The Day When We Almost Lost the Army

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On July 19, 1941, when Gen. George Catlett Marshall, Army chief of staff, stepped before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, his gray civilian suit could not disguise the proud bearing of a soldier and commander of men. His shoulders squared, but not conspicuously so, his chin receding slightly, and thin lips compressed with resolution, his tall figure exuded dignity, authority, and singleness of purpose. He considered his mission that day as among the most vital of any during his distinguished 39-year career in uniform: to save the still anemic U.S. Army from emasculation.

“If the term of service of the National Guard and the selectees is not extended,” Marshall warned, “under existing limitations of the law, almost two-thirds of our enlisted men and three-fourths of our officer personnel will have to be released after completing 12 months of service.” Such a contraction would expose terrible vulnerabilities to one vital U.S. bastion in particular: “the great naval base of Pearl Harbor.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who keenly understood the dangers of not extending the draft, had carefully considered whom he would send to the Hill as point man. Often that task would fall to the secretary of war, but the 73-year-old Henry Stimson had angered many of his Republican colleagues the year before by joining FDR’s Democratic administration. The president settled on the less politically divisive Marshall.

Debate over the initial draft bill the year before had proved stormy. Upstate New York Republican Congressman James Wadsworth, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, had introduced it on June 20, 1940, two days before France capitulated to Nazi Germany. Wadsworth’s measure, H.R. 10132, bore the ringing title, “A Bill to Protect the Integrity and Institutions of the United States through a System of Selective Compulsory Military Training and Service.” This first peacetime draft sought to impose a single year of Army service on men aged 21 through 36. It proposed to strengthen preparedness, while keeping America out of the war in Europe by barring draftees from serving in foreign countries.

Opposition boiled up. Sen. Claude Pepper of Florida, who spoke in favor of the bill, was hanged in effigy outside the Capitol by the Congress of American Mothers. A colonially garbed “Pauline Revere” rode up the Capitol steps on a white horse, bearing a sign that read, “Mobilize for Peace and Defeat Conscription.” The isolationist America First Committee, boasting among its members former president Theodore Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter Alice Longworth, aviation hero Eddie Rickenbacker, and Hollywood star Lillian Gish, deeply opposed the draft extension. Should beleaguered Britain fall, they argued, the wisest course for the United States would be to find an accommodation with Adolf Hitler rather than to jump into another European war.

Tempers frayed as the debate in Congress dragged on. Congressman Martin Sweeney (D-OH) denounced the bill as a ruse to drag America into war on the side of Britain. Beverly Vincent (D-KY) shot back that Sweeney was not only a traitor but “a son of a bitch.” Sweeney took a swing at Vincent, who counterpunched with a hard right to Sweeney’s head. The House doorkeeper called it the best fistfight he had witnessed in his 50 years at his post. On September 14, after being amended 33 times, Wadsworth’s bill carried handily by 47 to 25 votes in the Senate and by 232 to 124 in the House. Numerous members of Congress ducked the vote by voting only “present” or were off campaigning in an election year. Two days later, the president signed the measure.

That year FDR decided to make his precedent-shattering run for a third term, and his Republican opponent, the rumpled, affable, and astute Wall Street lawyer Wendell Willkie, had found his campaign issue: the president, Willkie charged, was a warmonger. Roosevelt hit back in a campaign speech at the Boston Garden: “While I am talking to you fathers and mothers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again; your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Earlier he had asked his friend Samuel Rosenman, “If someone attacks us, it isn’t a foreign war, is it?” In the end, backing the draft proved no obstacle to the president’s reelection. On November 5 FDR defeated Willkie by 5 million votes.

But the draft issue provided prime fodder in popular culture. Comedian Bob Hope and movie siren Dorothy Lamour made a film called Caught in the Draft, a wacky comedy about the futility of trying to beat the system. A comic strip named Draftie appeared. Jokes about reveille, mess halls, and leather-lunged drill sergeants became staples for radio comedians.

Baseball team owners and executives split over whether their players should receive deferments: General Manager Warren Giles of the Cincinnati Reds professed that his players would “go just as fast as the batboy,” while the Chicago White Sox’s GM Harry Grabiner argued that the national pastime’s star quality was vital to America’s morale. In the end, standouts such as the Cleveland Indians’ Bob Feller, the Yankees’ Phil Rizzuto, and Detroit’s Hank Greenberg were all classified 1-A, as was the world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis.

Almost a year passed, and the 12-month draftees approached their discharge date when Congressman Wadsworth introduced H.R. 10132. Once again, opposition mobilized, and the Senate and House testily debated the issue throughout the summer of 1941. A full-page ad in the New York Times, signed by 240 educators, proclaimed, “In our view, peacetime conscription and American democracy are quite incompatible. . . . Never before in American history has it been necessary . . .”