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The Day When We Almost Lost the Army

June 2024
9min read

Debate over America's involvement in World War II came to a head in July 1941 as the Senate argued over a draft extension bill. The decision would have profound consequences for the nation.

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 . . .”

Wadsworth gathered a group of skeptical fellow House Republicans in a private dining room at Washington’s Army and Navy Club to hear Marshall explain the stakes. One skeptic told Marshall, “You put the case very well, but I will be damned if I am going to go along with Mr. Roosevelt.” The usually unflappable Marshall exploded: “You are going to let plain hatred of the personality dictate to you to do something that you realize is very harmful to the interest of the country!”

“The President has sent in General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, to carry the ball,” reported Time magazine. “Good soldier Marshall pounded down the field through center, off tackle, around the ends. . . . By now, General Marshall had smashed all the way to the one-yard line.”

Not quite. The Senate Military Affairs Committee hearings on July 17 featured leadoff witness Norman Thomas, the land’s preeminent socialist, whose bland, bow-tied countenance looked every bit the Presbyterian minister he had once trained to become. The Socialist Party’s four-time candidate for president branded Marshall as an FDR dupe: “To an extent that he may not realize, the prestige of General Marshall’s name, his plans for the organization of his opinions, are being used in a great game of politics, the logical end of which is a war which 70 or possibly 80 percent of the American people do not want.” He scorned FDR’s recent claim that even Iceland deserved U.S. protection because it lay within the Western Hemisphere. What was next, Thomas taunted FDR: “Perhaps some lonely posts in Siberia . . . occupation of the Sahara Desert?”

Warned that bill’s passage was in serious danger, FDR gave up a weekend at his beloved estate, Hyde Park, and stayed in Washington to plot the next move. On July 21 he summoned reporters to the White House. Before radio microphones and rolling cameras, he warned the nation that, should Congress fail to act, “beginning this autumn . . . the Army of the United States will begin to melt away.” He recalled the nation’s perilous birth. “The risks and weaknesses caused by dissolving a trained army in times of national peril were pointed out by George Washington over and over again in his messages to the Continental Congress.”

Hearings continued through the steamy summer. On July 28 Rosa Farber, speaking for the Mothers of the USA, asked members of the House Committee on Military Affairs whether they had forgotten the song “Goodbye Dear, I’ll Be Back in a Year,” popular the year before. “You talk about breaking faith with draftees,” struck back Congressman Eugene Cox (D-GA), “but what about breaking faith with the nation? When our country calls, who will refuse to answer? . . . Let us say to the world that we are Americans and that we mean business.”

As the possibility grew that men awaiting discharge might be kept in uniform, the word “OHIO” began appearing scrawled on barrack walls, latrines, and mess halls in Army posts across the country. While passersby may have assumed that men from the Buckeye State served therein, the graffiti actually stood for “Over the Hill in October.” Impatient draftees, reasoning that Uncle Sam had entered into a contract with them, assumed that they would have fulfilled their end of the bargain in October. They now threatened to go home, no matter how Congress voted.

Shortly before final debate in the House, the majority leader John McCormack (D-MA) called the president’s press secretary, Stephen Early, to warn that he had “lost control of his people” on this issue and could not guarantee delivery of all the party faithful. As the final August 12 vote on the extension bill neared, Turner Catledge, the New York Times’s political analyst, warned that “the Administration has not yet sufficiently impressed Congress and the country with the gravity of the emergency so far as it affects the self interest of the United States.”

Convinced that he had personally pressed his case as far as he dared, and with a secret mission occupying his thoughts, FDR quietly slipped out of the capital aboard the presidential yacht Potomac, allegedly for 10 days of fishing. “For probably the first time in history,” reported the Times, “the whereabouts of the President of the United States has been unknown for three days to the American people and to most, if not all, ranking government officials. . . . With Winston Churchill also vanished from the public eye, speculation reached a new high mark.”

On August 12 the House prepared to vote on H.R. 10132. Speaker Sam Rayburn, clad in his customary funereal garb, mounted the dais and called the chamber to order a full two hours early, anticipating a long, grueling day. Reporters filled every seat in the press gallery. Depending on one’s point of view, the lawmakers were either voting to save the Army or to rebuff that warmonger in the White House.

The House resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole. The chairman of Military Affairs, Andrew Jackson May (D-KY), presided. (The congressman, also known as “Millions for Defense,” would later go to jail on bribery charges surrounding wartime munitions profiteering.) The parliamentary maneuver freed Speaker Rayburn to work the floor and cloakroom, wielding his massive power to collect on past favors.

Charles Isiah Faddis (D-PA) took the floor and referenced a letter that his fellow representative, Clare Hoffman, had circulated to members the day before, “warning me to be careful of my political scalp.” He continued, “To think that any man who is a member of this body would take into consideration and weigh against the security of his nation whether or not he was going to be returned to the House of Representatives. My God! What have we come to? To what depths have we sunk?”

The jowly, white-haired, and avuncular Usher L. Burdick (R-ND) scoffed at the suggestion that the nation faced imminent danger. “Germany has not yet been able to swim the English Channel,” Burdick noted of the long-expected Nazi invasion of Britain after France’s fall. “It is nothing but a pipe dream to think that Germany could land troops in the United States.” The Oregon Republican Congressman James W. Mott called conscription “the method which has long been employed by Hitler, by Mussolini, by Stalin and by the totalitarians who control the Japanese government.” Congressman Robert E. Thomason (D-TX) shot back that Germany “now dominates and has in enslavement over 200 million people. We are not getting nearer to war. War is getting nearer to us.”

The session dragged into its tenth hour, offering no break for lunch or dinner. Bleary-eyed members ducked into the Speaker’s lobby, the one place where, amid the clatter of the Associated Press and United Press news tickers, they could smoke. Rayburn’s head count revealed that he still lacked the votes to pass the measure. Sol Bloom (D-NY), the diminutive, feisty chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, walked to the cloakroom and lit a cigar to calm his nerves. There a colleague mentioned that he intended to switch his vote from “yea” to “nay.” According to Bloom, the chairman blocked the man, threatening, “you’ll have to knock me through the doorway if you want to return to the floor. I’m going to stand right here.”

Replacing Chairman May, Rayburn resumed the rostrum. “The question is on the passage of the bill,” he called out. Initially it appeared that the bill had passed 204 to 201, with 27 abstentions. But New York Congressman Andrew L. Somers changed his mind, leaving only a one-vote edge. Missouri Rep. Dewey Short, a Republican opponent of the measure, a former minister, and a member of the isolationist Committee to Keep America Out of the War, seized on a stratagem by calling for a “recapitulation,” which required the clerk to have all House members repeat their original vote—a move that Rayburn genially allowed, recognizing that Short had made a mistake. Had the congressman called for a “reconsideration,” instead of a “recapitulation,” members could have changed their votes. An electric hush gripped the chamber during the 45 minutes it took to call the roll. In the end, the vote held 203 to 202. With the whack of his gavel, Rayburn announced that “No correction in the vote stands, and the bill is passed.” The clock above his rostrum showed 8:39 p.m. A cacophony of applause, boos, cheers, jeers, clapping, and hissing erupted from the gallery. The Senate had already passed a similar bill by the more comfortable margin of 45 to 30.

The next day the New York Times editorialized that the extension meant draftees will “give their time in order that an unprepared American Army may not be butchered by its own weakness.” Six days later, on August 18, FDR, back in Washington and flush with success after a secret meeting with Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Argentia, Newfoundland, signed the draft extension into law. Less than four months later, the bombs came down on Pearl Harbor.

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