Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

May 1917: U.S. Congress Passes the Selective Service Act

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Draft Registration Card for the Editor's Grandfather,
John Benjamin Hanlon

Six weeks after the declaration of war against Germany on 6 April 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act. Initially, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress had hoped the needed one million men would volunteer for the army. But when by May only about 73,000 men had signed up, it was clear other measures needed to be taken.

The United States had experimented with conscription laws during the Civil War. The Confederacy had passed the first such law (S.32) on 16 April 1862. The Union followed by passing a conscription law on 3 March 1863, ch. 75, 12 Stat. 731. Both Union and Confederate subscription laws allowed for a number of exemptions as well as including the very unpopular measure of “substitutes,” which allowed wealthy men to pay for someone to serve in their stead.

However, the World War I Selective Service Act specifically forbade the use of substitutes. This law, which was passed on 18 May 1917, applied to all “male citizens, or male persons…who have declared their intention to become citizens, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty.” The law directed that quotas for each state should be established based on the state’s population. The law also addressed the issue of exemptions based on moral objections, as well as occupation. Those exempted from the draft included federal and state officials and judges, religious ministers, seminary students and any person who was found to be a “member of a well-recognized religious sect or organization…whose existing creed or principles forbid its members to participate in war in any form.”

Secretary of War Newton Baker Draws the First Draft Number
on 20 July 1917

However, as the law went on to state, “no person so exempted shall be exempted from service in any capacity that the President shall declare to be noncombatant.” The law also exempted persons in certain classes or industries, including workmen in armories and those in agriculture whose work was “necessary to the maintenance of the Military Establishment.”

Ultimately the regulations issued by the president divided up the men subject to conscription into five classes. This law directed the president to create local draft boards in each county that were to consist of three or more members who were to determine all questions of exemption in their jurisdiction. The law further set up district boards that could hear appeals from the county draft boards.

Conscripted New Soldiers Arrive at Camp Upton, NY

Between 6 and 19 August 1918, the House Committee on Military Affairs held hearings to consider expanding the ages between which men should be drafted. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker testified at the hearing that, “There are two ways of fighting this war. One is to make every possible effort and win it soon, and the other is to proceed in a somewhat more leisurely fashion and win it late.” Congress appears to have preferred the first method, and a little less than two weeks later amended the Selective Service Act. This law made all men between the ages of 18 and 45 subject to the draft. The penalties for evading the draft remained the same. The evader would be charged with a misdemeanor and subject to a year of imprisonment unless the evader was subject to military law, in which case they would be tried by a court-martial. Congress anticipated a shortage of “manpower” and directed that soldiers’ wives should not be disqualified from working for the government because they were married women. Indeed, ten years after the war, Congress held hearings about the effect of the universal draft and conscription in times of war.

Source: Library of Congress Blog

1 comment:

  1. Very timely, especially in light of the decision last week by a federal district court in Texas that the male-only draft is unconstitutional.