Most Americans when war broke out in Europe (1939) were determined to stay out of it. The American Army at the time was almost non-existent as a major fighting force. Countries like Romania had larger armies. The fall of France shocked Americans into realizing that America needed a credible army. Congress passed the Selective Training andService Act (September 16, 1940), creating tghe country's first peacetime military conscription program. Conscription in America is commonly referred to as the draft. The initial act authorized the conscription of men, but placed a limit of 0.9 million on the number to be trained. The period of service was set at 12 months. There was intense opposition from pacifists, isolationists, and others. The original draftees were aged 21-35 years. Service was restricted to the Western Hemisphere and U.S. territories.
Subsequently in a razor-thin Cngressional vote on the eve of Pearl Harbor, the Selective Serbice Act was remwed (August 1941). The bill passed the House of Representatives by a one-vote margin (203-202). This permitted the Army to keep the one-year draftees. Congress after Pearl Harbor passed a new Selective Service Act which removed restrictions and extended the draft to men aged 18-38 years of age (briefly to 45 years). All men between 18-65 had to register. The period of service was extended to 6 months after the end of the War. Over 10 million men were inducted under the terms of this Act until a new Selective Service Act was passed after the War (1948). In addition to the 10 million men inducted, 6 million men enlisted. Many of those who inlisted joined the Navy and Air Corps (still part of the Army). Some American youth were anxious to enter the War even earlier than age 18. The military was very strict about the age limits. The Merchant Marine being drained by the battle in the North Atlantic against U-boats was often less careful. Richard Stephens tells how in 1943 that he had just turned 17 and graduated from highschool. He showed up at a Merchant Marine recruiting office with obviously doctored documents. The only problem was that he weighed 129 pounds, 1 pound below the 130 pound minimum weight. He was sent to the corner grocery to buy some bananas that he could eat to gain an extra pound. [Stephens]
The American Army as Europe moved toward war was almost non-existent as a major fighting force. At the time of the Muich crisis (September 1938), the Regular Army consisted of about 167,000 men. Countries like Romania had larger armies. This was abdsurdly small given the dangers posed in Europe and Asia. The Administration had moved to expand enlistments, but events in Europe moved much faster. The United States in 1940 was still without a significant army. The Afministration had taken steps to expand the Navy and to begin building a large Air Force. In particular the U.S. army except for a small professional core practically did not exist. There were still calvalry units and the force that did eist was not armed with modern weapons. The United States in 1940 despite the wars raging in Europe and Asia and the willingness of hostile powers to persue naked agression, American had not yet begun building a powerful army.
Most Americans when war broke out in Europe (1939) were determined to stay out of it. The isolation movement in America was still very strong, The national debate over neutrality and isolationism that had been raging since the mid-1930s reached its height during the 1940 election. The isolationists persisted after the election, bu the 1940 election was their best chance of defeating the President and reshaping American foreign policy. There were powerful spokesmen on both sides. Isolationist groups, such as the American Fist Committee, opposed any risks that could lead to war and shaply attacked the President's policies. International groups and an increasing number of average citizens demanded more active aid to Britain. When the year began, the merican public were still strongly isolationist. After the NAZI victories in the West, first Denmark and Norway (April); then the Netherlands, Luxenboutg, and Belgium (May); and finally France (June)--American public opinion began to significantly shift. Americans were not prepared to enter the War yet, but measures to strengthen national defense and aid Britain thatt the isolaionists had opposed were now being viewed much more favorably.
The French Army had been seen by many as the most powerful military force in the world. It had been the French Army that had plated the major role in stopping the Germany Army in World War I. When after the German invasion of Poland (September 1939) and Bfitain and France declared war, the French Army was the principal force facing thevGermans. The fall of France shocked Americans into realizing that America needed a credible army. The fall of France had a sobering affect on many Americans (June 1940). Undobtedly the radio bradcasts and newsreel images of first Panzers rolling down the Les Champs-Elysées (the Elysian Fields) and then London burning under the NAZI Blitz were making an impression on the American people.
