When the war began, the United States Army numoered about two hundred thousand men. By the end of 1918 that number had swollen to nearly four million, more than half of whom had been drafted. Open resistance to the draft was at a minimum (compared with what had taken place in the Civil War) despite its being the first truly comprehensive draft in history. More than twenty-four million men were registered, and eventually 2,810,296 were inducted. There were, however, some two hundred thousand draft evaders, who, if caught and found guilty, were subject to up to five years in prison.

A total of 3,989 conscientious objectors were assigned to alternative service or to noncombatant military service. Four hundred and fifty men who failed to meet the narrow test for C.O. status or who simply refused outright to cooperate with the military system in any way (for example, by refusing to register for the draft) were imprisoned for terms up to five years.

The precise number of military deserters is not known, but the figure undoubtedly ran into the thousands. Between the armistice and February, 1920, for instance, 11,089 men deserted the Army.

In addition, there were at least two thousand “political” prisoners who had been found guilty and jailed under two wartime measures, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. The latter prohibited, among other things, the use of “profane, scurrilous or abusive language” against the government or any of its leaders. Both laws provided for fines up to ten thousand dollars and prison terms up to twenty years. Hundreds of Socialists, including Eugene Debs, the party’s Presidential candidate in 1916, who opposed the war on ideological grounds, were sent to prison. Debs was sentenced to ten years. Several hundred members of the Industrial Workers of the World ( I.W.W. ), including “Big Bill” Haywood, who received twenty years, were similarly jailed for opposing the war.

With the armistice various peace groups pressed for amnesty without success. Wilson adamantly refused to consider the matter, either as a general pardon for all or as individual pardons granted case by case. The clearest statement of his position concerned Debs, whose release had been the subject of numerous editorials once the war was over. Speaking privately to an aide, the President said: “I will never consent to the pardon of this man. … Were I to consent to it, I should never be able to look into the faces of the mothers of this country who sent their boys to the other side. While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines, sniping, attacking, and denouncing them.… This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.”

Debs was finally pardoned by Warren Harding on Christmas Eve, 1921, along with twenty-three other political prisoners. Over the next two years Harding freed hundreds of others on a case-by-case basis, refusing to resort to general amnesty. In June, 1923, in one of his last acts as President, he freed twenty-seven members of the I.W.W.

After Harding’s death Coolidge continued his predecessor’s practice of freeing political prisoners after a case-by-case review. On March 5, 1924, he pardoned nearly one hundred deserters who had left their units after November, 1918. But neither Wilson nor Harding nor Coolidge pardoned any wartime deserters or draft evaders.

The last of the World War I pardons was tendered by Franklin Roosevelt on December 23, 1933, in a Christmas amnesty that, fifteen years after the war, restored voting rights and other civil liberties to fifteen hundred violators of the Espionage Act who had finished serving their sentences.


Similarly, in World War II , a policy of selective pardon was followed. Nearly 12,466,000 Americans served in the armed forces during the war. Of these, 8,300,000 were in the Army, and 61 per cent of them were draftees. The official figure for draft evasions is 348,217, but this figure is misleading because it lumps together technical violations (e.g., reporting on the wrong day) as well as direct evasions. In any case the number of evasions was substantial.

In all, 36,887 men claimed C.O. status or volunteered for alternative service under the draft classification IV-E . A total of 6,086 men were imprisoned either because they had refused induction outright, refused to register for the draft, or failed to meet the narrow test for C.O. status. Among them were more than four thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses who were refused deferments as ministers of their faith, 167 Negro Muslims (now Black Muslims) who refused to join a segregated army, and a number of Hopi Indians whose pacifism was not recognized by the government.

As in World War I the number of deserters is not known, but as late as 1944 the Army was recording a rate of sixty-three desertions for every thousand men on active duty.