The origins of America’s Unlucky Lottery

Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office. Visit the National Archives website for a full list of events and activities related to the 100th anniversary of World War I. 

World War I draft registration card for Sinclair Lewis, 1917-18. (National Archives Identifier 641771)

The draft—the lottery no one wants to win.

On April 6, 1917, the United States formally joined World War I, which had been raging in Europe for three years. Our fellow Entente nations were desperate for resources, especially soldiers, as Germany stepped up its attacks on the Western Front following Russia’s withdrawal in late 1917.

While the United States willingly provided economic and material aid to our allies, soldiers were a resource we struggled to supply.

America entered the war with a tiny army by European standards. We had just 100,000 volunteer troops—hardly enough to have any real impact on the fighting in Europe. That changed on May 18, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Selective Service Act to draft soldiers.

Federal conscription—compulsory military service—was not a new idea. During the American Civil War, the United States conscripted its Union forces in addition to incentivizing non-conscripted men through a bounty system. The draft, however, was plagued with problems and allowed wealthy men to buy their way out of service.

Second Draft—Secretary of War Newton Baker picking the first capsule out of the bowl, June, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 533713)

The new Selective Service Act compelled all men from ages 21 to 30 to register with the Selective Service System. More than 10 million men were registered with the service within several months of the law’s passage.

The act also ended the old bounty system of the 1860s as well as the practice of paying one’s way out of service. From the names of those registered, random drawings would be held to decide which men would be inducted into the military.

Wilson hailed the new form of conscription as egalitarian and democratic, as social and economic background could no longer spare you from the luck of the draw.

Circular protesting the Selective Service Act of 1917. (National Archives Identifier 20737610)

Despite the changes, conscription was not welcomed with open arms. Following the first drawing for enlisted men, some 50,000 applied for exemptions, and many of those called for service simply did not arrive. In one instance in 1918, New York City arrested 16,000 men who had failed to report for service after they were selected.

The Selective Service Act was later amended to include men between the ages of 18 and 45.

By the war’s end in November 1918, 24 million American men had registered for the draft, and of the 4.8 million American troops who served in World War I, more than half had been conscripted.

The draft ended following the war, and the number of U.S. men in the military was substantially reduced.

In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, which established the Selective Service System. After World War II the draft continued from 1948 until 1973, when President Richard Nixon signed legislation ending it. The Selective Service registration requirement was suspended in 1975.

In 1980 President Jimmy Carter resumed Selective Service registration, and to this day American men 18 and older must register with the Selective Service.

This month the National Archives is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Selective Service Act with a special exhibit in the East Rotunda Gallery from May 4 through June 7, 2017.

Draft Enthusiasm, by Clifford K. Berryman, Washington Evening Star, 8/22/1918. (National Archives Identifier 6011479)

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