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Drafting Doughboys

“From out of the melting pot of American’s admixture of races is being poured a new American, a soldier man who wearing the Khaki and covered with the dust of the parade ground is stepping forth into the ranks, files upon files of him, to make the world safe for democracy…. He is the ‘non-English speaking soldier,’ who along with his American-born brothers, have been selected through the draft to drive the overseas barbarians back into their lair.”

- Capt. Edward R. Padgett, October 1918

The United States Army during wartime has traditionally consisted of both native-born and foreign-born troops. To understand the complexities of drafting foreign-born soldiers during World War I, it is best to comprehend the changes of the American military since the colonial era. Understanding the development and growth of the United States armed forces will provide both an insight of the shifting of the American military culture and the rapidly expansion of immigration in the United States Army.

American Revolution to World War I

  • During the colonial era, colonists developed two military concepts: The need for citizen militias and the dangers of a strong, standing armies. Many colonists believed that a permanent, professional standing army represented a threat to democracy, especially after the French and Indian War when Great Britain clamped down on the American economy and politics and militarily occupation colonial port cities with British troops.
  • American Declaration of Independence not only declared independence from Britain, but also represented a schism from the European military structure.  American new ideologies were reflected within the creation and implementation of the Continental Army.
  • As the War for American Independence progressed, apprehensions over a large national army of professional soldiers explain the makeup of the Continental Army, which relied heavily on temporary multistate forces of long-term regular soldiers (two to three-year enlistments) and short-term state volunteer militiamen put into national service.
  • After the Revolutionary war, in addition to an objection to a strong standing army, many understood that raising and keeping a large army was very expensive, which therefore equivocated to heavy taxes. At various times throughout history of the United States military, Congress restricted immigrants in the Armed Services.
  • In fact, at the start of War of Independence, colonial legislators announced that aliens (noncitizen immigrants) were forbidden to fight on behalf of the colonists. However, as became common practice for decades to come, the United States lifted these restrictions during wartime when the military experienced a shortage of manpower.(1)
  • The next exception to immigrant military restrictions occurred during the War of 1812. Immigrants with state citizens could circumvent the restrictions and enlist as naturalized citizens, since national citizenship did not exist at this time. During the War of 1812, President James Monroe attempted to push Congress to sign legislation that would enable a national conscription.
  • Federalists responded to this request by calling the national conscription “unconstitutional and a tyrannical instrument of Napoleonic despotism.” Instead of instituting a national conscription, Congress attempted to double the money given to men for enlisting. They also considered measures such as allowing enlistment to include both noncitizen immigrants and free African Americans. A compromise allowed foreign-born to serve, the congressional act of 1808 prevented noncitizen immigrants from becoming officers. Following the War of 1812, immigrants continued to enlist in the United States armed forces in both peacetime and wartime. Economics motivated many of the newly arrived Irish and German immigrants to find steady employment in the military despite low wages. In fact, some 47 percent of the U.S. army’s recruits during the 1840s comprised of Irish and German immigrants, including the foreign-born who fought in the Mexican-American War.(2)
  • The issue of aliens serving in the United States armed forces became more complex after the initiation and implementation of the first national drafting system during the civil war in both the North and South. In the North, the draft was met with hostility from both legislators and violent mob reaction in some Northern cities. The Militia Act of 1862 was the first attempt at conscription in the North. However, a series of protests from governors combined with violent draft riots permanently postponed implementation of the act.
  • However, by 1863 the devastating war continued to take its toll on human lives, and as the terms of Northern volunteer soldiers expired, a crucial manpower shortage development.
  • By March, 1863, a new conscription effort, the Enrollment Act, made all-able bodied male citizens between twenty-one and forty-five years old eligible for the draft. It also allowed immigrants who formally declared their intentions of becoming citizens (“declarant aliens”) to be eligible for conscription. Again in 1864, the shortage of men became so severe that an amendment was made to the Enrollment Act which expanded eligibility for the draft to any immigrant who had either voted in the past or had held a public office despite their status as “nondeclarants.”(3)
  • Allowing drafted men to hire substitutes or make a commutation payment of $300 (purchase exemptions) substantially weakened the original intend of the Enrollment Act. Those who could afford it overwhelmingly took advantage of the payment exemption. Of the 249,259 draftees called up, 86,724 paid their way out of service while another 116,188 hired substitutes. Therefore, the Northern draft directly affected only 46,347 of the over 2 million men who served the Union Army.
  • The draft exemptions represented class privilege, and only those who could afford the cost could escape military service. Immigrants made up 25 percent of the white soldiers in the Union army. Some begrudged the draft due to class issues, while others were grateful for a steady pay. Draft riots, particularly the infamous New York Draft Riot that started in the Irish enclave, reflected resentment of many foreign-born of the exemption afforded to the wealthy.(4)