President Roosevelt with Germany's and Japan's aggresive moves had moved forward to expand the Navy and begin building a large air force. There was opposition from some isolationists, including Congressional Reopublicans. Appropriations for national defense, however, did not ignite unsurmountable public opposition. A peacetime draft was potentially a much more volitile effort. It was not just about appropriations. It was about conscripting young men--husbands and sons. This was an issue that the isolationists could use that would resonate with many Americans. But America without a massive army was no deterent to the Germans and Japanese with huge conscript armies. Just as Hitler's resumption of conscription was the turning point in German rearmrnt. American adoption of a peace-time draft would be the turning point in Americam military preparadness. There were sufficent volunteers out of patriotism or other reasons for a small peace-tme army, especialy during the Depression. Building an army on a World War II scale capable of taking on the massive conscript armies of Germany and Japan was a very different matter. A disarmed and feeble United States was central to Hitler's strategic thinking. Only conscription would bring in the number of men needed. And this was espcially the case before the United States was actually in the War. Not having a large consript army mot only put the United States in danger, but mean that it would be mor than a year before the United States could conduct meaningful military operations when the United States actually got involved. This was precisely what hapened in World War I. THe United States declared war (April 1917), but it was a year before American ground forces made any real contrbution to the Allied effort. The American infantry was not fully in place when the Germans launched their massive Spring offensive. THe Allies, as a result, came very clos to loing the War. If America was going to defend itself in World War II, let alone deter Axis aggresion, a massive army would be needed. President Rooevelt and General Marshall knew this. It was less clear to the American people who still still resistied the idea of participating in another European war. And the only way to obtain the the number of men needed was military conscription--the draft. This was President Roosevelt's greatest challenge, to convince Americans that a peace time draft was needed. This was a tough sell and he had to do it in of all times in the middle of a seriously contested presidential election campaign in which he was challeging the long-established two-term limit. This was one of the most courageous decisions in American political history.
President Roosevelt submitted a conscription bill to Congress. One might have thought that after the NAZI aggressions in Europe, the fall of France, and Britain's plight that the need to build a powerful army was patently obvious. The President's proposal was, however, predictably heavily criticised by the isolationists. And there was considerable public oposition to the draft. The issue could have become a major political issue coming as it did during a presidential election campaign. The isolationists still had great influence within the Republican Party. Republican Candidate Wendel Wilkie almost surely would have benefitted politically if he had oppsed the draft. He decided, however, to put country before party. His failure to use the draft as an issued alienated a number of Congressional Republicans. Wilkie was, however, no isolationist and supported the bill. There was still heated debate
The draft was the central issue in American rearmament, just as it had been in German rearmament. At the time, manpower was critical to building a powerful military force. No country could have a creditable military force without a draft. The isolationists understood this and thus theyb made the battle over thedraft the their major stand against President Roosevelt and his reelectiion campaign. The United States in 1940 was still largely unarmed. In particular the U.S. army except for a small professional core practically did not exist. There were still calvalry units and the force that did eist was not armed with modern weapons. The United States in 1940 despite the wars raging in Europe and Asia had an army smaller than that of several small European countries. The American army was smaller than that of Romania. The fall of France had a sobering affect on many Americans (June 1940). The Roosevelt Admistration urging passage of a draft, the first peace-time draft in American history. Congress after an intensive debate passed the bill proposed by the Administration with some amendments. President Roosevelt on September 16 signed the Selective Service Act. The first draft had been during the Civil War. The draft envolved men from 21-35 years of age and involved only 1 year of training a military service. The votes in Congress were comfortable majorities as most Democrats and about half the Republicans supported it despite of the upcoming November election. Undobtedly the radio bradcasts and newsreel images of first Panzers rolling down the Les