Military conscription

Efforts by the federal government at various periods in American history to conscript immigrants who had not yet been granted citizenship were met with mixed reaction among ethnic communities; while some groups resisted the draft in principle or protested against its being unfairly administered, many others welcomed the opportunity to serve and took advantage of provisions in the various draft laws that allowed them to become citizens more quickly.

During theRevolutionary War;military personnelRevolutionary War, theWar of 1812;conscriptionWar of 1812, and the Mexican WarMexican War of 1846-1848, the U.S. government filled the ranks of its fighting forces through voluntary enlistments. That practice was seen to be in keeping with the country’s professed belief in respecting individual liberties; the general feeling was that no person should be forced to serve the country, even in times of national distress. However, the outbreak of the Civil War, U.S.;conscriptionU.S. Civil War in 1861 changed the dimensions of military conflict in America, as both the Union and the Confederacy instituted conscription to build up the massive armies required to carry on the war. Moreover, both governments decided that both citizens and resident aliens who had declared their intention of becoming citizens should be eligible for conscription.Military conscriptionDraft lawsMilitary conscriptionDraft
[cat]WARS;Military conscription[03530][cat]MILITARY;Military conscription[03530]

Authorities reasoned that those who wished to enjoy the benefits of Citizenship;and military conscription[military conscription]citizenship–even at a future date–were obligated to defend their adopted homeland in times of crisis. This practice was not common among European nations, however, and many European governments protested, claiming that their own citizens should not have to fight for another country until they became full-fledged citizens of that country. The requirement for mandatory military service was also not well received by many recently arrived immigrants, many of whom had come to America to escape similar practices in their native countries.

Civil War Protests

The Civil War, U.S.;conscriptionConfederacy was the first of the Civil War combatants to establish a draft. Its 1862 law provided for many exemptions, however, and most aliens were able to avoid conscription even though the South relied heavily on conscripts to fill the ranks of its army. When the Union passed its first draft law one year later, in 1863, protests were mounted throughout the North almost immediately. New immigrants were especially suspicious of plans for conscription; many were certain that the poor would be drafted in greater numbers, and because most new immigrants were poor, that would mean they had a much greater chance of being inducted into the armed forces involuntarily. Their fears were fueled by two provisions in the Union law that favored those with greater financial means: Men who were drafted could either pay three-hundred-dollar bounties to the government to avoid service or hire substitutes to take their places.

Although protests were organized in several cities–the first one in Buffalo, New York, and later riots in Wisconsin;draft riotsWisconsin–by far the most violent demonstration against the draft occurred in New York CityNew York City;Civil War draft riots in July, 1863, just days after officials began drawing names for conscription. The majority of the protesters were Irish immigrants;and Civil War[Civil War]Civil War, U.S.;Irish inIrish immigrants, who suddenly discovered that their willingness to get involved in the political process by Voter registration;and military conscription[military conscription]signing up to vote in local elections–usually as Democrats–was being used against them by Republican lawmakers responsible for draft legislation. Registering to vote was considered a sign of one’s intent to remain permanently in America, and those who had registered were automatically considered eligible for the draft.

Thousands of immigrants volunteered to join the Union’s Irish Brigade that was formed in New York, but many other Irish feared that if the North won the war, slaves freed from plantations in the South would migrate north and compete for jobs then being done by Irishmen. That concern, coupled with the perception that the Irish and other immigrant groups would be overrepresented among draftees, sparked a violent outburst against city and state officials. Over a five-day period, mobs roamed the streets of New York City, looting business establishments and burning buildings, including the mayor’s home and several police stations. Damage to property was later estimated at one million dollars. The protesters’ anger quickly focused on African Americans;and Irish immigrants[Irish immigrants]Irish immigrants;and African Americans[African Americans]African Americans living in the city; shootings and lynchings claimed more than a hundred lives. Local police units proved incapable of quelling the violence. In fact, the city’s police commissioner himself suffered serious injury in an assault. The governor of New York was forced to call back militia units that had been serving with the Union forces at the Battle of Gettysburg
to put down the riots.

A retrospective look at the practice of conscription during the Civil War reveals two great ironies. First, records indicate that the percentage of resident aliens who were drafted during the conflict was no greater than that of citizens. Second, many of the substitutes hired by draftees were immigrants, who evidently found the payments a way to put aside some savings that would help secure their futures, should they make it through the war.

World War I

The first federal government draft was allowed to expire at the end of hostilities in 1865 and was not reinstated until 1917, when the United States entered World War I[World War 01];conscriptionWorld War I. After the United States entered war in April, 1917, the administration of President Wilson, Woodrow[p]Wilson, Woodrow;and World War I[World War I]Woodrow Wilson determined that World War I[World War 01];conscriptionconscription would be necessary for the nation to assemble an expeditionary force to assist its European allies. This time, officials were careful to craft a draft law that corrected some of the inequities of the laws passed during the Civil War. Most resident aliens found the [a]Selective Service Act of 1917Selective Service Act of 1917 much more palatable than earlier mandates for service. The new law offered no provisions for hiring substitutes or paying bounties to avoid service. Additionally, local draft boards were established to examine each potential inductee, determine his fitness for service, and consider granting an exemption. Generally, exemptions were granted on the basis of occupation or health. When resident aliens
asked for exemptions by citing their Citizenship;and military conscription[military conscription]citizenship in other countries, they were told that accepting exemptions would make them ineligible for future U.S. citizenship. In general, most immigrants felt that the process was fair.

Nevertheless, as had occurred during the Civil War, pockets of resistance sprang up in various ethnic communities. Some activists attempted to convince immigrant groups, particularly Italians and Jews, to resist conscription because the war was being waged merely to further international or national business interests at the expense of the working poor. The Irish immigrants;and World War I[World War 01]Irish were especially skeptical because the United States was entering the conflict on the side of Great Britain, whose government was at that time resisting the movement for Irish independence.

