The United States formally entered the First World War on April 2, 1917 and six weeks later on May 18, 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Selective Service Act.

The Selective Service Act, or Selective Draft Act, enacted on May 18, 1917, authorized the federal government to raise a national army.

The Selective Service Act, or Selective Draft Act, enacted on May 18, 1917, authorized the federal government to raise a national army.

In his war message to Congress, President Woodrow Wilson pledged all the nation’s material resources to help the allies (France, Britain, Russia and Italy) defeat the Central Powers.  The Allies needed fresh troops to relieve their exhausted men but when the United States entered the war, Wilson had no means to provide what was needed.

During 1916, Wilson made effort in war preparedness but at the time of Congress’s war declaration, there were only 100,000 troops and they were not trained or equipped for the war in Europe.  Wilson pushed congress for military conscription which they passed on May 18, 1917.  The Act called for all men in the U.S. between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft.  Within a few months, 10 million men across the country had registered.

A truck full of men detained for not carrying their registration cards are shown in this 1918 poster

A truck full of men detained for not carrying their registration cards are shown in this 1918 poster

The first troops of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) began arriving in Europe in June 1917.  The rest of the newly conscripted men still needed to be mobilized, transported and trained so the AEF did not begin to play a substantial role until the summer of 1918.  The U.S. role in the interim was in the form of economic assistance to the Allies.  World War I ended in November 1918.  About 24 million men had registered for the Selective Service act.  Almost 4.8 million American served in the war and 2.8 million of them had been drafted.

Column of American troops passing by the Buckingham Palace, London, 1917.

Column of American troops passing by the Buckingham Palace, London, 1917.

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9 responses

  1. Being a college student during the Vietnam War, I think the draft was probably the most controversial issue to arise. I still remember being at an SDS rally and young men protesting the war and the drafting of soldiers. ‘Hell no, we won’t go.’

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  2. While I don’t personally like the idea of a draft, I mentally understand the necessity for it at times.

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  3. Birgit says:

    I know the draft was in every war but I did not realize that many were drafted in WW1. From the old media etc… one thought most volunteered

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  4. The entry of the USA into WW1 made a huge difference in bringing the war to a conclusion. In Australia the government tried three twice to introduce conscription but it was defeated both times in two referendums.
    This was at a time when a large percentage of our population was of Irish descent and the Catholic church encouraged its followers to not join up in a war they saw as Britain’s and not Australia’s. It greatly divided the country at the time but it meant my paternal grandfather never went to war, which meant my dad was able to be born in 1922. My maternal grandfather fought on the Western Front as he was of Scottish descent.

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  5. Mustang.Koji says:

    Indeed, a historical event forgotten with time. BTW, I still have my draft card somewhere. I think it was issued around 1971? When I went to register, the lady who typed it up asked me, “Do you have any identifying scars?” It befuddled me for a split second but then reality struck. It’s just my humble opinion but with the shrinking military and various threats (both external and internal), I foresee the draft starting up again. We never seem to learn.

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