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date: 10 December 2022

The Draft in U.S. Historylocked

The Draft in U.S. Historylocked

  • Megan ThrelkeldMegan ThrelkeldHistory Department, Denison University

Summary

The issue of compulsory military service has been contested in the United States since before its founding. In a nation characterized by both liberalism and republicanism, there is an inherent tension between the idea that individuals should be able to determine their own destiny and the idea that all citizens have a duty to serve their country. Prior to the 20th century, conscription occurred mainly on the level of local militias, first in the British colonies and later in individual states. It was during the Civil War that the first federal drafts were instituted, both in the Union and the Confederacy. In the North, the draft was unpopular and largely ineffective. Congress revived national conscription when the United States entered World War I and established the Selective Service System to oversee the process. That draft ended when U.S. belligerency ended in 1918. The first peacetime draft was implemented in 1940; with the exception of one year, it remained in effect until 1973. Its most controversial days came during the Vietnam War, when thousands of people across the country demonstrated against it and, in some cases, outright refused to be inducted. The draft stopped with the end of the war, but in 1980, Congress reinstated compulsory Selective Service registration. More than two decades into the 21st century, male citizens and immigrant noncitizens are still required to register within thirty days of their eighteenth birthday.

The very idea of “selective service” is ambiguous. It is selective because not everyone is conscripted, but it is compulsory because one can be prosecuted for failing to register or to comply with orders of draft boards. Especially during the Cold War, one of the system’s main functions was not to procure soldiers but to identify and exempt from service those men best suited for other endeavors framed as national service: higher education, careers in science and engineering, and even supporting families. That fact, combined with the decentralized nature of the Selective Service System itself, left the process vulnerable to the prejudices of local draft boards and meant that those most likely to be drafted were poor and nonwhite.

Subjects

  • Revolutionary History
  • Civil War and Reconstruction
  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • 20th Century: Post-1945

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