Vietnam War Draft

In the United States, military conscription has been used many times during its wars, particularly in the Cold War. Even though the draft was abolished in 1973, men of draft age (between 18-25 years) still have to register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of the 18th birthday so a draft can be readily resumed if needed.

During the Vietnam War, about two-third of American troops were volunteered, the rest were selected for military service through the drafts. In the beginning of the war, names of all American men in draft-age were collected by the Selective Service System. When someone’s name was called, he had to report to his local draft board, which was made up of various community members, so that they could begin to evaluate his draft status. By this manner, local draft boards had an enormous power to decide who had to go and who would stay. Consequently, draft board members were often under pressure from their family, relatives and friends to exempt potential draftees.

Getty Images: 1965: Readying for Vietnam

Getty Images
1965: Readying for Vietnam

Most of U.S. soldiers drafted during the Vietnam War were men from poor and working-class families. The least political power sections were mistreated. As a matter of fact, American forces in Vietnam included twenty-five percent poor, fifty-five percent working-class, twenty percent middle-class men, but very few came from upper-classes families. Many soldiers came from rural towns and farming communities.

“Draft dodgers”

Even though there was some opposition to the draft even before the U.S. direct involvement in Vietnam, the conflict saw new levels of opposition to the call-up. As American troop strength in Vietnam shot up, more young men of call-up age sought to avoid or delay their military service and there were some legal ways to do that. Men who had physical or mental problems, were married, with children, attending college or needed at home to support their families might be granted deferments. It is worth noticing that many men received deferments were from wealthy and educated families. Prominent political figures accused of avoiding the draft includes Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Dick Cheney.

While President Johnson ended marriage deferment on August 26, 1965, some men claimed to be homosexuals while many others chose to flee to a neutral country such as Canada and Mexico to avoid the draft. These people were derogatorily referred as “draft dodgers” – a term made popular during the Vietnam War.

In the beginning, many people looked at “draft-dodgers with contempt as being “cowards”. As American casualties rocketed up while the U.S. could not see the light at the end of the tunnel as claimed by its government, the conflict in Vietnam became more and more unpopular. As a result, more people got involved in the anti-war and draft resistance movement and backed these draft-dodgers. The draft process was also scrutinized carefully owing to the increasingly unpopularity of the Vietnam War.

Vietnam Draft Lotteries

In response to criticism of the draft’s inequities, on December 1, 1969, the Selective Service System conducted two lottery drawings – the first draft lottery since 1942, at its headquarter in Washington to determine the order in which men of draft-eligible age (born 1944 to 1950) were called to report for possible induction into the military in 1970.

The draft lottery was based on birth dates. There were 366 blue plastic capsules containing birth dates (including February 29) placed into a deep glass container. The capsules was drawn by hand, opened one by one and then assigned to a sequence number started from “001” until “366”. The first date drawn was September 14 followed by April 24, which was assigned to “001” and “002” respectively. The drawing process continued until each day of the year was assigned to a lottery number. The lower the number was, the higher probability men with the corresponding birthday would be called to serve.

The second lottery was held on the same day with 26 letters of the alphabet to determine the order of selection among men with the same birth dates through the ranks of the first letters of their last, first and middle names. “J”, “G” and “D” were the first 3 letters while “E”, “B” and “V” was the last ones drawn, which meant men with initials “JJJ” would be first, followed by “JGJ” and “JDJ” while “VVV” would be last among those shared the same birthdate. Eventually all men with number 195 or lower were called in order of their numbers to report for physical examinations in 1970.

The biggest change in this draft was the age priority. Instead of taking the “oldest men first” from the 18-25 eligible range as last time, local boards now could call 19-year-olds first. Therefore, young men now did not have to wait for years to learn their draft futures, which could affect their careers, marriages and family.

The draft lotteries were conducted again in 1970, 1971 and 1972. However, draft numbers issued on February 2, 1972 for men born in 1953 was never used due to the abolition of the draft in early 1973. With the Paris Peace Accords signed on January 27, 1973, the end of active U.S. ground involvement in Vietnam and subsequently the draft saw the the last men conscripted on December 7, 1972. The Selective Service System continued to assign draft priority numbers in March from 1973-75 in case the draft was extended, although it never was.

Afterwards registration with the Selective Service System and registrant processing were suspended on April 1, 1975 and January 27, 1976 respectively. Registration was resumed in July 1980 for men born in 1960 and later, and is in effect to date, although there has not been a call-up since the Vietnam War.

According to National Archives, among approximately 27 million American men eligible for military service between 1964 and 1973, the draft raised 2,215,000 men for military service (in the U.S., Southeast Asia, West Germany, and elsewhere). Around 15.4 million were granted deferments, mostly for education, some for mental, physical and family hardships. There were more than 300,000 deserters and draft evaders in total, in which 209,517 men illegally resisted the draft while some 100,000 deserted. Among them, around 30,000 immigrated to Canada during 1966-72.

As anti-Vietnam War protests increased remarkably in the United States during late 1960s, the draft apparently became a target of many criticism. In 1964, many students illegally burnt their draft cards. In the early 1970s, draft resistance reached its peak. In 1972, the number of induction-refusal legal cases increased tremendously to 200,600. Those who had practiced draft invasion by flying abroad faced forced military service or imprisonment if they went back home. Although draft dodgers were still prosecuted after the end of U.S. direct involvement in Vietnam, in September 1974 President Gerald Ford granted a conditional amnesty that required them to be of service from 6 to 24 months. In 1977, on his first day in office, President Jimmy Carter controversially offered a full pardon to any draft dodgers who requested one.

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