The draft was the central issue in American rearmament, just as it had been in German rearmament. At the time, manpower was critical to building a powerful military force. No country could have a creditable military force without a draft. The isolationists understood this and thus theyb made the battle over thedraft the their major stand against President Roosevelt and his reelectiion campaign. The United States in 1940 was still largely unarmed. In particular the U.S. army except for a small professional core practically did not exist. There were still calvalry units and the force that did eist was not armed with modern weapons. The United States in 1940 despite the wars raging in Europe and Asia had an army smaller than that of several small European countries. The American army was smaller than that of Romania. The fall of France had a sobering affect on many Americans (June 1940). The Roosevelt Admistration urging passage of a draft, the first peace-time draft in American history. Congress after an intensive debate passed the bill proposed by the Administration with some amendments. President Roosevelt on September 16 signed the Selective Service Act. The first draft had been during the Civil War. The draft envolved men from 21-35 years of age and involved only 1 year of training a military service. The votes in Congress were comfortable majorities as most Democrats and about half the Republicans supported it despite of the upcoming election November election. Undobtedly the radio bradcasts and newsreel images of first Panzers rolling down the Les Champs-Elysées (the Elysian Fields) and then London burning under the NAZI Blitz were making an impression on the American people. The army created by this draft was the army in place when the Japanese brought America into the War with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The draft was the central issue in American rearmament. At the time, manpower was critical to building a powerful military force. No country could have a creditable military force without a draft. The United States in 1940 was still largely unarmed. The Afministration had taken steps to expand the Navy and to begin building a large Air Force. In particular the U.S. army except for a small professional core practically did not exist. There were still calvalry units and the force that did eist was not armed with modern weapons. The United States in 1940 despite the wars raging in Europe and Asia had an army smaller than that of several small European countries. The American army was smaller than that of Romania.
The French Army had been seen by many as the most powerful military force in the world. It had been the French Army that had plated the major role in stopping the Germany Army in World War I. When after the German invasion of Poland (September 1939) and Bfitain and France declared war, the French Army was the principal force facing thevGermans. The fall of France shocked Americans into realizing that America needed a credible army. The fall of France had a sobering affect on many Americans (June 1940). Undobtedly the radio bradcasts and newsreel images of first Panzers rolling down the Les Champs-Elysées (the Elysian Fields) and then London burning under the NAZI Blitz were making an impression on the American people.
President Roosevelt had moved forward to expand the Navy and begin building a large air force. Their opposition from some isolationists, including Congressional Reopublicans, but appropriations for national defense did not ignite unsurmountable public opinion. The draft was potentially a much more volitile effort. It was not just about appropriations. It was about conscripting young men--husbands and sons. This was an issue that the isolationists could use that would resonate with many Americans. But America without a massive army was no deterent to the Germans and Japanese with huge conscript armies. If America was going gto defend itself, a massive army would be needed and the only way to obtain the numbers needed was military conscription--the draft. This was President Roosevelt's greatest challenge, to convince Americans that a peace time draft was needed. This was a tough sell and he had to do it in the middle of a seriously contested presidential election campaign.
President Roosevelt had moved forward to expand the Navy and begin building a large air force. Their opposition from some isolationists, including Congressional Reopublicans, but appropriations for national defense did not ignite public opinion. The draft was potentially a much more vilitile effort. It was not just about appropriations. It was about conscripting young men--husbands and sons. This was an issue that the isolationists could use that would resonate with many Americams.
The isolationists understood this and thus theyb made the battle over thedraft the their major stand against President Roosevelt and his reelectiion campaign. The isolationists had limited the President's actions, but they had lost every major confrontation with him. So this time they pulled out all the stops knowing that they were losing ground in the public opinin polls. Many saw this as the last real opportunity to defeatthe President and keep America out of the War. And they became increasingly strident in their charges and condemnation of the President and his policies. The single most popular American associated with the isolationists was aviator Charles Lindbergh--a natioal hero from the 1920s. He was the leading spokesman for the American First movement. Like many Americans, he was anti-Semetic and had some sympathies for the NAZIs although he was undoubtedly at hear an American patriot. Anti-semitism began to become an increasingly important part of his speeches. And he began to charge that Jews wee aiding the President to drag America into another European war. He especially charges that Jews in the media (press and radio) and Hollywwod were part of this effort. (In fact Hollywood until the War had refrained from addressing the NAZI threat, in part because Germany was a lucrative film market.) Another isoltionist stalwart, SEnator Burton K. Wheeler of Motanna, charged tha a dradt would be Hitler's 'greatest and cheapest victory'. It is difficult to think of an important American politican that was so absolutely wrong in his public pronouncements. He further charged that it would lead to Roosevelt 'dictatorship'. The U.S. Ambassador to Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, as a Democrat and Roosevelt appointee, refrained from overly public pronouncements, but with his Irish anti-English background he wanted no part of the War. Surely his sons of military age were , who disagreed with their father, http://histclo.com/essay/war/ww2/cou/us/pr/30/pr30-jpk.htmla factor. He was in London during the Blitz and predicted that Britain would soon sucumb to the NAZI war machine.
