The Soldiers Of Vietnam


The Early Years: Volunteers and Victories


            During the early years of the U.S. military buildup, most of the soldiers sent to Vietnam were professionals and volunteers.  They trained together and were sent by troop ship across the Pacific to fight together.  The professional soldiers, especially the non-commissioned officers (NCOs), looked forward to the opportunity to gain combat experience.  Morale was high and the troops represented one of the finest fighting forces ever assembled.  The first major battle took place in the Fall of 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley of the Central Highlands.  Some 1,500 to 1,800 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers were killed in action there, in comparison to fewer than 300 U.S. soldiers.  The over five-to-one kill ratio reflected the expertise of the American forces.

            An editorial headline in the February 25, 1966 issue of Life Magazine read “Vietnam: The War is Worth Winning”.  The editorial went on to note that “there is a reasonably good chance the present phase of the war can be successfully wound up in 1967 or even in late 1966”.  The war in Vietnam, it argued, was “as important as any of the previous American Wars of this century”.  At the time of the editorial there were about 200,000 Americans in Vietnam.  Around 125,000 of those had been there less than six months and only 50,000 were engaged in combat.  About 1,400 had been killed and 6,000 wounded.  Casualties were small enough and volunteerism high enough to give credibility to the Johnson Administration’s claims that a successful war effort could be managed without great public sacrifices.  In a 1966 survey of high school students, only 7% said the draft and Vietnam were problems that concerned them.


The Troop Buildup and Draft


            By the end of 1966 there were 400,000 American troops in Vietnam.  The casualty toll had reached 5,000 Americans killed in action and over 16,000 wounded.  Many of the enlisted men already had served their one year tour of duty and were now rotating back to the states to be reassigned to other units.  Their slots were increasingly being filled by soldiers recruited through the Selective Service System.  The Selective Service System is the way in which the US maintains information on those who could be drafted into the military (usually the Army).  All males between the ages of 18-25 are required by law to register within 30 days of their 18th birthday. As more soldiers were needed, more reliance was placed on the draft.

            By December 1966, the draft call was up to 40,000 men each month.  Many of these soldiers were assigned to combat units upon their arrival in Vietnam, knowing only those people they had met in flight.  They lacked the security of serving alongside friends from basic training.  Many of these draftees simply did not want to be there and many more were being sent straight into combat.  Morale problems began to surface.  By 1970 draftees comprised 39% of the troops but almost 55% of the combat deaths, primarily due to their lack of extensive military training.

            Almost every American from the Vietnam generation, whether they served in the military or not, were somehow impacted by the war.  As one author noted, “Vietnam was the most divisive time of battle in our country since the Civil War.”  To many young American males, the prospect of going to Vietnam represented a choice between dying for a cause he did not support or making the decision to kill in the name of that cause.  For many, when their draft notice arrived, a third option came into play: avoiding military service.  Doing so meant a confrontation with their local Selective Service (“Draft”) Board.

            Local Draft Boards were established in 1917 to provide troops for WWI.  These boards were authorized to grant service deferments (delays) and exemptions to individuals conscripted (drafted) in their area.  By the 1960s the Selective Service System consisted of around 4,000 local draft boards.  These boards were staffed by unpaid civilian volunteers, usually older white, male, middleclass WWI and WWII veterans.  As the war ground on, these local boards found themselves less and less able to meet their quotas of soldiers for Vietnam.  One major reason was that there were numerous deferments and exemptions to military service built into the peacetime Selective Service Law enacted in 1948.  In addition to deferments for reasons of family, health, and religious principles, the law also provided deferments for occupations considered to be “in the national interest”, especially those in the fields of health, education, religion, and agriculture.

            Of the 26.8 million Vietnam era draft-age men, some 15.4 million, over 57%, were deferred, exempted, or disqualified from military service.  Another 57,000 (2%) committed draft violations.  Over 200,000 were reported to federal prosecutors; of those, 8,750 were convicted, 3,250 of whom went to prison.  Another 3,000 went into hiding in the US.  Around 100,000 fled the country.  Ultimately, 60% of draft eligible Americans avoided service during the Vietnam War, either lawfully or unlawfully.


Avoiding Service

            One way to avoid military service was to refuse to serve based on moral, generally religious, principle.  The draftee could claim this status, known as conscientious objection, only by providing extensive documentation by religious authorities.  Almost all of the 172,000 who did qualify for such classification were required to serve two years in low-paying community service work away from home.  About 1,000 people were convicted of federal charges for refusing to do this alternative service.

            A more common way to stay out of Vietnam was to attend college.  Virtually every student who maintained satisfactory progress toward his degree was classified as II-S, whereby the “registrant [was] deferred because of activity in study”.  If the student flunked out or graduated, he was again eligible for the draft.  Of course, the student could go to graduate or professional school and continue his deferment for several more years.  As a result, enrollment in colleges and universities increased by almost 7% during the war.  Much of this can be attributed to Johnson’s Great Society programs which increased federal financial aid to an expanding system of higher education.  Colleges and universities were increasingly patronized by a growing middle class eager to provide advantages for their children.  The effect of this increased enrollment was to reduce the pool of draft eligible males by several hundred thousand; increasingly, those being drafted would be less educated lower/working class Americans.

