US Military Draft, Facts and History

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A Brief History

On January 8, 2020, speculation as to whether or not the United States will re-institute a military draft not seen since 1973 is causing heated discussions among politicians, pundits and citizens.  We have previously discussed the American military draft in articles “New York City Draft Riots (Worst Riot in US History),” “10 “Patriots” Who Dodged the Draft or Did Not Serve,” “Jimmy Carter Pardons Draft Dodgers!” and “Was Tough Guy Donald Trump a Draft Dodger?”  (That last article listed was published before Trump was elected President.)  The military draft and those men that did and did not submit to induction into the armed forces were contentious subjects in the past and remain so today.

Digging Deeper

Also known as “conscription,” the United States has used the draft to compel military service in times of national emergency (war or imminent war) starting with the American Revolutionary War.  Back then various colonies (states) and cities or regions had a militia system of citizen soldiers and drafted eligible young men (up to middle aged) for military service in contingencies of fairly short term, such as specific battles or campaigns.  A proposed national conscription in 1778 to bolster the national army was quite haphazard and uneven in application with no consistent standards.  Back then, a draftee could avoid service by paying a substitute inductee to take his place.  The first draft related national laws allowed only for the conscription (also known as impressment for naval purposes) of men to serve in the Continental Navy.  After Independence, conscription was authorized by Article I.8.15 of the US Constitution to allow for a national draft if needed of men between the ages of 18 and 45.

American draft laws were put to the test by the massive manpower needs of the American Civil War, although about 92% of those that served in the Union armed forces were volunteers.  About 2% of the Union military were draftees and another 6% were paid substitutes for draftees.  In spite of the low percentages of draftees involved, public backlash caused rioting to break out in New York City in 1863.  The Confederate States suffered an even worse manpower shortage, and also instituted conscription in 1862, a measure that also met with resistance and sometimes violence.  Not only were women exempt from the draft, African Americans were also exempt, a factor resulting in resentment against African Americans by Northerners that bitterly declined to fight for the freedom of a people not required to fight for their own freedom.  In the South, slaves freed in order to serve in the Confederate Army could take the place of White Southerners so drafted.  During the Civil War fierce disagreement between the economic classes over who and why men were exempted from service exposed deep rifts between the social classes.

The global conflict known as World War I saw the next round of American military conscription, a necessary fact sadly illustrated by a paltry 73,000 volunteers answering the call of President Woodrow Wilson for 1 million men!  The Selective Service Act of 1917 was intended to rectify many of the contentious issues of the Civil War era draft, providing for more consistent and equitable deferments.  The target ages of 21 to 31 years were changed later to 18 to 45.  This time, no substitute draftees were authorized to allow rich men to avoid service.  A whopping total of about 24 million American men were registered for the draft, and about 3 million inducted.  This time, the draft included African American men, and the government shut down any publications that railed against selective service.  Among the 3 million draftees were about a half million immigrants to the US, creating a cultural and language problem for the armed forces.  Although some draftees were allowed to plead conscientious objector status, others that refused to be inducted and serve were treated harshly by the courts, often given long jail sentences.  The “left wing” of American politics was particularly opposed to the draft.

After World War I, the US military wisely prepared for the next time national conscription would be necessary, and set up the draft mechanism ahead of time so as to be ready for a contingency requiring a draft.  Efforts were accelerated to prepare for what seemed to be a sure return to a draft by passage of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (STSA).

Hostilities in Asia in 1937 and the outbreak of full fledged war in Europe in 1939 spurred popular support among US citizens for the adoption of a national military draft.  In 1940 the first peacetime military draft in US history commenced, with men between the ages of 19 and 57 required to register with their local draft board.  In this pre-war period (for the US), conscription was limited to 900,000 men at any given time (for training) and a conscription term of only 12 months.  By August of 1941, as the winds of war gathered, the term of conscription was increased by 18 months.  After the entry to the War by the US following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the term of mandatory service was increased to the duration of the war plus an additional 6 months.  Registration requirements were changed to include men between 18 and 64 years of age.  During the course of World War II, 49 million American men were registered for the draft and 10 million were eventually drafted.  The draft had started as a national lottery and shifted to local control as the war progressed.  The US Navy and US Marine Corps were not initially included in the draft of inductees, but in 1943 they both began accepting draftees.  Oddly enough, other American men between the ages of 18 and 37 were actually prohibited from volunteering for service in the military so that vital home front manpower would not be depleted!  The draft would provide a regulated and predictable source of manpower for the military.  A target of 200,000 draftees per month was achieved from 1943 to 1945.