A ploy used to turn European immigrants against conscription was the claim that the draft displayed a dangerous tendency toward “Prussianization”–a reference to the militaristic German regime that many Americans blamed for having started the war. In general, however, immigrants drafted during World War I reported for duty without demur. Moreover, many did not wait to be called but instead chose to enlist. They often did this in units organized locally along ethnic lines, allowing young men to serve alongside others with whom they shared a common heritage. At the same time, however, draftees were typically assigned to units in which men of various ethnic and socioeconomic classes served side by side; this practice actually proved beneficial to many immigrants, because it provided them experiences that allowed them to assimilate more quickly into the general population.

World War II

The [a]Selective Service Act of 1940Selective Service Act of 1940 was virtually identical to that of 1917, but perhaps because America’s enemies in World War II were perceived as particularly threatening, virtually no protests were raised to drafting Noncitizens;conscription ofnoncitizens. Any hesitancy about the draft that existed among immigrant groups during World War I virtually evaporated by the time the United States reinstituted conscription on the eve of its entrance into the new world war in late 1941. Immigrants of virtually every nationality perceived the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy as threats to liberty for both their adopted country and their native homelands.

Xenophobic feelings that had caused some German Americans to suffer discrimination during World War I were virtually absent. Although many Japanese Americans were interned throughout the war–ostensibly to prevent espionage–thousands of their young served honorably in the U.S. armed forces, including many who were drafted. As had happened twenty-five years earlier, the experience of serving with a variety of individuals of different backgrounds from other parts of the country allowed immigrants who had been drafted to assimilate more rapidly into the mainstream of American society. One immigrant group that benefited notably from this opportunity for assimilation was Mexican Americans.

Post-World War Conscription

Although the [a]Selective Service Act of 1940Selective Service Act of 1940 expired in 1947, a new [a]Selective Service Act of 1948act was passed a year later, and immigrants once again found themselves subject to conscription as the United States built up its armed forces as a defensive measure against the threat of communism. Because the new law continued the provision that resident aliens were eligible to be drafted, immigrants were called up for service in the Korean War;conscriptionKorean War between 1950 and 1953 as well.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the newest wave of immigrants from Europe, many from Germany and Eastern European countries, found themselves subject to the draft. Some chose to enlist in the National Guard or military reserves to guarantee they would be able to fulfill the bulk of their six-year military obligation near family members who may have come to America with them. Resident aliens were also subject to conscription during the Vietnam War. Most served willingly, and those who protested their induction usually did so because they had scruples about the war itself, not because they felt they were being discriminated against because they were not yet citizens.

Conscription and Citizenship

Although Citizenship;and military conscription[military conscription]federal penalties for resisting the draft have often been harsh, many immigrants found that being conscripted into the military has provided significant benefits as well. Since the American Revolution, aliens who agreed to take up arms for the United States have been allowed to accelerate their journey toward becoming American citizens. Routinely, immigrants applying for citizenship could point to their honorable service as sufficient proof of good moral character, one of the requirements for naturalization.

After World War I, aliens who served in the military, including those drafted during peacetime, were granted waivers of several years on the time required for residence in the United States before being eligible to apply for citizenship. This practice was continued even after the United States did away with the draft during the 1970’s. In fact, after 2001, several proposals were put forward in Congress to provide a mechanism for granting citizenship to immigrants–including those who entered the country illegally–who chose to enlist in the armed forces.Military conscriptionDraft laws

Further Reading

  • Anbinder, Tyler. “Which Poor Man’s Fight? Immigrants and the Federal Conscription of 1863.” Civil War History 52, no. 4 (December, 2006): 344-372. Carefully researched essay demonstrating that, despite concerns that they would be singled out for conscription, immigrants were not selected in disproportionate numbers for military service during the Civil War.
  • Anderson, Martin, ed. The Military Draft: Selected Readings on Conscription. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1982. Comprehensive analysis of the history of American drafts. Includes essays on conscription law and on the political theory justifying conscription of resident aliens.
  • Bergquist, James M. Daily Life in Immigrant America 1820-1870. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2008. Describes living conditions for immigrants, many of whose lives were disrupted by the Civil War. Comments briefly on the 1863 draft by the Union and the rioting that followed.
  • Bernstein, Iver. The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Describes social and political conditions that prompted segments of the urban poor to mount violent protests against the 1863 draft law.
  • Flynn, George Q. The Draft, 1940-1973. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993. Examines the impact of the draft on the armed forces and American society from the establishment of a draft prior to World War II through the Vietnam War.
  • Hay, Jeff, ed. Military Draft. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Greenhaven Press, 2008. Collection of essays describing the history of the draft and the government’s operations to enforce conscription laws during several periods of armed conflict and in peacetime.
  • Jacobs, James B., and Leslie Anne Hayes. “Aliens in the U.S. Armed Forces: A Historico-Legal Analysis.” Armed Forces and Society 7, no. 2 (Winter, 1981): 187-208. Detailed examination of the federal government’s recruitment and conscription of noncitizens from the time of the Civil War to the establishment of modern all-volunteer army.
  • Moore, Albert B. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy. New York: Hillary House, 1963. Examines the impact of conscription in the Confederate States of America and outlines options open to immigrants who had not yet become citizens.
  • Sterba, Christopher. Good Americans: Italian and Jewish Immigrants During the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Assesses the responses of two ethnic communities to American involvement in the war, including their willingness to serve in the armed forces.


Civil War, U.S.

Irish immigrants

Korean War

New York City

Prisoners of war in the United States

Vietnam War

World War I

World War II