The Country Is Being Rushed into Military Conscription Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1940, concerns that the growing war in Europe would eventually spread across the Atlantic prompted Congress to consider a bill that would raise a suitable military force via selective compulsory service. Dr. Harry Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church in Manhattan, addressed radio listeners in August to call for more thorough consideration of the bill, citing the haste with which it was being rushed through Congress. Absent a formal declaration of war, Fosdick said, the United States should not hastily draft citizens into the military. Fosdick strongly criticized comments from the Roosevelt administration that compulsory service was the most democratic and efficient manner by which to address the growing European crisis.

Summary Overview

In 1940, concerns that the growing war in Europe would eventually spread across the Atlantic prompted Congress to consider a bill that would raise a suitable military force via selective compulsory service. Dr. Harry Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church in Manhattan, addressed radio listeners in August to call for more thorough consideration of the bill, citing the haste with which it was being rushed through Congress. Absent a formal declaration of war, Fosdick said, the United States should not hastily draft citizens into the military. Fosdick strongly criticized comments from the Roosevelt administration that compulsory service was the most democratic and efficient manner by which to address the growing European crisis.

Defining Moment

After suffering under the punitive economic, military, and political sanctions levied upon it by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Germany rose again during the 1930s under the nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic philosophies of Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. Immediately upon assuming power in 1933, Hitler launched a campaign of national revitalization that would go on to expand Germany's geographic domain by conquering most of Europe.

Hitler inserted troops into the demilitarized Rhineland and absorbed Austria, and in 1939 he made the bold moves of annexing Czechoslovakia and invading Poland (an act that prompted France, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia to declare war). In 1940, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg fell as the Nazi blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) spread across Europe. In June 1940, France fell, and the Nazis installed a puppet government seated in Vichy. After the fall of France, the last viable European opponent for Germany was Great Britain. (The Soviet Union had entered into a nonaggression pact with Germany in 1939.) German bombers began sorties over London and other key targets in England during the fall of 1940. Offshore, German submarines (or U-boats) began sinking merchant ships en route from the United States to British ports, effectively cutting any supply chains to Europe from the west.

By 1940, virtually every corner of the world with the exception of the Western Hemisphere was living under wartime conditions. Still feeling the effects of its involvement in World War I and separated from Europe by thousands of miles of ocean, the United States remained on the sidelines. A majority of Americans felt that the growing crisis in Europe, although unsettling, was of no immediate concern to their country. Still, there was widespread worry that the war could spread to the eastern shores of the United States if England fell to Germany, and to the west coast of the country if Japan, which was by then an ally of Germany, continued to advance into China.

Because the US Army had been significantly reduced following 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. Secretary of War Henry Stimson appeared before the House Military Affairs Committee in late July 1940 to advocate for one such bill that was an initiative to reinstate a system of selective compulsory military service (also known as conscription). He argued that the measure would raise the military force democratically (by drawing into service every citizen, regardless of social standing or wealth), efficiently, and quickly enough to meet the growing threat. Stimson also said that a voluntary system of military recruitment was far too slow and raised numbers too small to succeed against German aggression. Two weeks later, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick shared his opposing point of view on the same Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) radio platform on which Stimson's testimony had been broadcast.

Author Biography

Harry Emerson Fosdick was born on May 24, 1878, in Buffalo, New York. Inspired at a young age to become a preacher, Fosdick received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University in 1900 and his bachelor of divinity degree from New York City's Union Theological Seminary in 1903. In 1908, he received a master of arts degree from Columbia University. In 1919, Fosdick became the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, but the backlash from his critical comments regarding Christian fundamentalism led to his resignation in 1925. Industrialist John D. Rockefeller soon invited Fosdick to serve as pastor of the city's Park Avenue Baptist Church, a post Fosdick accepted on the condition that the church would be reopened as a nondenominational institution. Fosdick remained the pastor of the renamed Riverside Church until 1946. He, his wife Florence, and their two daughters moved to Bronxville, New York, where he continued to write, give sermons, and teach until his death on October 5, 1969.

