Now as the year turns toward its darkness
the car is packed, and time come to start
driving west. We have lived here
for many years and been more or less content;
now we are going away. That is how
things happen, and how into new places,
among other people, we shall carry
our lives with their peculiar memories
both happy and unhappy but either way
touched with a strange tonality
of what is gone but inalienable, the clear
and level light of a late afternoon
out on the terrace, looking to the mountains,
drinking with friends. Voices and laughter
lifted in still air, in a light
that seemed to paralyze time.
We have had kindness here, and some
unkindness; now we are going on.
Though we are young enough still
And militant enough to be resolved,
Keeping our faces to the front, there is
A moment, after saying all farewells,
when we taste the dry and bitter dust
of everything that we have said and done
for many years, and our mouths are dumb,
and the easy tears will not do. Soon
the north wind will shake the leaves,
the leaves will fall. It may be
never again that we shall see them,
the strangers who stand on the steps,
smiling and waving, before the screen doors
of their suddenly forbidden houses.
“Going Away” by Howard Nemerov from New Poems. © University of Chicago Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It was on this day in 1940 that 75,000 men were called to Armed Forces duty under the first peacetime conscription in American history.
There had been a long history of resistance to mandatory military service in this country. During World War I, an estimated 3 million young men refused to register, and 12 percent of those called up didn't report for duty or deserted.
Franklin Roosevelt's decision to impose a draft in the summer of 1940 was especially controversial because the country wasn't even at war. But Americans had all seen newspaper and newsreel coverage of the German Army rolling over Poland in a few weeks, and doing the same in France in a few months. By June of that year, Germans controlled most of the European continent, and the United States had a poorly trained standing army of only about 200,000 soldiers.
So even though he worried it might hurt his chances of re-election that November, Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the first peacetime draft in American history. That October, 16 million young men appeared at precinct election boards across the country to register with the Selective Service. The first lottery was held in Washington, D.C., and it was designed to be as patriotic a ceremony as possible. Secretary of War Henry Stimson was blindfolded with cloth taken from a chair that had been used at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the ladle he used to scoop out numbers had been made from the wood of one of the rafters of Independence Hall.
After the selection process, the first 75,000 draftees were called up to service on this day in 1940. During World War II alone, the draft selected 19 million men and inducted 10 million. The draft lapsed briefly after World War II, but the Red Scare persuaded Truman to start it up again, and it continued until 1973.
Most Americans were happy about the end of the draft, but in 1999 the historian Stephen Ambrose wrote: "Today, Cajuns from the Gulf Coast have never met a black person from Chicago. Kids from the ghetto don't know a middle-class white. Mexican-Americans have no contact with Jews. Muslim Americans have few Christian acquaintances ... But during World War II and the Cold War, American [men] from every group got together in the service, having a common goal — to defend their country ... They learned together, pledged allegiance together, sweated together, hated their drill sergeants together, got drunk together, went overseas together. What they had in common — patriotism, a language, a past they could emphasize and venerate — mattered far more than what divided them."