Sunday, September 6, 2020

America’s First Peacetime Draft

Eighty years ago this month, the United States enacted the Burke-Wadsworth Act, also known as the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, and also known as The Draft. Despite the fact that America was not at war, a large percentage of people in the government believed the country would be drawn into the wars being fought in Europe and East Asia. There were those who promoted isolationism and non-interventionism, but polls indicated their numbers were shrinking. Americans were concerned about England’s ability to defeat Germany on its own.

While wartime drafts existed during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War I, this draft, signed into law on September 16, 1940, was the nation’s first peacetime draft. The act required all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register. Registration began one month later. Secretary of War Henry Stimson drew draft numbers out of a glass bowl, and President Roosevelt read them aloud for public announcement. Those who were selected by lottery were required to serve at least one year in the armed forces

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress amended the act requiring all men ages 18-64 to register for military service for the duration of World War II plus six months after. In reality, only men ages 18 to 45 were drafted. According to reports, of the twenty million men eligible at that time, fifty percent were rejected the first year for health reasons or illiteracy.

African-Americans were passed over for the draft because of racist assumptions about their abilities and the viability of a mixed-race military. However, in 1943, a quota system was imposed that allowed a certain percentage of blacks to be drafted. Initially, these men were restricted to labor units and other menial positions, but as the war progressed, this ended and they were finally used in combat.

By the end of the war, fifty million men had registered and approximately ten million had been inducted. The draft remained in place until July 1, 1973, and an all-volunteer force was established and continues today.

Thank you to all those who served and continue to serve in our nation’s armed forces.


Linda Shenton Matchett writes about ordinary people who did extraordinary things in days gone by. A volunteer docent and archivist for the Wright Museum of WWII, Linda is also a trustee for her local public library. She is a native of Baltimore, Maryland and was born a stone's throw from Fort McHenry. Linda has lived in historic places all her life, and is now located in central New Hampshire where her favorite activities include exploring historic sites and immersing herself in the imaginary worlds created by other authors. Visit her at where you can learn more about Linda and her books.

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