The Burke-Wadsworth Bill

The Burke-Wadsworth Bill

Congressional deliberations on the first peacetime draft in American history began during mid-1940. There was still a strong isolationist sentiment in segments of American society and some politicians and military figures did not believe a draft would be feasible until the United States issued a declaration of war. However, Senator Edward Burke (D – NE) and Representative James Wadsworth (R – NY), with a strong push from a preparedness lobby led by Wall Street lawyer Greenville Clark, sponsored conscription bills in their respective legislative chambers in June of 1940. Debates over the bill continued throughout the summer.

For conscientious objectors, the Burke-Wadsworth Bill presented a problem. The earliest manifestations of CO provisions in the bill were much too similar to the language of the First World War. Once again, the bill granted CO status only to those objectors who were members of a “well-recognized religious sect whose creed or principles forbid its members to participate in war in any form….” Furthermore, the section did not provide for alternative service, which proved to be a significant problem during the previous draft. In an attempt to change the language of the law to provide broader protection for conscientious objectors, representatives of the Historic Peace Churches, the American Civil Liberties Union, the War Resisters League, and the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, among others, engaged Congress during the summer debates making their stances known.

Ultimately, the Burke-Wadsworth Bill passed in September 1940 as the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The end result of the bill was both a victory and a disappointment for conscientious objectors and those who represented their interests. Section 5(g) of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 read:

Nothing contained in this act shall be construed to require any person to be subject to combatant training and service in the land and naval forces of the United States who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to war in any form. Any such person claiming such exemption from combatant training and service because of such conscientious objections whose claim is sustained by the local board shall, if he is inducted into the land or naval forces under this act, be assigned to noncombatant service as defined by the President, or shall, if he is found to be conscientiously opposed to participation in such noncombatant service, in lieu of such induction, be assigned to work of national importance under civilian direction.

Section 5(g) was a victory for the CO lobby because it improved upon the First World War’s narrow definition of a conscientious objector. However, the CO lobby pushed for the Department of Justice to determine CO classification, and that authority instead ended up in the hands of the local draft boards. This disappointed some of the people who advocated for total removal of the military in determining classification. At any rate, the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was a significant improvement over the problems created by the narrow language of the First World War’s conscription act. What remained was finding a form of alternative service that fit the definition of “work of national importance.”


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