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Draft Day Meets Some Resistance

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 10, 2017

Mid-May 1917 saw preparations for America’s participation in World War I rapidly progressing. June 5 had been set aside by President Woodrow Wilson for American males to step forward and register to be drafted into the Army.

On May 21, Ocean County issued a proclamation to “Call attention of the people of the County of Ocean, to the fact that the President of the United States and the Governor of New Jersey have designated Tuesday, June 5th, 1917, as Registration Day, on which day between the hours of 7 A.M. and 9 P.M., all male citizens in this County who shall have attained their Twenty-first birthday and who shall not have attained their Thirty-first birthday on or before June 5, 1917, shall present themselves for registration at their accustomed or designated polling places.

“Further, we call upon the authorities of all municipalities in this County to maintain good order during this day and urge the people in general to observe this day, June 5, 1917, as a public holiday.”

Locally and across the nation there was the question of how the citizens would respond.

“To the young men of the County whose duty and privilege it is to register on this day in response to the law and the Proclamation of the President, we urge that they appear before the Registration Board in their election district prepared to give prompt and correct replies to all the questions that must be asked.

“It is also our duty to call specific attention to the heavy penalty provided in the Federal law: first, for failure to register; second, for refusal to answer the required questions correctly.”

Despite all the flag-waving, there appeared to be a growing movement opposed to the war, and on May 28, U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory issued his own proclamation.

“My attention has been called to the circulation of propaganda designed to discourage registration in accordance with the provisions of the Army bill approved May, last. Such action is a plain violation of the law. … In addition to the penal provisions contained in the act which make evasion a criminal offense, section 6 of the Federal penal code makes it a criminal offense punishable with not more than six (6) years imprisonment for any two or more persons to conspire together to ‘hinder, prevent, or delay the execution of any law of the United States.’”

The next day the government-run newspaper Official Bulletin reported, “Eleven arrests have been made and nine indictments have been returned by Federal grand juries as the result of attempts to hinder registration in accordance with the provisions of the new Army bill. These were the first cases brought to the attention of the Department of Justice of organized effort to resist the selective draft law.”

According to Gregory, “These arrests should be accepted by the country generally as a warning against interfering with the enforcement of the provisions of the new Army law. … There have been a few reported instances of threats to interfere with the execution of this law. Wherever they come to the attention of officials of the department arrest will be made. … Its agents will be instructed to see that registration officers perform their duties properly and that they are not interfered with in the performance of their duties.”

On the 31st, the Bulletin announced further precautions for the big day.

“Department of Justice officials are determined that no man subject to registration under the new Army law shall escape his obligation by leaving the United States before June 5. Yesterday the Department issued instructions to its agents in California to remove from a boat bound for Mexico a passenger whose age makes him subject to the provisions of the law. At the department to-day it was said that this policy is to be pursued general(ly). ... Attorney General Gregory has sent a letter to United States attorneys and marshals throughout the country directing them to fully protect officials charged with the registration.”

And finally, “Every man subject to registration is not only expected by the department to comply with the law, but also to constitute himself a committee of one in his community to see that each of his acquaintances who should register does so, or is promptly reported for prosecution under the criminal provisions of the law.”

During this period the government concentrated its attention on a 48-year-old Russian immigrant, Emma Goldman, a leader of the anti-draft movement. Goldman was an ultra-left-wing liberal who hated capitalism and spoke repeatedly against the registration. The Trenton Times reported on May 30, ‘Hundreds of New Yorkers opposed to enforcement of the selective draft, including Emma Goldman are under surveillance by Federal agents here today in the government’s nation-wide plan to nip anti-conscription riots in the bud. Wholesale arrests will be made at the first hint of trouble, it was intimated.

“Emma Goldman, as leader of the No-Conscription League, claimed today that she is sure of between 5,000 and 10,000 youths who will refuse to serve in the army. A Big no-conscription meeting is scheduled for Hunt’s Point Palace, the Bronx, June 4, the eve of registration day. It’s probable Federal agents will raid this place if the meeting is held.”

The next day Goldman was in Philadelphia, where a New York Sun reporter watched as “Under threat of immediate arrest Emma Goldman was halted to-night in her effort to organize in Philadelphia a branch of the ‘No Conscription League’ which, from its headquarters at 20 East 125th Street, New York, has circularized the country with pamphlets discouraging registration under the selective conscription law.

“’On the eve of conscription registration day we will hold a great mass meeting in Manhattan,’ Miss Goldman said. ‘This will be a demonstration of the desire of the people to do as they wish and not as others want them to do.

“‘We do not advise against registration, but we do tell those who register that if they do so they must take the consequences of conscription.’

“No sooner had the word ‘conscription’ been uttered than the detectives who had been taking stenographic notes of the speech decided it was time to interfere.”

Once the Army had been raised, recruits would need to be trained, and this would require new military bases. The Trenton Times of May 19 announced, “Complete plans for housing 22,000 men at each of thirty-two divisional cantonment camps in which the war army is to be trained have been worked out by War Department officials. Construction work will be undertaken as soon as commanders of the military departments have designated the sites.

“The project is to build thirty-two towns complete with all necessary equipment and facilities.”

On the 25th, the New Egypt Press got wind that something was going on locally.

“Government agents, who have been examining land in Burlington County for mobilizing troops, in addition to inspecting the Lorrillard farm, have looked with favor upon a tract near Wrightstown, comprising about 3000 acres. … The plan is to rent whatever land is selected, the price to be $25 per acre per year.”

This, of course, would mean big money for the local economy, and according to the next day’s Asbury Park Press, “Every effort is being made today by the New Jersey authorities to secure the location of one of the United States army training camps in this state. Governor Edge, and Adjutant General Barber have brought every possible influence to bear.

“The scheme embraces about 4,000 acres of farm land near Wrightstown, Burlington County. Options have been secured for the leasing of the whole tract except five acres, it is understood, and it is said the farmers have been reasonable in meeting the government offers. The plan involves paying them for their growing crops.”

As the nation was being asked to save food and farmers urged to plant more, the Philadelphia Ledger of May 29 interviewed some of those being affected by the construction of a new base in the heart of New Jersey.

“As one farmer explained it, the owners are patriotic enough to be willing to sacrifice their home for the needs of the Government, especially as the compensation is fair, but there is considerable criticism of the use of productive farm land for the camp when thousands of acres of pine land, well drained and well adapted to camping purposes, is to be found but a few miles further inland, and with even better transport facilities.”

But the objections made little difference.

“The farmers upon receipt of news that the War Department had actually arranged for the camp, began immediate preparations to vacate. Their crops will be left in the ground for the army engineers to handle as they please. Owing to the extensive improvements to be made in the way of buildings, camp streets, water supply, etc. few of these crops will reach maturity.”

It would seem that when you fight a war “to make the world safe for democracy,” sometimes you have to sacrifice “life, liberty and property.”

Next Week: June 5, 1917.


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