Debate over the Draft
The draft, in the United States and elsewhere, is based on the understanding that military service is an obligation of (male) citizenship. At the same time, despite America’s reliance on the draft from 1940 until 1973 (with a brief return to an all-volunteer force in the late 1940s), universal military service was not a reality. The nation depended, instead, on a selective service system that, as the name indicates, was selective rather than universal in scope. The military classified men according to their physical, mental, and psychological ability to serve. Those standards changed over time, but many young men were deemed unacceptable for military service, even during major wars. The nation also relied on the selective service system to strengthen other forms of national security—exempting those in occupations deemed “critical,” whether farmers or aerospace engineers—and to support certain cultural values, such as emphasizing the importance of parenthood by exempting fathers who were otherwise qualified to serve. During the Vietnam War, especially before the adoption of the lottery system in December 1969, working-class men were much more likely to be drafted than their middle-class and wealthy peers, who were more likely to have college or graduate school deferments or to find a sympathetic physician who would assist them in obtaining a 4F, or ineligible, draft classification.
During the 1968 presidential election, the Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon proposed ending the draft as soon as practicable. In the midst of an unpopular war, with many Americans believing the draft system unfair, he found much support for his proposal. Opposition to the draft created strange bedfellows, as people with very different political views came together to support an all-volunteer force. Some Americans, however, worried that an all-volunteer force would not solve the problems with the system.
- After reading the documents for this exercise, how would you describe the debate over the draft versus the all-volunteer force? What was the best case each side could make? Did they considered each other’s objections?
- The debate over the draft was very important to young Americans. Why do both the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and the left-leaning National Student Association support the move to an all-volunteer force? How do their reasons differ?
- Senator Edmund S. Muskie, in “The Draft: What Are the Alternatives?” (1969), argued that an administration might find it easier to go to war with an all-volunteer force than if it had to rely on the draft. Why? What do you think?
- If you had to design a selective service system that would draft Americans for military service in a war that required about 200,000 new enlisted troops a year, how would the system function? What national needs or values would you have to take into account? What military needs would be most important? Would anyone be exempt or deferred? On what grounds (age, for example)? Is it possible to design a fair system?
A. Richard M. Nixon, “The All-Volunteer Armed Force,” CBS radio address, October 17, 1968
B. Randall Cornell Teague, Young Americans for Freedom, “Why ‘Conservative’ Students Support an All-Volunteer Military,” statement to the President’s commission on the all-volunteer force, September 29, 1969
C. Jim Sutton, United States National Student Association, statement to the president’s commission on the all-volunteer force, September 29, 1969
D. Edmund S. Muskie, “The Draft: What Are the Alternatives?” February 17, 1969