The Secretary of State to President Wilson 8

My Dear Mr. President: I regret to have to call your attention again to certain difficulties arising out of the application of the Selective Service Act to aliens in the United States. As you are aware, all aliens, except enemy aliens, who have declared their intention to become American citizens were, by the Selective Service Act made liable to military service in the same manner as citizens of the United States. The Act contained no provision preserving treaties between the United States and Italy, Japan, Servia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras, Paraguay, Spain, and Switzerland, providing for the exemption of their citizens or subjects from compulsory military service in the United States. It would seem, therefore, that such treaties must be regarded as having been violated by the enactment of this law.

None of the countries who are co-belligerents of the United States has made insistent protests against the compulsory military service of their nationals. Other treaty countries, however, have made numerous and urgent requests for the discharge of their nationals who have been conscripted under the Draft Act; even though they had declared their intention to become citizens of the United States. In addition, non-treaty neutral countries have made similar protests based on the practice of nations in accordance with which they claim, with some force, [Page 183] that resident nationals of foreign countries are generally exempted from compulsory military service in international conflicts.

Certain of the protesting countries have based their representations upon the further consideration that they have naturalization treaties with the United States stipulating that declarants are not citizens. This, in the absence of treaty, is the rule of law in the United States as laid down by the Supreme Court.

Without questioning the right of the United States to claim the services of persons within its jurisdiction who have endeavored to absolve their former allegiance and indicated their intention to take up permanent residence in this country, the Government, out of a desire to show a friendly regard for the views of neutral countries in respect to military service for their nationals here, has worked out a procedure, with your approval, whereby as Commander-in-Chief, you could discharge declarant aliens who had been drafted in accordance with the Selective Service Act, upon the solicitation of the diplomatic representative of the country concerned. But this could be done only after the declarants had been inducted into the military service—really a violation of the treaties and the international practice upon which the protests of foreign diplomats were based.

I regret to report that this procedure has not in practice accomplished the desired results. It has occasioned great embarrassment and annoyance to this Department, and to the War Department. It has given rise to the report abroad that the United States was impressing neutrals into its armed forces, a point advertised by German propagandists with good effect. It has irritated the sensitive feelings of diplomatic representatives and their governments. Moreover, all discharges made prior to December 15, 1917, were revoked by section 4 of the Selective Service Regulations, issued November 8, 1917—9 that is, discharges were being made (and diplomats were being informed thereof) which were only good until December 15, 1917. Further there is nothing to prevent the Local Boards from calling on the discharged aliens to report again at any time for military service. Finally, this procedure for the release of persons subject to the draft might be regarded as an avoidance, if not a violation, of a specific Act of Congress.

In view of the foregoing, this Department and the War Department have come to the conclusion that the only effective method of clearing up the situation is to make a slight amendment to the Selective Service Act so as to exclude neutral declarants from its operation. We concur that from the standpoint of international relations it would be highly undesirable that the existing law should stand unmodified as evidence [Page 184] of a disregard of treaty obligations, or of any supposed rule of international conduct heretofore observed by other governments. I enclose, therefore, for your consideration a draft of a proposed Act or Joint Resolution modifying the existing Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917. If this draft meets with your approval I shall be pleased to present it to the appropriate Committee of Congress for their consideration. I presume it would be advantageous to present the Bill to the House Committee on Military Affairs at the same time that it is considering certain other amendments to the Draft Act now being pressed by the War Department.

In case you desire to examine the matter more at length you may wish to examine the enclosed memoranda10 which I have had prepared containing information on the following points, (a) Historical attitude of the United States towards the drafting of aliens; (b) Practice of drafting aliens during the Civil War; (c) Estimate of the number of persons affected by the proposed amendment. From the data under the last point it will be observed that, counting out citizens or subjects of treaty countries, who it is assumed should be exempted, the proposed amendment would exclude about 29,000 men, of whom not more than 50%, and probably not more than 30%, would be found eligible for military service. Of the 29,000 it is estimated that one half are citizens of our neighboring republic, Mexico, and about 40% are subjects of Scandinavian countries. In essence the amendment gives up a claim to this amount of manpower in order to preserve our treaty obligations and to maintain a sound rule of international practice.

Faithfully yours,

Robert Lansing

Draft of Proposed Amendment to the Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917

A Bill

To amend an Act entitled “An Act to Authorize the President to Increase Temporarily the Military Establishment of the United States.”

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, That the Act entitled “An Act to Authorize the President to Increase Temporarily the Military Establishment of the United States,” approved May 18, 1917 be amended as follows:

[Page 185]

In Section two, page three, line twelve after the word “person” strike out the words “not alien enemies,” after the word “citizens” add the words “except alien enemies or citizens or subjects of countries not at war with a country or countries with which the United States is at war,” so as to make the paragraph read as follows:

Such draft as herein provided shall be based upon liability to military service of all male citizens, or male persons who have declared their intention to become citizens except alien enemies or citizens or subjects of countries not at war with a country or countries with which the United States is at war, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty years, both inclusive, and shall take place and be maintained under such regulations as the President may prescribe, not inconsistent with the terms of this Act.

Note—Amendment is underlined.

  1. This paper bears the notation: “Prest approves Feby 8/18 RL.”
  2. Provost Marshal General’s Office: Selective Service Regulations Prescribed by the President, etc. (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1917).
  3. Not found in Department files.