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.”
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.
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 Library of Congress has a wealth of additional online World War I era newspaper pages with coverage of the draft:
- World War History: Newspaper Clippings, 1914 to 1926 (newly digitized)
- Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919
- Stars and Stripes: The American Soldiers’ Newspaper of World War I, 1918 to 1919
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.