Remembering Conscription in the United States

Posted on Categories Federal Law & Legal System, Legal History, Public

On July 1, 2011, without much fanfare in the rest of the world, Germany ended its military draft.  The German military draft began in 1956 (when Cold War concerns led to its re-establishment in West Germany) and lasted for 51 years.

For American males who turned 18 between 1946 and 1972 (several of whom currently serve on the Marquette law faculty) the German action is a reminder of the powerful role that the “peace-time” military draft once played in the United States.

Because it has now been almost 40 years since the American military draft was terminated, many of the details of the draft have passed out of the American consciousness and are only hazily remembered even by those who lived through the period of the draft.  (Does anyone ever watch the 1969 Arthur Penn film Alice’s Restaurant, which revolves around a satirical treatment of what the draft did to the lives of young American males in the Age of Aquarius?)

The following is a summary of the way in which the U.S. military draft operated in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and how it affected the lives of those planning to attend college or graduate school.  This surveys the operation of the draft from the time of the Military Selective Service Act of 1967—which significantly revamped involuntary military service in the United States—until the termination of the draft in 1972.  The discussion below is part personal memoir and part research project.

One of the central features of the Cold War draft was the student deferment.  As long as an eligible male was enrolled in an undergraduate college, his eligibility for the draft was deferred until his studies were complete or else he had left college.  Until 1967, students who were in graduate school were deferred as well, although one of the purposes of the 1967 Act was to reduce dramatically the number of graduate programs eligible for student deferments.

Consequently, males who entered college after 1967 knew that once they had finished college—unless they enrolled in Divinity School–they would have to deal with the prospect of mandatory military service.  Although many eligible men were in fact never drafted, the escalating use of ground troops in Vietnam in the late 1960’s made it seem likely that most physically fit males would have to either submit to induction into the military, or else volunteer for some branch of the service before being drafted, or establish that one was a qualified religious conscientious objector (which normally required proof of membership in a “peace church” like the Society of Friends, the Mennonites, or the Church of the Brethren”).  The only alternatives were going to prison or leaving the country.

As a symbol of this system, all 18-year old or older males were required to carry a “draft card” that both indicated one’s draft status and doubled as a general purpose ID card.

The Military Selective Service Act of 1967, passed at the highpoint of the escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, had significantly altered the system of drafting civilians that had been in place since the years before World War II.  While it reduced the number and type of exemptions, it left the undergraduate college deferment in place, and it originally left the process of selecting draftees to local draft boards.  Previously, every local draft board was assigned a “quota” for soldiers that it had to supply to the U.S. military.  Although the quotas had to be met, except in cases of extraordinary special circumstances, the boards were normally given broad discretion when it came to choosing who would be drafted and who would not.

Although draft boards were frequently accused of favoritism in their choice of draftees, cultural icons Elvis Presley and Willie Mays were both drafted in the 1950’s, after they had become nationally well-known figures.

However, on November 26, 1969, President Richard Nixon, still in his first year in office, signed an amendment to the 1967 act which replaced the arguably arbitrary local selection system with a national draft lottery.

Under the lottery, a draft number was randomly assigned to each day of the year, and in the year they turned 19, young men were subject to call up to the military the following year.  Call ups began with those whose birthdays had assigned the lowest numbers.   (The assignment of numbers was done through the use of a lottery bin and the event was shown on national television.)

Student deferments for those attending college remained in place, but they only delayed, and only for up to four years, the year the holder became eligible to be drafted.

The first draft lottery was held on December 1, 1969, and applied only to all males eligible to be drafted under the previous system—which were those men born between January 1, 1944, and December 31, 1950. (Anyone born before 1944 had already reached age 26, which was the oldest age at which a man could be drafted under the previous system.)  The 1969 Amendment also provided that if an eligible male was not drafted the first year that he was available for the draft, he could not be drafted in a subsequent year.

This formed the primary basis of the argument that the new lottery was less disruptive to the lives of young men because it reduced the period of uncertainty as to whether or not one would be drafted from seven years (ages 19 to 26) to a single year (the year one turned 19).  While this was technically true, those who held student deferments had to worry about their draft status all the way thorough college and for the following year.

