The American Home Front and the Buildup to World War II: The Selective Service Act and the Arsenal of Democracy

Banner headline, bold all-caps text immediately under the Buffalo Courier Express masthead.
Newspaper headline from September 2, 1939: “Britain, France May Enter War Today, Germans Attack by Land, Air and Sea; Roosevelt Believes U.S. Can Stay Out.”

Buffalo Courier Express (Buffalo, New York) September 2, 1939, p. 1.

Stylized image of a worker’s leather glove gripping a hex wrench. The head of the wrench fits over the hex nut-shaped “o” in “Production.”
“America’s Answer! Production.” Poster, Office for Emergency Management, 1941.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 513808).

World War II broke out in Europe on September 1, 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland. By this time, New Deal programs had brought income and electricity into rural and urban homes across the country. As a result, many homes had radios, and for the first time, got war news as it happened.

For years, FDR had quietly been preparing for the possibility of America’s involvement in the conflict. Publicly, he maintained neutrality. In his Fireside Chat on September 3, 1939 he told Americans: “Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields… This nation will remain a neutral nation.”[1] As the war in Europe intensified, Congress allowed trade with belligerent nations – but only if they paid cash and transported their own goods. This “cash-and-carry” policy was designed to keep Americans out of the conflict.[2] With a market opening for buyers, American factories increased their production. Unemployment continued to fall, and inflation became a concern.[3]

When German forces captured France in June of 1940, Britain appeared on the brink of falling. This would have left little (if any) opposition to the spread of fascism around the world.[4] Winston Churchill took to the radio to appeal to the public for American intervention, while also working government to government with FDR and Congress.[5] In 1940, Roosevelt won his third term. During the election, he walked the fine line of both campaigning to keep the US out of the war while also affirming the need for America to protect itself. The public, uneasy at the global situation, increasingly supported a military draft.[6]

Draft registration card number U-2214. Name, address, and other contact information are hand-written in.
Huddie Ledbetter’s World War II draft card. An African American folk and blues singer, musician and songwriter, he was better known by his stage name, “Lead Belly.”

Photo by the War Department (VIRIN: 430407-O-ZZ999-001).

The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940

In September, 1940 the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 became law -- the first peacetime draft in American history. It required all men who had turned 21 but who were not yet 36 years old to register. Before the draft, the Army and the Navy had a combined force of about 265,000.[7] Within a month, more than 16 million men were on the rolls and almost a million were drafted into service. Draftees were selected by lottery. The first lottery took place on October 29, 1940. In DC, papers with numbers 1 to 7,836 printed on them were loaded into small capsules. These were put into a large glass bowl (which had also been used in the World War I draft) for selection. Officials stirred the capsules using a wooden spoon carved from a piece of Independence Hall. A blindfolded Secretary of War Henry Stimson reached into the bowl and selected a capsule. President Roosevelt read out the number, 158, and cross the country, in thousands of local draft districts, men assigned that number had to report for service. [8]

Provisions in the Act spelled out who could serve. Draftees were required to serve at least one year, plus up to 10 years in the reserves. And though there was not supposed to any racial discrimination, the military remained segregated. White men who met the criteria were drafted immediately. Especially early on, draft boards sent most Black men home. Those who were drafted were assigned to a very few segregated units. [9] Any man not meeting the medical requirements were classified as 4-F (unfit for service) and sent home. This included many suffering from malnourishment. Men with dependents (wives and children) were exempt from service. This led to a spike in marriages. Also able to defer were those working in essential industries and farming, and those attending college. Many of these criteria changed over the course of the war as the military needed more and more service members. [10]
A white man in a dark suit is stirring capsules in a large, clear glass bowl. Behind him you can see a chalkboard with a list of draft numbers already drawn.
A man uses a wooden spoon made from part of Independence Hall to mix capsules holding draft numbers. This was the first national lottery, held in DC on October 29, 1940.

Screen capture from Universal Newsreel, Volume 12, Release 924, October 30, 1940. MCA/Universal Pictures Collection, National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 234272595).