World War I

  • During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the United States experienced rapid changes such as imperialism, industrialization, mass immigration, and urbanization that forced the United States government to deal with major national and international issues.
  • The United States State Department and U.S. military became involved in many affairs throughout the globe including the Venezuela dispute, the Boxer Rebellion, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine War. Due to large scale military engagements, the growth and modernization the U.S. navy and army were all but assured.
  • But it was America’s entrance into World War I on April 6, 1917, that significantly transformed American society and its military and created a new era in Civil-Military relations.
  • The federal government greatly expanded in size and power during the Great War, the work force of industrial America was restructured, and the inadequacies of the national laissez-faire economy was brought to the forefront. The United States had completed its transformation from primarily a rural-based economy into largely a centralized, industrious nation-state. An improved draft system, compared to the Civil War quandary, resulted in a much smoother transition.(5)
  • The War Department made sure it avoided mistakes made during the Civil War with the Union draft. The conscription rate within the United States during World War I was unprecedented throughout the history of the country. In total, the Selective Service registered About 24,000,000 men eligible for the draft. Of the approximate 400,000 men in military service, approximately 2,800,000 men were drafted into the armed forces, the remainder voluntarily enlisted. Approximately 67% of the armed forces were conscripts, compared to the 6% for the Civil War Union Army.  And, almost 1 of 5 draftees were foreign-born.
  • Initially, the Selective Service Act divided immigrants into four groups: diplomatic, declarant, nondeclarant, and enemy aliens. Diplomatic aliens were exempt from the draft because they did not technically reside in the United States.
  • Declarant immigrants were eligible for the draft because the Selective Service Act believed that because these immigrants were receiving the benefits from the United States, they should share the nation’s burden concerning the war effort.(6) 
  • Immigrants who did not file their papers of intention for United States citizenship were labeled as nondeclarant aliens.  Because these immigrants did not possess resident status or did not pledge their intention to become citizens, the Selective Service decided that they would not draft from this group.
  • Enemy aliens, both declarant and nondeclarant from enemy nations, could not be drafted into the United States armed forces because they would have been forced to fight against their own ethnic groups.(8) Although these groups appear to be clearly defined, the Selective Service almost immediately began to experience issues.
  • Many nations, especially those from “nonaligned nations,” protested that the drafting of their countrymen represented a violation of “international law and existing treaty obligations.” In response to these allegations, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that: “both declarants and nondeclarants of treaty countries…be promptly discharged upon request of the accredited diplomatic representative of the countries of which they [were] citizens.” (8) 
  • The argument between neutral countries and the Selective Service Act ended on July 9, 1918 when Congress passed legislation that exempted “declarant neutrals” from U.S. military service after withdrawing their declaration to become a United States citizen. By deciding to withdraw their intention to become a United States citizen, these immigrants forfeited their right to become a citizen of the United States forever. Approximately 2,000 immigrants from neutral countries followed through and withdrew their intentions of becoming citizens in order to be discharged from the United States military. However, despite this opportunity for immigrants to escape military service, many decided to remain in the armed forces. (9) 
  • The United States also experienced difficulties when attempting to draft aliens from Allied countries. The State Department secured “treaties of conscription” with Great Britain, France, Italy, and Greece.
  • These treaties allowed immigrants the opportunity to first enlist in their respective homeland’s military forces before being eligible for the Selective Service draft. Some immigrants capitalized on this opportunity. For example, approximately 48,000 immigrants from Great Britain returned home for military duty.(10)
  • One of the most complex issues faced by government and military officials concerning the drafting of foreign-born immigrants into the armed forces was the eligibility of enemy aliens. Initially, the Selective Service only barred immigrants born in Germany from military service, since the United States was not at war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire until November 11, 1917.
  • During the draft in June 1917, approximately 41,000 German-Americans were selected and exempted from the draft due to their enemy alien status. However, by December 1917, a number of German-Americans were introduced into training camps. Provost Marshal General Crowder ordered that all German-born immigrants were to be discharged at once; however, these soldiers were never discharged.
  • The adjunct general of the army contacted commanding generals and stated that despite the “Selective Service Regulations of Section 79, Rule XII, Note 4,” enemy aliens already serving in the United States armed forces could continue to serve with the endorsement of their commanding officers that considered them “loyal.”
