Editor’s note: This is part four of a six-part series on conscription (the draft).
President Kennedy’s decision to send military troops to Vietnam as advisors was a signal that Selective Service Director Lewis B. Hershey needed to visit the Oval Office. From that visit emerged two wishes of JFK with regard to conscription. The first was that the names of married men with children should occupy the very bottom of the call-up list. Just above them should be the names of men who were married. This presidential policy, however, was not to be formally encoded into Selective Service status. Men who fit into these categories became known as “Kennedy Husbands.” When President Lyndon Johnson decided to rescind this Kennedy policy, there was a last-minute rush to the altar by thousands of American couples.
Many early rank-and-file anti-conscription protesters had been allied with the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. The signing in 1963 of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty left them free to focus on other issues. Syndicated cartoonist Al Capp portrayed them as S.W.I.N.E, (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything). The catalyst for protest reconnection was the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Consequently, there was some opposition to the draft even before the major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began. The large cohort of Baby Boomers who became eligible for military service during the Vietnam War was responsible for a steep increase in the number of exemptions and deferments, especially for college students. Besides being able to avoid the draft, college graduates who volunteered for military service (primarily as commissioned officers) had a much better chance of securing a preferential posting compared to less-educated inductees.
As U.S. troop strength in South Vietnam increased, more young men were drafted for service there, and many of those still at home sought means of avoiding the draft. Since only 15,000 National Guard and Reserve soldiers were sent to South Vietnam, enlistment in the Guard or the Reserves became a popular means of avoiding serving in a war zone. For those who could meet the more stringent enlistment standards, service in the Air Force, Navy, or Coast Guard was a means of reducing the chances of being killed. Vocations to the ministry and the rabbinate soared because divinity students were exempt from the draft. Doctors and draft board members found themselves being pressured by relatives or family friends to exempt potential draftees.
The marriage deferment ended suddenly on August 26, 1965. Around 3:10 p.m., President Johnson signed an order allowing the draft of men who married after midnight that day, then around 5 p.m. he announced the change for the first time.
There were 8,744,000 service members between 1964 and 1975, of whom 3,403,000 were deployed to Southeast Asia. From a pool of approximately 27 million, the draft raised 2,215,000 men for military service (in the United States, South Vietnam, and elsewhere) during the Vietnam War era. The majority of service members deployed to South Vietnam were volunteers, even though hundreds of thousands of men opted to join the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard (for three- or four-year terms of enlistment) before they could be drafted, serve for two years, and have no choice over their military occupational specialty (MOS).
Of the nearly 16 million men not engaged in active military service, 96% were exempted (typically because of jobs including other military service), deferred (usually for educational reasons) or disqualified (usually for physical and mental deficiencies but also for criminal records including draft violations). The requirements for obtaining and maintaining an educational deferment changed several times in the late 1960s.
For several years, students were required to take an annual qualification test. In 1967, educational deferments were changed for graduate students. Those starting graduate studies in the fall of 1967 were given two semester deferments becoming eligible in June 1968. Those further along in their graduate study who entered prior to the summer of 1967 could continue to receive a deferment until they completed their studies.
Peace Corps volunteers were no longer given deferments, and their induction was left to the discretion of their local boards. Most boards allowed Peace Corps volunteers to complete their two years assignment before inducting them into the service. On Dec. 1, 1969, a lottery was held to establish a draft priority for all those born between 1944 and 1950. Those with a high number no longer had to be concerned about the draft. Nearly 500,000 men were disqualified for criminal records, but less than 10,000 of them were convicted of draft violations. Finally, as many as 100,000 draft-eligible men fled the country.
During the 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon campaigned on a promise to end the draft. He had first become interested in the idea of an all-volunteer army during his time out of office. Nixon also saw ending the draft as an effective way to undermine the anti-Vietnam War movement, since he believed affluent youths would stop protesting the war once their own probability of having to fight in it was gone. There was opposition to the all-volunteer notion from both the Department of Defense and Congress, so Nixon took no immediate action towards ending the draft early in his presidency.
Instead, the Gates Commission was formed, headed by Thomas S. Gates, Jr., a former Secretary of Defense in the Eisenhower administration. Gates initially opposed the all-volunteer army idea, but changed his mind during the course of the 15-member commission’s work. The Gates Commission issued its report in February 1970, describing how adequate military strength could be maintained without having conscription. The existing draft law was expiring at the end of June 1971, but the Department of Defense and Nixon administration decided the draft needed to continue for at least some time. In February 1971, the administration requested of Congress a two-year extension of the draft, to June 1973.
Senatorial opponents of the war wanted to reduce this to a one-year extension, or eliminate the draft altogether, or tie the draft renewal to a timetable for troop withdrawal from Vietnam. Senator Mike Gravel, of Alaska, took the most forceful approach, trying to filibuster the draft renewal legislation, shut down conscription, and directly force an end to the war. Senators supporting Nixon’s war efforts supported the bill, even though some had qualms about ending the draft. After a prolonged battle in the Senate, in September 1971 cloture was achieved over the filibuster and the draft renewal bill was approved. Meanwhile, military pay was increased as an incentive to attract volunteers, and television advertising for the U.S. Army began. With the end of active U.S. ground participation in Vietnam, December 1972 saw the last men conscripted, who were born in 1952 and who reported for duty in June 1973.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.