Happy 80th PL 76: The Selective Service Act of 1940 | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

Happy 80th PL 76: The Selective Service Act of 1940

FDR signing the Selective Service Act
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Selective Service Act of 1940 into law.

Senior Historian Chris Anderson’s latest History Hikes blog post recognizes the 80th anniversary of the Selective Service Act of 1940, the peacetime draft. Also known as the Burke–Wadsworth Act, Pub.L. 76–783, America was in a post-WWI period of isolationism, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act into law, a response to rising fascism and totalitarianism in Italy, Japan and Germany.

Happy 80th PL 76

By Chris Anderson, Senior Historian

France had fallen and London was ablaze when, on September 16, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sat down at his desk to sign the Burke-Wadsworth Act into law. For those who had recognized the grave threat that fascist Italy, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany posed, Roosevelt’s signature on Public Law 76-783 had come not a moment too soon.

By the time the first of the Doughboys returned home from European Battlefields in 1919 there was a feeling among many in the United States that their efforts in the Great War had been for naught. More than 100,000 young Americans had perished in the “war to end war” and Europe seemed as unsettled as ever.

Run on American Union Bank during the Depression
Run on the American Union Bank during the stock market crash

This general feeling of discontent became even more of a force after the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. Millions were thrown out of work. By the end of 1933 unemployment had reached a staggering 25%. With the country deep into the Depression, many believed that it was time for the United States to turn its back on Europe and its incessant squabbles and focus on problems at home instead. As historian Sarah Churchwell wrote in her book, Behold America, “The country’s sentiment had not broadly changed; a majority of the population still felt that Europe’s problems were its own, and that the U.S. government should focus its energy domestically. They had made an exception for the Great War; that exception was over and it was time to return to the isolationist norm.”

This “norm” meant that Americans remained largely silent as fascist and totalitarian governments came to power beginning with Italy in 1922, Japan in 1931, and Germany in 1933, and as these governments began unprovoked and belligerent attacks on their neighbors. Toothless in large part due to America’s absence, the League of Nations did nothing to stop fascist wars of aggression in Liberia, Libya, Manchuria and Abyssinia. Disgusted by what they saw as the failure of Europeans to keep the peace only reinforced the idea that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were walls that protected Americans from an unredeemable old world.

The Nye Committee

Senator Gerald Nye
Senator Gerald Nye

It was in this environment that The Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry first met on April 12, 1934. What became known as the Nye Committee was tasked with looking at connections between financiers and the armaments industry and America’s eventual entry into World War I. Chaired by Senator Gerald Nye (R-ND), the committee interviewed some 200 witnesses over the course of some 93 hearings. Peace activist Dorothy Detzer, an eyewitness to many of the hearings, later said, “The long exhaustive investigation … produced a sordid report of intrigues and bribery; of collusion and excessive profits; of war scares artificially fostered and [disarmament] conferences deliberately wrecked.”

Nye’s committee found that between 1915 and January 1917, the United States lent Germany $27 million while, during the same period, it had lent Britain, France and its Allies $2.3 billion. It also uncovered the huge profits that many American businesses made selling armaments to the Allies. Detzer recalled in her memoirs that during one particularly grueling period of questioning by committee attorney Alger Hiss, “The four solemn Du Pont brothers, averred that the corporation’s profits of 400% during the First World War seemed only the good fruit of sound business.”

The Neutrality Acts

The committee’s investigations were eventually shut down in February 1936 but the damage to the interventionist cause in the United States had been done. Isolationists in Congress quickly acted to pass a series of measures to hamper Roosevelt’s ability to intervene in world affairs. Chief among these measures were the neutrality acts.

The first of these acts was passed in August 1935 while Nye’s committee was still in session. Amongst other things the extension of the act passed in 1936 prevented U.S. Arms sales to the democratically elected government of Spain while they battled the fascist backed armies of Francisco Franco. The act was again extended in 1937, as Imperial Japanese forces invaded China and finished the year with the infamous sack and rape of Nanking.

FDR fireside chat
FDR fireside chat

On September 3, 1939, two days after the unprovoked Nazi invasion of Poland led to declarations of war by Great Britain and France, Roosevelt took to the airwaves to address anxious citizens. Unwilling to get ahead of public opinion, in his 14th fireside chat the president reaffirmed that “the nation will remain a neutral nation. As long as it remains within my power to prevent, there will be no blackout of peace in the United States.”

While he recognized the very strong isolationist feelings in the country, as he had done since coming to office, Roosevelt also raised the prospect that such a feeling might not be realistic in the face of what was happening in the rest of the world. He understood that if France and Britain where defeated it would be foolish to assume that America would be unaffected. “When peace has been broken anywhere,” the president declared in his chat, “the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.” He also warned them that attitudes were beginning to shift. While the official policy of the administration would continue to be neutrality, “I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought…even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind and close his conscience.”

Two months later the Neutrality act was renewed, but this time it had a clause inserted into it allowing belligerents to purchase armaments on a “cash and carry” basis. Roosevelt rightly saw that as the Royal Navy controlled the shipping lanes between the United States and England, France and Britain would be the primary beneficiaries of the policy.