In 1970, it was generally assumed that the need for troops might require the federal government to go as high as #215 in the draft, but was unlikely to go any higher.  Consequently, anyone with a number above #215 could decline to apply for a deferment and take the very small risk of being drafted.  For those with #366, there was absolutely no risk at all, short of the outbreak of a major war with the Soviet Union.  Those with low numbers could be certain that they would be drafted when or if they lost their student deferment.

The second drawing, affecting those born in 1951, was held on July 1, 1970, after the conclusion of the freshman year of college of most of that group that had enrolled in college.  However, most of the students who began college in the fall of 1970, were, like myself, born in 1952.  We were eligible for student deferments, but had to wait until the following summer to know our real draft status.

By 1970, the future status of the draft was a matter of much debate and significant uncertainty.  Richard Nixon had called for a phase-out of the draft during the 1968 presidential campaign, and there were frequent rumors throughout his first term that the ever increasing troop withdrawals from Southeast Asia were a prerequisite to the draft’s abolition.  Consequently, one could always hope that the draft might be abolished while one’s student deferments were still in effect.

On the other hand, there were also persistent rumors that Congress might end student deferments—a frequently articulated “fairness” argument said that it should—so, on the assumption that the repeal would not be retroactive, almost everyone born in 1952 and in college in the fall of 1970 requested a student deferment, even though they would not be eligible to be drafted until 1972.

The draft lottery for those born in 1952 was not held until August 5, 1971, a month or so before the beginning of the 1971-72 academic year at most colleges.  I pulled a #81, which was almost surely in the “likely to be drafted range,” had I not had my deferment.

The Nixon Administration’s dramatic reduction in the number of ground troops in Southeast Asia in 1969 and 1970—which accompanied an expanded use of bombing of enemy territories—reduced the need for soldiers, and in 1970, the pool of those actually drafted reached only #195, short of the predicted #215.  The following year (1971), only those with numbers of 125 or lower were drafted.  In what would have been the draft year for most of us—1972—eligible males with numbers of 95 or lower were called up for physicals and most were drafted.  (I am sure that at #81 I would would have been called, because my one of my high school friends, whose number was #84, was drafted after dropping/flunking out of Virginia Tech the year before.)  However, because of my still-valid student deferment, I was not drafted in 1972.

But before anyone was drafted in 1973, further changes in the system occurred.  In September, 1971, when the draft was renewed for an additional two years after months of acrimonious debate in Congress, all future student deferments were eliminated (except for those for divinity students).  I believe that this applied only to new, first-time registrants, but that was not very clear at the time.  However, the issue ultimately proved moot.  No one with a number higher than #10 was called up for physicals in 1973, and on January 27, 1973, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced that the United States was abandoning the military draft for the indefinite future and would instead rely on an all volunteer force.

Looking back on it, this announcement produced a massive sigh of relief among college males, and almost immediately the abolition of the draft took the wind out of the sails of the anti-Vietnam War movement at Oberlin (where I was a student) and elsewhere.

Although draft lotteries were held in 1973, 1974, and 1975, the draft was never reinstated, and men in their early 20’s approach their futures with a degree of occupational freedom that few had anticipated at the beginning of the decade.

An aspect of the Vietnam era draft that was confusing then, and continuing to be now, is that there was a preliminary stage to the draft, that was known as “getting called up for a physical.”  To expedite the process, eligible males who were deemed likely to be drafted were ordered to report for a preliminary physical that was used to determine who was physically eligible for service and who was not.

Normally, someone called up for a physical who was certified as physically fit for the draft assumed that they would be drafted during the following few months.  Generally, this was the case, but it was not always true.  Many enlisted in the Air Force, or some less dangerous branch of the service, once they were called up for, and passed, an army physical.  Some, of course, failed the physical.  However, every year there were some who got called for a physical, passed it, but then saw the year pass without actually being drafted.

Because the number of men drafted fell below the predicted number every year from 1969 and 1973, there were always males with border-line numbers who got called up for physicals but who were never actually called up to active duty.  Also, and I don’t really understand why this happened, there were times when males with valid student deferments got called for physicals, even though they were not actually subject to the draft.  This may have been a function of local draft boards having difficulty figuring out the new system.  Nevertheless, the receipt of a letter in the mail ordering one to report for a military physical was a traumatic event, even for those who felt certain that they were not currently eligible to be drafted.

