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August 23: Resident Aliens and the Draft

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On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I with a declaration of war on Germany. The United States Army was far smaller than the armies of the European countries already in the war. As late as 1914, the Army numbered fewer than 100,000 men. The National Defense Act of 1916 authorized expanding the Army to 165,000, but the appeal for volunteers fell short. By 1917, the Army had grown to only 121,000, far short of the goal. Something had to be done. Although President Wilson wanted an entirely volunteer army, he finally agreed to accept the Secretary of War’s recommendation for a draft.

The Selective Service Act of 1917 required all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft. In 1918, that was expanded to include men from eighteen to forty-five. But some people felt there was a problem. They noted that citizens of European countries had come to the United States to avoid military service. Many Americans felt it was unfair that American boys were forced to serve while these transient Europeans were allowed to sit out.

On this date in 1917, North Dakota Senator Porter J. McCumber announced that the Senate had passed his bill mandating the draft of alien residents. It directed the president to enter into negotiations with European allies to approve drafting their citizens in the United States into the American Army.

This was not without controversy. Even German resident aliens were drafted, despite having come from the opposing country. According to a study completed in 1920, by the end of the war approximately forty thousand complaints, protests and requests for exemption or discharge had been filed with the Department of State by the diplomatic representatives of other countries. The representatives argued that while resident aliens are entitled to civil rights, they are not permitted to exercise political rights. They noted that war is the ultimate expression of political rights. Therefore, resident aliens should be exempt.

Disregarding these arguments, the Draft Board pursued the policy enthusiastically. About 200,000 resident aliens were drafted. Senator McCumber’s legislation was popular with his constituents, as it made sure resident aliens were not allowed to sit safe at home while North Dakota boys were shipped off to the war.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher

Hope Pioneer. “Make ‘Em Fight.” Hope ND. 8/23/1917. Page 1.
Sterling E. Edmunds. “Aliens and the Draft.” Washington Law Review. January 1920: V5, 1. 23-36.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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