Remarkably, not even the German invasion of Poland could shake many Americans faith in isolationism. Germany’s blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France in May and June 1940, however, served as a wakeup call to many. Even with panzers rolling down the Champs de Elysée, however, Roosevelt knew he could not intervene directly. When the desperate French Premier Paul Reynaud asked for America’s assistance, all the president could do was promise to speed the dispatch of war material that France had already paid for.

If France’s rapid defeat did accomplish one thing, however, it was to make Americans painfully aware of the inadequacy of their own defenses. The month after the defeat of France, Congress passed the Vinson-Walsh Act, otherwise known as the Two-Ocean Navy Act. It was the largest increase in naval spending in American history. At a cost of 4 billion dollars, the legislation called for a 70% increase in the size of the fleet. Significantly, of the 257 ships on the Navy’s shopping list, 18 would be state of the art aircraft carriers. In August, Roosevelt was able to use executive authority to enact the “destroyers for bases deal,” which saw 50 out-of-date destroyers lent to Great Britain in exchange for use of naval bases in the Western Hemisphere.

The Peacetime Draft

These measures were a significant improvement to America’s overall state of readiness, but they were largely defensive. A large fleet was intended to keep enemies away from America’s shores. It was legislation that came to the floor in August 1940 that would be the real game changer. What Senator Edward Burk (D-NE) and Representative James Wadsworth (R-NY) now proposed was the first peacetime draft in American history. Even though by this point according to a Gallup poll some 67% of Americans believed that an Axis victory against Great Britain would be bad and that some form of military training would be beneficial, forced conscription of United States citizens in peacetime was something that was a step to far for many. As was to be expected given how divided the nation was over the question of isolation versus intervention, the debate was loud and heated.

Pacificist Oswald Villard commented, “The beginning of the end will come with the passage of the conscription bill. After that, I think we might as well quit.” Another voice in opposition was Senator George Norris of Nebraska. “This was not a bill to prepare an army to fight tomorrow; it was a bill to prepare an army to fight men and people yet unborn. It is a step in the direction of foisting a dictatorship upon the American government in time of peace.”

On the other side were men like Grenville Clark, a lobbyist for preparedness and Cardinal Francis Spellman who said, “It is better to have protection and not need it than to need protection and not have it.” Finally, on September 14, 1940, what would come to be remembered as the selective service act passed the Senate 47-25. President Roosevelt signed the legislation into law two days later on September 16. The law required all men between the ages of 21-36 register for military service. Of these, no more than 900,000 could be enlisted into military service for a period of 12 months. 

The effect of the legislation was immediate and affected EVERY family in the nation. It allowed the government to put in place a system to massively increase the size of its armed forces during the relative tranquility of peacetime as opposed to chaotically and inefficiently in the midst of war-as had happened following America’s entry into World War I. It also allowed the military to plan for its expansion. This was especially important to the Army, which numbered fewer than 270,000 men in 1940 and ranked 17th in the world. Perhaps most importantly, it sent a very clear signal to other nations that the United States was prepared to mobilize not only its industry, but also its vast manpower, in response to an external threat.

On October 29, 1940, Roosevelt came the auditorium of the Department of Labor with his Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson. “This is a solemn ceremony,” the president declared. “It is accompanied by no fanfare-no blowing of bugles or beating of drums. AND (Roosevelt’s emphasis) there should be none. We are mustering all our resources, manhood and industry and wealth to make our nation strong in defense. For recent history proves all to clearly, I am sorry to say, that only the strong may continue to live in freedom and peace.”

1940 draftees
Selecting draftees after the signing of the Selective Service Act of 1940

After the president’s remarks, Stimson stepped up to a table, on which was a 10-gallon bowl filled with 8,994 cobalt blue capsules. It was the same bowl he had used when he pulled the number for the first draftees in World War I. The secretary was then blindfolded by retired Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Morriss, who had performed the same act in 1917. The blindfold was, in part, made from a piece of yellow cloth that had covered one of the chairs that had sat in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on July 4, 1776. Stimson pulled a capsule and handed it to the president. Roosevelt read out number 158 and a Mildred Bell cried out, “that’s my boy.”

Impact of the Selective Service Act of 1940

1940 draftees
Draftees being sworn

Few in the room could have had any idea of the Selective Service Act’s impact. Due to the passage of the legislation-and its extension in August 1941 just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended the question of isolation versus intervention once and for all-some 50 million men would be registered for military service. Of the more than 16 million Americans who would put on a uniform during World War II, 10 million would be drafted through the selective service system. At its height in 1943, Selective Service was processing and enlisting some 200,000 men every month.

After the war, the Selective Service Act remained the law of the land, which meant that America would never again see its post-war military shrunk to insignificance nor could its male citizens, who were liable for conscription, ever completely ignore international events. The draftees who fought in Korea, Vietnam and every post-war emergency from 1945-1973 had been conscripted under the legislation that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed into law 80 years ago this month.

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