Compulsory Service Must Be Adopted Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The continuing advance of Nazi Germany by the end of the 1930s prompted declarations of war across Europe. Although the United States was not yet directly threatened by Adolf Hitler's campaign, Secretary of War Henry Stimson argued in 1940 that there existed a “war emergency” that warranted American preparation. Speaking in Congress before the House Military Affairs Committee, Stimson argued that the best course of action was to raise a military force through compulsory service rather than a voluntary system. Time was of the essence, he warned: Great Britain, the last viable US military ally to remain unconquered by Germany, was not far from collapse. If Britain were to fall, Germany would control the Atlantic Ocean, while its ally Japan would control the Pacific. War, he said, was coming to North America, and the Axis would defeat America as it did Europe unless a suitable military force was formed in time to stop it.

Summary Overview

The continuing advance of Nazi Germany by the end of the 1930s prompted declarations of war across Europe. Although the United States was not yet directly threatened by Adolf Hitler's campaign, Secretary of War Henry Stimson argued in 1940 that there existed a “war emergency” that warranted American preparation. Speaking in Congress before the House Military Affairs Committee, Stimson argued that the best course of action was to raise a military force through compulsory service rather than a voluntary system. Time was of the essence, he warned: Great Britain, the last viable US military ally to remain unconquered by Germany, was not far from collapse. If Britain were to fall, Germany would control the Atlantic Ocean, while its ally Japan would control the Pacific. War, he said, was coming to North America, and the Axis would defeat America as it did Europe unless a suitable military force was formed in time to stop it.

Defining Moment

At the end of the 1930s, Germany was battered and nearly crushed by two decades of punitive economic, military, and political sanctions levied upon it by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. It reemerged, however, as it embraced the nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic ideals of Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. Immediately upon assuming power in 1933, Hitler launched a campaign designed to expand Germany's geographic domain.

After violating the terms of the treaty by inserting troops into the demilitarized Rhineland as well as absorbing Austria, Hitler made a number of bold moves across the borders of sovereign nations. In 1939, Germany annexed Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland (an act that prompted France, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia to declare war). In 1940, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg followed as the Nazi blitzkrieg spread across Europe. In June of 1940, France fell and was occupied, with a puppet government installed in Vichy. On the other side of the world, Japan (which in 1940 would join forces with Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini through the Tripartite Pact) had already invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria in 1931, setting up a puppet government there, and was continuing its advance toward Beijing and into Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

By 1940, much of the world outside the Americas was living under wartime conditions. After France fell, the last viable opponent for Germany was Great Britain. (The Soviet Union had entered into a nonaggression pact in 1939 with Germany.) German bombers began sorties over London and other key targets in England during the fall of 1940. Offshore, German U-boats started sinking merchant ships en route from the United States to British ports.

Weary from World War I and separated from Europe by thousands of miles of ocean, the United States remained on the sidelines. A majority of Americans simply felt that the growing crisis in Europe was a matter that was of no concern to them. Neutrality, they felt, was the better course of action. Still, there was also widespread concern that, should Great Britain fail to repel the Nazis, the war would spread across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Because the American Army had been significantly reduced after World War I, and the Navy was largely occupied with the Japan crisis, emergency legislation was introduced in Congress to raise a military force capable of addressing the wartime threat. In July 1940, Secretary of War Henry Stimson appeared before the House Military Affairs Committee to advocate for an initiative to reinstate a system of selective compulsory military service (also known as conscription or the draft).

Author Biography

Henry Lewis Stimson was born on September 21, 1867, in New York City and spent much of his later childhood in upstate New York. He attended the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, before pursuing his bachelor's degree at Yale University. He later graduated from Harvard Law School in 1890. In 1891, he returned to New York City and was admitted to the New York state bar. In 1910, Stimson made his first attempt at elected office, running unsuccessfully as a Republican for governor of New York. He was appointed secretary of war by President William Howard Taft in 1911. Stimson would hold several positions in the Taft, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations, including that of secretary of state in 1929. In 1940, Stimson was brought out of retirement by President Franklin Roosevelt to serve as secretary of war. He would later advise President Harry Truman on the first use of the atomic bomb in 1945. Stimson retired after the war, returning with his wife of fifty-three years, Mabel White, to their Long Island estate. Stimson died on October 20, 1950.

