and racial biases kept many African Americans away from combat and instead sequestered  to forced labor [3]. American Indians were also angered because the draft required them to register while disregarding their status as a special group separate from other American citizens [8]. The subjective rulings of the local draft boards led to a disturbing lack of uniformity in draft procedures and a lack of trust in conscription.

World War II

The highs and lows experienced by Americans between the end of World War I and the start of World War II instilled a different state of mind that led many to embrace the second war effort as opposed to the tepid relationship most had with the first war effort. Twenty-three years after the initial legislation, the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was enacted. Emerging from the internal focus of the 1930s, conscription had a tricky route toward enactment due to the existing neutrality acts and policy of isolationism [4]. By establishing a limit of 900,000 men in training at a time and restricting the deployment to the Western Hemisphere, the law was passed, resulting in the registration of 49 million men ranging from the age of 21 to 64 [5]. The Great Depression also left a generation of young people unemployed with little direction in their lives, also known as the “youth problem.” Lacking conviction and strong roots in society, youth were especially vulnerable to the rise of non-democratic movements in other countries such as communism or fascism [4]. Thus, the “youth problem” legitimized those advocating for the war as conscription could offer employment, guidance, and discipline. Further, pro-conscription persons also purported that the draft would fulfill the numbers required to change the tide of the war and would sustain civilian life by keeping skilled workers and married men on the home front [4].

Similar to WWI opposition, objectors to the 1940 draft maintained that it was undemocratic as it violated the ideas of individual liberty and did not include all citizens in the drawing such as women, the elderly, men with deferments, etc. [4]. Opposition to the draft was also voiced by Japanese American internment prisoners who were asked to leave the confines of the barbed wire and fight in 1944 [5]. Frustrated by their inferior status throughout the war, Japanese Americans showed resistance to the call to war. Japanese-American attempts to evade conscription via expatriation requests were thwarted as the draft boards were aware of their ulterior motive [5]. Once again, the youth population made up the majority of the enlisted draftees as the War Department wanted the best possible ranks defending America [4]. Despite the opposition to conscription, World War II was seen as a success and gave many Americans a sense a pride for defending both democracy and their great country.

The Cold War & The Vietnam War

The feelings of peace and bliss somewhat dissipated after WWII with the enactment of the Selective Service Act of 1948 requiring men aged 18-26 to register. During the Cold War, the focus shifted to nuclear power and thus, away from the draft and physical soldiers. Conscription remained, but the its policy shifted toward encouraging individuals to sign up in order to gain preferential placement [2]. Further, a process of “channeling” deferments was implemented to drive men toward pursuits beneficial to the state such as undergraduate schools, family values, and technical and religious training [2]. The controversy of the Vietnam War and the 1969 draft lottery pitted older, conservatives against younger, more liberal objectors [7]. The former felt the draft was an honorable display of patriotism while the latter could not understand the true reasons for the involvement in Vietnam. The draft faced more opposition with the increase in deserters and draft dodgers. These men found refuge in Canada as well as other Americans willing to help get them cross the border [1]. Controversy reached new heights as the draft began to favor middle and upper class men and fall heavily on the poor, especially those who were part of ethnic and racial minorities [6]. Conscription has enevenly affected different groups in the United States leading to unrest and opposition.

In the most simple terms, conscription deals with the rules put into place to mandate and regulate the recruitment of troops for the military in times of war. However, this project will expand on this focus by also including times of peace as conscription was still present. It is also important to compare the different regulations set in place, such as age range and deferment guidelines, to understand varying public opinion of the draft at different points during the 20th century. Specifically, there was often discrepancy between the initial plan for the draft and the eventual outcome. Conscription also includes how the government used propaganda to urge people to register, enlist, and volunteer. Understanding these tactics will shed light on how certain groups were marginalized by the supposedly “fair” system of selective service. The tone set by the government greatly affected whether people supported or resisted the draft.

The various Selective Service Acts (1917, 1940, 1948, 1969) will anchor the research and effectively distinguish the changes in the time period and the purpose of each draft. Within each of these acts, the different age ranges and the deferment restrictions will be compared. During WWI, the research will focus on the role of the American south as well as other disenfranchised groups such as African Americans and American Indians. Turning to WWII, the research will examine the “youth problem” from the 1930s as well as the resistance of Japanese Americans within internment camps toward conscription. Lastly, the draft dodgers, deserters, and conscientious objectors during the Cold War period, specifically the Vietnam War, show the amount of controversy voiced toward the draft. Thus, these different events and groups will show the extent to which the draft affected people’s lives as well as the various waves of support and contempt people felt toward conscription on both an individual and national level.


  1. Evans, Sterling. 2006. The Borderlands of the American and Canadian Wests : Essays on Regional History of the Forty-Ninth Parallel. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  2. Jacobs, Clyde Edward, and John F. Gallagher. 1967. The Selective Service Act: A Case Study of the Governmental Process. New York : Dodd, Mead, 1967.
  3. Keith, Jeanette. 2001. “The Politics of Southern Draft Resistance, 1917-1918: Class, Race, and Conscription in the Rural South.” Journal of American History 87 (4): 1335–61.
  4. Masako Hattori. 2017. “Mobilizing American Youth for Total War: The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940.” Nanzan Review of American Studies 39 (January): 3–22.
  5. Misiroglu, Gina Renée. 2014. American Countercultures: An Encyclopedia of Nonconformists, Alternative Lifestyles, and Radical Ideas in U.S. History. Credo Reference. Armonk, New York: Sharpe Reference, 2009.
  6. Muller, Eric L. 2005. “A Penny for Their Thoughts: Draft Resistance and the Poston Relocation Center.” Law & Contemporary Problems 68 (2): 119–57.
  7. Seaton, Carter Taylor. 2014. Hippie Homesteaders: Arts, Crafts, Music and Living on the Land in West Virginia. University Press Collection. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2014.
  8. Zissu, Erik M. 1995. “Conscription, Sovereignty, and Land: American Indian Resistance during World War I.” Pacific Historical Review 64 (November): 537–66.