Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

The right of the government to call any able-bodied man to the colors in case of national need has seldom been questioned in the United States, and that right has been invoked by the government whenever necessary. The Supreme Court has upheld it in a series of decisions which dispose of the matter fully. In fact, few Americans have ever disagreed with George Washington’s dictum that “It may be laid down, as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defence of it.”

Despite this acceptance in principle of their military obligation, Americans have tended in practice to oppose obligatory military training for young men in time of peace. Though many times an issue before Congress, until 1940 the decision has always gone against compulsory universal training. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington was asked to advise a Congressional committee concerning a future military policy for the infant United States. He proposed that in addition to a small regular army of professional soldiers to garrison the frontiers, provision should be made for a well-organized citizen army to be composed of militia from the various states. It was his view that all able-bodied men from 18 to 50 should be carried on the militia rolls and that they should be regularly mustered and trained and have their arms inspected, so that they would constitute a capable force of reserves. The younger men from 18 to 25 would be given special training, and when the small regular army needed reinforcements, they would be the first militiamen called.


Early Policies

Washington’s interest in a well-trained militia in which all non-exempt young men would be given regular training on a uniform basis throughout the states was a product of his dismal experiences with the badly trained and badly disciplined militia forces under his command in the Revolutionary War. With this in mind, he proposed a federal law providing for the unification and training of state militias on a uniform basis. Specialized instruction for the military leaders of the country could be assured by establishing one or more academies for professional technical instruction at the highest level.

No action was taken on these recommendations during the transition period of the Articles of Confederation, and the question of a military policy for the country was still undetermined when Washington assumed the presidency under the Constitution. His own interest in the matter was understandably deep, and he saw to it that a plan was soon placed before Congress. This plan, prepared by General Knox, the Secretary of War, deserves a moment’s attention because it represented Washington’s own views. All men of 18 to 6o were to be on the militia rolls. Those from 18 to 21 were to constitute an “advanced corps.” For the first two years they were to be required to spend thirty days a year in training and to continue training for ten days during the third year. A middle group from 20 to 45 was to constitute a “main corps,” but there was to be no further obligatory training except what might be involved in periodic inspections and musters. The group from 45 to 6o was to be a “reserved corps” of last resort.

As finally passed by Congress in 1792, this Militia Act made no mention of a compulsory period of training for the younger men on the militia rolls, and it eliminated references to federal inspection and supervision. It really did little more than provide that in each state men from 18 to 50 were to constitute a militia. The original bill was thus watered down because the states were opposed to even a moderate amount of federal control over the militia.

For many years this arrangement—a small regular army under direct federal control and an uncoordinated state militia—remained the military pattern for the country. The actual amount of military training required of members of the militia varied greatly from state to state and even from locality to locality, but it was seldom enough to make the militia an effective military weapon. Brigadier General Palmer comments that by Jefferson’s time the militia “had become a gigantic nationwide organization. It formed a vast array of territorial regiments, brigades and divisions, generally untrained and entirely free from national supervision or control. In the new states on the frontier, some of its regiments under vigorous leaders like Andrew Jackson were actually assembled and trained. But most of the host assembled only once a year for the “annual muster”—which was always an “annual spree— and generally nothing more.

The Next Hundred Years

For a hundred years after this first military policy of the United States was adopted, the question of compulsory training did not arise as a serious issue of public debate. Actually, little thought was given to the question of providing trained troops to meet a national emergency. The Mexican War was fought by the Regular Army supplemented by volunteers. The Civil War was fought on the Northern side by a mixture of regular troops, volunteers, and militia. Not until the mid-point of the war did the Lincoln administration copy the earlier action of the South in setting up a draft obligation for able-bodied men. Even this was modified by provisions which made it possible for a draftee to send a substitute or to discharge his obligation by a cash payment to the government. When the Civil War was over there was no demand for a drastic revision of military policy. The only provision for federally supported training beyond that supplied by West Point and Annapolis was contained in the Morrill Act of 1862, which obligated the western land-grant colleges to offer instruction in military science as one of the conditions of the grant of free land.

From the Civil War until the first World War there was little public interest in the question of universal training. A major war involving the use of great numbers of troops seemed remote. American policy was to maintain a small standing army which could be expanded in case of need by the use of militia or volunteers, chiefly the latter. This principle of a skeletonized expansible force shifted attention away from the problem of training a vast citizen army, and there was a tendency to believe that such training smacked of militarism and nondemocratic forms of government—things alien and undesirable in a free country.

World War I

The outbreak of the European war in 1914 soon brought up the whole question in a more acute form than at any time since the founding of the Republic. The advocates of “preparedness” argued that our chance of staying out of the war would be greatly improved if we possessed such formidable military strength ready for immediate use that all the belligerents would be scrupulous in respecting our neutrality. If we should be drawn into the war, despite these efforts, they said, we would then be in a better position to act with speed and effectiveness than if we had to start from scratch in training and equipping an army.

As early as December 1914 President Wilson had supported this view when he pointed out to Congress that “We must depend in every time of national peril, in the future as in the past, not upon a standing army, nor yet upon a reserve army, but upon a citizenry trained and accustomed to arms.” Since the issue was not yet one of compulsory training so much as the training of volunteers, the President went on to say that “It will be right … to provide a system by which every citizen who will volunteer for the training may be made familiar with the use of modern arms, the rudiments of drill and maneuver, and the maintenance and sanitation of camps.”

Congress met the issue by enacting the National Defense Act of 1916, which authorized increases in the Regular Army and the National Guard but did not make provision for universal obligatory training. In December 1916, however, the War College Division of the General Staff was asked to prepare a plan for universal military training. This scheme which was designed to be a peacetime arrangement, to be ready for use in case Congress should so decide, was completed by the time the United States entered the war and it formed the basis of the subsequent Selective Service organization.

The end of the war was the occasion for renewed debate over the kind of army organization the United States should have for the future. The War Department wished to retain a permanent standing army of half a million men. Congress objected vehemently and decided to frame its own measures. As finally enacted in 1920, the National Defense Act geared the National Guard into the federal Army organization more fully than at any previous time in American history. It provided also that in each of the newly created corps areas a detail of Regular Army officers should devote full time to planning for the mobilization and training of a citizen army if and when such a step should be necessary. This was the response by Congress to those who urged a general system of obligatory military training. The provision for special training details was abandoned the following year when an economy-minded Congress reduced the size of the Regular Army to a point where training centers could no longer be maintained.

Selective Service 1940

Adolf Hitler did what no one had ever succeeded in doing before—he caused the American people to accept the principle and practice of peacetime conscription for military training. Two days before the signature of the Franco-German armistice in June 1940, the Burke-Wadsworth bill, framed by a citizens’ committee which met in New York, was introduced in the Senate. Three months later it was the law of the land. The speed of its enactment indicated the feeling of urgency which led the American people to approve a policy they had unfailingly condemned in earlier years. A year later Congress hesitated over the request of the administration that the men then in training be kept in uniform beyond the one-year period originally provided. Fortunately, the one-vote margin by which the draft extension bill passed assured the existence of a substantial army at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack three months later.

Next section: What Has Been the Policy in Other Countries?