Historical Document

YOU, gentlemen, are the trustees of the security of the United States. One of the main purposes of our Constitution is to provide for the common defense. Under that Constitution the power to raise and support armies was specifically given to the Congress.

You, gentlemen, are the members of the committee which was created to guide the House of Representatives in the performance of its duties in that matter of raising and supporting armies. Thus in that matter you are, in very special sense, the trustees for the people of the United States.

Now what are the rules which in ordinary life guide a trustee in the performance of his duties?

First and foremost it is his duty to follow the lessons of experience. It is his duty to use methods which have been proved to be effective. It is his duty to avoid methods which have been shown to be ineffective and futile; which have not only been futile but have been breeders of evils and dangers. It is his duty, in other words, to play safe with the great trust which has been confided to him.

When we apply these simple and well-known fiduciary rules to the problem of this bill which is before you now, it seems to me that there can be no doubt or question as to the method you should follow. If there is any lesson which has been thoroughly proved by history throughout the life of our nation, it is that the only safe and effective way to meet a great war emergency is by the timely creation of a selective compulsory system for raising our armies.

The other system, the system of volunteering, has been tried again and again, and in every serious war, as well as in some wars which were not serious, it has proved a costly failure. Our government tried it in the Revolution. Within two years the great States of Virginia and Massachusetts were forced to resort to the draft and even then the total number of men serving under arms in the American armies declined from 79,000 men in 1776 to less than 30,000 men in 1781.

In the Civil War both sides began with volunteers and both sides eventually were compelled to resort to the draft. We tried it in the Spanish War and although the number of men required was extremely small in comparison to our population, even that small number was never fully enlisted.

Finally, in the Great War, our government began with a carefully devised selective and compulsory system, and the largest armies ever used in our history were raised with an enthusiasm which was magnificent and with a minimum of disturbance to our national and industrial life. The experience of Great Britain has been similar to ours. She had the same prejudice as we did against conscription and in favor of the voluntary system. In both the Great War and on the approach of the present war, she delayed in instituting a compulsory system, with the result, in both cases, that there was caused enormous loss and confusion, and now possibly eventual disaster. In all the other nations of Europe, from peace-loving Switzerland to the totalitarian States, the compulsory system is recognized as the only effective method by which a nation can organize its military strength.

Thus, from the standpoint of the lessons of human experience, there can be no question between the two methods; there can be no question that one has regularly proved acostly failure while the other is now universally recognized as the only system which is effective.

In the next place, from the standpoint of principle, the selective compulsory system is the only one which is fair; the only system which distributes the primary duty of national defense upon every citizen and which distributes that duty so that each man may serve in the capacity where he will be most effective.

It is also the only system which is appropriate to a democracy; which recognizes that in a country where all citizens have the right to participate in choosing their own government, they are also obligated to serve and defend that government in case of the peril of war.

It would be just as unfair to leave to the whim of the individual the question of whether or not he will render service to his government in time of war as it would be to leave to the whim of the individual the question of whether or not he would pay taxes for the support of that government.

Thirdly, the selective compulsory system is the only efficient system in the great task of avoiding, so far as possible, the disruption of the nation's normal life. The voluntary system is not only inadequate to raise modern armies but it is disruptive of industry and of agriculture and of all the sciences and specialties upon which a nation must depend in time of war. All those activities, under a voluntary system, are liable to be disrupted by the rush of patriotic citizens to enlist and fight, when they might be more useful elsewhere.

