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The Reader's Companion to American History


The term conscription has an unpleasant connotation to Americans who prefer the word draft whenever they speak of compulsory military enrollment. Temporary, selective drafts have played a periodic and often substantial part in obtaining America's wartime armies.

The draft has been characterized by two traditions in America. One is that it has often contributed, along with voluntarism, to raising forces of short-term citizen-soldiers in time of international tension and war. (In contrast, the regular standing army is composed of longterm volunteers.) The other tradition has been an ongoing opposition to conscription by pacifists, libertarians, and opponents of particular wars. This is not surprising in a pluralistic society that emphasizes individual liberty and religious freedom.

The English colonists brought to America the county militia system of universal short-term military training and service under local officers. In the eighteenth century, however, most colonies turned for their expeditionary forces to ad hoc units, composed of volunteers and an occasional draftee or a legally hired substitute. In the French and Indian War, Massachusetts's provincial units were more than 90 percent volunteers, primarily young men in their late teens or early twenties who enlisted, as do most wartime volunteers, for a combination of economic, religious, or patriotic reasons, or because of social pressure or a desire for adventure.

In the American Revolution, the new state governments assumed the colonies' authority to draft men, through county militia officers, for their short-term militias. They extended it to the long-term state units of the Continental Army, but they denied Gen. George Washington's request that the central government be empowered to conscript. As the initial volunteering subsided, most states boosted enlistment bounties and held an occasional draft, producing more hired substitutes than actual draftees. Although some dissenters suffered, several states recognized Quaker and other religious conscientious objectors. In contrast to the largely middle-class, short-term militia, the long-term volunteers and substitutes of the Continental Army were mainly poor youths, white and black, who were indentured servants, laborers, unemployed drifters, recent immigrants, or the sons of marginal farmers.

The Constitution adopted in 1789 gave Congress the "power to raise and support armies," but it neither mentioned nor prohibited conscription. The Framers left that issue to the future, although most of them believed that the United States like Britain would enlist its men rather than conscript them, and would pay for its armies through the power to tax.

Since threats to the country's national security in the nineteenth century were generally limited or sporadic, Americans built a two-army tradition. The small Regular Army, a peacetime constabulary and wartime cadre, was obtained exclusively by voluntary enlistment. The wartime armies of citizen-soldiers, from the Indian wars of the 1790s through the Spanish-American War of 1898, were composed primarily of ad hoc wartime units of volunteers, locally raised and led but federally financed and directed. Units of the so-called U.S. Volunteers were distinct from the U.S. Army and the militia, later called the National Guard.

Although some states drafted men during the War of 1812, James Madison's administration was unable to enact national conscription (which Daniel Webster, a Federalist opponent, denounced as an attempt at "Napoleonic despotism"), and it was not until the Civil War that the need to sustain massive armies brought a taste of national conscription to America. With a smaller population to draw upon, the Confederacy adopted the draft in 1862, eventually applying it to white males seventeen to fifty years of age. In all, 21 percent of the 1 million Confederate soldiers were conscripts. But by violating individual liberty and states' rights and by including unpopular class-bound occupational exemptions such as for overseers on large plantations, the Confederate conscription act engendered much discontent and considerable resistance.

In the North, following some state drafts in 1862, Congress adopted a selective conscription law in 1863 applicable to males twenty to forty-five. Avoiding unpopular occupational exemptions, the lawmakers authorized draftees to escape personal service by hiring a substitute or paying the government a commutation fee of three hundred dollars, which, although equal to a worker's annual wages, was less than the current price of substitutes. Peace Democrats claimed it was a "rich man's war but poor man's fight," and when military provost marshals began conscripting, thousands evaded or actively resisted the draft. Bloody draft riots then erupted in New York City.

