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This Week in History

July 29 - August 4, 1940:
President Roosevelt on the Need for a Military Draft

July 2012

Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the Selective Service Act.

On Aug. 2, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt held a White House press conference, in the midst of a series of inspection tours which he had been conducting of America's newly-geared-up defense installations. He had just returned from a July 29 visit to the Norfolk Navy Yard, and he would leave on Aug. 9 to inspect the Portsmouth and Boston Navy Yards, and the New London Submarine Base and Electric Boat Shipyard in Connecticut.

Although a start had been made at expanding America's defense capabilities, there was still the problem of training a modern army. As the President had said on July 29, "The increasing seriousness of the international situation demands that every element of our national defense structure be brought as rapidly as possible to the highest state of efficiency, in training as well as in equipment and material."

But a bill to establish a military draft was moving very slowly through Congress, and reporter Fred Essary asked a question implying that the bill was languishing because Congress felt the President was not backing it strongly. President Roosevelt replied,

"...Now, on this particular bill, everybody knows that if I were to come out and send up to the Hill a particular measure, what would you boys do, most of you? You would say that the President is 'ordering Congress.' 'Old Mr. Dictator, he is just ordering Congress to pass his bill.'

"Well, of course, the actual fact was that back in 1933, when we were in the middle of a very serious crisis, with all the banks closed, etc., in that 100-day session, and in a very few cases in the 1934 session, we did send up ready-made bills, all ready-made, and they were put through, most of them, without hearings; and, of course, afterwards they had to be amended and so forth and so on....

"Well, of course I have tried to be absolutely scrupulous in my relations with the Congress; and I said—I got tired of saying it after a couple of years—that literally there was no such thing as 'must' legislation. There never had been....

"Now, the very simple fact is, as I have stated, the lessons of this war do show very clearly that defense necessarily means total defense. Well, under modern circumstances—and we have learned a lot in the last year—that means a great deal in the way of new machinery and equipment of all kinds, which we haven't got. We are beginning to get it. As Knudsen [William S. Knudsen, President of General Motors, who accepted Roosevelt's call to serve on the Commission of National Defense and coordinate industrial production] said to me yesterday, we have either let contracts or the work is proceeding without contracts—because a great many of these companies are proceeding with their work without actual contracts having been signed, and that applies in various cases to planes, armor, tanks, etc. We are actually proceeding with the building of a billion, $800 million worth of materials."

"That is the material end. Now, we also learned from the European war that the people who have not had the trained manpower to use those machines have been in a bad way.

"England, for example, had no trained people to run their machinery a year ago; and even eight or ten months after they got into the war they only had a trained armed force of about 350,000 or 400,000 men, most of whom were caught in Flanders. Well, today—two months or three months later—they have a better figure, they have 4 million men in England. Of course, they cannot have been as thoroughly trained as they should be. You can't train 4 million men in two or three months.

"I always go back to the same old thing I harped on in 1917, when we built up an army of 4 million men."

"We built up an army of 4 million men, and they did not go into action for 13 1/2 months. It was not until the 27th day of May, 1918, that that fighting force was able to fight. In the meantime, during those 13 1/2 months, remember that no shot was fired against us over here. We were completely free from any attack. Now, that will never happen again in the history of the United States. As far as I can see, that was just a bit of sheer luck. In other words, you have got to have trained men.

"Okay. And I will go back and repeat this: What is an army? An army consists of combat troops, supply troops, transportation troops, all of them in uniform. It consists of all kinds of mechanics, still in the army.

"It consists of all kinds of factory workers, specialized factory workers, who would not wear uniforms, but who are still essentially a part of the defense forces of the country. They require training just as much as the man with a rifle requires training. And then, there is the final factor we all know, and that is that for purposes of defense we have to have men who are already trained beforehand. In doing that, we save lives—we save human lives. That is the important thing. We all know from experience that in an untrained force or an untrained army or an untrained navy, relatively, the casualties from deaths and wounds are much higher than they are in the case of the trained army and navy. That is the human element. And that might also be said to apply to the sick in wartime. A trained army has much fewer casualties from disease and accident than an untrained army or navy. It is a case of saving lives.

"Now, I have made it perfectly clear many times that you cannot get a sufficiently trained force of all kinds at the front, in the Navy yards and the arsenals, transportation, supply system, and munitions output, you cannot get it by just passing an Act of Congress when war breaks out, and you cannot get it by the mere volunteer system.

"That is why we figured out pretty well in 1917 that the selective training or selective draft was the fairest and in all ways the most efficient way of conducting a war if we had to go to war. I still think so, and I think a great majority of the people in the country think so, when they understand it."

On Sept. 16, 1940, President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, which required every male between the ages of 21 and 36 to register for the military draft. When the first million men had registered, and undergone a medical examination, it was found that almost 40% were unfit for military service. Of those who were rejected, one-third were unfit due directly or indirectly to the poor nutrition they had received during the Great Depression.

The Selective Service Act had contained a 12-month limitation on the draftees' period of service. That provision was to expire at the end of the summer of 1941, and the U.S. Army would have imploded at a crucial time, just as the Continental Army had faced a crisis of expiring enlistments at Christmas in 1776. President Roosevelt sent Congress a strong appeal for extension of the period of service, despite the still-strong isolationist current which threatened to defeat such a bill. A compromise 18-month extension passed the Senate fairly easily, but in the House, it became law by only one vote, 203 to 202. Thus, by the narrowest of margins, the U.S. Army remained prepared for the war into which it was plunged by the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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