US military relied on draft-induced volunteerism


Editor’s note: This is part three of a six-part series on conscription (the draft).

On Dec. 5, 1942, presidential Executive Order 9279 closed voluntary enlistment for all men from the ages of 18 to 37 for the duration of the war, providing protection for the nation’s home front manpower pool. The Navy and Marine Corps began procuring their personnel through the Selective Service System in early 1943. The Navy and Marine Corps enlisted inductees and volunteers under the same service agreements, but with different service obligations. While the Army placed wartime inductees and volunteers into a special service component known as the Army of the United States, commonly known as the “AUS,” service commitments were set at the length of the war plus six months.

The commission’s goal was to have 9 million men in the armed forces by the end of 1943. This facilitated the massive requirement of up to 200,000 men per month and would remain the standard for the length of the war.

The World War II draft operated from 1940 until 1946 when further inductions were suspended, and its legislative authorization expired without further extension by Congress in 1947. During this time, more than 10 million men had been inducted into military service. However, the Selective Service System remained intact.

Draft evasion accounted for about 4% of the total inducted. About 373,000 alleged evaders were investigated with just over 16,000 being imprisoned.

Of the more than 72,000 men registering as Conscientious Objectors (CO), nearly 52,000 received CO status. Of these, over 25,000 entered the military in noncombatant roles, another 12,000 went to civilian work camps, and nearly 6,000 went to prison.

The second peacetime draft began with passage of the Selective Service Act of 1948 after the STSA expired. The new law required all men of age 18 to 26 to register. It also created the system for the “Doctor Draft,” aimed at inducting health professionals into military service. Congress further tweaked this act in 1950 although the post–World War II surplus of military manpower left little need for draft calls until Truman’s declaration of national emergency in December 1950. Only 20,348 men were inducted in 1948 and only 9,781 in 1949.

Between the Korean War’s outbreak in June 1950 and the armistice agreement in 1953, Selective Service inducted over 1.5 million men. Another 1.3 million volunteered, usually choosing the Navy or Air Force. Congress passed the Universal Military Training and Service Act in 1951 to meet the demands of the war. It lowered the induction age to 18.5 and extended active-duty service commitments to 24 months.

To increase equity in the system, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order on July 11, 1953, that ended the paternity deferment for married men. In large part, the change in the draft served the purposes of the burgeoning Cold War. From a program that had just barely passed Congressional muster during the fearful prelude to World War II, a more robust draft continued as fears now focused on the Soviet threat. Nevertheless, some dissenting voices in Congress continued to advocate for voluntary military service.

The onset of the Cold War coincided with the time at which men born during the Great Depression began to reach military age. The Korean War era marked the first time that any form of student deferment had been used. During the Korean War, a student carrying at least 12 semester hours was spared until the end of his current semester.

Though the United States signed the Korean War Armistice on July 27, 1953, technology brought new promises and threats. American air and nuclear power fueled the Eisenhower doctrine of “massive retaliation.” This strategy demanded more machines and fewer foot soldiers, so the draft slipped to the back burner. Selective Service System Director Gen. Hershey urged caution, fearing the conflict looming in Vietnam. In May 1953, he told his state directors to do everything possible to keep the SSS alive in order to meet upcoming needs.

Following the 1953 Korean War Armistice, Congress passed the Reserve Forces Act of 1955 with the aim of improving National Guard and federal Reserve Component readiness, while also constraining its use by the president. Toward this end, it mandated a six-year service commitment, in a combination of reserve and active duty time, for every line military member regardless of their means of entry.

Many government leaders felt that the potential for a draft was a critical element in maintaining a constant flow of volunteers. On numerous occasions, Gen. Hershey told Congress that for every man drafted, three or four more were scared into volunteering. Assuming that his assessment was accurate, this would mean that more than 11 million men volunteered for service because of the draft between January 1954 and April 1975.

The policy of using the draft as a force to compel voluntary enlistment was unique in American history. Previous drafts had not aimed to encourage individuals to enlist in order to gain preferential placement or less dangerous postings. However, the incremental buildup of the Vietnam War without a clear threat to the country bolstered this type of focus. Some estimates suggest that almost one-third of all eligible men were conscripted during the period of 1965-69. This group represented those without exemption or resources to avoid military service. During the active combat phase, the possibility of avoiding combat by selecting their service and military specialty led as many as four out of 11 eligible men to enlist. The military relied upon this draft-induced volunteerism to make its quotas, especially the Army, which accounted for nearly 95% of all inductees during the Vietnam War era. Accounting for other factors, it can be argued up to 60% of those who served throughout the Vietnam War era did so directly or indirectly because of the draft.

In the only extended period of military conscription of U.S. males during a major peacetime period, the draft continued on a more limited basis during the late 1950s and early 1960s. While a far smaller percentage of eligible males were conscripted than in war periods, draftees by law served in the Army for two years.

Public protests in the United States were few during the Korean War. However, the percentage of CO exemptions for inductees grew to 1.5%, compared to a rate of just 0.5% in the previous two wars. The Justice Department also investigated more than 80,000 draft-evasion cases.

By Harold B. Wolford

Veterans Corner

Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.

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