Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 276th installment in the series.
May 18, 1917: U.S. Adopts Draft
After the end of the U.S. Civil War, conscription was swiftly abolished and the American military reverted to its traditional all-volunteer basis, with the U.S. Army bolstered by National Guard units when needed. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. Army swelled to around a quarter million, all volunteers and National Guardsmen, and U.S. forces involved in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 totaled 126,000. Later the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in northern Mexico in 1916-1917 numbered just 10,000 men, with roughly another 130,000 guarding the border.
By the time the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, the U.S. Army tallied 128,000 officers and men, along with 182,535 mobilized National Guardsmen. Needless to say, these figures were laughably small compared to the monstrous machines now locked in a titanic death struggle in Europe. In the spring of 1917 Germany had around 5.5 million men under arms, the British Empire 4.5 million, and France had two million serving on the Western Front alone – and these were just a fraction of the total manpower mobilized over the course of the war (France mobilized a total of 8.3 million men, including around half a million colonial troops, from 1914-1918).
Although America had adopted an unconvincing “preparedness program” in 1916, raising the target size for the National Guard to 450,000 by 1921, this goal was far from being realized, and the Americans would obviously be unable to make more than a symbolic contribution to the Allied war effort in terms of manpower in the near future: in July 1917 just 20,000 Americans were deployed in the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, increasing to 129,000 by the end of the year.
However the United States was hardly prepared to play a secondary role in the long run, demanding an energetic, decisive intervention to bring Germany to terms and end the war. To accomplish this the country would have to train and equip armed forces numbering four million by the end of 1918 – a massive undertaking which would require months of feverish effort, including the construction of a whole network of training camps and, most importantly, bringing back the draft.
President Woodrow Wilson set the ball rolling on May 18, 1917, when he signed into law the Selective Service Act passed by Congress, requiring all men ages 21-30 to register for military service on June 5, 1917, with another round of registration scheduled on June 5, 1918 for those who turned 21 after the previous date. As in other belligerent powers that adopted conscription, young men who were unmarried and had no dependents were the first class to be called. Ultimately 25 million American men would register, and 2.5 million would be drafted, while most of the remaining two million volunteered.
Beginning in late July 1917 draft committees around the country would conduct random drawings from the first class to be called After being called up, potential recruits underwent medical examinations by boards of doctors to determine whether they were fit enough to serve in the Army. These cursory medical reviews clearly erred on the side of passing candidates as fit: the legendary American folk artist Henry Darger somehow managed to pass a medical review and was briefly drafted into the Army despite glaring emotional and developmental issues, not to mention trouble with his knee and eye (to its credit the Army eventually rejected him anyway).
Nonetheless they rejected around half a million candidates as unfit for a variety of reasons, and medical records from these examinations leave a mixed portrait of American public health in the first part of the 20th century: top reasons disqualifying individuals for service included bad vision, insufficient height or weight, epilepsy, tuberculosis, venereal disease (especially syphilis), goiter, general “mental deficiency,” bad teeth, and curvature of the spine.
To induce compliance with the draft the government at all levels unleashed a veritable flood of propaganda, including vivid posters meant to appeal to the patriotism, honor, masculinity and sense of self-worth of young American men. Easily the most memorable image of the propaganda campaign mounted by the new Committee for Public Information featured the iconic image of “Uncle Sam” pointing at the viewer with the caption “I want YOU for the U.S. Army” (top). The poster was originally drawn by illustrator James Montgomery Flagg as a cover for Leslie’s Weekly magazine during the preparedness debate in July 1916, but its popularity exploded in 1917-1918, when over four million copies of the poster were printed. Flagg later claimed he used his own face a model for Uncle Sam.