1940 October 16

First Peacetime Draft in American History Begins; Creates Two Civil Liberties Problems


The first peacetime draft in American history took effect on this day as part of preparedness for possible U.S. involvement in the wars in Europe or Asia. The law created two civil liberties problems.

Although the law contained provisions for conscientious objection that were more generous than the World War I law, thousands of young men nonetheless refused to cooperate with the draft and went to prison. Some staged hunger strikes in prison, protesting and successfully ending race discrimination (August 11, 1943) and censorship in the prisons (September 29, 1943).

The law also contained a provision forbidding race discrimination in the draft, which was never enforced. Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph confronted President Franklin D. Roosevelt about this in the White House, on September 27, 1940, but without success. Roosevelt announced his intention not to “intermingle” the races in the military on October 9, 1940. Winfred Lynn unsuccessfully challenged his being drafted during World War II because he was an African-American (December 4, 1942; February 3, 1943). President Harry Truman finally desegregated the armed forces by executive order on July 26, 1948.

Learn more: Heather T Frazer and John O’Sullivan, We Have Just Begun to Not Fight: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service During World War II (1996)

Read David Dellinger’s story: David Dellinger, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter (1993)

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