As the father of a son starting college this year, I am especially thankful that he doesn’t have to deal with the anxieties that were commonplace forty to fifty years ago when baby-boomer males were in college.

15 thoughts on “Remembering Conscription in the United States”

  1. Thanks for this tutorial on a system that many of us have only encountered superficially in history textbooks. As a college student during the first Gulf War, I can attest to many anxious conversations with classmates about the possibility of a new draft and whether it would work as it did in the era you are describing. (By coincidence, I was taking a history course then on the Vietnam War, in which we read James Fallows’ great essay on the class dimensions of the draft.)

    There may be another important legacy to the Vietnam-era draft: the federal sentencing guidelines. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a older lawyer who had worked on sentencing issues on Capitol Hill in the 1970’s, when the concept of federal sentencing guidelines first took root. By his recollection, it was the dramatic disparities in the sentencing of draft-dodgers that more than anything else convinced policy-makers of the need for uniform guidelines. To some judges, illegally avoiding the draft was tantamount to the very worst form of treason, while other judges were inclined to treat draft-related crimes quite leniently, perhaps because they appreciated the unfairness of the draft system or shared growing public reservations regarding the war itself.

    I should say that my own research on the legislative history of the guidelines has not uncovered any particular emphasis on these draft-related issues, but I suppose they may have had an “elephant in the room” quality for the people involved in the guidelines movement. Fallows’ essay certainly suggests reasons why elite policymakers in the 1970’s and early 1980’s may not have wanted to draw attention to draft crimes — many of them likely found legal ways to avoid the draft that were not as readily available to the children of working-class families.

  2. My husband was a senior at John Carroll University when the first lottery was held in December 1969. I did not know him at the time and was actually living and studying in Paris that academic year so I have no recollection of this event. But he and his friends, those at John Carroll and at other universities around the country, all remember exactly where they were the night the drawing took place: typically gathered together in front of a television in the student union waiting to learn their fate. Imagine seeing your birthdate pulled first. (The stories go that the men who had the first 100 birthdates pulled didn’t have to buy beer that night or for the remainder of the semester.) My husband’s number was in the 180’s and he eventually signed up with the Army Reserves. (A recruiter called him monthly for the next six months to “advise” him that he’d best sign up for the Reserves because they were getting closer and closer to calling his number.) His younger brother–two years younger–had number 365.

  3. I remember well starting college in August, 1971 and walking through the dorm lounge, which had the only TVs, and the room filled with guys mesmerized watching the draft lottery numbers scrolling on the screen. Then in September the end of student deferments and lots of guys just dropping out sure they would be going to Vietnam. Some joined the reserves, some went to Canada, some went home and some waited to be called up. And unlike today’s wars the evening news every night on all three broadcast channels started with scenes of injury, death and destruction in Nam.

    1. That’s very sad to hear. It’s especially sad because 1) student deferments were only ended for freshmen — sophomores, juniors, and seniors were able to keep theirs until they graduated. 2) Most freshmen in 1971 were born in 1953, making them ineligible to be drafted until 1973 and ultimately sparing from the draft. 3) Even for the freshmen in 1971 who were born in 1952, and were therefore eligible to be drafted in 1972 — even for them, it didn’t end up being the worst thing in the world, because they were drafted in the summer of 1972 following their freshman year, and shortly after they were drafted, the United States stopped sending draftees to Vietnam. The worst case scenario was that they’d have to put their education on hold for two years, but they weren’t actually at risk of being sent to Vietnam.

      It’s just too bad they didn’t know that at the time.

  4. Gordon,
    Thank you for your fine history of the draft. I was a first-year law student at the time of the first draft lottery and remember gathering with a couple hundred law students and their friends in the law school dining hall to watch the drawing of numbers. (The whole affair was televised live from Washington, D.C.) When my birthday received the “safe number” of 305, I felt my life had been spared. You are correct in thinking that your son is fortunate to be spared all the anxiety that these procedures generated.
    That having been said, I’m intrigued by the position of Diane Mazur, a former Air Force officer and now a professor at the University of Florida Law School. She maintains that the public is more likely to tend to the military and to eschew a hands-off approach when a draft continually rotates a representative cross-section of civilians through the miitary. The issue of the “civil-military gap” is central in military studies, and the thinking is that the gap widens with all-volunteer armed forces. It seems to me that we live in a time in which the military is portrayed not only as the protector of our values but also the walking embodiment of those values. A draft might limit that kind of thinking. See Diane Mazur, “Why Progressives Lost the War When They Lost the Draft,” 32 Hofstra Law Review 553 (2003).

