Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 21: Shall We Have Universal Military Training? (1944)

It will be seen from the foregoing summary that the principal arguments employed from time to time in the United States and Great Britain for and against compulsory training deal with the problem in terms of the principles involved and not on the basis of the immediate and practical situation which will confront the people of the United States at the end of the present war. Since it is likely, however, that the decision made will be based primarily on the latter considerations, attention must be given to them.


The Length of the Training and the Size of the Force

If we do set up a peacetime training program, what should be the period of training? If it is obligatory for all young men, how large a trained reserve force would we have in the end? At the present time, those who favor a permanent selective service advocate a one-year training period, perhaps to be supplemented on a voluntary basis by periodic refresher courses. Under the terms of a bill before Congress, for instance, every young man would be liable for one year of training at any time within the three years after his eighteenth birthday. This period of a year is probably the maximum which Congress would be willing to consider, but while it would provide reasonably well for infantry training, it would not be long enough either for the Navy or for the Air Forces, and probably not for the more highly technical and mechanized branches of the Army.

The size of such a reserve would be substantial. Hanson W. Baldwin, military specialist of the New York Times, has estimated that about 100,000 young men reach the age of 18 each month. Allowing for physical disability and necessary deferment, between 600,000 and 840,000 would be available for training each year. Over a period of a few years a formidable reserve force would thus be created.

Postwar American Military Problems

No one would deny that a nation’s military potential can be assembled more speedily and efficiently if the men called to the colors have had a carefully planned program of basic training at some previous time. Therefore, if the United States is likely to need a mass army of millions of men in another major war in the foreseeable future, the purely military aspects of the situation would weigh heavily in favor of universal training. The question is: Will the United States probably need such a mass army or can we safely rely on some other type of army for our permanent establishment?

In the recent past our guesses have been wrong. We have thought of the Navy as our primary military weapon and have heavily discounted the idea that large numbers of American land troops would ever again need to fight on foreign soil. The fact remains, though, that in the first World War and the present war we have had to train vast numbers of men for ground action in the most distant parts of the world.

This situation is not hard to explain. As a people we are peace-loving and we have no ambition to acquire territory belonging to other nations. Consequently, we tend to think of military preparations primarily in terms of the defense of the United States against attack from abroad. As we do not fear such an attack from either Canada or Mexico, our traditional attitude has been that we should have a strong navy in order to defend the shores of the United States from a sea-borne invasion. In other words, we have thought of a large navy as embodying the principle of defense, while a large army has seemed to embody the principle of offense and aggression.

This overly simple view of a proper military policy for the United States invariably breaks down as soon as we become engaged in a war of any consequence. It is far better to grapple with an enemy on his own or on some other distant territory than to leave the initiative in his hands and limit our effort to repelling his attempts to seize our territory. Americans have not always recognized this truth in time of peace, but whenever war has come, many of the citizens who shouted most loudly against preparing to send soldiers to fight on foreign territory have been among the first to demand that the fighting be kept away from American soil. This is human nature. Also, in this and the preceding war, we have had to think of aiding and supplying our Allies, and in the Pacific we have had the problem of defending our outlying possessions.

In other words, both general and special considerations point to the wisdom of a defense policy based on the principle of carrying a war to the territory of our enemy and of sparing American soil, if possible, from the destruction of combat operations. It seems likely that we will have learned this lesson as a result of our last two wars, and that we will not again make the mistake of identifying an alert military policy with aggressive intentions.

The modern mobility of mechanized warfare, which enables a belligerent to strike quickly and with great force at a point far distant from his bases, has outmoded our old ways of thinking about the proper methods of national defense. Since an enemy can strike at us in this way, we, too, must be prepared to deal with him in the same manner. Does this mean that we will need a large army in the future, or can we rely primarily on a powerful navy and air force, supported by a moderately large standing professional army?

Not even a military expert—much less the ordinary civilian—can answer this question with finality. In making our decision as to the need for military service, however, a few aspects of the situation may give us some clues to help guide our thinking. The decision will not be made in a vacuum.

First of all, what is the over-all international situation likely to be after the end of the war? Victory will mean that the United States, the British Commonwealth, and the Soviet Union will be the only great military powers in the world. By the Moscow Declaration these powers have pledged their postwar collaboration for “the organization and maintenance of peace and security.” All three, as indicated by this decision, are determined to avoid the appalling prospect of conflict among themselves.

This same collaboration is promised, again by the Moscow Declaration, for all measures relating to the surrender and disarmament of our present enemies. Should this somehow fail, and should Germany and Japan be allowed to regain formidable military power, these three principal United Nations would need to have great armies in being, and this would probably influence the national policy in the matter of military training. If, on the other hand, the measures adopted after this war are really effective, there is no prospective concentration of military power in central and western Europe, and still less in Asia, which could challenge the military strength of the three.

The Question of International Policing

The next question is that of the methods which these great powers will adopt for their joint undertaking to lead the way in maintaining future peace and security for all states. There appears to be no intention to try to set up an international police force in the sense of a powerful agency independent of any state and subject only to an international organization. This means that policing action will be undertaken by units of the national forces of these countries, and that their employment against any state threatening the peace will come about as a result of a decision taken by the international organization, but only with the full agreement of these states who will carry the primary burden. Whether such an arrangement would require each state to maintain a policy of universal training would depend upon the specific arrangements for their collaboration. Thus if they agreed upon any kind of specialization of effort whereby one maintained naval power and another great land forces, the problem would be different from a situation in which each agreed to use units of all kinds in meeting a particular threat.

Also, there might be a difference if responsibility were limited regionally in any way. Each of these great states has certain areas in which the maintenance of peace bears a primary relationship to its own national security. In these areas, it is possible that the state in question would want to assume the primary burden of peace enforcement, providing of course that it would be acting after agreement with the others and as an agency of the international community. If this arrangement, rather than that of the global sharing of responsibility, should be decided upon, it would have a distinct bearing upon the military policies adopted within each of these states. Another factor would be the extent to which each great state would find it possible to associate with it, in such enterprises, the military forces of the neighboring small states.


The Basic Issue

The comments above point to the conclusion that future international security arrangements will have a distinct effect upon some of the military policies, including obligatory training, adopted by the great powers. At the present time, these arrangements are all tentative, so much so that no hard and fast conclusions can be drawn from them. They indicate that the great states are all prepared to keep themselves in a condition of considerable military strength for the future. The nature and extent of this strength, at least in the matter of armaments, may be decided upon by mutual agreement. When this is done, the basic military policies of each can be determined in the light of these commitments and in accordance with the general political atmosphere which prevails.

This brings us back to the point that the international political aspect of the problem is the one of paramount importance. Collaboration of these three giant powers, with due regard for the rights and interests of their smaller neighbors in the international community, is an indispensable basis for any future peace. The military policies of each will be in large part determined by their relations with each other and by the obligations which they have jointly and severally undertaken. This collaboration is the lever which will push the world toward peace or toward future conflict.

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