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A bridal wave: The day LBJ eliminated the marriage exemption

By STEVE HENDRIX | The Washington Post | Published: September 23, 2017

On a quiet Thursday evening in 1965, Las Vegas Justice of the Peace James A. Brennan left his office to perform a wedding at the Dunes Hotel. When he got back, he was shocked to find more than 50 couples waiting for him at the Clarke County Courthouse, a growing crowd eager - actually, your honor, they're getting desperate- to hear the words "I now pronounce you man and wife."

What had happened during Brennan's brief outing was word that President Lyndon Johnson had signed an executive order changing the military conscription rules for the expanding war in Vietnam. One second after midnight, married men would no longer be exempt from the draft. Those married before midnight would be.

In Vegas, it was a bridal wave.

Brennan and his colleagues married 171 couples on August 26, 1965, according to news reports of the day, with 112 of the weddings taking place between 10 p.m. and midnight. The normal pace for a summer Thursday would have been 10 or 12, said Brennan, who personally performed 67 of the "I do"-and-dash ceremonies.

"I was in there marrying one after another," said Brennan, 87, of the one-day matrimonial record that stands to this day.

Wire photos of the time show the small courthouse jammed with young adults, the grooms in their skinny ties all seemingly in the draftable age bracket of 19 to 26. Some were dressed for matrimony, others in dungarees. One woman had a veil that she then loaned to five other brides, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter who covered the marriage melee.

Many came without rings, said Brennan, who still serves as a senior judge on the Clarke County District Court, but others came with mothers. Not all of the fiancees were ready for the "till-death-do-us-part" stuff.

"It was the mothers who were the most determined to get their sons married so they wouldn't have to go off and fight in that stupid war," Brennan said. "Some of the brides were backing off. The mood was very rushed."

The day began with reports that North Vietnam was angling to begin peace talks in the conflict that had been going on for more than four years. But inside the White House, Johnson was acquiescing to increasingly urgent requests from the Pentagon for more men. Until then, college students and married men had been exempt from the draft.

That afternoon, with no advance public notice, Johnson signed Executive Order 11241 eliminating the marriage exception but grandfathering in those already married "on or before the effective date of this amended subparagraph."

That gave them until midnight. On the East Coast, they were largely out of luck. Most counties required a judicious cooling-off period between getting a marriage license and getting hitched.

One city that had once been a famous same-day wedding mill was Elkton, Maryland, at the top of the Chesapeake Bay. A story in The Washington Post said Elkton officials had indeed been besieged with calls after Johnson's announcement. But a change in Maryland law "had ended the city's business in quickie marriages years ago."

The story also reported that another Maryland town just outside Washington had, for some reason, also seen a rash of altar rushers. "In Hyattsville, about 30 young couples from New York arrived by chartered plane and cars and congregated at the police station in a vain effort to find a justice of the peace who would marry them."

But out West, the wedding window was bigger. Not only did the time change work in their favor, but Nevada was also already famous for same-day licenses, no blood tests and no-wait weddings. The matrimonial mobilization from California began immediately.

Most of the couples came from Los Angeles, Brennan told the Associated Press at the time. "But I've had a few calls New Jersey, Kansas City and Chicago from people asking how long we'll be open," he said. One of the couples he married that night had come by chartered plane from Newark.

Other Nevada cities, particularly Reno, saw a wedding surge that day. United Press International reported that 20 couples had found a way to complete a one-day blood test in Yuma, Arizona, then immediately marry across the state line in Winterhaven, California.

In the Las Vegas courthouse, bailiffs kept order as the crowd grew. Two harried women in the license office typed up one application after another, collected $10 and sent the couples upstairs two-by-two.

As the clock ticked toward midnight, those at the back of the line grew visibly anxious, said Brennan, who made $8 per ceremony. He picked up the pace by clipping a few more lines from his spiel. About 11:40 p.m., thinking of the way lawmakers up in the statehouse in Carson City were known to extend the legal day when it suited their purposes, he directed his two assistants to shroud the courtroom clock with a typewriter cover.

"If it was good enough for the state legislature it was good enough for a two-bit judge in Las Vegas," he said, not ashamed that a least a few of the marriages time-stamped August 26 were in fact performed a few minutes - okay, half an hour - into August 27.
 

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