Northern authorities also increased enlistment bounties and actively recruited immigrants and southern blacks (ultimately, 25 and 10 percent, respectively, of the Union army). In 1864 Congress did away with commutation, but allowed drafted religious pacifists to provide alternative service or contribute to a hospital fund. Four federal drafts produced only 46,000 conscripts and 118,000 substitutes (2 and 6 percent, respectively, of the 2.1 million Union troops). The draft was credited, however, with prodding volunteers and, equally as important, with encouraging the reenlistment of battle-trained veterans.

Not until World War I did the United States rely primarily upon conscription. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was adopted in large part because a civilian-led "preparedness" movement had persuaded many Americans that a selective national draft was the most equitable and efficient way for an industrial society to raise a wartime army. Woodrow Wilson overcame considerable opposition, particularly from agrarian isolationists in the South and West and ethnic and ideological opponents of the war in the North, to obtain the temporary wartime draft.

The 1917 draft law prohibited enlistment bounties and personal substitution, but did authorize deferments on the grounds of dependency or essential work in industry or agriculture. It allowed religious conscientious objectors (COs) to choose noncombatant service within the military. The law was implemented through a Selective Service System, composed of a national headquarters—commanded by a major general—and some four thousand local draft boards staffed by civilian volunteers who decided on the induction or deferment of particular individuals within overall national guidelines.

In 1917 and 1918, Selective Service registered and classified 23.9 million men, eighteen to forty-five, and drafted 2.8 million of them. In all, 72 percent of the wartime army of 3.5 million troops was raised through conscription.

There was no repetition of the Civil War draft riots. Aside from a few violent episodes and a number of antidraft demonstrations, opposition was expressed mainly through criticism and evasion. Between 2 and 3 million men apparently never registered, and 338,000 (12 percent of those drafted) failed to report when called or deserted after arrival at training camp. In addition, 64,700 registrants sought CO status. Of the 20,900 COs drafted into the army, 4,000 refused to participate in any military role, and 450 "absolutists" were sent to prison. In 1918, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that national conscription was constitutional.

In World War II, the fall of France in 1940 led Congress to adopt the nation's first prewar conscription act as a result of a campaign headed by old preparedness leaders. The draft was to run through 1945, but because of intense opposition from pacifists, isolationists, and others, the draftees (aged twenty-one to thirty-five) were obligated to serve only one year, and service was restricted to the Western Hemisphere and U.S. territories. In August 1941, however, Congress, by a one-vote margin (203-202) in the House, voted to keep the one-year draftees in the Army beyond their term. After Pearl Harbor, the lawmakers removed all remaining restrictions and extended the draft to men aged eighteen to thirty-eight (and briefly to forty-five) for the duration. Approximately 10 million men were drafted through the Selective Service System, and nearly 6 million enlisted, primarily in the U.S. Navy and Army Air Corps.

There was some discontent. Some 72,000 registrants applied for CO status, of whom 25,000 entered the army in noncombatant service, another 12,000 went to civilian work camps, and 20,000 had their claims rejected. Ultimately, 6,000, the majority of them Jehovah's Witnesses, were imprisoned. Some antidraft incidents in Chicago and other cities stemmed from protest by African-Americans against discrimination and segregation in the armed forces. Draft evasion did not disappear. The Justice Department investigated 373,000 alleged evaders and obtained convictions of 16,000.

The draft did not end with World War II. Except for a brief hiatus between 1947 and 1948, it helped maintain throughout the cold war a sizable number of men in the armed forces (a mix of volunteers, conscripts, and draft-induced volunteers). During the Korean War, 1.5 million men, eighteen to twenty-five, were drafted; another 1.3 million volunteered, primarily for the navy and air force. Discontent led to an increase in COs (the percentage of inductees exempted as COs grew to nearly 1.5 percent, compared to .15 in each world war). Some 80,000 draft evasion cases were investigated.

Conscription became one of the many casualties of the Vietnam War. After President Lyndon B. Johnson committed American ground troops in 1965, draft calls soared from 100,000 in 1964 to 400,000 in 1966, enabling U.S. forces there to climb from 23,000 military advisers in 1964 to 543,000 troops by 1968.

