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

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.




  1. Jacob
    January 25, 2019 at 4:02 pm

    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. livvy
    February 8, 2019 at 12:11 pm

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

  3. joe
    October 31, 2019 at 1:49 am

    this was hella helpful tbh. Thanks

  4. Kirby
    March 21, 2021 at 9:32 am

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

  5. kaitlan
    June 8, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    really well written and detailed thx.

  6. kaitlan
    June 8, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    really well written and detailed thx.

  7. Mr gill
    October 22, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    This made my class way easier

  8. Mr gill
    October 22, 2021 at 1:29 pm

    This made my class hella easy

  9. Mr.Gill
    October 25, 2021 at 12:12 pm

    I won’t have to teach after this thx!

  10. Mr. Gill
    October 25, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    Now i won’t have to teach, thx!

  11. Sloan Gill
    October 25, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    Now i won’t have to teach, thx!

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