Historical Document

I SPEAK to you, my fellow citizens, tonight because I think a real crisis confronts this nation. In a time when we are not at war, and when an overwhelming majority of the American people are determined not to go to war, we are being rushed pell-mell into military conscription as a settled national policy.

There yet is time to demand of Congress that this hysterical haste be stopped, and that Congress itself and the American people who are to be conscripted be given opportunity to think this matter carefully through. Two weeks ago one would have supposed that the Conscription Bill would be passed immediately, but Congress has been hearing from the people, and the results in Washington are obvious. The people of this country whose whole structure of life it is proposed to alter in accordance with the most hated element of totalitarianism, military conscription, have a right to demand at least two things: First, adequate evidence that it is necessary, and second, decent time for careful consideration.

The pleaders for haste in passing this Conscription Bill are insisting that there is no time for careful consideration, and in order to persuade the American people of that they try to frighten us into the jitters. They picture Hitler conducting a military invasion of America this fall or next year. No competent authority that I know of agrees that our American peril consists thus in the danger of an imminent military invasion. On that point read the leading article in the August Harper's Monthly magazine, by Hanson W. Baldwin, a graduate of Annapolis and the Military Analystof the New York Times. He says: “Conscription in time of war can be justified. But at a time like the present it cannot be justified on a basis of Hemisphere defense, for no such mass of men as conscription would provide can effectively be used in this Hemisphere.” That, I maintain, is a sober, well-considered judgment by a competent military man.

I ask you, then, to consider briefly three aspects of this matter.

First, we are told that conscription is the democratic way in which to meet our crisis. Of all methods of fooling the American people I can think of nothing worse than telling them that conscription is democratic. Conscription is the essence of regimented, totalitarian, militaristic autocracy. Granted, that some democratic nations in Europe have been compelled to adopt conscription, but insofar they have ceased being freely democratic, and instead, under compulsion, have copied the methods of their totalitarian neighbors. Let us be honest about this: under some circumstances conscription is necessary, but it never can rightly be called democratic.

Or if you do call it that, then be sure that if conscription of man power is the way to be democratic this nation is in no mood to stop there. If conscripting the boys out of our homes is demanded by this crisis, and if that is the democratic way to handle it, then, believe me, we will go clean through with the process and be democratic in serious earnest. Conscription of wealth, conscription of industry, conscription of factories, conscription of labor, conscription of educators—why is not that democratic also, if conscription of life is? We cannot, I think, start conscription in this nation under present circumstances, making it a constituent part of our national policy, when we are not at war and do not intend to go to war, without facing the most radical revolution in the structure of American life that this republic has ever gone through.

Second, we are constantly told that we must have conscription because voluntary enlistment is not sufficient for our needs. To this I answer that I have just been in Washington and I find plenty of wise people there who agree that voluntary methods of meeting the present crisis have not yet been adequately attempted or even explored.

One substitute plan, for example, is to open the door to one-year voluntary enlistment. At present enlistment in the military forces of the United States is for three years. But the present Conscription Bill calls for only eight months of training. If we open the door to one-year voluntary enlistment, we may very probably secure adequate man power, increase the length of training, and at the same time avoid the whole radical dislocation of American life involved in conscription.

Or there is the plan to keep part of the present Bill, its registration of American man power so as to be forehanded and know what our resources of ability are, and where to find them, and then, within that framework, to use the urgency of the crisis and the knowledge gained from the registration to press voluntary training in earnest.

The people who insist that conscription is desperately demanded in America now to supply man power for our armed forces are merely choosing, I think, what looks to them like the simplest and easiest way out. But the American people had better not underestimate what we are letting ourselves in for, if we are hurried into conscription. It is not simple and easy. You cannot, for example, take these hundreds of thousands of men away from their jobs without guaranteeing that their jobs, or the financial equivalent, will be waiting for them when they are through. Walk around what that is going to mean in industry! And that is only one minor item.

