July 16, 2019


The Selective Service Act or Selective Draft Act, 40 Stat. 76 was passed by the Congress of the United States on 18 May 1917 creating the Selective Service System. The Act gave the President the power to draft soldiers.

The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was passed by the Congress of the United States on September 6, 1940 becoming the first peacetime conscription in United States history. This Selective Service Act required that men between the ages 21 and 30 register with local draft boards. The age range was later changed to 18-45.


World War I

In his war message on April 2, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson pledged all the nation's "material resources" to the Allied war effort. But what the Allies most urgently needed were fresh troops. Few Americans, however, rushed to volunteer for military service.

By the end of WWI, some 24 million men had registered, and some 2.8 million had been drafted. In fact, more than half of the almost 4.8 million Americans who served in the armed forces were drafted.

World War II

In May 1940 Congress appropriated $2.5 billion for Franklin D. Roosevelt's program of rebuilding military infrastructure, but Roosevelt did not feel the country was ready for a peacetime draft. However, on 20 June the Burke-Wadsworth Bill was brought before Congress. The Burke-Wadsworth Bill was drafted by Grenville Clark of the Military Training Camps Association, a World War I veterans group.

Burke-Wadsworth Act

Signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, the Burke-Wadsworth Act the first peace-time draft in United States history. Under the Burke-Wadsworth Act, all American males between twenty-one and thirty-five years of age registered for the draft. The government selected men through a lottery system. If drafted, a man served for twelve months. According to the Burke-Wadsworth Act's provisions, drafted soldiers had to remain in the Western Hemisphere or in United States possessions or territories located in other parts of the world. The act provided that not more than 900,000 men were to be in training at any one time, and it limited service to 12 months.

Section 5(g) of the Burke-Wadsworth Bill contained a provision for conscientious objection:

Nothing contained in this Act shall be constructed to require any person to be subject to combatant training and service in the land and naval forces of the United States who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.
Any such person claiming such exemption from combatant training and service because of such conscientious objections whose claim is sustained by the local draft board shall, if he is inducted into the land or naval forces under this Act, be assigned to noncombatant service as defined by the President, or shall if he is found to be conscientiously opposed to participation in such noncombatant service, in lieu of such induction, be assigned to work of national importance under civilian direction.

Civilian oversight of the program for conscientious objectors was a significant improvement over WWI policy where the military was responsible for COs, resulting in mistreatment such as short rations, solitary confinement and phyical abuse. Abusive practices were so extreme that two Hutterite men died from their treatment at Alcatraz and Fort Leavenworth.

Congress did not define work of national importance nor was the country, while gearing up for war, planning for the infrastructure necessary to handle thousands of conscientious objectors. This would ultimately be left to the historic peace churches.

WWII draft

The draft began in October 1940. By the early summer of 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the U.S. Congress to extend the term of duty for the draftees beyond twelve months. The United States House of Representatives approved the extension by a single vote. The Senate approved it by a wider margin, and Roosevelt signed the bill into law.

Many of the soldiers drafted in October 1940 threatened to desert once the original twelve months of their service was up. Many of these men painted the letters "O," "H," "I," and "O" (OHIO) on the walls of their barracks in protest. These letters were an acronym for "Over the hill in October," which meant that the men intended to desert upon the end of their twelve months of duty. Desertions did occur, but they were not widespread. Following the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941, thousands of American men and women swelled the United States' military's ranks by volunteering for service.

After the United States entered World War II, a new selective service act made men between 18 and 45 liable for military service and required all men between 18 and 65 to register. The terminal point of service was extended to six months after the war. From 1940 until 1947—when the wartime selective service act expired after extensions by Congress—over 10,000,000 men were inducted.

After WWII

A new selective service act was passed in 1948 that required all men between 18 and 26 register and that made men from 19 to 26 liable for induction for 21 months' service, which would be followed by 5 years of reserve duty.

Though the United States halted conscription in 1973, the Selective Service remains as a means to register American males upon reaching the age of 18 as a contingency should the measure be reintroduced. The registration requirement was suspended in April 1975, but reinstituted in 1980.


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