  5. Thank you, Gordon, for your informative post. For those interested, there is at least one video on YouTube, a CBS broadcast, of the draft lottery conducted in late 1969 (for 1970 induction): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVwUEABV9mg.

    Consistent with the consequence of searching only for “draft lottery” on YouTube, which largely yielded NBA-related videos, I suspect that most Americans born after the late 1960s would generally if not exclusively associate the term “draft lottery” with professional sports. What significance there may be to that, other than a possible lack of historical sensibility, I do not know.

  6. I appreciate the wide range of comments on my posting.

    One aspect of the draft that I remember quite well was the way in which it induced individuals to volunteer for the military (as Jane Casper noted above)and thus, somewhat ironically, reduced the need for draftees.

    Prior to the escalation of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960’s, the military was generally favorably viewed in American society. (Who listening to music in 1965 can ever forget the pop hit, “Ballad of the Green Berets,” and the seemingly endless stream of celebratory World War II movies coming out of Hollywood?)

    Given that there was no lottery before 1969 and men remained eligible for the draft through age 26, many American males simply went ahead and volunteered for the military, to “get it over with,” particularly since the chances of actually ending up in combat were fairly low between 1953 and 1965.

    Furthermore, although the practice may not have been officially sanctioned, many local draft boards allowed men under their jurisdiction to “volunteer” to be drafted.
    As a consequence, many draftees were in reality volunteers.

    Once the escalation of Vietnam became a reality, the calculus changed. It was widely accepted that one’s chance of being sent to fight in Vietnam was much less if one volunteered, so many potential draftees volunteered for the military in order to avoid combat service. This was not without cost, since the service term for volunteers was three or four years (or even longer if one volunteered for the National Guard or the Reserves), while draftees served only two years.

    Once the draft lottery was implemented, men with low numbers had even greater incentives to enlist, and in doing so made it less likely that men with mid-range draft numbers would be ordered up for military service.

    My recollection is also that this role for draft–of guaranteeing a steady stream of volunteers–was widely recognized at the time. Also generally accepted was the practice of judges dismissing certain types of criminal charges against young men, if the defendants were willing to enlist in the military or at least volunteer to be drafted.

    Although I avoided the draft by holding one of the last student deferments, many of my childhood friends were drafted or else volunteered to get it over with. One of them, Charlie Bonds, a member of my Boy Scout Patrol, died in combat in Vietnam.

  7. Gordon, thank you for your interesting memoir/research piece. Having been born in 1941, I had a rather different perspective on the conscription issues you describe so well.

    After graduating from Marquette’s undergraduate program in 1963, I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and served until 1967, when I enrolled at MULS. I served in Vietnam in 1965-1966. None of us Marines were conscripts in those days, though as the war grew ever more demanding of “fresh blood”, even the Marines had to rely on the draft , to the great chagrin of us relative old timers. Most professional Marines of that era are of the opinion that reliance on conscripts (as well as the general unpopularity of the war) had a devastating impact on the Marines’ legendary discipline and esprit de corps.

    After being discharged in the summer of 1967, I and about 120 others (almost all males, almost all white) matriculated at the law school. When the graduate school exemption expired in that year, my classmates who were not veterans felt the hot breath of their local draft boards breathing on their necks. It seemed like everybody was looking for a reserve unit to join. As one only recently discharged, I did not have to fear a draft board, but I was subject to being recalled to active duty by President Johnson at any time during my first two years at the law school. This vulnerability was a source of minor but chronic anxiety for me.

