75 years ago today: the first peacetime draft

On September 16, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Selective Training and Service Act, which constituted the first peacetime draft in United States history. It required all American males between the ages of 21 and 36 to register for “training and service in the land and naval forces of the United States.”

It also provided for the first time in American history a clause recognizing conscientious objection. Men whose claim of CO status was recognized could serve in noncombatant roles, or take part in an organization (yet to be formed) that would assign them to do “work of national importance under civilian direction.” Nobody knew it yet, but the seed of Civilian Public Service (CPS) was planted.

Where and how men were granted CO status was a matter of geography — both physical and social. Draft boards were composed of local men, many of them veterans of war themselves, and a young man requesting CO status was entirely at their mercy. In some cities, a CO on one side of the street might be assigned to CPS or excused entirely, and a CO from the other side of the street be sent to prison.

The statement that CO’s submitted ranged from the concretely religious to broadly philosophical. Kermit Sheets told his draft board in central California that he had been raised to follow the Bible, and it told him simply, “Thou shalt not kill.”

William Everson, also from central California, declared himself a pantheist, and wrote that the U.S. should not engage in war so that citizens of the future could look back and say, “Here was finally a people in all the bloody past who loved peace too much to fight for it.”

Both were sent to CPS camps in Oregon, where fate and their own energies would conspire to create something more.


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1 Response to 75 years ago today: the first peacetime draft

  1. Thanks for this post, Steve, and for lifting up the origin of CPS. There are so many wonderful stories related to Civilian Public Service, and I’m glad you’ve brought to light that of the Fine Arts camp at Waldport. I’ve enjoyed your book HERE ON THE EDGE and appreciate the way you continue to tell the story.
    The CPS history also has a thread in the story I’ve been uncovering about the seagoing cowboys. In early 1946, permission was obtained for a special CPS unit in which CPSers could leave their camps to sign up for service on the livestock ships taking cattle, horses, and mules to Europe and elsewhere. Prior to that time, CPSers were not allowed to leave the country. This unit was called the CPS reserve, and over 350 CPSers signed up for it, but none from the Fine Arts group as far as I can tell. At some point in the future, I’ll write a post about that on my blog. Thanks for your good work!

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