The Act contained provisions for conscientious objectors. Those who, “by reason of religious training and belief” opposed serving in combat would be assigned to noncombatant service. This included work as medics and chaplains in the armed forces. This totaled approximately 25,000 objectors. Those opposed to any military service would be assigned “work of national importance under civilian direction.” This included working in mental institutions, supporting the National Park Service, and taking part in medical studies including the Starvation Study at the University of Minnesota. About 12,000 objectors joined this Civilian Public Service program. About 6,000 objectors – including Bayard Rustin – refused to participate in the war in any way, and went to jail.[11] The Act also required that businesses prioritize filling military orders. Refusal to do so was a felony, and the businesses were subject to seizure by the Departments of the Army or Navy.[12]

Unemployment fell as men went into military training and into increasing numbers of jobs. But despite the law, the draft, and the clearly intensifying conflicts, there was resistance and confusion. Those drafted were not really sure what their role was in a technically neutral US. Manufacturers were making good profits from consumers as the Great Depression was ending, and they were reluctant to lose that profit by converting to military production.[13] In the factories, unions were working to organize labor and pushing for more benefits – emboldened by the increased demands for workers. In the months before the US entered World War II, more than 2.3 million unionized American workers walked out in over 4,200 strike actions. This was the highest level of strike actions in United States history.[14]
An envelope from Fort Myer, Virginia to Berwyn, Illinois. Image on the left side is a brightly colored stylized factory with smoke coming from the smokestacks overlaid on a map of North America. The caption is overprinted on the image.
“America – The Arsenal of Democracy. On March 11, 1941, America mobilized her vast industrial power under the Lease-Lend Act to supply all the Democratic nations with tools for Victory.” Postal cover (embellished envelope), 1942.

Collection of the National Postal Museum (2002.2035.586).

The Arsenal of Democracy

Tensions in the Pacific continued to escalate as FDR limited trade with Japan. And in Europe, the war was going poorly for the British.[15] The Blitz had begun and London was under German bombardment day and night. Reporter Edward Murrow was there, reporting for CBS radio. American citizens listened intently as one of their own reported on the devastation against the backdrop of anti-aircraft shots and enemy planes and bombs.[16]

The President again took to the airwaves at the end of 1940. He talked about enemy spies at work in the United States; warned against profiteering; and accused those wanting to stay out of the war of helping the enemy. Continuing to insist that Americans would not send troops to Europe or Asia, FDR conceded that peace with the Axis was impossible. To keep America out of the war, America needed to support Britain and their allies. America had to become the “great arsenal of democracy.”[17]

Just over a week later, FDR stood in front of Congress and outlined the “four essential human freedoms” that the US was helping to defend. These were freedom of speech, freedom to worship in one’s own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.[18] After months of negotiations, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act in March of 1941. It permitted the US to gift, lend, or lease military supplies to any nation “vital to the defense of the United States.” Because they were not being sold, the cash- portion of the cash-and-carry limitations of the Neutrality Acts did not apply.[19] With the stroke of a pen, the federal government became the customer for military goods – to the tune of $7 billion for the first orders. They also appropriated $13.7 billion for the military (more than six times the $2.2 billion spent on defense the year before.) Unemployment fell below 10% for the first time since before the Great Depression, and servicemen were called up and sent to training camps by the hundreds of thousands.[20]
A white metal collar clip printed in green. The collar clip has a larger, circular end printed “Don’t Join Jim Crow Army.” A smaller circular end is connected by a length of metal designed to fold over a collar.
“Don’t Join Jim Crow Army” collar clip discouraging African Americans from enlisting in the segregated WWII military. Printed ca. 1940-1945 by the Green Duck Co., Chicago. Two “union bugs” or logos printed on the small end indicate the manufacturer was a unionized shop.

Collection of the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library (2002.1.4595)

The jobs did not go equally to all Americans. Even as the need for labor in the defense industry expanded, African Americans were discriminated against. Many industry leaders refused to hire Black workers, claiming that it would integrate their workforce. In June 1941, labor leader A. Philip Randolph made a public call for 100,000 African Americans to descend on Washington, DC to protest discrimination in the military and in the defense industry. To avoid an escalation of tensions on the eve of war, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, and the march was called off.[21] Executive Order 8802 forbid discrimination based on race in government hiring and training. Encouraged by the promise of protection and the lure of well-paying work, thousands of African American men and women left the South for industrial jobs in the North and West.

Despite the law, however, Black men and women still encountered discrimination, including being assigned the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. The irony of working and fighting for democracy overseas while living in a country that treated them as second class citizens was not lost on African Americans. Some, remembering the lack of respect they received after World War I, advocated staying out of the military. One collar clip that was circulating read, “Don’t Join Jim Crow Army.” There was also a nation-wide “Double V” (Double Victory) campaign inspired by a letter published in the Pittsburgh Courier. It called for Victory Abroad for democracy, and Victory at Home referring to a defeat of racism in the US.[22]

On July 26, 1941, in part to keep Japan from attacking Russia (a British ally), FDR froze all Japanese assets in the US. This effectively cut Japan off from American oil.[23] Although Japan and the US had been going back and forth for years about trade, this was a provocation too far for the Japanese. Diplomacy failed, and on December 7, 1941 Japanese forces attacked.
This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Last updated: February 22, 2024