Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 3: Is a Crime Wave Coming? (1946)

War is a social disaster, like flood, famine, or pestilence, but its evil effects are more far reaching than any natural calamity. Every GI knows what a tremendous change it made in his own life. It also affected the day-to-day life of every man, woman, and child back home, with results that have naturally had a great deal of influence on the amount and nature of postwar crimes.

One result of the war has been the creation of new agencies of government to cope with particular war problems. The Selective Service System, the Office of Price Administration, the Office of Defense Transportation, the War Food Administration, were only a few of them. But every time we created such regulating agencies, we added to the list of crimes that could be committed.

Refusal to register for the draft was a crime that did not exist a few years ago. Black market dealings in food, gasoline, and other scarce commodities were probably among the most common forms of crime in the United States during the war. These and other wartime crimes were temporary. They were no longer crimes after the wartime laws and regulations had been lifted. But they certainly raised the crime rates at the time.

Other types of criminality, however, tend to decline during wartime, offsetting part or all of the increase in wartime activities. To discuss this more clearly, let us divide the various population groups and take up each one separately.


The male is more deadly than the female

In normal times the overwhelming bulk of the crimes that are handled by the police and the courts are committed by boys and men. This is true in all civilized countries, although the rates vary a little from place to place. In the United States at least 90 percent of the recorded crimes are the work of males.

Studying this problem further, criminologists have discovered a man’s age has a great bearing on his disposition toward crime. Most crimes are committed by youths on the verge of manhood and by younger men. In the United States in 1940, about 55 percent of all the boys and men who were finger-printed for crimes were between the ages of 18 and 35. In this age group fell 60 percent of those charged with criminal homicide (killing), assault, and theft, and 70 percent of those charged with robbery and homicide.

It is even possible to determine which age groups furnish most offenders in specific types of crimes. The most dangerous age for criminal homicide and assault and battery is from 25 to 29; for robbery from 20 to 24; and for burglary and theft from 16 to 20. In this last group the boys of 18 and 19 are the worst offenders.

Doesn’t this jibe more or less with your own observation? Most of us have known, or at least known about kids growing up who were obviously going to the bad. Very often they started their criminal careers by breaking into the neighborhood candy store or swiping things from a delivery truck. After a few en-counters with the police, and perhaps a reformatory sentence, they grew tougher, bolder, more likely to commit serious crimes.

But as they grow older, some of these criminals come to realize the futility of their ways and settle down to law-abiding pursuits. Others meet violent deaths; still others are locked up in prisons for long terms. The net result is that older men, as a group, commit fewer crimes than younger men.

Let’s take 100,000 men selected at random from the age group between 45 and 49 years and compare them with a similar group from the ages between 20 and 24. Statistics show that 30 of the older group and 70 of the younger will be charged with criminal homicide. Eighteen of the older men will be charged with robbery, as compared with 238 of the younger men. For assault, the figures will be 138 of the older group and 270 of the younger; for burglary, 57 and 445; and for theft, 184 and 847. These figures, of course, are only relative.

Along came the draft

When Selective Service began, back in September 1940, it immediately started inducting large numbers of men between the ages of 21 and 35 into the Army. Later its operations were extended to cover men between the age limits of 18 and 45, although eventually the induction of men over 38 was suspended. In time, more than 10,000,000 able-bodied young men were taken out of civilian life and put into the armed forces, and many millions of them were shipped overseas.

Of course, every GI knows that putting a uniform on a man does not stop him from committing a crime. The War Department in 1945 disclosed that 33,519 men were serving sentences imposed by general courts-martial, and that 102 men had been executed. But this is a small proportion indeed of the more than 8,000,000 men who have served in the Army’s ranks in World War II.

It seems reasonable to assume that life under Army discipline gives men with criminal traits fewer opportunities to commit crimes than they had in civilian life. The hard work, restricted freedom, and new interests of Army life all tend to prevent the commission of crimes. And of course the shipment of millions of men overseas made it impossible for them to commit crimes in this country, whatever they may have done elsewhere.

As the net effect of all this we would naturally expect a decrease in the number of major crimes in this country during the war period. The little statistical information thus far available would tend to bear out this expectation, although it will be some time before we have a complete picture of the situation.

The men who stayed at home

When we come to the 4-F’s, the men who were deferred for essential war work, and the men above the age limit for induction into the armed forces, we find other factors were at work. The acute shortage of manpower practically wiped out unemployment. If past experience is a reliable guide, this should have led to a decrease in the number of burglaries, thefts, and other crimes against property. On the other hand, improved economic conditions usually lead to an increase in crimes of violence, such as assault and manslaughter. The explanation ordinarily advanced for this is that when men increase their earnings, they drink more liquor and get into more fights.

Next section: What Happened during World War II?