Champs-Elysées (the Elysian Fields) and then London burning under the NAZI Blitz were making an impression on the American people. The army created by this draft was the army in place when the Japanese brought America into the War with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Thee United States, still at peace, had the smallest military of all the the major Workd War II combatants at outbreak of World War II. There were a mere 0.3 million men of all ranks in all the uniformed services, about half in the Army (September 1939). This is the military that Gen. Marshall ahd Adm. Stark (later Adm. King) had to work with. The United States had made some investment in the Air Force (still part of the Army) and Navy and virtually none in the Army. At few months later, the Germans achieved their great victory in the West and occupied France (June 1940). France had been the great bulwark against the Germans in the West during World War I. Now although many Amerians did not yet know it, Britain and Amnerica would have to confront the Germans in the West without the French Army. The first step was to iniate the first paece time draft in Americann history (Setember 1940). That was, however, only the beginning. The United States military would have to train the vast number of young Americans pouring into military facilities--eventually over 16 million men and women. This was more than three times larger than the World War I effort and theyb served fir a much longer period. And all this had to be accomplished with the small core of professioinal soldiers from 1939. This meant that the facilities for inducting and training one of the great armed forces of the war had to be enormously expanded. In addiution to the trainng was a major medical effort. There were some facilities built for World War I, but nothing to accomodate the military that the United States was creating. Many facilities since World War I had been closed or had deteroriated. Some had been slightly rehabilitated to accomodate the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal agency ebntrusted to the U.S. Army. Nut the existing facilities would have to be greatly expanded and a host of new facilities ooened and facilities constructed. This meant a massiuve construction effort, one of the largest of the War. Billions of dollars were needed--and these were 1940s dollars. Building the barracks and training facilities were the priority, but only a poart of the massive effort. The Army alone built 30 camps and cantonments handle the several thousands of draftees entering the service monthly. And this was just part of it. The camps needed roads, railroad spurs, sewage, mess halls, headquarters buildings, hospitals, and much more. he Airfirce and Navy needed aiurfields abnd port fsculuties. And they needed to build all of this at once. While no one facility made a key difference in the American military achievemnent, the cumulative effect of the constructioin effort was a critical component of the Allied victory. The Department of Defense after the War calculated that some 55,000 buildings as permanent and semi-permanent were built constructed during the War II. All of this of course is in addition to the massive effirt to proiduce the weapons of war that the men being trained would need.
Along with the passage of the Selective Service Act (September 1940), President Roosevelt ordered the National Guard into active military service for 1 year. As America was still not at war, the purpose was preparedness training to ensure the Guard would be ready if America was attacked. A phased program of mobilization began (September 16, 1940). Many refoprted with World War I uniforms and rifles. The mobilization was completed by (spring 1941). After the Selective Service Act was narrowly extended (August 1941), the active service for the Guard was also extended. Three months later the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor bringing the United States into World War II (Sepember 1941). As a result, when America entered the War, a substantial portion of the U.S. Army was made up of National Guard divisions. The National Guard made up 19 divisions Army divisions during the War. As they had some training before mobilization and had about a year of active duty training, they were among the best prepared divisions in the Army. Thus National Guard units were among the first Army divisions to be deployed overseas and the first engaged in active combat, both in the Pacific and European theatres. Three National Guard units were involved in the defense of Batan in the Philippines (December 1941-April 1942). It was the North Dakota National Guard (164th Infantry) that reinforced the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. They were thus the first Army Division to conduct offensive operations. The National Guard was also an important part of the first American offensive operation in Europe--Operation Torch in North Africa (November 1942). This was the 34th Division (Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota). The 34th went on to fight in Italy and was the Army division with the most days in combat.
