Vietnam Memorial

The Vietnam War Heats Up

As I started college in the fall of 1960, I just wasn’t prescient enough to see that, like my father and brother, I also would indeed enter the military. While the Vietnam War ended with a bang with the fall of Saigon in April 1975 it had started with a whimper in spring of 1961, just as I was finishing my freshman year at Yale. That was when President John Kennedy ordered 400 Green Beret Army soldiers to South Vietnam as “advisors.”

Then, in August 1964, after my Yale graduation, but before starting law school at the University of Chicago, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This came in the wake of an apparent attack on the USS Maddox off Vietnam.

Gulf of Tonkin Attack

 Report of Gulf of Tonkin Attack

It authorized the president to “take all necessary measures, including the use of armed force” against any aggressor in the Vietnam conflict. Shortly thereafter, in February 1965, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam and the U.S. was in the War big time. I was just halfway through my first year of law school then.

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.

Vietnam Memorial, Washington, DC

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 58,300 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 young man’s to do list.

army days