Although draftees were only a small minority (16 percent) in the American armed forces, they made up the bulk of the infantry riflemen in Vietnam (88 percent by 1969) and accounted for more than half the army's battle deaths. Because of student and other deferments, the draft and the casualties fell disproportionately upon working-class youths, black and white. African-Americans, 11 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 16 percent of the army's casualties in Vietnam in 1967 (15 percent for the entire war).

Opposition mounted along with the rising draft calls and casualty rates. Supported by an antiwar coalition of students, pacifists, clergy, civil rights and feminist organizations, and many other liberal and radical groups, a draft resistance movement grew in strength. It generated demonstrations, draft-card burnings, sit-ins at induction centers, and break-ins and destruction of records at a dozen local draft boards.

Between 1965 and 1975, faced with well over 100,000 apparent draft offenders, the federal government indicted 22,500 persons, of whom 8,800 were convicted and 4,000 imprisoned. As the Supreme Court expanded the criteria from religious to moral or ethical objections, CO exemptions grew in relation to actual inductions from 8 percent in 1967 to 43 percent in 1971 and 131 percent in 1972. Between 1965 and 1970, 170,000 registrants were classified as COs.

The most common form of draft "protest" was evasion. Of the 26.8 million young men who reached draft age between 1964 and 1973, 16 million (60 percent) did not serve in the military. Of those who avoided service, 15.4 million received legal exemptions or deferments, and perhaps 570,000 evaded the draft illegally. Among illegal draft evaders 360,000 were never caught, another 198,000 had their cases dismissed, 9,000 were convicted, and 4,000 sent to prison. In addition, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 fled into exile, mainly to Canada, Britain, and Sweden.

With the draft so controversial, Congress came under increased pressure either to reform it or to eliminate it. Supported by many conservatives, Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, the director of Selective Service since 1941, blocked any changes until 1969, including the 1967 recommendations for equity and national uniformity from a presidential commission headed by former assistant attorney general Burke Marshall. President Richard M. Nixon, after criticizing the draft in his 1968 campaign, ended new occupational and dependency deferments, instituted an annual draft lottery among eighteen-year-olds (beginning in December 1969), removed General Hershey, and appointed a commission, headed by former secretary of defense Thomas Gates, which in 1970 recommended an All-Volunteer Armed Force (avf) with a stand-by draft for emergency use.

Nixon reduced draft calls while gradually withdrawing U.S. troops, but his dispatch of American units across the border into Cambodia in 1970 led to massive public protests. Only reluctantly did Congress in 1971 extend the draft for two more years. The lawmakers also eliminated student deferments and voted a massive ($2.4 billion) pay increase for the lower ranks in order to achieve an avf by mid-1973. During the 1972 election campaign, Nixon cut draft calls to 50,000 and stopped forcing draftees to go to Vietnam. On January 27, 1973, the day a cease-fire was announced, the administration stopped drafting, six months before induction authority expired on July 1, 1973.

Compulsory draft registration, which President Gerald Ford suspended in 1975, was resumed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. President Ronald Reagan extended it in 1982 and prosecuted a few of those who refused to register (estimated at 500,000 between 1980 and 1984).

Although it retained considerable support, the avf of 2.1 million (including 775,000 in the army) remained controversial. It came under criticism for drawing disproportionately from lower socioeconomic groups, particularly nonwhites. There were also concerns about the comparatively high financial cost of the All-Volunteer Force.

John Whiteclay Chambers II, To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America (1987); George Q. Flynn, Conscription and American Culture, 1940-1973 (1992); Stephen M. Kohn, Jailed for Peace: The History of American Draft Law Violations, 1658-1985 (1986).

See also Armed Forces; Conscientious Objection; Draft Riots; and entries for individual wars.

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