On the other hand, the compulsory system, when carefully administered, as it was during the Great War, by local boards which take into account not only the battle needs of the country but also its needs of supplies and armaments, will carry the country through the strain of war with the minimum of dislocation. It will not only do that but it will carry it through with the minimum of injustice to the individual, because those boards take into account the situation of each man in respect to his occupation, his family duties and his health.

In all these ways the Selective Compulsory System is the closest approximation to both efficiency and justice which the experience of this country has yet evolved.

But some of the opponents of compulsory service say that it is a war measure and therefore that we should not adopt it until war has actually arrived. That is exactly what people in Great Britain said to Winston Churchill for four years, when he was steadily preaching that war was coming and that Britain should immediately prepare herself for it.

When we look at Great Britain today, are we inclined to take the risk of a similar delay? The successive experiences of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France and Britain teach the lesson of the danger of not preparing before war actually arrives.

We don't have to look abroad for an answer to this question. We only have to contrast the position in which we ourselves stand today with the position in which we stood in 1917 when we adopted the Selective Act of 1917. I ask you in all fairness, are we not today confronting a far greater peril than we did in June, 1917?

In 1917 we were protected by the unbroken line of the Allies in France and by the unshaken control of the sea by those Allies. Today there is no line in France and the control of the sea by the British fleet is in jeopardy. Today we are face to face with a potential enemy which not only has been conscripting and training its own forces for the past six years but which today is putting conscription into effect upon its victims in Poland and France, and in Norway, Denmark and Holland, in order that its own war supplies may be more ample.

We have been accustomed to think of our navy and the seas which surround our country as constituting a line of defense so strong that a powerful army was unnecessary. But today the great shipbuilding industries of Norway and Holland have passed into German hands. The fleet of Italy and her shipbuilding capacity are subject to German disposition.

A prudent trustee must take into consideration the possibility that in another thirty days Great Britain herself may be conquered and her shipyards pass under German control. Many of the war vessels of France have already come under the control of Germany, and the same thing may occur in regard to the great fleet of Great Britain.

In the Pacific Ocean the powerful fleet of Japan is owned by a power acting in close sympathy with Germany and Italy. Under these circumstances it seems to me very clear that we must revise our former conception of the strength of our first line of defense. If all of those contingencies which now confront us should be resolved in Germany's favor she would at once control a naval power which would outrank us in all classes of fighting craft.

What is worse, she would outrank us in shipbuilding capacity in a ratio at least six to one. In the prospect of such a possibility I suggest to you in all earnestness that it is your duty as trustees to take at once those measures for the security of the United States which have behind them those reasons of experience, of efficiency, of justice and of fairness which I have just recited.

The Congress has already wisely recognized what a long time it takes to secure a modern armament and has already made large appropriations for that purpose. It would be well to recognize also that it takes a long time to secure and train the men to use such arms and that the arms are of little use without the men.


fiduciary: a person to whom property or power is entrusted for the benefit of another

Document Analysis

Secretary of War Henry Stimson understood that most people, his audience on the House Military Affairs Committee included, believed that raising an army was a policy that should only be implemented during a time of war. Stimson also understood that the very notion of raising an army through compulsory service would be unpopular in a nation that only two decades earlier lost tens of thousands of citizens in World War I. His testimony before the House Military Affairs Committee therefore presents selective compulsory service as the only reasonable and equitable policy in the face of a very real and imminent threat.

Speaking to the first point, Stimson acknowledges that many Americans will be concerned about implementing a compulsory service system for raising an army when no declaration of war has been made. Speaking to committee members and through them to Congress, Stimson argues that a compulsory service system speaks to the lessons learned from many wars throughout American history. From the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, Stimson explains that the government turned to a volunteer-based system for enlistment. In each case, he says, the numbers of people who enlisted voluntarily were insufficient to ensure a successful outcome for the United States. In order to meet its needs for a viable force, the government needs to resort to mandatory conscription. Stimson suggests that a volunteer-based enlistment system is too slow a process in order to raise a force when a threat is so imminent.

