This Day In History: The Draft Is Introduced In The USA (1940)

On this day in history in 1940, the Burke-Wadsworth Act is passed by Congress. The Act receives bi-partisan support and is backed by both the Democrats and the Republicans. The Act passed  by a wide margin in both houses of Congress. The Act was unique in that it was the first time that in history that the draft was introduced during peace. The Act saw the birth of the Selective Service concept.  The Draft was introduced in response to the situation in Europe where the Germans had conquered much of Europe in the space of a few months. In Asia, the Japanese were becoming increasingly aggressive and were continuing to expand their territory in China.

Some weeks later, Secretary of War,  Henry L. Stimson, , began drawing draft numbers out of a glass bowl. The numbers were handed to President Franklyn D Roosevelt. He announced the numbers over the radio in a live broadcast.  In total, some 20 million Americans are eligible to be drafted. They have to undergo a rigorous screening process to make sure that they are suitable for military service. Roughly half of those eligible are deemed not suitable for service in the American military. Many are rejected for physical and health reasons. Surprisingly, many, more are rejected for service because they are illiterate. Approximately one in five men are deemed to be illiterate and therefore not suitable for the draft.

After the attack on Pearl harbor, the US expanded the draft greatly. By early 1942, the country was at war with the Axis Powers and had to fight in North Africa and the Pacific. In November 1942, the US expanded the draft to all men from the ages of 18 to 37. In general, many African Americans are passed over in the draft because of racist beliefs and concerns that an army with mixed race contingents could not be effective. However, as the army’s casualties increased the system changes and a quota system. This meant that a certain percentage of black men had to be drafted every year and they numbers of African Americans serving in the military was to reflect their numbers in the overall population, which was almost one in nine.

Initially, blacks were restricted to “labor units,” that is as building roads and digging trenches but this too ended as the war dragged on, African Americans were finally used on the front line and many served with distinction.

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American G.I.s during WWII

“Conscientious objector”  status was granted to those who had moral and religious convictions that prevented them from becoming soldiers. The majority of these were Quakers.  Instead of joining the army they could join the alternate service in Civilian Public Service Camps, where they often carried out dangerous work for little or no pay. Some 6,000 men are jailed for failing to serve their nation in any form and the majority of these were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  By the end of the war, some 30 million are registered for the draft and over 10 million are drafted into the military.