The military draft ended 50 years ago, dividing a generation
Special To The Washington Post January 27, 2023
On Jan. 27, 1973, with the Paris Peace Accords signed and U.S. involvement in Vietnam over, Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird announced the end of the military draft, after 25 uninterrupted years of conscription. "I wish to inform you," he declared, "that the Armed Forces henceforth will depend exclusively on volunteer soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines."
The announcement, 50 years ago Friday, brought immediate relief to American men ages 19 to 25, who were eligible to be drafted during the war. It also created an arbitrary but lasting divide between the nearly 2 million men who had been drafted and those who would avoid conscription by celebrating their 19th birthdays after January 1973.
Jerry Prater, who was born in 1943, returned home from his honeymoon in late 1966 to news from his mother. "There's a letter from the president," she said.
Two weeks later, he was on a bus from Texas to Louisiana's Fort Polk, whose mock Vietnamese villages used in infantry training were known as Tiger Land.
Prater served as a combat infantryman in Vietnam from May 1967 to May 1968. He was wounded by enemy shrapnel, and a physician told him, "You could have lost your leg." The pain has never gone away.
He traveled home in uniform. At the Seattle airport, protesters shouted, "How does it feel to be a murderer?"
Cliff Hackel, born 11 years after Prater, registered as a conscientious objector when he turned 18. "You didn't have to give proof until you were drafted," he said. He entered George Washington University in 1972 and participated in impromptu antiwar demonstrations at the White House.
His first semester, he thought about going to Canada and studied French, in case he needed it north of the border. "It wasn't really a well-thought-out plan," he said. "I was naive about how the draft worked."
Laird's announcement ended his fears of being sent to war and his contingency planning. "It was a relief to go on with my life and just be a kid," Hackel said.
Some men who served said they bear no animosity toward those who avoided the draft because the rules changed; Prater said he reserves his negative feelings for people who dodged the draft before 1973. But Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution, author of the 2022 book "Of Boys and Men," said that during a time of social upheaval, changes to the rules can stoke grievances.
The first peacetime draft in U.S. history began in 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act. The country entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor a year later. That draft lasted until 1946. A second peacetime draft was instituted in 1948.
That regulation was still on the books when, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized a large-scale buildup of American ground troops in Vietnam and relied on the draft to carry it out.
The draft was hugely controversial — and unequal. Students and people in professional and graduate programs could receive deferments; others could not. The war justifiably scared many young Americans. About 58,000 Americans would die in the war, and about 150,000 would be injured.
Conscription also took a toll in other ways. Prater had a degree in business administration, but he lost two years of civilian work experience while in the service. That challenge was common, said Joshua Angrist, a professor of economics at MIT who has studied the effects of conscription. "You are losing civilian labor market experience," he said. His research found that veterans were still earning less than their civilian counterparts 15 years after their service.
The state of the labor market didn't help. "The large numbers of baby boomers, the oil shock, and unexpectedly and unacceptably high inflation depressed the job market," said Federico Mandelman, a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Prater's marriage also ended, in part because of his time away. But he said he "never for an instant considered not being drafted," adding, "I came back a better person."
Marc Leepson, 77, was less committed to joining the military. When he graduated from George Washington University in 1967, he lost his student deferment.
"All we ever talked about was the draft," he said.
His efforts to join the Peace Corps and the Air Force Officer Candidate School were unsuccessful, so immediately after graduation, he asked his draft board to move up his induction. "I thought I may as well get the inevitable over with, rather than wait in a kind of limbo to get that induction letter from Uncle Sam," he said.
After basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, he became a company clerk, spending a year in Vietnam processing soldiers coming home from the war. The assignment included hazardous guard duty.
Leepson was back in the States completing his first semester of graduate school when, to quell growing opposition to the war, President Richard M. Nixon issued an executive order in November 1969 instituting a new draft system.
Under this system, a draft number was randomly assigned to each day of the year, representing people whose birthdays fell on that day. Lower numbers meant a higher likelihood of being drafted. A man of draftable age whose birthday was given a number in the 300s was safe from being conscripted; one whose birthday drew a single- or double-digit number had a high chance of being sent to war.
At the first draft lottery in December 1969, Leepson drew number 360. The stakes were low for him, since no veteran would have been required to serve a second time. Still, it made him laugh. "If I had avoided the draft till then, I never would have been taken," he said.
Leepson recalled, "Getting out of the Army was the happiest day of my life. We were pariahs." Still, he called it "the ultimate rite of passage," adding, "I served my country. Didn't like the war, but you couldn't choose your war."
Leepson didn't land his first full-time job until he was 28.
For all the fear and hardship that conscription brought, some who avoided being drafted still think it was a fairer system than the alternative.
Paul Irving, born in 1952, graduated from high school in Los Angeles in 1970 and registered for the draft on his 18th birthday.
He got a student deferment but lost it when he left college during his sophomore year and joined Peace Alert U.S.A., an antiwar group. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in 1968, and he said, "I felt I should do something about it."
In August 1971, he drew lottery number 197; that year, the highest number called for men born in 1952 was 95. He enrolled in film school at New York University and later became a lawyer.
"Overall, the burden of fighting fell disproportionately on those not eligible for student or other deferments," he said. "I think about that to this day."
Still, he said, conscription, despite its flaws, "created political accountability and the broad-based risk of service across race, class and geography."