The Draft in America: History and Background

Tom Warwick

Boy, did his Draft Board go crazy.” -Hawkeye, M*A*S*H

Nine months ago – being the nerdy crew that we are – John, Winston, and I were arguing over the practical and moral implications of the Selective Service System (SSS) in the United States.  This conversation, and the desire to express our opinions on similar topics, would eventually form the foundation of our decision to embark on this Finest Bagels Blog project.  This Sunday, after months of being placed on the backburner and allowing the important to be overtaken by the urgent, John and Winston will finally square off in an Oxford style debate over the issue of the Draft in America this Sunday.  In preparation for this post, we thought that it might be helpful to provide some background and a brief history of the draft in the United States.  

The Draft 1916-1973

While in practice since the days of Alexander the Great and haphazardly used during the Civil War, the Federal Government did not implement a large scale military draft until the outbreak of the First World War.  At the time, the United States did not maintain a large standing Army, so when war broke out the United States was underprepared and outnumbered by the European powers. When efforts to muster volunteers failed to provide sufficient numbers, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916.  The Act required that all men between the ages of 18 and 45 register for service, with men being pressed into service from oldest to youngest and eligibility being determined by factors such as marital status, number of dependents, and employment in civilian war effort industries. By the end of the war, more than half of the Americans who served in the armed forces were draftees.  After the armistice of November 11, 1918, the draft system was disbanded and all local offices were closed.  In July 1919, the Provost Marshal General, who oversaw the program, was relieved from duty and as a result the Selective Service System was effectively terminated.

It would be a mere 21 years before the System was reauthorized.  In 1940, with Hitler’s Reich spreading across Europe, President Roosevelt signed the Military Selective Service Act and initiated America’s first peacetime draft. The Military Selective Service Act established the Selective Service System as an independent Federal agency within the Department of Defense and required that men, this time between the ages of 18 and 37, register with their local draft board. After the attacks at Pearl Harbor, 49 million men were registered with 10 million eventually being drafted into the armed services. At the end of the war, draftees returned home, but this time the Selective Service System remained in place, and from 1948 to 1973 – during both peace and war – men were drafted to fill vacancies in the armed forces which could not be filled through voluntary means.

While the draft was used in World War I, World War II, and Korea, it is most infamously remembered for its use in the Vietnam War. As Presidents Johnson and Nixon pursued a policy of overwhelming force, the need for soldiers rapidly increased. On December 1, 1969, the Vietnam Lotteries began.  In a departure from the “draft the oldest first” strategy, 366 Blue plastic capsules containing birthdates were placed into a large glass and drawn by hand to determine the order of call. By the end of the war over two million men would be pressed into the armed forces.  Ultimately the unpopularity of both the draft and the war would lead to the US once again abandoning the Selective Service System.  By 1972 the last man would be conscripted and by 1973 the US military would become an All-Volunteer Force.

The Draft Today

Considering all of the men reading this have (probably) registered with the Selective Services System, you know that the 1973 disbandment is not the end of the history of the draft.  In 1980 the system was reactivated in response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, and continues to this day. Today the Selective Service System is composed of just over one hundred full time civilian employees who oversee the registration of American men between the ages of 18 and 25 and maintain guidelines which would provide the mechanisms of a new draft should it become necessary.

In the event of a return to conscription, the Selective Service System would expand significantly. The SSS would begin by calling up a reserve force of 150 National Guard and Reserve Officers who would establish a Selective Service headquarters in each state.  At the same time almost 2,000 local and appeal boards would be activated across the country staffed by 11,000 volunteers.  Once the infrastructure was in place, the SSS would hold a lottery, using birth dates in a random drawing, to determine the order in which registrants would be called for processing for induction.  Registrants facing possible induction would be ordered to report for examination as a Military Entrance Process Station (MEPS) and be screened for physical, mental, and moral readiness.  Those cleared for duty would then report for training in their assigned branch within six months of the onset of the crisis that triggered the mobilization. The employees at SSS have frequent “dry-runs” of this plan to evaluate its feasibility and ensure a smooth transition in the event of an emergency.

Postponement, Exemptions, and Deferment  

As with almost any policy there are exceptions. In the case that the draft becomes necessary, the Selective Service System has identified a number of situations under which a citizen could defer or be exempted from service. For example high school student can have his induction postponed until graduation or age 20 and a college student can wait until the end of a semester.  Sons or brothers in a family where the parents or siblings have died as a result of military service are exempted from military service.  Ministers, Ministerial students, sitting elected officials, and veterans are also exempted from service.  The Selective Service System also makes an exception for those whose service in the military would violate their moral, ethical, or religious beliefs.  In these situations the individual would be classified as a Conscientious Objector and would be assigned to a noncombatant role in the armed forces (i.e. corpsman) or in a civilian job contributing to the national interest. Individuals wishing to register under one of these classifications must file a claim with his local Selective Service office, submitting a claim will delay the registrant’s induction until the claim has been fully processed and adjudicated.

Women and the Draft

Today all men between the ages of 18 and 26 must register for the Selective Services or face the possibility of fines up to 250,000 dollars, five years in jail, or the denial of access to federal programs or jobs.  While all men are required to register within six months of turning 18, women have never been required to register. This exception based solely on gender has opened the door to several equal protection challenges.

The first challenge to the “male-only” system came in 1981 with Rostker v. Goldberg. Shortly after Congress reinstated the Selective Service, a group of college age men challenged the law citing that it was a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.  In the opinion written by Justice Rehnquist (still a few years away from being Chief Justice Rehnquist) the court held 6-3 that it was constitutional for Congress to exclude women from the draft.  The Court reasoned that the exclusion of women from the selective services was not “the accidental by-product of a traditional way of thinking about females” but rather a case of two parties that were not similarly situated.   In 1981 military policy dictated that women were prohibited from taking a combat role; because the selective services were re-established primarily as a response to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and the potential for conflict the court reasoned that since women could not take part in the actual combat roles they were not similarly situated for the purposes of draft registration.   Since in this situation (in the six of the justice’s opinion) men and women are not similarly situated, Congress was justified in its discrimination.

Needless to say a lot has changed both in the world and the military since 1981.  Women have been playing a much bigger role in combat operations, and in military conflicts such as the ones we are seeing in the Middle East many soldiers end up in combat situations regardless of their MOS. In the past few years we have seen examples of women actively taking on combat roles, such as in August of 2015 two women graduated from Army Rangers School. Many prominent military leaders have also been vocal about the subject; Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has frequently expressed his desire to see women as both Navy SEALs and in Marine Infantry Units. Since the original Rostker case military policy concerning women in combat roles has shifted from blanket exclusion to the idea that if you can meet the standards you should be able get to perform the job.  Which begs the question, are women and men still not “similarly situated” when it comes to exclusion from the draft?


And with that, I will leave you in the capable hands of my fellow editors John and Winston.  Be sure to check back on Sunday for the FBB special feature: “Debate Night: The Draft in America.”

Photo Credit: US Archives 

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