We who oppose hasty adoption of this Conscription Bill

do so on the basis of the proposition that there are alternative ways of meeting the issue that will be adequate, and in that we think we are backed up by some of the most competent opinion available. Mr. Harry H. Woodring until a few weeks ago was Secretary of War in this present administration. He ought to know. Listen to him then: “How any fair-minded member of Congress could say that we have given the voluntary system of enlistment for the United States Army a fair trial and that it has broken down, and therefore we need the compulsory service, is beyond my understanding.”

Third, we who oppose this hasty action that has been urged upon the nation are constantly charged with holding the idea that democracy is a matter of rights but not of duties. That seems to me nonsense. Of course democracy is a matter of duties. Of course, every man and woman of us owes service to the nation. Of course, this world crisis is tremendously serious, and it involves us here. Of course, we are determined as loyal citizens to defend our democratic liberties and institutions.

To say, however, that that necessarily involves our cheering for this Conscription Bill is a complete illogical non sequitur. It does not follow. It is the duty of every manufacturer to serve the nation. Does that mean that his business ought to be conscripted? It is the duty of every educator to support democracy. Does that mean that he ought to be conscripted? It is the duty of every man to support democracy. Does that mean that he must be a conscript? The basic principle that we all owe patriotic allegiance to the nation is one thing; the method of regimented, totalitarian military conscription is another.

The time may come when conscription may be necessary again in this country as it was in 1917. May God forbid, but it may come! What millions of Americans are still saying is that no adequate evidence has yet been presented that that necessity exists now.

Listen to Major-General James K. Parsons speaking only a few days ago, all the more impressively because he positively wants conscription in a modified form: “If we are going to stretch (and I think it is a long stretch) the Monroe Doctrine to include Singapore and Shanghai and South America, we will need an army of millions.… If we are going to defend our own nation, a relatively small, but well-trained force will be more than adequate.” The question there raised the American people ought to demand an answer to. What is this conscript army for? A conscript army is not needed to defend the United States or its contiguous interests. A conscript army is needed only if we are going to send an expeditionary force to conquer, let us say, Europe or Asia. The well-justified suspicion will not down that behind this hectic haste to force conscription on us is the policy of the belligerent interventionists.

Mark this: The political leaders of this nation went to the conventions in Philadelphia and Chicago and did not dare to put into the Republican and Democratic platforms a plank in favor of conscription with which to go before the people. Then Congress went straight to Washington and those in favor of conscription, under the guise of a desperate emergency pictured in terms of imminent armed invasion of this country, began insisting that we must act at once, without adequate thought, without a fair chance even for the people to realize what is going on. Well, at least, the people have spoken clearly enough so that Congress now pauses. I beg of you see to it that Congress hears from more of the people, that the wiser, cooler heads in Congress are supported in their opposition to this hasty action, so that if conscription is adopted it may be only after calm, deliberate, careful consideration.


belligerent: war-like

conscription: a compulsory enrollment of persons for military or naval service; draft.

constituent: serving to compose or make up a thing; component; having power to frame or alter a political constitution or fundamental law, as distinguished from lawmaking power

contiguous: touching; in contact; near

jitters: nervousness; a feeling of fright or uneasiness

non sequitur: Latin phrase “it does not follow”; an inference or a conclusion that does not follow from the premises; a statement containing an illogical conclusion

Document Analysis

Much of Harry Fosdick's comments to radio listeners are in response to Secretary of War Henry Stimson's speech before the House Military Affairs Committee a few weeks before. Fosdick sharply criticizes Stimson's arguments that the introduction of a compulsory service system is both democratic and necessary, and Fosdick urges congressional leaders to give more careful consideration to a bill to implement such a system. Americans, he says, are being hastily forced into accepting this measure under the guise of impending war on US soil.

