Conscription was established (1863) in the U.S. Civil War, but proved unpopular (see draft riots). The law authorized release from service to anyone who furnished a substitute and, at first, to those who paid $300. General conscription was reintroduced in World War I with the Selective Service Act of 1917. All men from 21 to 30 years of age (later extended 18 to 45), inclusive, had to register. Exemptions from service were granted to men who had dependent families, indispensable duties at home, or physical disabilities. Conscientious objector status was granted to members of pacifist religious organizations, but they had to perform alternative service. Other war objectors were imprisoned, where several died. By the end of World War I about 2,800,000 men had been inducted.
The United States first adopted peacetime conscription with the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The act provided that not more than 900,000 men were to be in training at any one time, and it limited service to 12 months—later (1941) extended to 18 months. After the United States entered World War II, a new selective service act made men between 18 and 45 liable for military service and required all men between 18 and 65 to register. The terminal point of service was extended to six months after the war. From 1940 until 1947—when the wartime selective service act expired after extensions by Congress—over 10,000,000 men were inducted. A new selective service act was passed in 1948 that required all men between 18 and 26 to register and that made men from 19 to 26 liable for induction for 21 months' service, which would be followed by 5 years of reserve duty.
When the Korean War broke out, the 1948 law was replaced (1951) by the Universal Military Training and Service Act. The length of service was extended to 24 months, and the minimum age for induction was reduced to 18 1⁄2 years. The main purpose of the Reserve Forces Act of 1955 was to strengthen the reserve forces and the National Guard. It required six years of duty, including both reserve and active duty. The Military Selective Service Act of 1967 required all men between the ages of 18 and 26 to register for service. The regular exemptions along with educational deferments were granted. These loopholes and other technicalities tended to discriminate against working-class and poor men, and thus a higher percentage from these groups were drafted.
Due to this perceived discrimination by class and also because of the great unpopularity of the Vietnam War, conscription became a major social issue. There were numerous demonstrations at draft boards and induction centers. Many young men evaded the draft through technicalities or fraud; thousands fled the country or went to prison. In 1973 conscription was abolished in favor of an all-volunteer army. President Gerald R. Ford granted clemency to many draft resisters in 1974, and President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to draft resisters in 1977. In 1980, Congress reinstituted draft registration for men 18 to 25 years old. If there were to be a crisis, registered men would be inducted as determined by age and a random lottery.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. Government