On May 18, 1917, the Military Draft Act of 1917, also known as the Selective Service Act, was passed. This authorized the U.S. government to increase the size of the military to aid in WWI efforts. Under the supervision of the Provost General Marshal, 4,648 local boards were created to oversee the draft of men living in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Although millions of men filled out draft cards, there was also much opposition.
The Military Draft Act of 1917 resulted in three registration periods. On June 5, 1917, men between the ages of 21 and 31 were required to fill out draft cards. The second registration period, which occurred on June 5, 1918, was for men who would turn 21 on or after the registration date. The final registration occurred on September 12, 1918, which required men aged 18 to 20 and 32 to 45 to register for the draft. Because the draft was discontinued on November 11, 1918, the day the armistice was signed, most men who registered during the third registration period were not sent overseas.
All men born between the years 1872 and 1900 were eligible to be drafted. However, there were a few circumstances that either qualified men for an exemption or caused them to be considered ineligible for the draft. For example, a man was typically ineligible for the draft if he had certain medical conditions or physical limitations. In addition, men convicted of certain crimes, such as treason, and non-citizens of the U.S. were ineligible. Men who were the sole economic provider for a wife and child or a motherless child were often granted an exemption.
The Military Draft Act of 1917 also included a provision for conscientious objectors. A man was considered a conscientious objector if he was a member of a recognized religion whose creed or belief system included restrictions on wartime participation. Ordained ministers and theology students could also register as conscientious objectors. Men who met these conditions were still required to register for the draft, but they were only required to serve in non-combat positions.
Many men showed opposition to the Military Draft Act of 1917 by failing to register. In fact, during the first registration period, over 250,000 men did not report to their local boards. In addition, more than 50,000 men applied for exemptions. During one attempt to locate men who failed to register, police arrested over 16,000 men. Penalties for not registering ranged from a fine to five years in jail. Opposition to the draft was so great that attempts to establish a standard military service after the conclusion of WWI was defeated by Congress.
- The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration: World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, M1509
- Public Broadcasting Corporation: Timeline of Conscription in the U.S.
- Swarthmore College: Military Classifications for Draftees; Anne Yoder
- Public Broadcasting Corporation: The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images