The Holocaust Historiography Project

Peacetime Registration for Conscription — Forty Years Ago


On 16 October 1940 male residents of the United States between the ages of 18 and 35 registered nation-wide for possible induction into the armed services of the country. It was the first machinery for the introduction of peacetime conscription in the country’s history, being the operational consequence of an act of Congress signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt a month earlier. It represented one of the visible results of a five-month attack on the sensibilities of the American public conducted by one of the best-financed and most thoroughly organized propaganda machines the land had ever known. It grew directly out of a wave of hysteria which swept the Eastern seaboard, in particular, following the disastrous fortunes of the French and British war parties in the military campaigns in the spring of 1940, when a hundred thousand German specialists overcame a massive Franco-British (largely conscript) army in a few weeks of May and June.

The German invasion of Poland early in September 1939 was followed by declarations of war on Germany by Britain and France, formally launching the Second World War. The swift termination of the Polish campaign was followed by several attempts to negotiate a peace, all of which were rejected by Britain and France (though there was little belligerent action taking place during these late months of 1939 and early months of 1940). But late March and early April 1940 indicated that the war was about to be spread the rest of the way across the Atlantic seaboard of Western Europe. As this began to happen, followed by new Anglo-French setbacks among their small buffer state allies, concern for the survival of the 1919-39 status quo began to grow in the U.S.A. among the Eastern financial and industrial-commercial circles long entwined with their counterparts in Britain and France. The muscle, brains and money of the American North Atlantic Francophile and Anglophile traditionalists were not long in being mobilized a second time in support for this dying old order in Western Europe. Several programs began to enlist support, including drives for the supply of goods, money, military and naval hardware, and related matters. This was the short range aspect. The eventual supply of armed men was a more long range one, and the impulse to introduce conscription, originally announced as intended for service in the Western Hemisphere only, was the form in which this was expressed.

On 4 April 1940 the symbol of the British war party, Winston Churchill, assumed direction over what was euphemistically described as Britain’s “defense program.” Five days later the Germans frustrated a British effort to spread the war by pre-emptively occupying Denmark and Norway, and the effect in America was the unloosing of a surge of confused perturbation. The beneficiaries of the corrupt system installed in 1919 clearly saw that it would never survive without massive American support.

On 29 April 1940 there occurred a famous “secret” meeting in the offices of Lawyer Frederic R. Coudert, British legal advisor in the U.S.A. between 1915 and 1920. Among those attending were Thomas W. Lamont, probably the most influential alumnus of Harvard College, and a partner in the banking house of J.P. Morgan and Co., the firm which had the lion’s share of the American investment in British victory in the war of 1917-1918. Also there were Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University and a ferocious warrior Anglophile, Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of State under President Herbert Hoover (Republican) and soon to be Secretary of War under Roosevelt (Democrat), as well as Lewis Douglas, former Budget Director under the latter. In this prestigious and affluent company there was plotted out a number of dramatic and far-ranging changes in the United States' relations with the countries at war in western Europe, as well as momentous alterations in the way of life at home. (This famous secret meeting was leaked very soon, and was the subject of wide commentary at that time; probably the most succinct account and what it portended was by Sen. D. Worth Clark, “The Men Behind Our War Scare,” Scribners' Commentator, August 1940.)

The Harvard establishment serving as the advance attack in gearing American public opinion for war and conscription had hardly begun. On 17-19 May 1940 the Associated Harvard Clubs met in New York City, presided over by Lamont. Here, 34 members of the Class of 1917 drafted a subtly-worded letter addressed to the — current Harvard class by way of the undergraduate newspaper, the Crimson, unbraiding the young men for their “lack of moral responsibility” in refusing to go along with the war drive. A similar blast came from Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress. MacLeish, an anti-war activist par excellence in 1935, and Robert Sherwood, the writer of a famous pacifist play, Idiot’s Delight, in 1936, had become belligerent literary warriors by now, effecting a stunning pirouette 6 deux in enlisting in the brigades of the Administration’s typewriter hussars.

Two days later (21 May 1940) the Harvard Alumni Bulletin printed in support of the hawkish contingent a letter which had appeared in the New York Times three days earlier, written by Grenville Clark, an opulent New York attorney and member of the Harvard Corporation, which contained a similar program to that which had originated in the famed 29 April hush-hush meeting. Clark, among other things, advocated a drafted army of 3,000,000 men. He reiterated this call in several subsequent public speeches, and in one which he delivered prior to that time, at a dinner in New York City on 8 May.

