Conscription in the United States

August 14, 1940

Report Outline
Peacetime Conscription and Rearmament
Conscription in United States Before 1917
Selective Service System in World War
Conscription Proposals After World War

Peacetime Conscription and Rearmament

Compulsory military service as a corollary to the rearmament program has been a subject of lively public discussion since the Senate and House Military Affairs Committees opened hearings in July on a conscription bill introduced by Senator Burke (D., Neb.) and Rep. Wadsworth (R., N. Y.). While President Roosevelt has refrained from specifically endorsing the Burke-Wadsworth bill, he said, August 2, that he was “in favor of a selective-training bill” and considered it “essential to adequate national defense.” General Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, approved the bill, with certain modifications, in testimony before the Senate Military Affairs Committee, July 12. He had said in an interview the previous day that past experience convinced the War Department that expansion of the Regular Army beyond the enlisted strength of 375,000, for which Congress had appropriated funds, could not be achieved by voluntary enlistment.

When the Senate Military Affairs Committee reported the conscription bill, August 5, it pointed out that modern warfare demanded trained armies, which meant that men must be trained not only individually but “as an integrated part of a highly complicated combat team.” It asserted that “the need for men now is imperative in order to conduct a proper training program,” and that the proposed legislation provided the only satisfactory means of obtaining them. A minority report, signed by Senators Johnson (D., Colo.), Lundeen (F. L., Minn.), and Thomas (R., Ida.), approved conscription as a wartime measure but declared that “regimentation of American life as provided for by the Burke-Wadsworth bill in peacetime is abhorrent to the ideals of patriotic Americans and is utterly repugnant to American democracy and American traditions.” The minority said “no proof or evidence was offered to indicate that the personnel needs of the Army and Navy cannot be obtained on a voluntary basis in the traditional American peacetime manner.” It contended that “voluntary enlistments should be given a thorough trial before any Hitlerized method of peacetime conscription with its far-reaching implications of militarism and imperialism is adopted as a permanent policy in America.”

Compulsory Military Service and Democratic Ideals

While peacetime conscription has not been the practice in the United States, Great Britain, or the British dominions, it has been customary for many years in almost all other nations, including not only those regarded as militaristic but the pacifically-inclined nations as well. Modern systems of conscription had their origin, at the end of the Eighteenth Century, in France, where the idea of universal military service took form as an expression of the feeling that every citizen should participate in defense of the new state founded on the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Military Draft
Aug. 19, 2005  Draft Debates
Jan. 11, 1991  Should the U.S. Reinstate the Draft?
Jun. 13, 1980  Draft Registration
Jun. 20, 1975  Volunteer Army
Nov. 17, 1971  Rebuilding the Army
Nov. 18, 1970  Expatriate Americans
Mar. 20, 1968  Resistance to Military Service
Jun. 22, 1966  Draft Law Revision
Jan. 20, 1965  Reserve Forces and the Draft
Feb. 14, 1962  Military Manpower Policies
Jun. 03, 1954  Military Manpower
Sep. 24, 1952  National Health and Manpower Resources
Oct. 24, 1950  Training for War Service
Aug. 21, 1950  Manpower Controls
Aug. 13, 1945  Peacetime Conscription
Sep. 09, 1944  The Voting Age
Apr. 15, 1944  Universal Military Service
Feb. 17, 1942  Compulsory Labor Service
Jun. 11, 1941  Revision of the Draft System
Aug. 14, 1940  Conscription in the United States
Apr. 24, 1939  Conscription for Military Service
Military Draft