An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2011

The Future of Conscription: Some Comparative Reflections

James John Sheehan

This essay provides a historical and comparative perspective on contemporary American military institutions. It focuses on the origins, evolution, and eventual disappearance of conscription in Western Europe. By the 1970s, Europeans had developed civilian states in which the military’s traditional role steadily diminished; the formal abolition of conscription after 1989 was the final step in a long, largely silent revolution. A brief survey of military institutions outside of Europe suggests why mass conscript armies will remain politically, culturally, and militarily significant in many parts of the world. Seen in a global context, the American experience appears to combine aspects of Western European civilian states with the willingness and ability to project military power.

JAMES J. SHEEHAN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1992, is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Modern European History, Emeritus, at Stanford University. His publications include Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe (2008), Museums in the German Art World from the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism (2000), and German History, 1770–1886 (1989).

[Conscription] is always a significant index of the society where it is found; to view it solely as a method of conducting war is to see very little of it.
–Victor Kiernan1

When Alexis de Tocqueville listed the advantages of democracy in America that came “from the peculiar and accidental situation in which Providence has placed the Americans,” he had no doubts about which was most important. Americans, he wrote, “have no neighbors, and consequently they have no great wars . . . nor great armies, nor great generals.”2  Shielded from potential aggressors by its two great ocean glacis, the United States was, for much of its history, able to avoid building those mass armies on which European states lavished so much energy and resources. When, during the Civil War and World War I, great armies were built, they were dismantled as soon as the war was over. We should not underestimate the reluctance with which Americans abandoned this tradition: the Selective Service Act of 1940 was renewed a year later with a one-vote majority in the House of Representatives and included a prohibi- . . .


  • 1Victor Kiernan, “Conscription and Society in Europe before the War of 1914–1918,” in War and Society: Historical Essays in Honour and Memory of J. R. Western, 1928–1971, ed. M.R.D. Foot (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973), 141.
  • 2Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1994), 288–289.
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