As always with a military draft, there was some opposition to US military conscription during World War II, especially by African Americans that chafed under Jim Crow type laws and discriminatory practices, including a segregated military.  In particular, the Nation of Islam opposed the drafting of African Americans.  Japanese Americans were likewise not all that enthusiastic about being drafted, some of whom were residing in internment camps at the time!  American communists opposed the draft until the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, then communist opposition largely disappeared.

In 1948 the draft was re-instituted, a contingency based on the rumblings of the beginnings of the Cold War.  Men between 18 and 26 were required to register.  Terms of service for draftees was limited to 21 months of active service and 5 years in the Reserve.  The number of men drafted prior to the Korean War was quite low.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), the US drafted a total of about 1.5 million men, compared to about 1.3 million American volunteers for military service.  The American population continued to support selective service throughout the Korean War by a large majority.

The Great Depression (1929-1939) had resulted in a decrease in the birth rate in the United States, and thus a lessening of the manpower pool of men of military age during the 1950’s, necessitating a continuation of selective service, though at a greatly reduced rate.  The very possibility of being drafted allegedly fueled the enlistment rolls of volunteers to the US military, young men that would voluntarily sign up with the service of their choice and specialty training rather than leave their fate to the whim of a draft board.  About 11 million Americans volunteered for military service between 1954 and 1975, many supposedly in an attempt to avoid the draft.  The system of deferments for various special training careers also affected the way young American men went about structuring their education, often specifically to avoid liability to be drafted.

The Vietnam War (1964-1974) created a whole new national debate over the conscription of young men (still no females eligible for the draft), including many violent encounters between authorities and protesters.  Despite the popular depiction of the Vietnam War as being fought by American draftees, only about 1/3 of the US military in the war was drafted and the remaining 2/3 were volunteers.  That is in stark contrast to almost the exact opposite of World War II in which only 1/3 of those that served were volunteers.  Draft dodging and protests became a national pastime, as did falsification of medical and school records to avoid service.

Resistance to the military draft during the Vietnam Era resulted in the suspension of selective service in the US after 1972, although young men continued to register for the draft.  (Note: 18 year olds required to register for the draft were issued “draft cards” and were required by law to carry that document with them at all time.  This author personally knew at least one guy that was cited by a police officer for not having his draft card with him.)  From late 1975 until 1980, young American men no longer had to register for the draft.  In 1980, registration with the Selective Service System was again mandated.

While the United States still has the military draft to rely on if a national emergency or war makes this scenario necessary, no American has been drafted since 1972.  To this day, female Americans are still not liable for the draft, a situation that would almost assuredly change if the Equal Rights Amendment was ever passed.  The criteria for deferments has changed time and again over the years, and is probably still in a state of flux just waiting to be tested by the next time we experience a military draft.

The latest increase in tensions with Iran (January 2020) has raise the subject of whether or not the US will have to institute a military draft in order to meet manpower requirements.  In theory, a draft is more equitable across social class lines because an all volunteer force is likely to come from the lower economic classes and a drafted force is supposedly evenly taken from all levels of American society, a theory often attacked as false in practice.

A military draft remains a contentious subject, with no real national agreement on the subject.  Does a free society need to mandate military service, or is such a mandate tantamount to slavery?  Does a democracy have the right to choose whether or not to defend itself, or does the representative government have the right to choose the when, where, who and how of making war?  As with many subjects, the answers are not so easily arrived at.

Question for students (and subscribers): Will the US start a military draft in 2020?  Should they?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Ruttenberg, Amy. Rough Draft: Cold War Military Manpower Policy and the Origins of Vietnam-Era Draft Resistance.  Cornell University Press, 2019.

Taylor, William. Military Service and American Democracy: From World War II to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.  University Press of Kansas, 2016.

The featured image in this article, a screen capture taken from the public domain newsreel footage of Universal News, given into public domain by MCA in 1976 and hosted by Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/CEP531, has been released into the public domain worldwide by its author, Universal City Studios.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.