Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Selective Service Act (Burke-Wadsworth Act, September 1940)

U.S. conscription legislation passed more than a year before American intervention in World War II. In mid-July 1940, German troops had overrun France and the Low Countries. During a speech accepting the Democratic nomination for a third term, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed support for a draft bill that would make all young American men liable for military service. This action took some political courage, as Roosevelt was running for reelection in a campaign that would be dominated by the issue of peace. Although most Americans supported the Allies, they also feared intervention in the war and hoped that aid to Britain would suffice to check Germany. At this time, Roosevelt himself publicly argued that substantial increases in U.S. military forces were necessary primarily to defend U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere and deter outside aggressors.

The eventual legislation's drafting and passage relied heavily on lobbying and publicity by a small group of dedicated pro-Allied eastern patricians who consciously looked back to the comparable efforts they had undertaken for World War I mobilization. They worked closely with sympathetic politicians, notably Senator Edward R. Burke and Congressman James W. Wadsworth, who sponsored the bill that eventually emerged, and consulted incessantly with military leaders, including army chief of staff General George C. Marshall. After considerable debate, Congress passed a Selective Service Act in September 1940, the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, to raise an army of no more than 900,000 men. Initially, the draft was restricted to men between the ages of 21 and 35. Terms of service were to be 12 months rather than the 18 months the army originally sought, and deployment was to be limited to the Western Hemisphere.

As the international situation deteriorated, in August 1941 Congress, by a one-vote margin, removed these restrictions. Between Pearl Harbor and 1945 almost 10 million Americans were inducted into the military under this legislation. The original Selective Service Act expired in 1947, although Cold War tensions caused the passage of replacement legislation in 1948.

Priscilla Roberts


Further Reading
Clifford, J. Garry, and Samuel R. Spencer, Jr. The First Peacetime Draft. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.; Flynn, George Q. The Draft, 1940–1973. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.
 

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