    Many of my classmates who were not successful in joining a reserve unit were drafted. Some turned to a local lawyer, Harry Peck, who had a thriving selective service practice challenging local draft boards. The combined effect of my classmates joining reserve units and leaving school for their initial period of training and active duty, and
    conscription taking many others out of school, caused the size of my entering class to decrease by about one third by the time of graduation. This phenomenon had a profound effect on my life. I had a class rank of #3 in my fourth semester, behind my good friends Pat Hetrick, who was #2 and Tom St. John, who was #1. Pat got drafted during the fourth semester and Tom in the summer after the fourth semester. In two abrupt and serendipitous moves caused by Pat’s draft board in Milwaukee and Tom’s draft board in Appleton, I moved to the top of the class and from there to many years on the MULS faculty.

    Although I ended up being strangely benefitted by the draft in those days, I certainly wouldn’t want to relive them. They were days of high anxiety and bitter political divisions in the country and at the law school. Liberal, antiwar students held the conservative generally Republican faculty in law regard, and most of the faculty were disdainful of the antiwar students. It was not a good time for the nation or for the law school. I suspect that much of the bitter political divisions that exist today is rooted in that terribly destructive Vietnam era.

  8. Thanks for the mention, David.

    The comments on this post have been great. For men of a certain age, their relationship with the military is a formative experience, and that’s true whether they served in the military or not. The events shared in the comments seem as fresh as the day they happened.

    I received many similar comments in response to my recent book from Oxford University Press, “A More Perfect Military: How the Constitution Can Make Our Military Stronger.” Almost always, they were from the same generation of people, whether veteran or non-veteran, draftee or volunteer.

    In “A More Perfect Military,” I discuss the fundamental ways the military has changed over the 35+ years of the all-volunteer era. These changes have generally not been for the good, and our civil-military relations today are as unhealthy as they have ever been. (Admiration from afar, of course, is not the same thing as healthy civil-military relations or strong civilian control.)

    I argue that two things contributed to the decline. First, the Supreme Court changed its stance with respect to judicial oversight of the military in the 1970s. Second is the transition from a draft-assisted to an all-volunteer force. The AVF has helped to create a gap of culture and experience between civilian and military worlds, and this gap has led to not only weaker civilian control but also (as David noted) a problematic use of military policy to advance socially conservative policies in the civilian sector. Our progress as a nation in matters of equal protection suffered when we began to hold out the military as a moral exemplar excused from the usual constitutional standards.

    Thanks for the invitation to post to the Marquette blog.

  9. I was told to report for a physical in 1969 at age 28 (I had been deferred for college)
    I had an address in England then so they then had me report to Germany. I never reported (as I had returned) and they never followed up. This seems to contradict the articles.

  10. I have a question regarding dropping a student deferment during the draft lottery years. I seem to remember that, if one had a reasonably high number, he could drop his student deferment just a day or two before his year of eligibility was to end, be eligible just for a few days and then, when not called up in those few days, be done with worrying about being drafted. Is that correct?

  11. I realize this commentary is old but I cannot help but express my thoughts after all theses years.
    I was an 18-year old sophomore in February, 1972 on a full scholarship at a small private liberal arts college in Minnesota when out of the clear blue a letter from the draft appeared in my mailbox. It stated that I had three days to report to the induction center in Milwaukee for my physical. This made no sense at all since I had a student deferment.
    Anyway, I reported to Milwaukee and was told to return home by my draft board in Madison until further notified. I told the officer that I had two draft
    boards and produced two draft cards to prove it. He disregarded that and just said “go home and wait”. Needless to say the next 6 months were very traumatic for me as I felt betrayed that my student deferment was not honored. I also lost an entire semester of college.
    I’ve wondered after almost 50years if anyone else has a similar story to tell.
    Thanks for all the great comments.

    John W. Greiert, DDS
    Marquette University School of Dentistry (class of 1982)

  12. One question I have is whether someone who was born in 1952, entered college in 1970, but did not claim a student deferment for his freshman year because he knew he wasn’t eligible to be drafted until 1972 — whether he was affected by the ending of student deferments in September of 1971.

    Basically, when student deferments were ended in September 1971, were they only ended for people who first entered college in 1971, or were they also ended for people who entered college in 1970 but did not claim a student deferment for their freshman year?

Leave a Reply to Evan Quimby Cancel reply

We reserve the right not to publish comments based on such concerns as redundancy, incivility, untimeliness, poor writing, etc. All comments must include the first and last name of the author in the NAME field and a valid e-mail address.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.