Selective Service Right Now


By GENERAL HUGH S. JOHNSON, Political Commentator and Formerly Director, N.R.A.

Delivered over the Columbia Broadcasting System network, August 23, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 729-730

I WANT to talk to you about Selective Service—to raise the hundreds of thousands of men we need to protect our country in this deadly dangerous world. It is being stalled in Congress by small-time politics. Small-time— because both the great leaders Roosevelt and Willkie, have disdained petty political advantage on national defense. They are for selective service now.

But a few members of both Houses, overlooking I think the sturdy patriotism and common sense of the American people, profess to fear for their own reelections if they vote against what they call the "traditional American volunteering" and in favor of what they call the "dictatorial system of conscription".

These are the issues. I feel competent to discuss them, because under General Enoch H. Crowder, I planned the selective service system of 1917 and was in direct charge of its execution.

The pending Burke-Wadsworth bill should be much improved. But it makes a start. Getting started on defense in this world of swift and deadly surprises is everything. These wasted days may now seem unimportant. They so seemed in early 1917 when, as now, people were bewildered because politicians wrangled. We, in the selective service system, didn't wait. We set the system up before the law was passed. That saved just 60 days in the process of raising our armies. By revising the system we saved another 60 days in December, 1917.

That didn't seem very important in those deliberate days. But in March, 1918, when the Germans with a typical Hitleresque Blitzkrieg surprise drive broke the 5th British Army before the Channel Ports and smashed through the French toward Paris as far as Chateau Thierry, the months saved back in drowsy 1917 enabled us to rush a great American Army to France and turn certain defeat to overwhelming Allied victory. No man can foresee the tragic disaster of days lost now as they may appear in 1941—perhaps forever too late.

We will never again be fools enough to send a single American mother's son to double-crossing Europe. It isn't a question of that now. It is a question of double-crossing Europe threatening us. With our strength of men and resources we can take a defensive position which nobody will ever dare threaten—but we can't do that if we delay in utilizing every minute of these precious days of comparative peace and respite. We can't do it, if our experience in the World War and the complete collapse of nation after nation in this war hasn't taught us that, in this terrible new motorized, mechanized, lightning war, time is of the very essence of our safety and that the peoples who sleep on their opportunity are lost.

Even more than in 1917 and '18, four months lost in Congressional thumb-twiddling and political jockeying now, or four months saved in realistic common-sense American efficiency may be the difference between the safe existence of our nation and our way of life and its destruction at the hands of the most ruthless conquerors that ever ravaged an innocent and unoffending people.

Just passing an Act of Congress will no more get men than it will get tanks and airplanes. While the kind of organization we set up in 1917 can begin to select men in a few weeks, it can't get into its full scientific and equitable efficiency in less than four months—not until registration and classification of millions are complete. Add to those four months whatever additional time is taken in Congressional wrangling now and you can get a fair measure of the danger of political legislative trifling in the face of a world aflame with the greatest menace this country has ever known. It is a deliberate risking of the only kind of defense that can keep us from being drawn into this inhuman war for the destruction of our democracy—the last best hope of earth.

To keep the "traditional American system of volunteering" is the excuse. That system isn't traditional. From our beginning, we have nearly always had to abandon it because it never has worked in any major war in our history. In our Revolution the colonies that did their part in full had to reject it and take up outright, brutal conscription—which is far from what is now proposed.

We tried "traditional volunteering" in 1812. Washington was burned and Detroit surrendered. We used fixed-term volunteers in the Mexican War and they left General Scott stranded between Vera Cruz and Mexico City. Both sides tried traditional volunteering in our War among the States—and both had to abandon it to avoid disaster.

We gave volunteering full scope in 1917 until December 1st. The flow of men just petered out. No one can argue that if we had not abandoned it then for full and vigorous selective service, the first World War would have been disastrously lost to the Allies and to us before the Summer of 1918.

Up to the World War, conscription was a hateful thing. It was enforced by bureaucrats and political soldiers upon citizens whose names were drawn from jury wheels without regard for their responsibilities to dependents and the economic life of the nation. It was full of favoritism, graft, purchase of exemptions, bounties and hiring of substitutes. That was military service enslaved by press gangs. It degraded the conscript, abused and affronted his family and was a reproach to democracy.

Selective service is not conscription in any such sense. Recent political ballyhoo has been that it is a step toward dictatorship. If it were, I wouldn't be urging it. In 1917 there was no power in Washington or anywhere else in America with authority to take or defer the taking of any man—except the local boards of his neighbors on questions of dependency and the district boards on other questions. It was of the very essence of traditional American democracy in decentralized local self-government. I see no disposition in Congress or the Executive to depart from the proved perfection of the 1917 law.

Our need for men now is relatively so much smaller and the number of available men so much larger that if we register all those between 18 and 60 and then classify them according to their relative obligations to families and employment, our selection now can be made with no harsh invasion whatever of domestic, economic and educational relations. We can get our men for training in the fairest, gentlest and most humane and sympathetic system ever known on this earth.

I rub my eyes and look back at 1917 like a Rip Van Winkle waking from a 23 years' sleep. Every single one of these objections and all this political finagling were tried then. Every hearer who is old enough to remember will bear me out that when this most democratic and scientific system of selecting man-power moved into execution before our people's eyes, that clamor died in a month. Selective service proved our most respected, popular and successful effort of the World War. So great was the country's satisfaction and acclaim that I never expected to live to see theday again when its principles would even be questioned. It is a system not only for the protection of the country but for the protection of families, farms, homes and factories from impulsive action by immature boys at the emotional pressure of fifes, drums, and eagle-screaming oratory on the one hand and sneers, innuendoes, and the near blackmail of high pressure recruiting drives on the other.

Another unbelievable outcome is that Congress and the country should demand the spending of unlimited billions for the new and horribly scientific weapons of modern mechanized war and then hesitate to man those weapons with the kind of specialists who can be trained and provided in this way and in no other. If we can't train the expert specialists we might as well save our money for the machines and sit here helpless—as Poland sat, or Belgium and even France—and let Hitler's mechanical monsters roll and fly over us in the same blood-bath of destruction. It is incredible folly.

That training is a protection to our country but it is as vitally necessary for the protection of our soldiers. Sending untrained boys with or without modern armored, motorized and mechanized implements of war against such specialists as Hitler has in such machines is just like sending naked Indians in canoes armed with bows and arrows out against a first-class battleship—mass murder for them, certain disaster for their country.

We must lose no more time in political monkey-business and legislative piffling. This is no experiment. We have the complete and successful 1917 and '18 experience. It is only necessary to take up where we left off there.

As Woodrow Wilson said of that effort:

"It is a new manner of accepting and vitalizing our duty to give ourselves with thoughtful devotion to the common purpose of us all. It is in no sense a conscription of the unwilling; it is rather, selection from a nation which has volunteered in mass. It is no more a choosing of those who shall march with the colors than it is a selection of those who shall serve an equally necessary and devoted purpose in the industries that lie behind the battle line."

Let's not encourage Hitler's Nazi philosophy by any further fumbling with the established superior efficiency of America in both war and peace. Let's prove in 1940 against him, as we proved in 1918 against the Kaiser, that our democracy can defend against any form of autocracy on earth. Let's start now.