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The History of Conscription & The Current Debate Over Reviving The Draft

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One hundred years ago, President Wilson signed the Selective Service Act, as the nation joined World War One. Since then, the Act has been rewritten many times.  Today, we have a volunteer military but all young men must still register.  We looked at the history of conscription, and current debate over reviving the draft. 


  • Edward Miller - Associate professor of history at Dartmouth College.
  • Kurk Dorsey - Professor of history and program director for the history graduate program at UNH. 

Many think of the Vietnam War when the draft is brought up. However, the Vietnam War was not the only time the United States has seen contempt for required military service. In fact, one hundred years ago, the country was in an uproar over the return of the draft that stemmed from the United States entry into World War I. In May of 1917, President Wilson signed the “Selective Service Act” establishing a system to register young men for military service and assess their suitability for combat. The decision to instate the draft was controversial, resulting in many protests, applications for exemptions, and people simply not signing up.

Although the United States has since shifted from a draft to an all-volunteer military force, there is still a debate over whether the draft should be re-instated. Today on The Exchange ­– Kurk Dorsey, Professor of History at UNH, and Edward Miller, Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth College, explore the current debate and explain the history of the draft.

Among those who support reinstating the draft, many believe that the nation would be less likely to engage in conflict if all people had a stake in the decision to go to war. Exchange listener Michael said that if the children of U.S. Senators, Congressmen and other members of the political elite were sent off to battle, their parents would be less likely to vote to start wars.  Although both Dorsey and Miller appreciate and recognize the argument, they refute the notion that a draft would keep the nation out of a war.

“I'm not persuaded that the historical evidence actually shows that if leaders have military experience themselves, or if they have family members that served, it makes them less likely to go to war,” said Miller. “In the case of the Vietnam War, which many historians would say is the worst foreign policy disaster in American history, almost all of the leaders who made the decisions to lead the United States into Vietnam had served in World War II in some capacity.”

Dorsey and Miller recall that in some instances, even with an active draft, the United States has been more apt to jump into wars, like Vietnam. Further, they say - having a draft has never ensured that all people, like the sons and daughters of politicians, get sent to the front lines.

Draft avoidance has been common throughout all wars in our history. Loopholes such as health conditions, college deferments, marriage and family obligations, are all ways in which the draft has been avoided, according to Dorsey. Most historians confirm that most people in the enlisted ranks in Vietnam were poor and working-class Americans, Dorsey said.

“It was by and large much easier for middle class and wealthy Americans to avoid the war,” Miller said. “If you could show up at an induction center with a letter from the family physician that you had a trick knee or you had asthma or something like that, more often than not, that would be sufficient to get you classified at a level where you were not likely to get called. Whereas poor and working-class Americans were less likely to have those means open to them."

With so many loopholes and exemptions, listener Charles asked: Is there a way to create a draft that is equal and fair? Although the United States has tried to create a system that promotes equality, the implementation always deviates from that principle. With an array of exceptions and political connections, a percentage of possible draftees did not need to fight for the nation. Even now, fairness is questioned with the present selective service system, because only men are required to sign up at age 18, not women.

But given that there is no official “draft,” why is it that two million boys who turn 18 this year still have to register their names?

Both Miller and Dorsey say this is still regarded a “symbolic” service for the United States and is a relic of the Cold War.

"I think that's a legacy of the desire to keep the selective service going,” said Miller. “That's something that's happened since 1917, after World War I and World War II, there was this decision made to stop the draft but we are going to keep the selective service system going just in case we renew it."

Although Miller and Dorsey said that our all-volunteer military may not be the perfect system for the United States, they do not foresee the draft being reinstated anytime soon. Rather, they emphasize that the all-volunteer military still appeals to most people interested in defending the nation at a local, state, and national level. 

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