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The Draft in World War I: America “Volunteered its Mass”

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On May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act. President Wilson’s proclamation on conscription appeared on front pages of newspapers around the country the next day.

Wilson stressed: ”The significance of this cannot be overstated. It is a new thing in our history, and a landmark in our progress…It is in no sense a conscription of the unwilling, it is rather selection from a nation which has volunteered its mass.”

                       Tonopah Daily Bonanza (Tonopah, NV), May 19, 1917               

The reason for the Selective Service Act, though, was that American men had not volunteered en masse or certainly not in the numbers needed to raise, train, and deploy an army quickly after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. What is true is that the vast majority of men complied and registered for the draft and then served, if drafted—not quick to volunteer, but not unwilling to serve. In the end, over 70% of American Army troops were conscripts, truly “a new thing in our history,” compared to 8% of Union troops, where a draftee could hire a substitute.

The World War I Draft Topic Page on the Library of Congress Chronicling America website provides examples of newspapers as major vehicles for notification of draft registration days and regulations. From the first day of registration, June 5, 1917 for men aged 21 through 30 in the 48 states and Washington, DC, coverage continued with registration in the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, and the September 12, 1918 expanded registration of men aged 18 through 45.

                             The Butte Daily Post (Butte, MT), June 5, 1917

Newspaper coverage of the draft largely extolled patriotism and blasted opposition. Certain government actions, though, particularly the “slacker raids” carried out in New York City in early September 1918, were roundly criticized in the editorial pages of New York newspapers as unjust and overzealous. Yet right beside the critical “A Department of Injustice,” Evening World editorial, “slackers” were still denounced, in this Maurice Ketten cartoon.

   The Evening World (New York, NY), September 6, 1918, Latest Extra Edition, p. 16

The Library of Congress has a wealth of additional online World War I era newspaper pages with coverage of the draft:

                         New York American, June 7, 1917, Editorial Page                                                            from World War History: Newspaper Clippings                
From The War of the Nations: Portfolio in Rotogravure Etchings: Compiled from the Mid-Week Pictorial (New York Times, 1919), images 289 and 290

World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.



Comments (21)

  1. I feel like they are posting theis to protest and convince people to fight in vietnam and then make them fight and if not then fight and then they could die or get hurt so thats just dumb and thats how we lost so many

  2. This was a very helpful piece for doing my homework. Thank you for writing it.

  3. this was hella helpful tbh. Thanks

  4. Did the Territory of Hawaii have a draft or were the soldiers from there volunteers?

  5. really well written and detailed thx.

  6. really well written and detailed thx.

  7. In searching my great-grandfather, I find a curious discrepancy of birthdate between his draft registration of 1917 and that of 1942. His actual date of birth was 11 Feb 1895; however, on the 1917 registration, at which time he was 22, he reported his birthdate as 2 Aug 1891 and his age as 25. What would have been the advantage of listing himself as older than he was? In addition, he listed that my grandmother was dependent upon him for support. Ten months later, he moved to Detroit to work in the Chrysler plant. Was he being a shirker?

  8. In searching my grandfather, I find a curious discrepancy of birthdate between his draft registration of 1917 and that of 1942. His actual birth date was 11 Feb 1895; however, on the 1917 registration, at which time he was 22, he listed his birth date as 2 Aug 1891 and his age as 25. What would have been the advantage at this time of the culture to appear older than he was? He also listed that he was the sole support for my grandmother, whom he left 10 months later to work in the Chrysler plant in Detroit. Was he being a shirker?

  9. This made my class way easier

  10. This made my class hella easy

  11. I won’t have to teach after this thx!

  12. Now i won’t have to teach, thx!

  13. Now i won’t have to teach, thx!

  14. class be lowkey lit now. Thanks!

  15. Wilson: ”The significance of this (The Draft) cannot be overstated.” The one time WW was right. Wilson iced the cake of state and he ate it too. Under Wilson US became “The Land of the Free.” Free soldiers (conscripts); free to destroy wealth (The Fed); free to extort citizens (IRS). Where are the cartoons showing American conscripts being killed by (not) “friendly” fire?, A cartoon showing packed troop ships and overcrowded boot camps and (not) the “Spanish” flu? One’s showing starving German civilians after Wilson “won” that war. How about cartoon of the draftees invading Russia? And surrendering to the Bolsheviks?

  16. USA should have stayed out of that war, we had no business siding with the British Empire and the Tsarist Empire. The die was cast by the Congress allowing sales of military goods to the British Empire. Eventually Germany began sinking American shipping in response, and the American entry into the war followed on..
    There were many Americans of both Irish and German extraction, as well as Christian pacifists who wanted no part of the war, whose opinions and beliefs were ignored, while banking and manufacturing interests were given front-row seats by the Wilson administration.

  17. Would you serve if drafted today? I would not.

  18. this resouces was really helpful thanks

  19. this was the least helpful information ever

  20. Volunteered “en mass” not “its mass”

    • David, thank you for bringing this up! The headline for the blog was taken from President Wilson’s Proclamation as reported in the Tonopah Daily Bonanza, linked above. After consulting with several sources for Presidential Proclamations as well as other newspapers, however, it appears the quote should have actually been “volunteered in mass.”

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