The 1940 presidential election is arguably the most important election in American history. The first American President, George Washington, retired after two 4-year terms. This set a precedent that every other president had followed. FDR because of the international crisis decided to run for a third term which became a campaign issue. The national debate over neutrality and isolationism that had been raging since the mid-1930s reached its height. There were powerful spokesmen on both sides. Isolationist groups, such as the American Fist Committee, opposed any risks that could lead to war and shaply attacked the President's policies. International groups and an increasing number of average citizens demanded more active aid to Britain. His Republican opponent was a surprise choice, Wendell Willkie, a wealty busniessman who had swept the Republican primaries. Willkie did not crticise FDR's support for the democracies, by the time of the camapign only England. His nomination was an indication of the shift in public opinion toward intervention. Willkie instead pledged "all aid to the Democracies short of war". He attacked the New Deal on domestic issues, what he referred to as the socialistic policies of the Administration. Roosevelt's foreign policy was, however, an issue in the campaign. The isolationists led by the American First Committee accused FDR of trying to drag America into the war. Speaking in Boston on October 30, the President assured his audinence, "I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." Usually the phrase was "foreign wars" and usually the President added, "unless we are attacked". The election was another victory for FDR, but not the landslide of previous camapigns. Still FDR carried 39 of the 48 states. The election, however, was much closer than suggested by the results. FDR saw his re-election as strong pupblic support for a program of military preparedness and aid to Britain.
The President wrote Navy Secretary Knox and War Secretary Simpson asking what would be required to defeat the Axis countries if the United States entered the War (July 9). The President at the time was asuring the public at the time that the United States was not going to enter foreign wars. The military used Supply Priorities and Allocation Board (SPAB) make this assessment. America in 1941 was building a two ocean navy, the largest airforce in the world (50,000 combat air craft), and a 6 million man army. It took the military some time to respond. The President rececived his answer from General Marshall and Admiral Strark who wrote for the War and Navy Departments (September 25). "If Germany and her European sattelites are to be defeated , it will be necessary for the United States to enter the war" Marshall and Stark drew the same conclusion for the Pacific if Japan was to strike in the Pacific.
The isolationists were a powerful political force in America. This represented a long-time tradition in American life, begun by President Washington when he advised against envolvement in European wars. This undoubtedly proved to be beneficuial as America avoided the enormous military expeditures that burdenbed European powers. But America was foirtunte to have the Atlanyic Ocean between it and European powers and the British Royal Navy proivided further security once the British decided to refrain from further military adventures in North America. And for more than a cenntury after Trafakgur (1805), no country other than America dared challenge the British at sea. The situation by the 20th century had changed. If Germany as a result of World War I had gained mastery of Europe, it would have radically weakened American security. And this was even more true during Workd war II becuse of the development of naval abd air weaponry. It is of course easy to make such calculations from the perspective of history. But this basic information was availavle to any one who read the newspaper at the time. It is difficult to understnd why the isolationists were so unwilling to face up to he obvious threat posed by Hitler abd the NAZIs. It is understandable that many Americans were opposed to War, but with a leader like Hitler, it was obvious that the question was not whether to participate in theWar or not, but whether to gight Hitlercalone or with allies.
The isolations were not silenced with their defeat over Selective Service (September 1940), Roosevelt's Third term (November 1940), and approval of Lend Lease (March 1941). The Unites States virtually did not have an army before the Selective Srvice Act was passed. And even adter it the U.S. Army was still small, untrained, and poorly equipped. This was the first step in building a 6 million man army. The 1940 Selective Service Act authorized conscription for 1 year. As a esult, the isolations staged a major effort to defeat the renewal of the act in 1941. It would be the last major effort by the Isolationists. Despite the war in Europe and Japanese advances in the Pacific, there was considerable resistance in Congress for renewing the Selective Service Act. Many mothers anhd wives wrote to their Congrsssmen complaining. The resistance to renewal was led by the Republican minority, but the draft was such a sensitive issue that they were joined by enough Democrats that renewal was in serious question. The NAZI suprise attack on the Soviet Union was another clear indicator of what Hitler was capable of doing. Any thinking soul could reason that fighting the NAZIs with allies was essential. At the time the 1940 debate took place, the survival of Britain was in question. When the 1941 debate took place, it was the survival of the Soviet Union that was in question. The isolationists, however, again resisted the draft. They convinced themselves that War with the NAZIs was not enevitable. Failire to renew Selective Service would have meant that the men drafted in 1940 would go home only a few weeks before Pearl Harbor. hus America would have entered World War II essentially without an army. I a razor-thin Congressional vote on the eve of Pearl Harbor, the Selective Serbice Act was renwed (August 1941). President Roosevelt was with Churchill at the Atlantic Conference when the House voted to renew Selective Service by 1 lone vote. The vote was 203 to 202. There were attempts to change votes and run a a vote count, but Speaker Rayburn gavelled them down. To gain even this margin, the bill had to include a commitment not to send draftees out of the Hemisphere without Congressional authorization. [Black, p. 656.] Renewal permitted the Army to keep the one-year draftees. And to add a second year class of draftees.
