Since the birth of the United States, a military draft (also known as conscription) has been utilized in all major wars, including the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. However, conscriptions were broad and existed only during extreme wartime needs. There was no federal infrastructure in place to maintain a peacetime mechanism for military manpower. This was directly addressed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed into law the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940. Although an all voluntary force did exist at the time, this Act helped create a backup system for sufficient manpower in the event of potential large-scale warfare.
Many problems existed with the original Selective Service draft process created in 1940. These flaws manifested themselves during the Vietnam conflict. Open-ended student deferments and unequal ethnic representation were the major culprits. Under the Act of 1940, many would apply for, and receive, student deferments. Deferments may have been good in theory, but they were exploited in practice. For example, if a person was in college, they could qualify for a deferment until the end of their college experience. The problem inherent in this deferment is two-fold. First, this was not truly open to all people. Due to many socio-economic factors, college was not an option for everyone. Therefore, those that could not afford college could not benefit. As a result, those drafted tended to be undereducated, underprivileged minorities or lower classes. Second, those more affluent individuals attending college could simply stay enrolled until they were clear of draft age, easily avoiding the draft altogether.
The original draft process provided in the Selective Service Act did include local draft boards, but these were not required to be diverse in their makeup. The method of selection was not fully or fairly representative of all ethnic and national origins. It allowed too much bias against minorities and lower wealth and status classes. As well, there was no lottery system in place as is the case with the current system. Instead, local boards would call up men between 18.5 and 25 years old, oldest first. This created a lot of uncertainty for people in this age group as to whether they would or would not be drafted.
The Vietnam draft took place in December of 1969 in Washington, D.C. with the use of a lottery. The lottery would involve the birth dates of all eligible men aged 18-26 (born January 1944 through December 1950) as legislated by the Selective Service Act. The use of a lottery was a change from the traditional ‘oldest first’ draw. As there were no computer drawings at the time, the lottery was held the old fashioned way, publicized on radio and television. A large jar filled with 366 little blue plastic capsules held the fates of anyone born between January 1944 and December 1950. Inside the capsules contained the birth dates for all that would be of eligible service age by 1970. As each capsule was pulled out of the jar, the specific birth date drawn would be assigned in order to each day in 1970. This determined the call order for draftees throughout the year. For example, if the birth date of June 1, 1945 was pulled on the 29th draw, two items were determined. First, every male born on that date between 1944 and 1950 would be called to serve. Second, all would be called up on the 29th day of the year of 1970, or January 29th.
The randomization of the selection process by use of this lottery system was a logical attempt to make the draft as appealing as possible. However, the draft was still inherently handicapped by its lack of properly addressing racial and gender inequality in overall selection caused by biased local boards and exploitation by those with financial wealth and education. The inequities caused many critics to call Vietnam a “poor man’s war”. These disparities may have made it so.
As a result, there was resistance to the draft. Students burned their draft cards as a sign of protest. Numbers of draftees began filing conscientious objector status, claiming a conflict of interest with their personal faith. Records show that a majority of these objectors consisted of people from the medical profession. One of the more notable public iconic figures to use this objection was boxer Mohammed Ali, who had converted to Islam and objected based on his newfound faith. Others simply fled the U.S. (mostly to Canada) to avoid the draft, becoming “draft dodgers”, all of which were later pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. Congress tried to address and repair these issues with amendments to the Selective Service Act in 1971. Regardless, the draft system was eventually ended in 1973.
Today, United States military strength relies solely on manpower derived from the existence of the All Voluntary Force (AVF). While the draft may be suspended, citizens are still required to register for Selective Service in the event another draft becomes necessary in the future. Many continue to argue the pros and cons of the draft versus the AVF. While the idea of an AVF sounds good, many of the same issues presented by the draft also exist in the AVF. Less affluent and less educated minorities and ethnicities are more prone to sign up for the AVF to acquire the pay and benefits it provides. Higher educated, high-income citizens have less incentive to sign up. Therefore like the draft, the AVF is not fully representative of an equal cross-section of the U.S. population as a whole.
If the draft were held today, it would be much different than in the Vietnam War. By law, local boards would be more fairly representative of their community social and ethnic makeup. Those attending college can no longer defer themselves indefinitely as in the past. They are only allowed to have their induction postponed until the end of their current semester. As well, a senior can postpone their induction until the end of the academic year.
Is the idea of a draft good or bad? In an ideal nation, everyone should be willing to take up arms and defend their country. However, because this is not an ideal nation, the idea of a draft is centered on the need to compel people to do the ideal. The very notion that the government compels a citizen to do anything goes against the very foundational principles of this country. Even with further refinements to the system, there is no way to completely make a draft equitable. Therefore, the draft may be a good idea in theory as it applies to the designed purpose of providing additional military manpower. However, the use of an infinitely imperfect and compelling mechanism such as the draft is historically a bad idea in practice.