Continued student skepticism of the fright talk and suggestions that the U.S.A. was about to be invaded by German armies after finishing off France and Britain, drew other attacks. On Harvard Class Day, 18 June 1940, a Boston bond-broker denounced what he termed the “cowardice” of the undergraduates. And two days after that, James B. Conant, president of Harvard and an enthusiastic warrior as well (he was to become High Commissioner of occupied Germany about five years later), expressed deep regret over what he viewed as America’s “creeping paralysis of our loyalties,” by which he meant, presumably, to Britain’s war party. Conant’s was one of a number of general attacks on the alleged “moral” weakness of the nation’s young men, in which Lamont voiced agreement. But nothing was said about “morality” when it came to Lamont’s friend and fellow Harvard alumnus, Richard Whitney, of the New York Stock Exchange, who had just previously been convicted and sent to prison.

On 7 June 1940 the lead New York Times editorial came out for immediate conscription. It was obvious Pres. Roosevelt and his aides were for it, but Congress, especially the House, did not favor action that fast. However, two weeks later (20 June) the conscription bill was introduced in the Senate. The first draft, which contemporaries such as Paul Mallon insisted had much of the handiwork of Grenville Clark and Julius Ochs Adler of the New York Times in it, originally called for registering all men between the ages of 18 and 65 (some forty-two million), and paying those who were to be selected from this number (an expected 7,000,000) the princely pay of $5 a month while in service. Grenville Clark, who functioned prominently in the Paramount Pictures Corporation reorganization, had just presented a bill for $957,000 for his services (see Thurman Arnold, The Folklore of Capitalism) a sum equivalent to several millions of dollars in 1981 puchasing power.*

In actuality, military service from this immense number does not seem to have been the desired goal of Roosevelt, despite the vociferous championing from Clark and Adler, as well as a large contingent of others such as Conant, Lamont, Stimson, W.J. “Wild Bill” Donovan (who was to be the first chief of the ancestor of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS), and others in the club reflected in Who’s Who and the Social Register urging the adoption of this mobilization of cannon fodder for the support of Britain’s war Tories. Roosevelt had in mind a universal service bill, a kind of majestic combination of all his projected agencies for mobilizing all the youth of both sexes into one or two years of “national service.” He got instead the Burke-Wadsworth Bill.

The drive to install conscription, though highly desired by the Roosevelt regime, was a bi-partisan one, as was the resistance to it. The U.S.A. all through the late 1930s really developed a war party and an anti-war party, both of which crossed over all ideological lines. A left-to-right spectrum grew on both sides of the struggle. An example is seen in the conscription bill itself, jointly sponsored by an anti-New Deal Democrat in the Senate, Edward R. Burke of Nebraska, defeated in the primaries and therefore not a candidate for re-election in the coming 1940 election, and a conservative Republican in the House of Representatives, James W. Wadsworth, from upstate New York, a long-time outspoken supporter of conscription since 1919. That such a pair could be found to put their names to a measure in support of the Administration’s plans for the American future tells us much about the nature of the “two party system.”

But contemporaries observing the affair pointed out that neither man had much of anything to do with the bill itself. The widely syndicated columnist Paul Mallon 7 Aug 1940 pointed out that the actual bill was a product of the Military Training Camps Association of New York, consisting of businessmen, attorneys and reserve officers, and showed the construction efforts of several persons, including Grenville Clark, Adler, the general manager of the New York Times, Col Donovan, Conant, and attorney Elihu Root, Jr., son of a former Republican Secretary of State. The bill contained among other things a 200-word sentence, a masterpiece of legalistic confused botchery, but which provided for the prosecution of “anyone who in any manner shall knowingly fail or neglect to perform any duty required of him or in the execution of this act.” While violation of the conscription act of 1917 was just a misdemeanor, violation of this new one was a felony, to be punished upon conviction by a possible five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. So, despite Roosevelt’s hope to obtain a law which could be used to turn the armed forces into a gigantic welfare agency, he was being proffered a ferocious scheme to facilitate a level of militarism in the land utterly beyond comparison with any ever seen in the country previously.

