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Exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I

Raising an Army

In previous conflicts, the United States had utilized conscription, but World War I marked the first time the nation's military raised its army primarily through a draft. In order to balance federal power with state autonomy, local civilian draft boards administered the selective service system. Posters, printed materials, films, and music all helped the government to conduct a national campaign that conveyed the legal requirement for men to register with the selective service or to enlist. Officials struggled to forge a unified fighting force from a segregated military consisting mostly of native-born whites, American Indians, and African Americans, along with large numbers of immigrants. The draft also raised questions about the obligations of citizenship, especially the duty to serve. Though the policy developed and changed over the course of the war, the U.S. War Department created the status of  "conscientious objector" for Americans who viewed military service as a violation of their religious, ethical, or political beliefs.