Fosdick points to the erroneous perception that the war in Europe represents a real and imminent threat to the country and that there is little time for debate. Fosdick dismisses this idea and argues that such statements amount to fear mongering. The advocates of this bill's immediate passage, he says, are operating under the false assumption that America is about to be invaded. Fosdick quotes of a number of experts who argue that no such attack is imminent and that immediately raising a military is only acceptable during times of war. To date, no declaration of war has been issued.

One of the most controversial of Stimson's suggestions, according to Fosdick, is that the selective compulsory service system is democratic. Fosdick argues that implementing a law that requires every able-bodied American man to join the military is not democratic and is no different than totalitarianism. Although Fosdick acknowledges that mandatory conscription would be acceptable during times of war, he goes on to say that unless the bill's advocates consider it democratic to have conscription in all areas of American life, such as in the workplace or in the distribution of wealth, they should dismiss the connection between conscription and democracy.

Fosdick continues his critique of the bill and points out its flaws. He suggests that under the voluntary system, enlistees receive more extensive training than the eight months of mandatory training under the compulsory service bill. Fosdick suggests that the country introduce a one-year voluntary system wherein recruits receive adequate training without disrupting their lives as private citizens. Furthermore, Fosdick points out that there are no provisions in the bill that take into account the jobs draftees would leave behind when they join the military, and he expresses concern that soldiers would not have jobs to return to after the war. Fosdick believes that solutions and amendments can be devised, but he worries that congressional leaders and advocates of the bill are more concerned with the bill's quick passage than in consideration of and debate over potential problems that may arise.

Fosdick questions the need for a major military force and cites former military leaders and experts to argue that a relatively small military is adequate to defend America's coasts and borders. Unless the United States plans to expand the 1823 Monroe Doctrine (which identified North and Latin America as the primary region of security interest to the United States) to include East Asia and Europe, there is no reason for the country to dramatically increase its military. The time might come for such compulsory service, he acknowledges, but there is no immediate need in 1940. He therefore urges Congress to show great care and consideration when addressing this highly controversial bill.

Essential Themes

Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Senator James Byrnes of South Carolina (the compulsory service bill's chief advocate) were pushing for an immediate passage of the selective compulsory service bill, and Harry Fosdick needed to make the case that the situation was not as dire and urgent as these men suggested. Fosdick argued in his radio address that there was no immediate threat to the United States unless the country planned to move out of its primary regional sphere of influence and interject itself into European and East Asian affairs. Fosdick saw the bill as undemocratic, largely flawed, and unnecessary, and he believed its passage should be slowed to allow Congress to give it more careful consideration, offer substitutions and amendments, and even shelve it until a true threat was imminent.

Fosdick sharply criticized the arguments in favor of the compulsory system, and he dismissed the suggestion that a compulsory service system was more democratic than a volunteer-based system. The proposed recruitment system was akin to that which existed under a totalitarian regime, not a free, democratic system, he argued. Additionally, the argument that the voluntary system was woefully inadequate was incorrect. In times of peace, he said, voluntary conscription was effective, gave soldiers the necessary training with minimal disruption to their private lives, and was adequate for defending America from invasion.

Furthermore, Fosdick asserted that the push for immediate action, and thereby virtual suspension of debate and amendments, was unnecessary. The bill's flaws could have long-term, negative effects on the military and the American way of life. He suggested that industry and manufacturing would be disrupted and soldiers poorly trained, and since no declaration of war had been issued, there was no immediate threat from Europe or Asia and there was no need for such a large-scale force to be established at that time. A threat might come later, he said, but at the present, there was no need to push through a problematic bill without any input from the public or the leaders sworn to serve the country's best interests.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • 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.
  • “Fosdick, Harry Emerson (1878–1969).” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle. Stanford University, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
  • Miller, Robert Moats. Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.
  • Oxford, Edward. “The Draft.” American History 29.4 (1994): 30–43. Print.
  • Stimson, Henry L. “Our Duty Is Clear: Compulsory Service Must Be Adopted.” Vital Speeches of the Day 6.21 (1940): 647–48. Print.
Categories: History