Selective Service Act of 1917

Selective Service Act of 1917

Selective Service Act of 1917

The Selective Service Act of 1917 (P.L. 65-12, 40 Stat. 76) was the first act mandating American military service since the Civil War. In April 1917, before the act’s passage, there were only 110,000 servicemen who could be deployed if America joined the war then raging in Europe. An army of this size would have been destroyed within months considering the brutal trench warfare employed during the Great War. All told, there were 116,516 American casualties in World War I—more than were in the service at the time war was declared.

President Woodrow Wilson, who had avoided American entry in the war for about three years, initially wanted to use only volunteers to augment the forces needed to fight and win the war. In his address before Congress calling for a declaration of war, Wilson stated:

Our object now … is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles.

However, three weeks after war was declared, only 32,000 Americans had volunteered for service. Wilson realized that this was not enough military strength to win the war, so he called for a draft, which was decried by many members of his own party. Progressive Democrats, who usually sided with the president, asserted that a draft would destroy “democracy at home while fighting for it abroad.” Republicans attacked Wilson on the draft issue to take political advantage of the Democrat’s wartime leadership.

The World War I Draft

Wilson, however, would not lose on the issue of the draft. With the aid of Newton Baker, his secretary of war, Wilson brought about passage of the act, which allowed him to raise all branches of the armed forces to a level that could compete with the Axis powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. All males aged twenty-one to thirty were required to register at local polling stations. The age limits were later changed to include all men from ages eighteen to forty-five. The drafts carried out during World War I led to the successful registration of almost 24 million American men. Because of a concerted effort to invoke a sense of patriotism in all Americans, the U.S. enlisted many to fight against the Axis powers. Less than 350,000 men “dodged” the World War I draft.

The 1917 act also contained a significant change from the Civil War draft: replacements could not be hired to fight in a person’s place. Section 3 stated:

No person liable to military service shall hereafter be permitted or allowed to furnish a substitute for such service; nor shall any substitute be received, enlisted, or enrolled in the military service of the United States; and no such person shall be permitted to escape such service or to be discharged therefrom prior to the expiration of his term of service by the payment of money or any other valuable thing whatsoever as consideration for his release from military service or liability thereto.

This provision meant that wealthy people could not buy their way out of service. It was designed to ensure that all Americans fought in the war, not just the poor who could not buy their way out.

Black Servicemen

Black Americans, of whom nearly 2.3 million were drafted, made a special sacrifice for the war effort. Conditions in America during the 1910s were in direct opposition to the ideals of the Republic: equality in voting rights, education, and use of public accommodations would not come for many black Americans for almost another half-century. Yet blacks were called on to defend the rights of Europeans while their own rights as America’s citizen-soldiers were denied. This dichotomy was even the subject of a German propaganda campaign. However, many black Americans felt that their service would be rewarded with a concerted push for civil rights upon their return. W.E.B. DuBois, the famous black activist, spoke out in support of the war: “Let us, while the war lasts, forget our special grievances and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens … fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly.”

Many black soldiers would not receive the honors they deserved back home, although some did in Europe. The French government awardedCroix de Guerre medals, high honors for bravery, to members of New York’s 396th Infantry, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters. Sadly, though they made no ordinary sacrifice, many of the returning veterans were denied the basic opportunities and rights they fought for in Europe. Some were even subjected to lynching and mob brutality as they reentered the American workforce because white workers feared the black veterans would take their jobs.

Successful War Effort

American servicemen were supported by a patriotic push on the homefront. Wilson called for farmers, miners, housewives and other domestic workers to keep the nation’s armed forces well supplied by treating their everyday jobs as a part of the war effort. Because of the manpower the act brought into service, America and its allies emerged victorious from World War I.