September 16

Franklin Roosevelt approves military draft

On this day in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Selective Service and Training Act, which requires all male citizens between the ages of 26 and 35 to register for the military draft, beginning on October 16. The act had been passed by Congress 10 days earlier.

America was not yet involved in the Second World War, but Roosevelt considered it a prudent step to train American men for military service in case the U.S. would have to defend itself against the growing threat of fascist and militarist regimes in Europe and Japan. At the time, Poland, Holland, Belgium, France and Norway had been invaded by Germany and word had begun to spread of Hitler’s persecution of Jews and other minorities in concentration camps. It appeared that Great Britain would be next on the list of Nazi casualties. From July 1940, Hitler’s Air Force bombarded England and the German navy blockaded the island nation in preparation for a planned invasion.

Roosevelt responded to British distress by selling the country more military equipment and providing increased humanitarian aid. After signing the Selective Service Act, Roosevelt warned, “America stands at the crossroads of its destiny. Time and distance have been shortened. A few weeks have seen great nations fall. We cannot remain indifferent to the philosophy of force now rampant in the world. We must and will marshal our great potential strength to fend off war from our shores. We must and will prevent our land from becoming a victim of aggression.”

Although many Americans preferred to stay out of another conflict in Europe–World War I was still fresh in many minds–there was little resistance to the draft and, in the end, the measure might have been unnecessary. After the Japanese bombed Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, American men flocked to recruitment centers to enlist in the military.