Theses Doctoral

Across War and Peace: Youth, Higher Education, and National Security in the United States, 1917-1945

Hattori, Masako

This study demonstrates how debates in the United States over the supervision of the nation’s youth population from World War I to World War II among political, military, and educational leaders paved the way for the establishment of the disproportionate draft of young men in their late teens and early twenties as a democratic, American way of conscripting civilians for World War II. In 1918, when World War I necessitated the induction of men under age twenty-one, U.S. Congress decided that these young soldiers should be endowed with special educational benefits available only to them and not to older soldiers. In short, a clear distinction between “children” and “adults” that age twenty-one signified and a co-relation between legal majority and the obligation to serve had existed. In World War II, by contrast, the debate over whether to induct minors centered on the physical and mental maturity of minors rather than what legal obligation the minors owed to the state. This shift in focus from majority to maturity was no mere accident but reflected the changes in the social conceptions of youth and the youth’s relationship to the state that took place in American society in the years between the two world wars. This study illuminates the changes by incorporating the military mobilization of civilians, a topic that historians have largely treated as a short-term deviation in U.S. history, into U.S. political and cultural history, and by weaving together wide-ranging materials including federal government documents, pacifist statements, educational associations’ studies of youth, court cases, and periodicals.

The debates over youth in the years from World War I to World War II revolved around the issues of national security, access to higher education, and the jurisdiction of the federal state, all of which were going through substantial conceptual transformations: the spread of the idea that schooling beyond grammar school helped youth land a better job; the institutionalization of military training programs such as ROTC in civilian colleges and universities; the problematization of youth as an economic, educational, and ideological problem in the Great Depression and the broadening of the age range of “youth” to include men and women in their twenties as well as teens; the rise of the federal government as a custodian of youth as symbolized by the establishment of the New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration; and the need to redefine the meaning of military service in a democracy vis-à-vis the rise of dictatorships elsewhere in the world. By the time World War II necessitated the disproportionate draft of youth, the stage had been set for many Americans to accept the idea that the federal government was in a position to determine youth’s educational and career paths in war and peace; that drafting youth indicated drafting men who were single, less stable in the labor market, less mentally mature, and less skilled; and that serving the national good was among higher education’s primary goals. The perceived “democratic” mobilization of American civilians for World War II had thus internalized the interwar stratification of youth according to the individual youth’s potential to serve the collective good by way of prioritizing the nation over the individual.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2026-02-08.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Stephanson, Anders
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 16, 2018