Harry S. Truman photo

Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on Universal Military Training

October 23, 1945

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, and Members of the Congress of the United States:

In my message to the Congress of September 6, 1945, I stated that I would communicate further with respect to a long range program of national military security for the United States. I now present to the Congress my recommendations with respect to one essential part of this program--universal training.

The United States now has a fighting strength greater than at any other time in our history. It is greater than that of any other nation in the world.

We are strong because of many things: our natural resources which we have so diligently developed; our great farms and mines, our factories, shipyards and industries which we have so energetically created and operated. But above all else, we are strong because of the courage and vigor and skill of a liberty loving people who are determined that this nation shall remain forever free.

With our strength comes grave responsibility. With it must also come a continuing sense of leadership in the world for justice and peace.

For years to come the success of our efforts for a just and lasting peace will depend upon the strength of those who are determined to maintain that peace. We intend to use all our moral influence and all our physical strength to work for that kind of peace. We can ensure such a peace only so long as we remain strong. We must face the fact that peace must be built upon power, as well as upon good will and good deeds.

Our determination to remain powerful denotes no lack of faith in the United Nations Organization. On the contrary, with all the might we have, we intend to back our obligations and commitments under the United Nations Charter. Indeed, the sincerity of our intention to support the Organization will be judged partly by our willingness to maintain the power with which to assist other peace-loving nations to enforce its authority. It is only by strength that we can impress the fact upon possible future aggressors that we will tolerate no threat to peace or liberty.

To maintain that power we must act now. The latent strength of our untrained citizenry is no longer sufficient protection. If attack should come again, there would be no time under conditions of modern war to develop that latent strength into the necessary fighting force.

Never again can we count on the luxury of time with which to arm ourselves. In any future war, the heart of the United States would be the enemy's first target. Our geographical security is now gone--gone with the advent of the robot bomb, the rocket, aircraft carriers and modern airborne armies.

The surest guaranty that no nation will dare again to attack us is to remain strong in the only kind of strength an aggressor understands--military power.

To preserve the strength of our nation, the alternative before us is clear. We can maintain a large standing Army, Navy, and Air Force. Or we can rely upon a comparatively small regular Army, Navy and Air Force, supported by well trained citizens, who in time of emergency could be quickly mobilized.

I recommend the second course--that we depend for our security upon a comparatively small professional armed force, reinforced by a well trained and effectively organized citizen reserve. The backbone of our military force should be the trained citizen who is first and foremost a civilian, and who becomes a soldier or a sailor only in time of danger--and only when Congress considers it necessary. This plan is obviously more practical and economical. It conforms more closely to long-standing American tradition.

In such a system, however, the citizen reserve must be a trained reserve. We can meet the need for a trained reserve in only one way-by universal training.

Modern war is fought by experts--from the atomic scientist in his laboratory to the fighting man with his intricate modern weapons. The day of the minute man who sprang to the flintlock hanging on his wall is over. Now it takes many months for men to become skilled in electronics, aeronautics, ballistics, meteorology, and all the other sciences of modern war. If another national emergency should come, there would be no time for this complicated training. Men must be trained in advance.

The sooner we can bring the maximum number of trained men into service, the sooner will be the victory and the less tragic the cost. Universal training is the only means by which we can be prepared right at the start to throw our great energy and our tremendous force into the battle. After two terrible experiences in one generation, we have learned that this is the way--the only way--to save human lives and material resources.

The importance of universal training has already been recognized by the Congress, and the Congress has wisely taken the initiative in this program.

The Select Committee of the House of Representatives on Postwar Military Policy has organized hearings and has heard extended testimony from representatives of churches and schools, labor unions, veterans organizations, the armed services, and many other groups. After careful consideration the Committee has approved the broad policy of universal military training for the critical years ahead. I concur in that conclusion, and strongly urge the Congress to adopt it.

In the present hour of triumph, we must not forget our anguish during the days of Bataan. We must not forget the anxiety of the days of Guadalcanal. In our desire to leave the tragedy of war behind us, we must not make the same mistake that we made after the first World War when we sank back into helplessness.

I recommend that we create a postwar military organization which will contain the following basic elements:

First--A comparatively small regular Army, Navy and Marine Corps;

Second--A greatly strengthened National Guard and Organized Reserve for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps;

Third--A General Reserve composed of all the male citizens of the United States who have received training.

The General Reserve would be available for rapid mobilization in time of emergency, but it would have no obligation to serve, either in this country or abroad, unless and until called to the service by an Act of the Congress.

In order to provide this General Reserve, I recommend to the Congress the adoption of a plan for Universal Military Training.