  • Serving against the homeland of your family proved to be very dangerous. The adjutant general advised commanding officers to explain to German-Americans that “on accord of his nationality, he runs the risk of being shot as a traitor upon falling into the enemy’s hands.” Instead of being forced to fight against relatives from the homelands, these soldiers had the option of being discharged or transferred into a noncombat supply division.(11)
  • Immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were drafted for military service until a U.S. declaration of war against the empire in November 1917. At this point, immigrants born within the empire were then classified as enemy aliens. Due to the legislation in place at the time, it was assumed that the drafting of Austro-Hungarian born immigrants would cease.
  • However, an article in the Infantry Journal proclaimed the predicament that the United States government experienced classifying alien citizens:
  • “Greeks and Armenians born under Turkish rule, Romanians born in Austria, Germansand Austrians born in Poland, Czecho-Slovaks (Bohemians and Slovaks) and Jugo-Slavs (Slovens, Croatian, and Serbians) as technical enemy aliens.”
  • The article stated that these ethnic groups were extremely frustrated that they were being labelled as enemy aliens, and the Infantry Journal article suggested that a “great number” of them would make good soldiers.(12)
  • To clarify the issue of enemy aliens within the armed forces, the War Department created a “Ethnic Bulletin” to “educate” officers about the political status and complications concerning Austrian-born soldiers serving in the U.S. Army.
  • The bulletin stated that the Austrian-born soldiers within the armed forces “often hate[d] the Austro-Hungarian government very bitterly.” The bulletin also clarified that Bohemians, or Czechs, would be “disgruntled” and “insulted” if they were mistaken for Germans. The bulletin considered Czechs, Poles, Ruthenians (Russians from the Ukraine), and Romanians “thoroughly loyal and an enthusiastic soldier.”(13)
  • However, not all military and government officials believed that all enemy aliens serving within the United States armed forces was loyal to the United States. Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory believed that soldiers with questionable loyalty should be investigated.
  • If these soldiers were labelled as not loyal to the United States, he argued that these soldiers should be placed under observation, and then internment as a last resort. These interment prisons were in George at Fort Oglethorpe and Fort McPherson and in Utah at Fort Douglas.
  • Each of these three prisons had the ability to hold approximately 1,800 prisoners. However, the prisoners were treated very humanely. Historian Mitchell Yockelson described that the prisoners could plant gardens, participate in sports, perform plays, read books, play music and billiards, and watch motion picture films.(14)
  • The War Department also devised another solution to resolve the enemy alien status: the creation of a “Slavic Legion” comprising of nonnaturalized immigrants as an appendage to the United States armed forces. Congress approved the creation of this unit in July, 1918 that included Yugoslavs (Southern Slavic), Czechoslovaks, and Ruthenians (Ukraine). Initially, Congressman Adolph J. Sabath projected the legion recruitment at approximately 25,000 men (5,000 Yugoslavs, 12,000 Czechs and Slovaks, and 8,000 Ruthenians).
  • In an official report from the War Department, the numbers were estimated at 45,000 (15,000 Jugoslavs, 10,000 Czechoslovaks, and 20,000 Ruthenians). However, the War Plans Division (WPD) advised top military and government officials that these immigrants should not be recruited from the coal regions across the United States. The WPD felt that the services of these men in the coal mines was much more valuable than their service in the United States military.(15)
  • Despite the excitement over the creation of the “Slavic Legion” in October 1918, the organization of the legion proved to be extremely difficult and ineffectively slow. Officers of the Slavic Legion were expected to speak not only their mother language, but also proficient English. Officers were also required to attend the Central Officers’ Training School at Camp Lee, Virgina to demonstrate their loyalty in the form of a written loyalty oath. By November, only 114 soldiers and 16 officers had joined the Slavic Legion. However, the Armistice creating a cease-fire on November 11, 1918 stopped the formation of the Slavic Legion indefinitely.(16)
  • The last measure military and government officials produced to conscript additional soldiers was through the passage of amendments to naturalization laws allowing declarant, nondeclarant, and enemy aliens that served in the United States military easier access to United States citizenship.
  • During May 1918, the chief of staff informed commanding generals of the new law: “This Act entitles all aliens in the service (including enemy aliens) to citizenship whether they have their first papers or not. No fee will be charged…No commanding officer should allow a petition to be presented unless he is convinced of the loyalty of the applicant. When the application is granted, the soldier will immediately become a citizen, with all privileges and immunities of citizenship.” (17)


Immigrants have served within the United States military since the Revolutionary War. However, the experiences of immigrants during World War I compared to prior wars have dramatically differed. First, the Selective Service Act drafted an unprecedented number of men, both native-born and foreign-born and quickly transformed them from civilians into soldiers. Seconds, draftees experienced a much more complex military organization in comparison to prior wars throughout the history of the United States. Despite the efforts of the Selective Service act to categorize incoming soldiers as declarant, nondeclarant, diplomatic, and enemy aliens, confusion and mistakes still plagued the drafting system. By the end of World War I, the U.S. Army contained one in every five soldiers born in a foreign country.