Stimson also argues that a system of compulsory service—one that would only turn away those whose health and/or physical limitations prevented them from performing their duties on the battlefield—was the most fair policy to adopt. Compulsory service, he argues, requires every able-bodied man, regardless of his wealth or social standing, to join the military. Furthermore, such a system will draw citizens from every state and every career and ensure that each integral aspect of the war effort is managed by capable citizens. Furthermore, Stimson suggests that a compulsory system would be more carefully administered during wartime than a volunteer-based policy would be, because a volunteer-based system would create a rush to fill certain areas during times of war, but a compulsory system would be more carefully administered.

Stimson repeatedly points to a need for expediency in raising an army. Other nations, including Great Britain and the by-then vanquished nations of France, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium, had failed to recognize the need for major defense operations before war was already upon them, Stimson says. The United States should take heed of these mistakes, especially in light of the very real threat that exists, he adds.

Stimson describes the imminent threat as two-pronged: During World War I, he explains, the United States was protected by the line of battle in Europe—the Maginot Line that fortified France—as well as thousands of miles of ocean. By 1940, however, France had been conquered and Britain was being pummeled by German bombers. Offshore, the German Navy had established itself west of Britain and was being made increasingly powerful thanks to the shipbuilding prowess of Norway, the Netherlands, and Italy, all of which were now under German control. Even French ships had been commandeered and used for Nazi purposes. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, another Hitler ally, Japan, continued to strengthen its naval power. The United States was indeed threatened from both the Atlantic and Pacific, Stimson says. It is therefore critical that Congress act quickly to raise a strong military and the technology necessary to address this threat before the United States shares the same wartime fate as its allies in Europe.

Essential Themes

Secretary of War Henry Stimson believed that the war was not far from spreading from the European continent westward across the Atlantic. He also believed that it was critical for the United States to raise the military forces as well as build the weaponry necessary to meet any threat, including that of the Axis powers. However, with no declaration of war or a clear public sentiment in favor of the creation of a large, robust military, Stimson needed to make the case to Congress that it should reassess the European situation and take heed of the mistakes made in the past regarding military enlistment.

Stimson argued that in numerous wars dating back to the American Revolution, the United States had relied on a compulsory service and mandatory conscription, not on a volunteer-based system. While the US government had initially endorsed the voluntary enlistment system, when wartime arrived unexpectedly, the country was forced to turn to compulsory service in order to fortify its military. By implementing the well-administered, equitable, and time-sensitive compulsory service policy, Stimson said the United States could quickly be prepared to address any force that threatened America's shores.

Additionally, Stimson argued that there was a very real and significant threat facing America: the tripartite alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Germany in particular, he said, had already toppled many European nations and had virtually eliminated any buffer between Europe and the United States. From the East, another legitimate threat, Japan, could conceivably expand its operations toward America's western shores. Stimson cautioned that many European nations did not move quickly enough to raise their defenses against Germany, and they were either defeated quickly or, as was the case in Britain, were forced to defend against merciless airstrikes. Time, Stimson said, was of the essence so that the United States could raise the defenses it needed in order to repel any current and future threats to American soil. If Congress failed to mandate compulsory service, however, the United States would inevitably find itself repeating the same mistakes of its fallen European allies.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Biographies of the Secretaries of State: Henry Lewis Stimson.” Office of the Historian. US Dept. of State, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
  • Chambers, John Whiteclay. Draftees or Volunteers: A Documentary History of the Debate over Military Conscription in the United States, 1787–1973. New York: Garland, 1975. Print.
  • “Henry L. Stimson Dies at 83 in His Home on Long Island.” New York Times. New York Times, 21 Oct. 1950. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
  • Morison, Elting E., and Dennis E. Showalter. Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson. 1960. New York: History Book Club. 2003. Print.
  • Schmitz, David F. Henry L. Stimson: The First Wise Man. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 2001. Print.
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