On 25 July 1940 the bill was reported out of committee, and on the 31st, debate began in the Senate. At once, those Senators traditionally associated with the Populist-Progressive tradition took to the floor in bitter opposition, crossing the party lines in generous numbers. Based mainly in the Midwest and High Plains states, they had substantial support from many other areas, stretching from West Virginia to Washington state and California, aided by Administration adversaries among the Republicans who were not notably identified with this Populist-Progressive background. Particularly resistant to this draft bill were Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, George Norris of Nebraska, Rush Holt of West Virginia, Ernest Lundeen and Gerald P. Nye of the Dakotas, Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota, Arthur Capper of Kansas, Bennett Champ Clark of Missouri, Edwin Johnson of Colorado, Hiram Johnson of California, and Homer Bone of Washington. But a substantial number of others were to ally themselves in the ensuing weeks of debate, and a roll call of all would occupy a lot of space: Walsh, Maloney, Tydings, Tobey, Lodge, Bridges, Reynolds, Danaher, Gillette of Iowa, Ashurst of Arizona, McCarran of Nevada, Frazier, Downey, Barbour, Overton, Townsend, to be joined by such powerful figures in the Republican conservative fold as Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, both of whom were as bitterly opposed to the draft bill as Wheeler and Norris. In the House there were also formidable adversaries, including such as Hamilton Fish, Lewis Ludlow, Martin Dies, Joseph Martin of Massachusetts, and William Lemke, a stalwart of Midwest Populist farm loyalties and a particularly feared personality by the growing band of totalitarian liberals.

Wheeler was probably the most vigorous of the enemies of this bill, and earned himself the deep and unforgiving hostility of the Administration. His opposition began within days after the Burke-Wadsworth bill was introduced, well before debate began. Said Sen. Wheeler on 25 June 1940, speaking of the panic propaganda which accompanied its introduction: “I don’t believe in any emergency. The only emergency is that conjured up in the minds of a few people who want to see us go to war and send our youth to Asia and Europe.”

The list of the nationally-prominent people in opposition to the conscription bill is a very lengthy one, and grew during the Senate hearings in August. The Administration’s supporters included a bi-partisan core of supporters of conscription with pedigrees extending back for 25 years, many of them not from Roosevelt’s own party. The journalistic lineup nationally was about 50-50, and probably was typified by the likes of Walter Lippmann among the pros and H.L. Mencken representing the antis. (Lippmann in the previous World War had enthusiastically recommended the draft to President Woodrow Wilson also, though a recent biographer points out that after its establishment as law in 1917, Lippmann was one of the very first to seek exemption from it.) Mencken in his 4 August 1940 piece in the Baltimore Sun, “Quick Step to War,” thought many New Dealers were losing their enthusiasm of the spring and early summer for conscription, but that it had now become part of the offensive aimed at electing FDR for the third time, also upcoming. Nevertheless, enormous pressure was being put on people everywhere to go along with the effort to sell it. Pro-draft elements scared many from signing anti-conscription petitions, and the attitude among so many college faculties was so fiercely pro-conscription that most of their young male students grew inhibited and passive. Time magazine bellowed all through the hearings as though the bill had already been passed, and the rigged Fortune and Gallup polls showed increasing numbers favoring it. But some Senators, like Wheeler and Vandenberg, reported receiving many thousands of letters opposing the draft in July and August 1940. And the senatorial speeches against the Burke-Wadsworth bill got hotter. Wheeler on 10 August wanted the Administration to submit the question to a popular referendum: “If the proponents of conscription feel it is necessary to have the draft to save our democracy,” Wheeler mocked their rhetoric, “they ought to be willing to submit the question to the people.” But Wheeler knew full well Roosevelt did not dare to do that. He fully remembered two years before when the referendum proposed by Rep. Lewis Ludlow, which would have required a favorable national referendum before a war declaration, had been narrowly defeated by the application of incredible political pressure.

Others in the Senate added similar opposition. Walsh on 20 Aug insisted, “until voluntary enlistments on a fair basis had been tried, and there is evidence of a real need, I am not disposed to embrace, in peace time, the power of the government to conscript.” Hiram Johnson, who probably represented best on the Pacific Coast the anti-militarist strain in the Populist-Progressive impulse, denounced the draft bill as “a menace to our liberties,” and others publicized the recently-republicized attack on the conscription drive of 125 years earlier, by Daniel Webster, in Charles A. Beard’s recently-published Rise of American Civilization.

