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Interpreting the Evidence

Compulsory Service Cartoon

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:

    Political Cartoon

  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Compulsory Service Cartoon, World War I, c. 1917 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
A political cartoon addressing the issue of suggested compulsory service for U.S. citizens, c. 1917.
Historical Context
When World War I broke out in 1914, most Americans wanted to stay out of it at all costs. In the eyes of the west, Europe had become opulent through its rampant and devastating policies of colonial imperialism. The inevitable conflict that arouse out of the “powder keg of Europe” had been brewing for years.  When things finally came to a head, combatants lined up along the lines of the alliances that had been forged over the previous 50 years or so. America was full of isolationist fervor and the war was an ocean away.
The ocean is where the war started for America, first with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, a British passenger ship that was transporting 128 Americans when it was attacked by German U-boats. This act along with the Zimmerman Telegram and other attacks by German U-boats, gave President Wilson the provocation needed for America to enter the war in Europe.
This cartoon, unlike much of the propaganda at the time that was decidedly pro-war, takes a stance against proposed legislation that called for compulsory or required military service. Since America’s army was relatively small at the outset of the war, draft legislation was necessary for the U.S. to build up its forces and in 1917 the Selective Service Act was passed by Congress. This war time law required that all males 21 to 30 be registered for military service. A year later, the law was amended to include all men 18 to 45. Of the 4.8 million American who served during the Great War, nearly half were drafted.
Essential Question
How do individuals influence government policy?
Check for Understanding
Summarize the overall message of this cartoon and explain why individuals might support this message.
Historical Challenges
If the American Union Against Militarism had succeeded in its aims, what do you think the outcome of the war might have been? For the U.S.? For Europe?
Interdisciplinary Connections
English Language Arts: Write a letter to your congressman, as a concerned citizen, for or against the Selective Service Act. Clearly state your reasons for your position.
Economics: The quotation from the republican representative says that the army would cost America 1.25 billion a year. Adjust that number for inflation, to today’s rates. Look up the countries current defense budget numbers. Compare the two.