Right up until Pearl Harbor, many isolationists resisted military preparadness. One of the most prominent Republican Isolations was Senator Burton K. Wheeler. Using the privlidge of the Congressionl Frank, Senator Wheeler mailed out a million post cards reading, "Write to President Roosevelt today that you are against our entry into the European war." These cards helped to fuel the OHIO movement--Over the Hill in October. It was an effort to proimote disertion. [Morgan, p. 599.]
A Japanese carrier taskforce composed of six carriers on December 7, 1941, executed a surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941). The United States had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and were expecting an attack in the Far East, but not at Pearl Harbor. It was a brilliantly planned and executed military operation and a stunning tactical victory for Japan. It was also perhaps the greatest miscaklculation in modern military history as it brought a suddenly united America with its vast industrial capacity into the War. At the same time, a Red Army offensive before Moscow not only stopped the Germans, but inflicted enormous losses on the Wehrmacht. The Japanese decesion to go to war with America was premosed on the fact that the Germans woukd defeat the Soviet Union and thus the United states would have to concentrate its resources on Germany. The Japanese launched 360 aircraft which in 2 hours struck Peal Harbor just as the American sailors were waking up on a sleepy Sunday morning. The strike sunk or heavily damaged six of the eight American battleships, thrre cruisrs, three destroyers, and most of the Army Air Corps planes on the island. Despite the devestation and loss of life, only two of the battleships were destroyed. And worse still fort the Japanese, the American carriers which had been the primary target were not at Pearl and were untouched. Thus Japan managed to only destroy two largely obsolete battkeships in exchange for brining Anerica into the War. America finally was at war and disasterously vfor Japan and Germany, her war making potential was fully in tack.
Congress after Pearl Harbor passed a new Selective Service Act which removed restrictions and extended the draft to men aged 18-38 years of age (briefly to 45 years). All men between 18-65 had to register. The period of service was extended to 6 months after the end of the War. Over 10 million men were inducted under the terms of this Act.
In addition to the 10 million men inducted, 6 million men enlisted. Many of those who inlisted joined the Navy and Air Corps (still part of the Army). Some American youth were anxious to enter the War even earlier than age 18. The military was very strict about the age limits. The Merchant Marine being drained by the battle in the North Atlantic against U-boats was often less careful. Richard Stephens tells how in 1943 that he had just turned 17 and graduated from highschool. He showed up at a Merchant Marine recruiting office with obviously doctored documents. The only problem was that he weighed 129 pounds, 1 pound below the 130 pound minimum weight. He was sent to the corner grocery to buy some bananas that he could eat to gain an extra pound. [Stephens]
A new Selective Service Act was passed after the War (1948). Juast as it had been in World War II, this was a major step in the Cold War effort to stop Soviet expanionism.
Black, Conrad. Franklin Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (Public Affairs: New York, 2003), 1280p.
Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1985), 830p.
Stephens, Richard W. "So eager to get into the fight," Washington Post May 28, 2004, p. W10.
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