Sobered, the Senate Military Affairs Committee whittled down some of the dimensions of the proposed bill, especially in the age brackets contemplated for registration, as well as some of the language it contained. But Roosevelt importuned prestigious Army and Navy officers to testify against dependence on voluntary enlistment and in favor of conscription, including his compliant Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. And Marshall’s new superior, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, probably earned first place in the hysteria steeplechase in August 1940 when he claimed the country was in grave danger of invasion by the German armies while stubbornly holding out for conscription of “the whole manpower of the United States from 18 to 64.” But early in August the Senate committee in its seventh draft of the bill sharply cut the total number of possible registerees. Roosevelt himself was extremely wary about making a public statement in support of conscription, knowing what political dynamite it was, though he did issue a mild endorsement of “selective training” 2 August. The bill was supposed to be reported for a vote on 5 August. It was delayed until the 9th, and then it was announced that more hearings would be held instead. On the 14th, the Senate was considered to be about equally divided on the bill’s merits, after a 3-hour speech the previous day by Sen. Wheeler, in which he once more applied a satirical approach to the pro-draft propagandists, remarking that if conscription was the “democratic” way, then Stalinist Russia and Hitlerite Germany were the great exemplars of “democracy,” in view of their conscription programs. Sen. Taft also continued his vigorous vocal opposition.

Part of the reason for the Senate’s wariness on the Burke-Wadsworth bill was the knowledge that the big labor union federations, the AFL and CIO, as well as the railroad brotherhoods, were against it, as well as the farmers' unions, and many millions of religiously-affiliated, especially among the Catholics and the Baptists. The misleading aspect of the pro-draft propaganda was the attitude reflected in about half the newspapers, and the two main public opinion polls, which neglected to tell the U.S. public that the French, with 6,000,000 conscripts under arms in the spring of this very year, had been defeated in a few weeks by a small collection of about a hundred thousand German military specialists. But big ideas of national regimentation were loose, partially documented favorably by two Dartmouth College professors, Harold J. Tobin and Percy W. Bidwell, in their just-published book Mobilizing Civilian America, issued by the Council on Foreign Relations; the pro-universal service people did not wish to be distracted by adverse facts.

At the end of August, the Senate by only two votes defeated the Maloney amendment, which would have put off the draft act consideration until 1941, but a similar amendment proposed by Hamilton Fish passed in the House by 30 votes on 5 September. Eventually a compromise amendment was agreed upon, limiting the service of those conscripted under this bill to one year, and confining the period of service to the Western Hemisphere, and to U.S. possessions and territories which might be elsewhere.

Senator Edwin C. Johnson, on the floor of the Senate on 27 August, remarked that the Burke-Wadsworth bill was “an excellent device for procuring 'cannon fodder' “ which expanded in a different dimension on his previous denunciation of the draft as “political militarism", “American democracy’s enemy No. 1 “ (see A.A. Ekirch, Jr., The Civilian and the Military, 1955, repr. 1972). But the bitter fight in the Congress ended a few days later, with the House voting 233-124 and the Senate 47-25 for the much-amended and changed Selective Service bill. Undoubtedly a sizeable number of these people voted against the wishes of a plurality of their constituents at home in doing so.

Roosevelt signed the bill on 16 September and a month later there began the first peacetime registration of the country’s men between the ages of 21 and 35, a far more restricted range than the ancient warriors like Secretary of War Stimson preferred and advocated. Those who registered, as skeptical and incredulous at the false alarms of imminent national peril and the hyperthyroid hysteria of the Administration’s mouthpieces as they were to be 40 years later, did in the main comply, but entirely without enthusiasm. The Boston Herald on 16 October 1940 burbled over the registration as a “triumph of deliberate democratic procedure,” and praised the “far-sighted Grenville Clark of New York” as the author of the conscription law. “The response of free men,” oozed Time; but in view of the fierce penalties for defying the draft act, compliance was anything but.

Somewhat more bogus was Congress' prompt gesture of “conscripting industry,” a hasty action intended to tax the “windfall profits” (where have we heard that line recently?) of the many armament manufacturers and the allied firms making products going into the gigantic “defense” effort. This was especially denounced by Sens. La Follette and Vandenberg. But it was a sop thrown to the parents of the coming draftees, seeking to comfort them that their sons would not be bearing the burden of '6defense” alone.