Universal Military Training is not conscription. The opponents of training have labeled it conscription, and by so doing, have confused the minds of some of our citizens. "Conscription" is compulsory service in the Army or Navy in time of peace or war. Trainees under this proposed legislation, however, would not be enrolled in any of the armed services. They would be civilians in training. They would be no closer to membership in the armed forces than if they had no training. Special rules and regulations would have to be adopted for their organization, discipline and welfare.

Universal training is not intended to take the place of the present Selective Service System. The Selective Service System is now being used to furnish replacements in the armed forces for the veterans of this war who are being discharged.

Only the Congress could ever draw trainees under a Universal Training Program into the Army or the Navy. And if that time ever came, these trainees could be inducted only by a selective process, as they were inducted for World War I and World War II. The great difference between having universal training and no training, however, is that, in time of emergency, those who would be selected for actual military service would already have been basically trained.

That difference may be as much as a year's time. That difference may be the margin between the survival and the destruction of this great nation.

The emphasis in the training of our young men will not be on mere drilling. It will be on the use of all the instruments and weapons of modern war. The training will offer every qualified young man a chance to perfect himself for the service of his country in some military specialty.

Under the plan which I propose, provisions should be made within the armed services to help trainees improve their educational status. The year of universal training should provide ample opportunity for self-improvement. Some part of the training could be used to develop skills which would be useful in future civilian life just as such skills have been developed during the present war.

The period of training could well be used to raise the physical standards of the nation's manpower, to lower its illiteracy rate, and to develop in our young men the ideals of responsible American citizenship.

Medical examinations of the young trainees would do much toward removing some of the minor disabilities which caused the rejection of so many men during this war by the Selective Service System.

The moral and spiritual welfare of our young people should be a consideration of prime importance, and, of course, facilities for worship in every faith should be available.

But the basic reason for universal training is a very simple one--to guarantee the safety and freedom of the United States against any potential aggressor. The other benefits are all by-products--useful indeed, but still by-products. The fundamental need is, and always will be, the national security of the United States, and the safety of our homes and our loved ones.

Since training alone is involved, and not actual military service, no exemptions should be allowed for occupation, dependency, or for any other reason except total physical disqualification.

All men should be included in the training, whether physically qualified for actual combat service or not. There should be a place into which every young American can fit in the service of our country. Some would be trained for combat, others would be trained for whatever war service they are physically and mentally qualified to perform.

I recommend that the training should be for one year. Each young man should enter training either at the age of eighteen or upon his graduation from high school--whichever is later; but in any event before his twentieth birthday. A trainee who completes his high school education in his seventeenth year should be eligible, with parental consent, to enter the course of training.

After the first few months of training, selected trainees who are not physically qualified for military service could be trained in certain skills so that if war came, they could take their places in shipyards, munitions factories and similar industrial plants.

Upon completion of a full year's training, the trainee would become a member of the General Reserve for a period of six years. After that he should be placed in a secondary reserve status.

Present personnel in the Army and Navy Reserves would, of course, be retained, and the new trainees would provide the source from which Reserves of the future would draw their personnel.

Commissions would be granted to qualified men who complete the course of training and who then take additional instruction in Officer Candidate Schools, in the Reserve Officers Training Corps or Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. Outstanding trainees could be selected after an adequate period of training, and sent to college with Government financial aid, on condition that they return, after graduation and with ROTC training, as junior officers for a year or more of additional training or service.

Such a system as I have outlined would provide a democratic and efficient military force. It would be a constant bulwark in support of our ideals of government. It would constitute the backbone of defense against any possible future act of aggression.

It has been suggested in some quarters that there should be no universal training until the shape of the peace is better known, and until the military needs of this country can be estimated and our commitments under the United Nations Organization can be determined. But it is impossible today to foresee the future. It is difficult at any time to know exactly what our responsibilities will require in the way of force. We do know that if we are to have available a force when needed, the time to begin preparing is right now.
The need exists today--and must be met today.

If, at some later time, conditions change, then the program can be reexamined and revalued. At the present time we have the necessary organization, the required camp installations, and the essential equipment and training grounds immediately available for use in a training program. Once we disband and scatter this set-up, it will be much harder and more expensive to reestablish the necessary facilities.

The argument has been made that compulsory training violates traditional American concepts of liberty and democracy, and even that it would endanger our system of government by creating a powerful military caste. The purpose of the program, however, is just the contrary. And it will have just the contrary result. The objective is not to train professional soldiers. It is to train citizens, so that if and when the Congress should declare it necessary for them to become soldiers, they could do so more quickly and more efficiently. A large trained reserve of peace-loving citizens would never go to war or encourage war, if it could be avoided.

