The Draft and the Vietnam War

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The Draft and the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, about two-thirds of American troops volunteered, the rest were selected for military service through the draft.

In the beginning of the war, names of all American men of 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. They would then evaluate his draft status.

Therefore, local draft boards had an enormous power to decide who had to go and who would stay. Members of these boards were often under pressure from their family and from those with wealth and power to exempt potential draftees.

Most of U.S. soldiers drafted during the Vietnam War were men from poor and working-class families.

These were young men who were not going get a college deferment, have a political connection, or have a family doctor that could give them a medical deferment. 

American forces in Vietnam were 55% working-class, 25% percent poor, 20% middle-class. Many soldiers came from urban areas or farming communities.

Protesting the Vietnam War draft

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 (men born between 1944 -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 glass container. The capsules were drawn by hand, opened one by one, and then assigned to a sequence from 1 until 366. The first date drawn was September 14, followed by April 24, which was assigned to “001” and “002” respectively. The process continued until each day of the year was assigned to a lottery number.

The lower the number was, the higher the probability was that men with that birthday would be called to serve. Eventually all men with number 195 or lower were called in order to report for physical examinations in 1970.

Draft lotteries were conducted again in 1970, 1971, and 1972. With the Paris Peace Accords signed in January 1973, active American involvement in Vietnam came to an end and the draft saw the the last men conscripted on December 7, 1972.

Vietnam War draft lottery

According to the National Archives, there were about 27 million American men eligible for military service between 1964 and 1973. Of that number, 2,215,000 men were drafted into military service. Around 15 million were granted deferments, mostly for education and some for mental or physical problems.

There were more than 300,000 draft evaders in total, of which 209,517 men illegally resisted the draft while some 100,000 deserted. Among them, around 30,000 emigrated to Canada during 1966-72.

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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