            In the early years of the war, most students supported the conflict.  In 1965, only 6% of those polled favored an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.  Pro-war students picketed university teach-ins.  Conservative students petitioned for support of U.S. policy in Vietnam at campuses across the nation.  Blood drives for troops were organized at Ohio State, Stanford, and other universities.  None of this, however, implied a willingness to enlist.  A 1967 Gallup Poll showed that most students acknowledged that the draft discriminated against the poor, but two-thirds disagreed with a proposal that would have opened the draft to college students. So many people supported the war politically but did not want to be the ones to actually go fight in it.

            Like the general public, student opinion turned decisively against the war after the Tet Offensive in early 1968.  Between 1967 and 1969 the percentage of students who supported the war (known as “Hawks”) dropped from 50% to 20%.  By 1969, a majority of all students thought the war was a mistake and favored immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.  Still, there was a sizeable minority who continued to support the war.  Moreover, even where the peace movement was strong, most students were unwilling to give up access to military related programs which benefited them (such as the college deferments).  In 1970 a poll showed 72% of students believed that companies doing defense contract work should be allowed to recruit on campus. 

70%  agreed that “school authorities are right to call in police when students occupy a building or threaten violence”.  College campuses were certainly the center of the anti-war movement, however, to say that students were universally polarized against the war is inaccurate.  Doves (anti-war), Hawks, and students simply concerned with their own careers all coexisted.

            Another strategy for avoiding military service was to go into an occupation that was draft deferred, like medicine, teaching, or the ministry.  A 1970 survey of 5,000 students at 39 colleges and universities found that one in three had altered their career plans for the purpose of seeking a draft-exempt occupation.  Between 1968 and 1971, occupational deferments rose by over 270,000 (124%).

            Hardship deferments were granted to men who were the sole means of support for their dependents.  Many men chose to marry and have children to avoid the draft.  These strategies were known as “marrying out” and “babying out”.  Between 1968 and 1971 these deferments rose by almost 420,000 (11%).

            Perhaps the greatest prize for those who wished to avoid Vietnam was a IV-F classification.  This meant the registrant was “not qualified for military service” and was granted a permanent exemption.  These were usually granted for reasons of illness or disability and could be obtained by failing the induction or pre-induction physical examination.  Some peace organizations even counseled young men on ways to fake illnesses.  Attorneys provided draft counseling for fees ranging from $200 to $1000; anyone who found a competent lawyer had little difficulty avoiding the draft.  Again, this was an option more available to those families with money.

            Draft counselors directed men to certain draft boards in order to obtain exemptions.  By far the most popular was Seattle, WA.  In Seattle, physical examiners separated people into two groups: those who had letters from physicians and psychiatrists, and those who did not.  Everyone with a letter received an exemption; the board did not even read the letters.  Many physicians charged exorbitant (very high) fees for letters to draft boards.  Word spread through college students and upper class society as to what doctors and medical students were known to be anti-war and willing to write letters.  Individuals could even be exempted for orthodontic work.  One dentist in Los Angeles advertised that he would put braces on anyone, regardless of need, for $2,000 plus expenses.  Though costly, for many people an exemption was worth the price.

            If the above options were not available, there were many ways to fail the physical examination.  Some faked homosexual tendencies, starved themselves to obtain an underweight disqualification, or even mutilated their bodies by slicing off a part of their thumb or shooting themselves in the foot.

            Some simply enlisted in a branch of the service more removed from combat in order to avoid combat duty in the Army.  Most popular was the Coast Guard, however the Navy and Air Force were also significantly less dangerous than the Army.  The best assignments were in the Reserves or the National Guard.  There was a four-to-six month active duty period (compared to two years in other branches), yearly summer camps, and monthly meetings over a six year period.  Over one million Vietnam-era males became guardsmen or reservists, almost all of whom stayed home; only 15,000 (1.5%) were sent to Vietnam.  Studies by the Pentagon and National Guard indicated that between 70 and 90% of all reservists and guardsmen who signed up during Vietnam were draft-motivated.

            In 1969 President Nixon established the Draft Lottery in order to equalize the combat burden and to remove the threat of being drafted as a motivation for protest.  The lottery was based on the random selection of days of the year.  Every date was put in a ball in a jar.  The first date selected was September 14th.  That meant that local draft boards were required to select all eligible males born on that day for the January 1970 draft; the lottery continued from 1971 to 1975 (though nobody was actually drafted beginning in 1972).  The goal of the lottery was to make it more difficult for well connected American youth to avoid military service, however the success of the lottery in achieving that goal is questionable.  Hardship, occupation, and student deferments were abolished in 1971, but as with the draft, it mattered little at that time.  The war was in the process of being handed over to the Vietnamese (a policy called Vietnamization) and draft quotas were reduced sharply.

            Throughout the war, many individuals took action to avoid military service.  These men were much more likely to be from the higher classes of American society.  They were obtaining exemptions and deferments often unknown and unavailable to individuals lacking education and money.



Answer the following questions, using complete sentences, in your notebook.:

1. When was the Selective Service (Draft) Board established?

2. In the 1960s, who worked for local draft boards?

3. What professions were considered to be in the “national interest”?

4. What percentage of the eligible population escaped military service during Vietnam?

5. List and explain four ways to legally avoid being drafted in Vietnam.

6. What was the position of students toward the war in the early years?  When and how did that change?

7. What was an IV-F classification and how did some men attempt to obtain it?

8. Why did President Nixon establish the Draft Lottery?

9. What are your thoughts on the draft? Is it a fair system? Should it be implemented in the future if needed? Explain your answers.  If you state the draft should not be used, please include an explanation as to how the US would recruit soldiers to fight in conflicts.