It is no valid argument against adopting universal training at this time that there are now millions of trained veterans of this war. No fair minded person would suggest that we continue to rely indefinitely upon those veterans. They have earned the heartfelt gratitude of us all--and they have also earned the right to return promptly to civilian life. We must now look to our younger men to constitute the new reserve military strength of our nation.

There are some who urge that the development of rocket weapons and atomic bombs and other new weapons indicates that scientific research, rather than universal training, is the best way to safeguard our security. It is true that, if we are to keep ahead in military preparedness, continuous research in science and new weapons is essential. That is why in my message to the Congress of September sixth I urged that there be created a national research agency, one of whose major functions would be to carry on fundamental military research.

It is true that there must be continuous exploration into new fields of science in order to keep ahead in the discovery and manufacture of new weapons. No matter what the cost, we cannot afford to fall behind in any of the new techniques of war or in the development of new weapons of destruction.

Until we are sure that our peace machinery is functioning adequately, we must relentlessly preserve our superiority on land and sea and in the air. Until that time, we must also make sure that by planning--and by actual production--we have on hand at all times sufficient weapons of the latest nature and design with which to repel any sudden attack, and with which to launch an effective counter-attack.

That is the only way we can be sure--until we are sure that there is another way.

But research, new materials, and new weapons will never, by themselves, be sufficient to withstand a powerful enemy. We must have men trained to use these weapons. As our armed forces become more and more mechanized, and as they use more and more complicated weapons, we must have an ever-increasing number of trained men. Technological advances do not eliminate the need for men. They increase that need.

General of the Army George C. Marshall, in his recent report to the Secretary of War, has made this very clear. I quote from his report:

"The number of men that were involved in the delivery of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was tremendous. First we had to have the base in the Marianas from which the plane took off. This first required preliminary operations across the vast Pacific, thousands of ships, millions of tons of supply, the heroic efforts of hundreds of thousands of men. Further, we needed the B-29's and their fighter escort which gave us control of the air over Japan. This was the result of thousands of hours of training and preparation in the United States and the energies of hundreds of thousands of men.

"The effect of technology on the military structure is identical to its effect on national economy. Just as the automobile replaced the horse and made work for millions of Americans, the atomic explosives will require the services of millions of men if we are compelled to employ them in fighting our battles.

"This war has made it clear that the security of the Nation, when challenged by an armed enemy, requires the services of virtually all able-bodied male citizens within the effective military age group."

That is the end of General Marshall's quotation.

The atomic bomb would have been useless to us unless we had developed a strong Army, Navy and Air Force with which to beat off the attacks of our foe, and then fight our way to points within striking distance of the heart of the enemy.

Assume that on December 7, 1941, the United States had had a supply of atomic bombs in New Mexico or Tennessee. What could we have done with them ?

Assume that the United States and Japan both had had a supply of the bombs on December 7, 1941. Which would have survived?

Suppose that both England and Germany had had the atomic bomb in September of 1940 during the "Blitz" over England. Which country would have been destroyed ?

The answer is clear that the atomic bomb is of little value without an adequate Army, Air and Naval Force. For that kind of force is necessary to protect our shores, to overcome any attack and to enable us to move forward and direct the bomb against the enemy's own territory. Every new weapon will eventually bring some counter-defense against it. Our ability to use either a new weapon or a counter weapon will ultimately depend upon a strong Army, Navy and Air Force, with all the millions of men needed to supply them--all quickly mobilized and adequately equipped.

Any system which is intended to guarantee our national defense will, of course, cause some inconvenience--and perhaps even some hardship--to our people. But we must balance that against the danger which we face unless we are realistic and hard-headed enough to be prepared. Today universal training is the only adequate answer we have to our problem in this troubled world.

There will be better answers, we hope, in the days to come. The United States will always strive for those better answers--for the kind of tried and tested world cooperation which will make for peace and harmony among all nations. It will continue to strive to reach that period quickly. But that time has not yet arrived.

Even from those who are loudest in their opposition to universal training, there has come no other suggestion to furnish the protection and security which we must have--nothing but pious hope and dangerous wishful thinking.

I urge that the Congress pass this legislation promptly--while the danger is still fresh in our minds--while we still remember how close we came to destruction four years ago-while we can vividly recall the horrors of invasion which our Allies suffered--and while we can still see all the ravages and ruin of war.

Let us not by a short-sighted neglect of our national security betray those who come after us.

It is our solemn duty in this hour of victory to make sure that in the years to come no possible aggressor or group of aggressors can endanger the national security of the United States of America.

Note: The President spoke at 12:31 p.m. in the chamber of the House Representatives. On June 24, 1948, the President approved the Selective Service Act of 1948 (62 Stat. 604), redesignated as the Universal Military Training and Service Act by amendment of June 19, 1951 (65-Stat. 75).

Harry S Truman, Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on Universal Military Training Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/230966

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