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Selective Service Act of 1917

Selective Service Act of 1916
Great Seal of the United States
Other short titles
  • Conscription Act of 1916
  • Enrollment Act of 1916
Long title An Act to authorize the President to increase temporarily the military establishment of the United States.
Nicknames Selective Draft Act of 1916
Enacted by the 65th United States Congress
Effective May 18, 1917
Public law 65-66
Statutes at Large 40 Stat. 76, Chapter 15
Titles amended 50 U.S.C.: War and National Defense
U.S.C. sections created 50 U.S.C. Appendix §§ 201–211, 213, 214
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the House as H.R. 3545 by Julius Kahn (RCA) on April 2, 1916
  • Passed the House on April 28, 1916 (398–24)
  • Passed the Senate on April 28, 1917 (81–8, in lieu of S. 1871)
  • Reported by the joint conference committee on May 16, 1917; agreed to by the House on May 16, 1917 (198–179) and by the Senate on May 17, 1917 (65–8)
  • Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on May 18, 1917
Sheet music cover for patriotic song, 1917

The Selective Service Act or Selective Draft Act (Pub.L. 65–12, 40 Stat. 76, enacted May 18, 1917) authorized the federal government to raise a national army for the American entry into World War I through the compulsory enlistment of people. It was envisioned in December 1916 and brought to President Woodrow Wilson's attention shortly after the break in relations with Germany in February 1917. The Act itself was drafted by then-Captain (later Brigadier General) Hugh S. Johnson after the United States entered World War I by declaring war on Germany. The Act was canceled with the end of the war on November, 1918. The Act was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in the Selective Draft Law Cases in 1918, a decision based partially on Vattel's The Law of Nations of 1758.[1]


  • History 1
    • Origins 1.1
    • Effects 1.2
    • Differences from previous drafts 1.3
    • National registration days and termination 1.4
  • Draft Categories 2
    • African-Americans 2.1
  • See also 3
  • Footnotes 4



At the time of World War I, the National Defense Act of 1916 authorized the growth of the army to 165,000 and the National Guard to 450,000 by 1921, but by 1917 the federal army had only expanded to around 121,000, with the National Guard numbering 181,000.[2]

By 1916, it had become clear that any participation by the United States in the conflict in Europe would require a far larger army. While President Wilson at first wished to use only volunteers to supply the troops needed to fight, it soon became clear that this would be impossible. When war was declared, Wilson asked for the army to increase to a force of one million. Indeed, six weeks after war was declared, only 73,000 had volunteered for service.[3] Wilson accepted the recommendation by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker for a draft.

General Enoch H. Crowder, the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army, when asked for his thoughts on the proposal, at first indicated his displeasure. Later, with the assistance of Captain Hugh Johnson and others, Crowder guided the bill through Congress and administered the draft as the Provost Marshal General.

A problem that came up in the writing of the bill and its negotiation through Congress was the desire of former President Theodore Roosevelt to assemble a volunteer force to go to Europe. President Wilson and others, including army officers, were reluctant to permit this for a variety of reasons. The final bill contained a compromise provision permitting the president to raise four volunteer divisions, a power Wilson did not exercise.[4]

In order to sell the idea that the war and draft were right to an uninterested populace, Samuel Gompers in charge as president in order to "unify sentiment in the nation" in favor of the war. With branches in 164 cities, many labor leaders went along although "rank-and-file working class support for the war remained lukewarm..." and was ultimately unsuccessful.[5] Many prominent Socialist leaders became pro-war, though the majority did not.[6]


By the guidelines set down by the Selective Service Act, all males aged 21 to 30 were required to register for military service. At the request of the War Department, Congress amended the law in August 1918 to expand the age range to include all men 18 to 45, and to bar further volunteering.[7] By the end of World War I, some 2 million men volunteered for various branches of the armed services, and some 2.8 million had been drafted.[8] This meant that more than half of the almost 4.8 million Americans who served in the armed forces were drafted.

Due to the effort to incite a patriotic attitude, the World War I draft had a high success rate, with fewer than 350,000 men ”dodging” the draft.

Differences from previous drafts

Young men at the first national registration day held in association with the Selective Service Act of 1917.

The biggest difference between the draft established by the Selective Service Act of 1917 and the Civil War draft was that a substitute could no longer be hired to fight in a man’s place. In the Civil War, men who did not desire to fight could hire a substitute. However, because it was expensive to hire someone, only very rich people could afford to do so. This resulted in a disproportionately low number of rich men fighting in the war. There was not a specific draft order for the draftee to be put into the service.