1. John Whiteclay Chambers II, To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America, pp. 21-22.

2. Chambers, To Raise an Army, p. 34-38; James B Jacobs and Leslie Anne Hayes, “Aliens in the U.S. Armed Forces: A Historico-Legal Analysis,” Armed Forces and Society 7 (winter, 1981), p. 190; Weigley, United States Army, p. 168.

3. Chambers, To Raise an Army, pp. 51, 59; Jacobs and Hayes, “Aliens in the U.S. Armed Forces,” p. 192.

4. Ibid.

5. Chambers, To Raise an Army, p. 11; Weigley, United States Army, pp. 356-58.

6. Second Report of the Provost Marshal, p. 88.  Officially, the term “alien” applied to “any person not a native-born or naturalized citizen of the United States, but did not include Indians of the United States not taxed or citizens of the islands under the jurisdiction of the United States.”  United States Statutes at Large 39 (1917): 874. (15)

7. Second Report of the Provost Marshal, pp. 86-88; “Alien Citizenship and the Draft,” Infantry Journal 15, no. 4 (Oct., 1918): 323. 

8. General Orders and Bulletins, General Order No. 91. Oct. 16, 1918 (Washington D.C., 1919), pp. 1-3; Second Report of the Provost Marshal, p. 99. 

9. Final Report of the Provost Marshal, pp. 26-27, table 5; Second Report of the Provost Marshal, p. 99. 

10. Second Report of the Provost Marshal, pp. 99-100; “Alien Citizenship and the Draft,” p. 323; Second Report of the Provost Marshal, pp. 99-102. 

11. Second Report of the Provost Marshal, p. 104; confidential memorandum from the Adjutant General, General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces, to Commanding General, 77th Division, July 17, 1918, 77th Division Records. WDOR RG 120, N.A.; the Adjutant General of the Army to the Commanding Generals of all departments, camps, and divisions in the United States, the Commanding Generals of the ports of embarkation, and the Commanding General, American Expeditionary Forces, July 15, 1918 Bulletin 284, 77th Division Records, WDOR. 

12. “Foreign Legion Companies,” Infantry Journal 15, no. 3 (Sept., 1918): 252-54. 

13. “Ethnic Bulletin: Austrian-born Soldiers Serving in the U.S. Army,” undated (filed on Apr. 15, 1919) 10565-110/28, MID-WDGS. Internal evidence clearly indicates that the bulletin was distributed prior to the end of the war, since a number of references are made to “the war in progress.” 

14. Brig. Gen. Marlborough Churchill [hereafter Churchill], chief, Military Intelligence Branch, to Adjutant General of the Army, June 20, 1918, 10438-24/1, MID-WDGS: Mitchell Yockelson. “The Ghosts of Ft. Oglethorpe,” North Georgia Journal 14, no. 2 (summer, 1997): 57, 54-58. 

15. The Jugoslav National Council to the Secretary of War, Aug. 31, 1918, 10565-487a, MID-WDGS: memorandum of the Slavic Legion, Sept. 24, 1918, 10565-500/5, MID-WDGS: Hapak, “Recruiting a Polish Army,” p. 51. 

16. War Department, General Order No. 91 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 5, 1918), pp. 1-4: memorandum, Churchill to the Adjutant General, Nov. 13, 1918, 10565-501/8, MID-WDGS: “To All American Czechs and Slovaks!” Denni Hlasatel, Apr. 11, 1917; “Committee Reports on Enlistment,” Denni Hlasatel, Apr. 11, 1917; “Recruiting in Progress,” Denni Hlasatel, Apr. 13, 1917; to C.O. 1st Prov. Co., Slavic Legion, “Roster of Officers and Enlisted Men, assigned and attached to 1st Prov. Company, Slavic Legion,” Sept. 25, 1918, 1st Provisional Company, Slavic Legion Organizational File. 27th Division Records, WDOR. The number of men and officers changed over time, and some records indicate 113 men and eighteen officers. 

17. Office of the Chief of Staff, memorandum no. 79, May 21, 1918, 77th Division Records, WDOR. 

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