After World War II, the draft structure to meet the country’s military needs had been left in place. Thus, it was ready to be employed in my era when volunteers no longer met the needs of the services. And indeed, the draft was increasingly relied upon as the U.S. deepened its involvement in Vietnam. But during the Vietnam War years between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. military drafted only 2.2 million men from a large pool of 27 million. With less than 10% of those eligible for the draft being called up, and the lottery mechanism to choose them not put in place until 1969, the question of who got drafted was left up to local draft boards and their use of an elaborate system of draft deferment categories.
Being in graduate school at the time automatically removed the risk I would be taken into the military involuntarily prior to my graduation. After graduation, I’d be single and only 25. Unless I married and had children before I reached the safe harbor of 26, there was a real possibility that I could be drafted.
What to do? I had no desire to marry at that time, and a similar desire not to be killed in Vietnam War. This wasn’t an entirely irrational fear, as The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., lists more than 58,000 names of those killed or missing in action. Though my personal odds of being cut down might have been small, the threat did loom large in my thinking. The off chance of catching an errant bullet in an inhospitable place far from home was simply not on my to do list.
A comprehensive analysis of the draft’s impact during the Vietnam War can be found in the 1978 book, Chance and Circumstance, by Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss. The study notes that in the pre-lottery, pre-volunteer army years. the social inequities of the draft were stark. At the end of World War II, Blacks constituted 12% of all combat troops. This had grown to 31% by the start of the Vietnam War. Due to a concerted effort by the Defense Department to reduce the minorities’ share of the fighting this figure was reduced for all the services to under 9% by 1970. I had met with one of the book’s authors, Larry Baskir, in 1974, when I was asked to testify in the Hearings on Military Surveillance, held by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. At the time, Baskir was the Committee’s General Counsel under its Chairman, Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Baskir later served as Chief Executive Officer and General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board, set up to help deal with the question of what to do with the many young Americans who had broken the law by evading the military draft. The analysis in Figure 1 in his book details the effect of the draft on those who came of draft age in that period.
The National Archives records these statistics on the Vietnam War:
DCAS Vietnam Conflict Extract File record counts by CASUALTY CATEGORY (as of April 29, 2008 )
This table contains record counts based on the codes recorded in the “CASUALTY CATEGORY” field of the Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File. In the case of the “PRESUMED DEAD (BODY REMAINS RECOVERED)” and “PRESUMED DEAD (BODY REMAINS NOT RECOVERED)” categories of the table, the record counts are based on the codes in both the “CASUALTY CATEGORY” and “REMAINS RECOVERED” fields.