Despite the feverish and hectic promotional hectoring of the likes of Secretary of War Stimson, for example, aided by others of the same class of exponents for conscription for past decades (Stimson was a strenuous advocate of it dating back to 1916), the operational aspect got started with all the speed of one wading through a pool of partially frozen molasses. There simply did not exist the training facilities for a large conscript army, and the arms available even to practice at soldiering were pathetic in quality and quantity. Life magazine for 9 December 1940 observed that the first draft call brought about the summoning of only 18,700 men, hardly the myriads the hysterical proponents believed we needed six months before.

Furthermore, the failure of the re-elected Roosevelt after November 1940 to embroil the country any deeper in the European or the Pacific War led to a long season of plodding and stumbling on the home front, much of it communicated to the conscript army, which looked forward to the termination of their year of service. Panic again swept the interventionist fold, and a new drive to extend the draft built up in the summer of 1941. The most visible of those arguing for this was the Chief of Staff, Gen. Marshall, who appeared over and over again to testify before Congress on the need to keep the draftees beyond the original stipulated period of service. The mood in the army camps grew tense, and threats of a mass desertion proliferated. The ominous acronym OHIO (Over the Hill in October) began to appear chalked on barracks walls, and a serious crisis was in full bloom by the time a galled and pressure-wracked House of Representatives voted, on 12 August 1941, by the majestic majority of just one, 203-202, to extend the period of service. There were 182 Democrats and 21 Republicans who voted for, 65 Democrats, 133 Republicans and 4 others voting against.

There is no doubt this close vote had a very sobering effect on the Administration, which frankly conceded several days before the final vote that they had a good chance of losing. But again it was pulled off by the same little group of Eastern power-brokers who had instigated the changes in the two American neutrality laws, started the campaign to elect Wendell Willkie (whose foreign policy was indistinguishable from Roosevelt's) and set up the two major committees which worked to get the U.S.A. involved in the European war. And Stimson was the symbolic figure of the whole campaign. (Senators Nye and Hiram Johnson had vociferously opposed the replacement of Secretary of War Harry Woodring With Stimson in July, and all August had charged the draft would become a real menace to American liberties with Stimson’s arrival to this fateful post in the War Department.)

Roosevelt signed the draft extension bill on 18 August 1941, fully aware of the grave and dramatic split which had occurred in the country. But ten weeks later it was all washed out by the fortuitous attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on 7 December 1941, an event which was known in a variety of ways to be coming, even though it became a rigid Administration position that it was utterly unexpected, posing as innocents set upon in a treacherous fashion. (There has long been a large literature which punches scores of big holes in this posture.) The attack on Hawaii was undoubtedly the most incredible windfall that ever befell any political regime in U.S. history, far exceeding the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in 1861 or the preludes to U.S. involvement in war in 1898 and 1917 as an assist in propelling onward a war-bound administration.

The immoderate administration of conscription was the primary cause of grave manpower and material shortage in the U.S. wartime economy, every draftee removed from the labor force being accompanied by two other men diverted into war instead of domestic production to keep him supplied. Some 14,000,000 ended up inducted into military and naval service, 1941-1945, 6,000,000 of whom never left continental United States, while many of the total drafted never were trained for what they were expected to do. The armed forces could have got along with half of this 14,000,000 total, thus in reality adding some 22,000,000 to the constructive economic labor force (7 million plus another 15 million whose work in war-related enterprises was a direct consequence of this bloated conscription program.) But war and the entire grandiose conscription epic brought to an end a previously insoluble unemployment problem, and the lesson was not lost on subsequent administrations, which have off and on used the American armed forces as a glorified social welfare agency.

Conscription also accompanied a season of wars and American military expansion all around the world involving many scores of bases whose staffing took the issue off the agenda in the U.S.A. for over a generation. Suspended for a brief interlude recently, the subject is making a strong attempt to return to its decades of institutionalized status between the '40s and the '70s. But it will need a far more persuasive promotion than it has recently been getting to insure anything of that nature. Whatever may be the state of world tensions, the events of the last dozen years in particular do not provide a very compelling backdrop for a new appeal to submit to universal selective service in the United States.

Bibliographic information
Author: James J. Martin
Title: Peacetime registration for conscription — forty years ago
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Spring 1982
Issue: Volume 3 number 1
Location: Page 15
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.