The Draft

In 1940 Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act which created the first peacetime draft and established the Selective Service System as an independent federal agency.

Conscription in the United States has been employed several times, usually during war but also during the nominal peace of the Cold War. However, the Selective Service System remains in place as a contingency plan; men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register so that a draft can be readily resumed if needed. In current conditions conscription is considered unlikely by most political and military experts.

Vietnam War

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 ‘callup’ list. Just above them should be the names of men who are 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, all across the country there was a last minute rush to the altar by thousands of couples.

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 also meant a steep increase in the number of exemptions and deferments, especially for college and graduate students. Furthermore, college graduates who volunteered for military service and even (to a lesser degree) those who were drafted had a much better chance of securing a preferential posting compared to less-educated draftees.

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Draft Classifications during the Vietnam War

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Draft Lottery

During the years 1969 through 1972 draft lotteries were held.  During those years, the Selective Service used a lottery to determine the order in which draft age men would be called up for duty, usually in Vietnam.  Many who received a low number were drafted or chose to enlist. Others went to any extreme to avoid being sent to fight in the unpopular war.

On December 1, 1969, the first draft lottery since 1942 was held, at Selective Service National headquarters in Washington, D.C.  The draft determined the “order of call” for 1970 for all men of draft age, which included all men born in the years 1944 through 1950.  Approximately 850,000 men were affected by the 1969 draft lottery.

For the lottery, 366 blue plastic capsules, each containing one date of the calendar year, were dumped in a large glass container. The capsules were then drawn out and opened, one by one, and assigned sequentially rising numbers. Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) drew the first capsule, which contained the date September 14.  Thus, all men born on that date, from 1944 through 1950, received the first priority for call to duty.  The remaining capsules were drawn by youth delegates who had been selected for that purpose from around the country. The last date drawn was June 8, which was assigned draft number 366.  A second lottery was also conducted for the 26 letters of the alphabet, to determine the order of priority (by last name) for each date of birth.

Later statistical studies of the supposedly random selection process indicated that the later dates of the year received disproportionately low draft numbers, due possibly to insufficient mixing of the capsules. However the results of the lottery were not changed. The lotteries of the next three years were apparently fully randomized.

The highest draft number called for induction from the 1969 lottery was 195.

The next lottery, held in 1970, applied only to men born in the year 1951; the lottery of 1971 covered men born in 1952; and the final lottery in 1972 applied to men born in 1953; however, men born in 1953 were not drafted due to abolition of the draft in 1973.

An estimated 70,000 American men fled to Canada to evade the draft or as deserters.  Overall, an estimated 60% of potentially eligible men escaped the draft in the Vietnam years, mostly by qualifying for exemptions of many different kinds.

The United States discontinued the draft in 1973, moving to an all-volunteer military force, thus there is no mandatory conscription.

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