The Selective Service Act was passed by Congress in May 1917; it required the registration of all American males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty for possible draft into military service. When the United States entered World War I (1914-18) on April 6, 1917, the U.S. armed forces were comprised of roughly 200,000 volunteers. In the weeks following Congress's declaration of war on Germany, not enough men signed up for service so Congress responded by enacting legislation to boost the number of enlisted men. Secretary of War Newton Baker (1871-1937) made clear that the registration could not be evaded. And George Creel, the head of the newly created Committee on Public Information, oversaw the production of an astounding output of propaganda including 75 million pamphlets and posters whose aim was to stimulate patriotism and hatred of anything German.
By June 5, 1917, more than nine million men had registered. Congress widened the registration requirement to include all men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, and by the end of the war twenty-four million men had signed up. While 340,000 men failed to show up when called and four thousand were classified as conscientious objectors, nearly five million men served in the armed forces during World War I, two million of them in France alone. The typical soldier was a drafted man between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-three; he was white, single, and poorly educated. 400,000 soldiers were black and roughly 18 percent of the soldiers were foreign-born.
To ensure that the troops knew what they were fighting for, a copy of President Woodrow Wilson's (1913-1921) war message was included in every soldier's gear. Women volunteered in the navy as clerks and they joined the U.S. Signal Corps and Nurse Corps. Although defense-industry workers were able to receive deferments of service, the draft depleted the male labor force by 16 percent. Women stepped in to pick up the slack. When the fighting ended with Germany's surrender and the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, countries tallied their dead and wounded. Some 50,000 American soldiers died in battle; another 62,000 died from disease (a worldwide flu epidemic claimed many American soldiers' lives); and 200,000 were wounded.
Two decades later, in 1940 the United States braced itself for possible involvement in World War II (1939-1945). The first peacetime military draft in U.S. history began after the passage of the Selective Service Act of 1940. This system was in effect from 1940 to 1973. When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the number of people on active duty was less than two million. In 1945 the number of men and women serving in the armed forces peaked at over twelve million. Both in 1942 and 1943, over three million men were inducted into the armed forces. Such numbers were required in fighting a war on two fronts—one in Europe and another in the Pacific.
At the end of World War II in 1945 the U.S. military had quickly demobilized almost 7 million soldiers. Only three years later, however, the Cold War extended the life of the Selective Service System. In 1948, in response to deteriorating relations between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)—and the United States, Congress restored the Selective Service System. It required the registration of all U.S. men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, with men between nineteen and twenty-five to be inducted for a twenty-one-month period of service. Registration began August 30, 1948; the program continued for twenty-five years.
During the Vietnam conflict, the numbers of soldiers peaked during the late 1960s. The Selective Service System inducted 382,010 young men into the armed forces in the single year of 1966. As a result of criticism that the student deferment allowed the more affluent members of society to avoid the draft, President Richard Nixon instituted reforms in the way that the Selective Service System was run. First, in 1971, Nixon eliminated the student draft deferment. Rather than the local draft board determining who would be drafted, the system was nationalized through a draft "lottery." When a young man turned 19 years old, he immediately knew his likelihood of being drafted, depending on his birthdate in relation to a nationally run lottery drawing. This was a politically prudent move on President Nixon's part, because it was the uncertainty of being drafted that agitated the Vietnam generation. Eliminating this uncertainty went a long way towards containing the antiwar movement.
In 1973, as the U.S. shifted to the "all volunteer army," the draft ended. The Selective Service System remained in place, however, in case the U.S. ever gets involved in a big war.