The Early Years: Volunteers and Victories
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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%).
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%).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
4. What percentage of the eligible population escaped
military service during Vietnam?
5. List and explain four ways to legally avoid being drafted
6. What was the position of students toward the war in the
early years? When and how did that
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