The Day the U.S. Initiated Selective Conscription for the Great War

The moment U.S. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker reached his hand into the glass bowl, the entire nation drew a collective breath. It was July 20, 1917. Americans in the southern states held their breath just a moment longer.

There was no getting around it. Nobody wanted to join the war in Europe, not President Wilson, nor the voters. The United States in 1917 was yet a young country. What did a bunch Yankees care if the Europeans wanted to shoot each other to death from trenches?

As it turned out, Americans came to care a lot, but not without a little prodding. Selective service or conscription was a necessary evil once the U.S. declared war, which was itself inevitable.

This is War

Woodrow Wilson ran on a ticket promising to keep the United States out of the war raging in Europe. The allied forces had been battling the central powers since 1914.

That was all nice until the Germans adopted a devil-may-care policy about attacking civilian vessels with their submarines. They couldn’t afford to allow the Americans to sneak supplies to the allies, so they started sinking merchant and leisure vessels.

The big one was when they sank the Lusitania, killing 1,198 civilians, of which 128 were Americans. In the wake of that event, public opinion listed hard towards joining the allied forces.

Then, someone in the British intelligence office intercepted a telegram from the Germans. We learned that the Germans intended to draw an alliance with Mexico.

On April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Within two days the Senate voted in favor of Wilson’s proposal, then the House two days after that.

Raising an Army

After the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, someone took a head count of the available soldiers. It was a little thin by the account of General John Pershing. That was the guy who would command American forces in Europe.

Pershing asked for “millions” of soldiers. For perspective, there were around 135,000 enlisted on April 6, 1917.

After a heated debate about volunteer versus conscripted service, on May 18 the U.S. passed the Selective Service Act of 1917. This Act granted the President the power to conscript U.S. citizens for service.

Back then, service was only for men; any man aged 21 to 30 had to register. At that time, letters piled up on the desks of representatives from concerned Americans, especially Americans in the south. Despite the attacks on civilian vessels and the potential German-Mexican alliance, they didn’t want to send their boys to war.

The letters were for naught, though. The draft would continue as planned.

The Draft

There were around 10,000,000 eligible men in the United States. To organize them, the folks in Washington D.C. organized local draft boards, one per county in the U.S. plus the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

Men filled out a draft card, which asked pertinent information like, name, date of birth, place of birth, father’s place of birth, physical features like the eye, hair color and race, and more.

By the time the decline rolled around, 9.5-million men had registered. When Secretary Baker drew the first number, draft card 258, it was from behind a blindfold standing over a glass bowl.

Across the country, in draft offices of every district, they drew numbers until they had 1,374,000 men. Those men, once called, had to report the next day to their draft office.

More drafts followed, spread out for obvious reasons until the U.S. drew 24-million men’s numbers.

About half of the numbers drawn on July 20, 1917, went to boot camp. The other half was not fit for duty. It would take months for them to see the front lines, but that they did.