President Roosevelt submitted a conscription bill to Congress, a brave act in the moddle of a heated reelection campaign. The Roosevelt Admistration urging passage of a draft, the first peace-time draft in American history. One might have thought that after the NAZI aggressions in Europe, the fall of France, and Britain's plight that the need to build a powerful army was patently obvious. And polls showed that two-thirds of American supported it. The President's proposal was, however, predictably heavily criticised by the isolationists. And there was vocal public oposition to the draft. The first draft had been during the Civil War crisis. There was also a World War I draft. But the President was requesting an unprecedented peace-time draft. Many Americans watching the fall of France and Britain subjected to the Blitz were still convinced that America should stay out of the War, but prepared to defend itself. The draft could have become a major political issue coming as it did during a presidential election campaign. The isolationists still had great influence within the Republican Party. Republican Candidate Wendel Wilkie almost surely would have benefitted politically if he had oppsed the draft. He decided, however, to put country before party. His failure to use the draft as an issued alienated a number of Congressional Republicans. Wilkie was, however, no isolationist and supported the bill. There was still heated debate.
The draft bill came out of comittee during early September. This was atthe peak of the Luftwaffe Blitz on London. The newspapers were full of pictures of London burning and even more horrifying images in the moview newsreels. Although not fully recognized at the time, the Luftwaffe and the defiannt resistance of Londoners had an huge impacvt on the American public and the Congress. The bill authirized the conscription of 1.2 million men and 0.8 million reservists. This was a cricial step toward creating aeal military, although still a fraction of the men under arms among America's adversaries. Men 21-35 years of age were required to register. Congress after an intensive debate passed the bill proposed by the Administration with some amendments. President Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act into law (September 16). The votes in Congress were comfortable majorities as most Democrats and about half the Republicans supported it despite of the upcoming election November election. The New World in Churchill's words had made the first major step in preparing to confront the NAZIs militarily. This was America's first peacetime military conscription program. This meant that America would have an army when war came--albeit a still small one. Conscription in America is commonly referred to as the draft.
The Act was a trenative step. The Act stipulated that draftees could not be deployed outsidev of the United States, the Western Hemisphere, and American possessions (which included the Philippines). More important than the restrictions, however, was the fact that the United States could begin to train a substantial new army. Another provision, however, limited service to 1 year. I'm not sure who authored this providion, but assume it was a Congressional amendment to appease the Isolsationists. This meant that the isolantionists would have another opportunity to kill the draft. The initial act authorized the conscription of men, but placed a limit of 0.9 million on the number to be trained. The period of service was set at 12 months a potentially catristrophic provision. It mean the men could be sent home after only basic training and before modern equipment arrived for them to train with. here was intense opposition from pacifists, isolationists, and others. The original draftees were aged 21-35 years. Service was restricted to the Western Hemisphere and U.S. territories. Congressional authorization was required for deployment outside of the Western Hemisphere.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the draft was that the President would dare to propose and succeed with such a controversial issue in the midst of a hotly contested election campaign. The passage of such a controversial measure during a presidential campaign is a marvel of presidential courage amd leadership. Here had Wilkie not supported the measure, the President might have had real difficulty securing pasage. [Peters] first American President, George Washington, retired after two 4-year terms. This set a precedent that every other president had followed. FDR because of the international crisis decided to run for a third term which became a campaign issue. The national debate over neutrality and isolationism that had been raging since the mid-1930s reached its height. There were powerful spokesmen on both sides. Isolationist groups, such as the American Fist Committee, opposed any risks that could lead to war and shaply attacked the President's policies. International groups and an increasing number of average citizens demanded more active aid to Britain. His Republican opponent was a surprise choice, Wendell Willkie, a wealty busniessman who had swept the Republican primaries. Willkie did not crticise FDR's support for the democracies, by the time of the camapign only England. His nomination was an indication of the shift in public opinion toward intervention. Willkie instead pledged "all aid to the Democracies short of war". He attacked the New Deal on domestic issues, what he referred to as the socialistic policies of the Administration. Roosevelt's foreign policy was, however, an issue in the campaign. The isolationists led by the American First Committee accused FDR of trying to drag America into the war. Speaking in Boston on October 30, the President assured his audinence, "I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." Usually the phrase was "foreign wars" and usually the President added, "unless we are attacked". The election was another victory for FDR, but not the landslide of previous camapigns. Still FDR carried 39 of the 48 states. The election, however, was much closer than suggested by the results. FDR saw his re-election as strong pupblic support for a program of military preparedness and aid to Britain.
Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1985), 830p.
Peters, Charles. Fice Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing "We Want Willkie!" Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World (2005), 256p.
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to Main U.S. World War II military conscription page]
[Return to Main World War II Neutrality page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]