The Peacetime Draft Comes to America


On May 8, 1940, a small group of middle-aged men representing the Executive Committee of the Second Corps Area, Military Training Camps Association(MTCA) met in New York City to plan their organization’s 25th anniversary. In May, 1915, these men and their comrades formed the MTCA in response to the loss of American lives when a German U-boat sank Britain’s passenger liner Lusitania. Believing in military preparedness, the young Manhattan businessmen of 1915 spent most of August training under army officers at Plattsburg New York. The United States avoided World War I for another two years, but the idea of preparedness spread throughout the country and eventually 27,000 MTCA men earned commissions in the United States Army before and during World War I.

By 1940, the young men of 1915 had become not only middle-aged, but also influential. Once again they worried about their nation when a new war erupted in Europe. The executive committee, including New York lawyer Granville Clark (known as America’s “statesman incognito”) and Adolph Ochs Adler, general manager and vice-president of the New York Times, believed in the necessity of a military draft to strengthen America’s defenses. The executive committee voted to ask their membership to urge Congress to enact selective service legislation.

On September 8, 1939, in response to the outbreak of war in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 2352 — a state of national emergency. The president knew he was limited in his efforts to rearm America. Some Americans, remembering the bitter pill of the first world war, wanted no part of a second world war; other Americans believed their nation must prepare to defend itself against totalitarian dictators. Congress reflected this split.

Aware of the United States Army’s pathetic condition, Roosevelt authorized an increase in the Regular Army that would have to come from voluntary enlistments because the political climate of 1939 precluded asking Congress for a first-ever peacetime draft. To increase the army’s normal monthly enlistments from 8,000 to 90,000, the War Department created the Civilian Volunteer Effort(CVE); it failed miserably.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the German’s summer blitzkrieg of Poland was replaced by the winter “sitzkrieg” along France’s Maginot Line. But then, on May 10, 1940, the quiet of the western front exploded when Hitler’s panzer divisions raced through the neutral Low Countries — Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg — out flanking the Maginot Line. Reacting quickly, President Roosevelt went to Capitol Hill and asked Congress for $1.1 billion in supplemental defense funds. On this score the president had the backing of popular opinion: In a Gallup Poll taken in mid-May, eighty-five percent of Americans polled believed the armed services were not strong enough to protect the United States from attack and ninety percent wanted to increase the size of the armed forces. Nevertheless, the question: “Should the United States require every able-bodied young man 20 years old to serve in the army, navy or the air forces for one year?” revealed that half of the Americans polled were in favor, and half were opposed.

In the favorable half were the men of MTCA who did more than just pass their resolution; the MTCA sent one of its members, John McCauley Palmer, to see the army’s chief of staff, General George C. Marshall. The chief of staff favored rebuilding the army with measured and deliberate steps. Therefore, Marshall was wary of the en masse inductions inherent in a draft. But Palmer talked Marshall into at least preparing for the possibility of a draft, and so the chief of staff assigned Major Lewis B. Hershey and three other officers to assist Palmer in writing a selective service bill.

At the end of May the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated to England from the beaches of Dunkirk. On June 7, as Nazi Panzer divisions rolled toward Paris, Adolph Ochs Adler wrote an editorial in the New York Times demanding a conscription bill. But President Roosevelt, seeking a third term through a spontaneous draft from the Democratic Convention floor in July, continued to hedge his bets. FDR wanted a conscription bill but feared the political backlash of supporting a peacetime draft.

Within the next two weeks, the French Army, largest in the world, collapsed. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, no event of the war so shocked Americans as the Fall of France. The sight of Nazi troops marching down the Champs-Elysees and Hitler dancing for the newsreel cameras caused a change in American opinion. After France’s collapse, the Gallup Poll’s question on drafting 20-year old men was favored by sixty-four percent to thirty-six percent. By this time, General McCauley and Major Hershey had created a draft bill and found sponsers: James Wadsworth(R-NY) in the House and Senator Edward Burke(D-NB) in the Senate.

The shocking events in Europe propeled the Burke-Wadsworth bill through Congress. At the end of August, Burke- Wadsworth passed the Senate 58-31; two weeks later the bill passed the House 232 – 124. The Selective Service Act of 1940 called for drafting men 21-34 years old for one year of training and service after which the men would go home, although they would be part of he army’s reserve component for ten years. Isolationists in Congress made sure to limit the draftees service to the Western Hemisphere, unless Congress declared war. The law required draftees to report in monthly increments, with each increment required to serve one year from the time of their call-up. The law included an expiration date of May 15, 1945.(After Pearl Harbor this date was changed to “For the Duration”)

The President also federalized the National Guard on August 31. Because of a lack of barracks for all eighteen National Guard divisions, the guard’s activation also came in increments, three or four divisions per month until all divisions were federalized. Each division was required to serve one year from its date of federalization and was limited to service in the United States and its possessions.

At 3:08 P.M. on September 16, 1940 President Roosevelt signed the bill into law telling the country: “Time and distance have been shortened. A few weeks have seen great nations fall. We cannot remain indifferent to the philosophy of force now rampant in the world…. We must and will marshal our great potential strength to fend off war from our shores. We must and will prevent our land from becoming a victim of aggression.” The peacetime draft and National Guard call-up were the first steps in creating an army of citizen-soldiers that would change the fate of the world.