The first military conscription in the United States occurred during the Civil War, but the military draft process we are familiar with today originated with the Selective Service Act of 1917, passed by Congress on May 18, 1917.
Six weeks earlier, the United States had declared war on Germany and it was soon apparent there were not enough men in the peacetime army (about 110,000) and not enough immediate volunteers. The Selective Service Act required that all men between ages 21 and 31 register for military service. In response, over ten million registered. Not everyone who registered was drafted as there were several exemptions based on dependents, economic hardship, and type of employment. And, as with any government-mandated conscription process, there were protests and rallies against it.
The biggest difference between the Civil War draft and the Selective Service Act of 1917 was that it did not allow for substitutes. Section 3 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.
Ultimately, there were three registrations as a result of the act:
• June 5, 1917, for men 21 to 30 years old;
• June 5, 1918, for men who had turned 21 since the previous draft, also followed by a supplemental draft on August 24, 1918; and
• September 12, 1918, for men 18 to 45 years old.
When the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the need for a large army clearly diminished. By 1919, the role of a selective service agency was unnecessary, yet the system was resurrected over twenty years later through the Selective Training and Service Act (STSA) of 1940 as the United States stood on the brink of World War II.
Explore the World War I and World War II collections on Fold3, including WWII "Old Man’s Draft" Registration Cards.