1917 May 18

Congress Creates World War I Draft: Protests, Civil Liberties Violations Follow

 

Just a month and a half after Congress declared war on Germany and the U.S. entered World War I, Congress on this day created a military draft. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was the first law mandating American military service since the Civil War. Unlike the Civil War draft, however, it was not possible for people to buy their way out of military service. The law contained limited provisions for conscientious objection to participation in war. It did not, for example, allow CO status for young men who were members of the major religious denominations (Episcopalian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, and others), even those who sincerely opposed participation in war. Opposition to these limited provisions provoked the first civil liberties crisis of World War I, which was followed almost immediately by a crisis over freedom of speech. Many opponents of the war were prosecuted under the Espionage Act on the grounds that their words interfered with or obstructed the draft.

The American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), which had fought U.S. entry into the war, created a Civil Liberties Bureau to assist aspiring COs, and it evolved first into the National Civil Liberties Bureau (July 4, 1917) and then, after the war, into the American Civil Liberties Union (January 19, 1920).

Anti-war radicals, including the famous anarchist Emma Goldman, challenged the draft on the grounds that it violated the 13th Amendment prohibition against slavery. The Supreme Court rejected that argument in the Selective Draft Cases (January 7, 1918).

Learn about Emma Goldman and the No Conscription League: http://ucblibrary3.berkeley.edu/goldman/Curricula/AntiMilitarism/manifesto.html

Read: Louisa Thomas, Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family – A Test of Will and Faith in World War I (2011)

Learn more about the history of COs: Felicity Goodall, We Will Not Go to War: Conscientious Objection During the World Wars (2011)

Read: Paul L. Murphy, World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States (1979)

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