THE UNITED STATES ENTERS WORLD WAR I
When the Imperial German Armies invaded Belgium and France in August 1914, the military reservation now known as Fort Dix, New Jersey, did not exist. In fact, even at the time the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917, no definitive action had been taken by the War Department to locate any of the 32 new training camps that would provide the bulk of the troops for the American expeditionary Forces in Europe.
Yet, in the short period of five months, training camps capable of handling more than a million soldiers sprouted throughout the United States. To understand this phenomenal development, it is necessary to review the events leading to United States participation in the “war to end all wars.”
The war in Europe in the summer of 11914 came as a complete shock to the American people. Almost every shade of American opinion had assumed that a general European war was unthinkable. Numerous seemingly successful international conferences had lulled the American public into believing that small wars between petty princes might continue but the “big” war was a thing of the past.
The initial reaction was horror, disgust, and determination to keep out of it. President Wilson proclaimed American neutrality on 4 August 1914, and in a message to the Senate on the 19th declared, “The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name…” 1. (1. Samuel Eliot Morision, The Oxford History of the American People, p. 848)
Throughout the early years of the war, President Wilson and a majority of the American people held firmly to the principles of neutrality. In the Presidential election of 1916, Wilson won reelection by a narrow margin, largely on the campaign slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”
Although Wilson made no promises to keep the United States out of the war, he was convinced that by determined efforts to serve as arbiter, he could bring the warring nations to the conference table. In carrying out his idealistic program to achieve “Peace without Victory,” Wilson even discouraged Untied States military preparedness “fearing least too much build-up would suggest to Germany that we really were preparing for war.” 2. (Ibid. pp. 857-858)
It was not until the German Government openly announced in early February 1917 that it would pursue a policy of attack on all shipping, whether combatant or neutral, in a zone around the British Island and the Mediterranean that even Wilson began to realize “neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable.” 3. (3. Ibid. p. 859)
With the sinking of a number of unarmed United States merchant ships in March 1917, the interception and publicity of a plot by the German Government to form an alliance with Mexico against the United States, and the discovery of large-scale propaganda and espionage activities within the United States, the American people demanded retaliation.
To a special session of Congress assembled on 2 April 1917 for the purpose of formalizing a state of war with the Imperial German Government, President Wilson set the stage for the establishment of a wartime army. In his message, Wilson outlined the measures which would have to be taken to mobilize for war. He stated in part, “It will involve the immediate addition to the armed forces of the United States already provided for by law in case of war at least 500,000 men, who should, in my opinion, be chosen upon the principle of universal liability to service, and also the authorization of subsequent additional increments of equal force so soon as they may be needed and can be handled in training.” 4.
A joint resolution was passed by the Congress and on 6 April 1917, the President signed the document declaring that a state of war existed with the Imperial German Government.
In his message to Congress, Wilson had referred to “the immediate addition to the armed forces of the United States already provided by law.” 5.
This law was the National Defense Act of 3 June 1916 which erected the framework for the expansion of the military establishment in the event a conflict were to come. Insofar as it pertained to the United States Army, the act recognized four elements in the land forces: the Regular Army, the National Guard, the Reserve Corps, and in wartime, the Volunteer Army. When the act was passed in June 1916, the possibility of the United States entering the war in Europe was still remote. The Congress in considering the law had assumed that in the event of hostilities, the bulk of the men needed to pursue a war would come as volunteers as they had throughout the history of the United States.
On the day that war was declared, the strength of the United States Army was slightly more than 200,000, of which 67,000 were national guardsmen. The latter were still on active duty after being called into service for protection of the Mexican border against Pancho Villa’s raids. The training camps in existence in April 1917 had a capacity for only 125,000 men. It was from this base that the United States would have to recruit the manpower and construct the facilities to develop an army of a million and a half, which the General Staff estimated would be needed for participation in the war in Europe.
During the months immediately preceding the United States’ entry into the war, President Wilson and the War Department came to recognize that only a conscript army could provide the quantities of men needed to wage trench warfare as it had been carried out in Europe for almost three years. As early as February 1917, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker made the statement to the Army War College, “We are going to raise our Army by draft.” 6.
This was a new concept for a nation that had always relied on volunteers in times of national crisis. Conscription had been tried only once before by the Federal Conscription Act of March 1963. The draft riots of New York City in July 1863 demonstrated the utter failure of the system. However, President Wilson was convinced that this method was the only fair one for all the American people; hence, his reference in the 2 April message: “men, who should, in my opinion, be chosen upon the principle of universal liability to service.” 7.
A universal conscription law, whatever its merits, required the approval of Congress. Following the declaration of war, a bill to this effect was introduced. The debate over the new concept was long and often bitter. It was not until 13 May 1917 that the bill “An Act to authorize the President to increase temporarily the Military Establishment of the United States” was approved.
In the meantime, the War Department and the US Army General Staff could not make final plans for the organization and training of the increased army until it had assurance that the manpower was to be made available. Consequently, it was not until mid-May 1917, almost a month and a half after United States entry into the war, that orders were sent out to select sites for the training camps and negotiate for construction of cantonments for the new army.
The draft law that gave the go-ahead to the War Department was signed by the President on 18 May 1917. It provided for the drafting of an army of 500,000 men, between the ages of 21 and 30, both inclusive. It also provided for raising the Regular Army and National Guard of the United States to their full legal strength, for the incorporation into national service of the National Guard of several states, and for a day of general registration. By proclamation, the President assigned 5 June 1917, as the day of registration. Despite the views of many that a draft would not work, 9,660,000 men were registered in an atmosphere of patriot calm on 5 June 1917.
On the morning of 20 July, Secretary Baker presided at the drawing of the “national lottery.” Baker drew number “258,” which designated the first man in each precinct throughout the United States to report to his local draft board. Sufficient numbers were drawn to provide 687,000 men -- the total estimated to fill vacancies in the National Guard. The first contingent of the draft received subsequent orders to report to their training camps on 1 September 1917. The term “Volunteer Army” as defined in the National Defense Act of 1916 was scrapped, and the draftees became the “National Army” to distinguish them from other elements of the land forces.
The date for the reporting draftees set the deadline for the War Department. On 1 September, the National Army camps would have to be ready to receive and train the hundreds of thousands of men. One of these camps was to be named Camp Dix, New Jersey.