The WWI draft bred anti-war feelings, discontent
By Leonard Lanier
Sunday, May 14, 2017
Taking a nation to war is one thing; fighting a war is another matter altogether. President Woodrow Wilson, and his administration, learned this lesson the hard way in May 1917.
Having now made the decision for war against the Central Powers, Wilson had to ready an unprepared country for modern industrial warfare. At the beginning of 1917, the U.S. Army numbered barely 100,000 men, ranking it behind Bulgaria’s military in size.
Until World War I, with one major exception, the United States waged its wars with volunteers, men who willingly agreed to fight. The one exception, the Civil War, saw both the Confederacy and the Union adopt conscription, the involuntary drafting of men into the military.
For both sides in the Civil War, conscription became a poisoned chalice. Forcing men to fight bred anti-war feelings and civilian discontent. Wilson experienced this firsthand during his childhood in North Georgia, which became a sanctuary for deserters and draft dodgers from the Confederate Army.
Another recent event weighted even heavier on Wilson’s mind. When Great Britain entered the Great War in 1914, eager volunteers swelled the ranks of the British Army. Many of these recruits were the best and brightest of their generation—college students, engineers, civil servants, etc. They died in massive numbers on the Somme in 1916.
Wilson did not want “the bloom of our youth” expended in such a fashion. Therefore, by early May 1917, both the civilian and military authorities decided to wage war with conscripts, or draftees.
Neither Wilson or anyone else dared call it a draft, though. The president preferred the phrase “selective service,” which implied a more precise and careful selection process than the indiscriminate Civil War drafts of an earlier era.
Unlike during the Civil War, Wilson also insisted on the instruments of the draft system being as local as possible. Local-level draft boards made the decision on who exactly joined the army. Leaving the final choice to local officials, who knew the population best, supposedly made the system more equitable.
Unfortunately, practice undermined purpose. Draft boards used their power to punish political opponents and reinforce existing power structures. This was especially true in the South, where white authorities used the draft against African-Americans. For instance, in Hyde County, for every white man sent into the army, the draft board sent three blacks, a figure twice their proportion of the overall population.
The process was also blatantly corrupt. Some draft board members made small fortunes selling deferments and exemptions to otherwise draft-eligible single men. Graft by the chairman of the Pitt County board J.J. Laughinghouse became so egregious that federal officials forced his removal from office, although they maintained in public that he resigned due to health reasons.
The draft ultimately produced an army that numbered over 4 million men by Armistice Day. Authorities quickly dismantled the draft system in 1919, but its influence lingered over governmental strategy. When the United States relaunched conscription in 1940, the Roosevelt administration reused Wilson’s “selective service” moniker.
Leonard is an artifact collections assistant at Museum of the Albemarle.