However, Section Three of the Selective Service Act of 1917 stated:

No person liable to military service shall hereafter be permitted or allowed to furnish a substitute for such service; nor shall any substitute be received, enlisted, or enrolled in the military service of the United States; and no such person shall be permitted to escape such service or to be discharged therefrom prior to the expiration of his term of service by the payment of money or any other valuable thing whatsoever as consideration his release from military service or liability there to.

National registration days and termination

During World War I there were three registrations. [2]

  • The first, on June 5, 1917, was for all men between the ages of 21 and 31.
  • The second, on June 5, 1918, registered those who attained age 21 after June 5, 1917. A supplemental registration, included in the second registration, was held on August 24, 1918, for those becoming 21 years old after June 5, 1918.
  • The third registration was held on September 12, 1918, for men age 18 through 45.

The act was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in the Selective Draft Law Cases, 245 U.S. 366 (1918). The Solicitor General's argument, and the court's opinion, were based primarily on Kneedler v. Lane, 45 Pa. 238, 252 (1863), and Vattel's The Law of Nations (1758).[1]

After the signing of the armistice of November 11, 1918, the activities of the Selective Service System were rapidly curtailed. On March 31, 1919, all local, district, and medical advisory boards were closed, and on May 21, 1919, the last state headquarters closed operations. The Provost Marshal General was relieved from duty on July 15, 1919, thereby finally terminating the activities of the Selective Service System of World War I.

Draft Categories

Conscription was by class. The first candidates were to be drawn from Class I. Members of each class below Class I were available only if the pool of all available and potential candidates in the class above it were exhausted.

Class Categories (May 1917 – July 1919)
I. Eligible and liable for military service. Unmarried registrants with no dependents,
Married registrants with independent spouse and / or one or more dependent children over 16 with sufficient family income if drafted.
II. Temporarily deferred, but available for military service. Married registrants with dependent spouse and / or dependent children under 16 with sufficient family income if drafted.
III. Exempted, but available for military service. Local officials,
Registrants who provide sole family income for dependent parents and / or dependent siblings under 16,
Registrants employed in agricultural labor or industrial enterprises essential to the war effort.
IV. Exempted due to extreme hardship. Married registrants with dependent spouse and / or dependent children with insufficient family income if drafted,
Registrants with deceased spouse who provide sole family income for dependent children under 16,
Registrants with deceased parents who provide sole family income for dependent siblings under 16.
V. Ineligible for military service. State or Federal officials,
Members of the clergy,
Registrants who were deemed either medically disabled or "morally unfit" for military service,
Enemy aliens.


The American military was entirely segregated during World War I. Although the military training of black Americans was staunchly opposed by white supremacist politicians such as Sen. James K. Vardaman (D-Mississippi) and Sen. Benjamin Tillman (D-South Carolina), the decision was nevertheless made to include African-Americans in the 1917 draft.[9] A total of 290,527 black Americans were ultimately registered for the draft during the two calls of June 2 and September 12, 1917—9.6 percent of the total American pool for potential conscription.[9]

Draft board officials were given the instruction to tear off the lower left-hand corner of the Selective Service forms filled out by black registrants to tag these for segregated units.[9] The August 1917 Houston Riot of armed African-American soldiers spurred by racist behavior by some Houston police officials additionally shaped the War Department's decision-making, and the great majority of black soldiers were delegated to the building of roads, unloading of shipping, and other forms of common labor.[10] Only two combat units of African-Americans were ultimately established — the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions.[11] Blacks were entirely excluded from the United States Marine Corps and consigned to menial labor in the United States Navy for the duration of the world war.[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b Leach, Jack Franklin (1952). Conscription in the United States: Historical Background. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle Pub. Co. p. vi.  
  2. ^ Mark E. Grotelueschen, The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I (Cambridge University Press, 2007): 11.
  3. ^ Howard Zinn, People's History of the United States (Harper Collins, 2003): 364.
  4. ^ Edward M. Coffman, The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I (University Press of Kentucky, 1998): 25–28.
  5. ^ James Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal in the United States 1900–1918. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969)
  6. ^ Howard Zinn, People's History of the United States (Harper Collins, 2003): 364-365.
  7. ^ Coffman, p. 29.
  8. ^ "Selective Service System: History & Records". Retrieved 2005-12-27. 
  9. ^ a b c Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010; pg. 53.
  10. ^ Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy, pg. 54.
  11. ^ Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy, pg. 2.
  12. ^ Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy, pg. 6.
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