Volunteer Army and Professionalism

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Until World War I, Americans traditionally resisted the European trend toward conscription as the principal means for accessing men into the armed forces. Thousands of Europeans had migrated to America to avoid the draft. Moreover, a large standing army seemed both unnecessary and a potential threat to American civil liberties. The disastrous and unsuccessful attempts by both sides in the Civil War to introduce conscription only reinforced these ideas. The Wilson administration was careful to note that its system of "selective service" only called men who had voluntarily placed their names on lists, although significant informal local pressure existed. Conscription started again in 1940 and was renewed by Congress in 1941 by just a single vote. The United States quickly disestablished the draft at the end of World War II under pressure to return the nation to a peacetime footing.

The increasing military pressures of the Cold War necessitated the reintroduction of conscription in 1948. Defenders of this system argued that a draft trained a large proportion of American youth for civic service and more fairly distributed the burden of military service. The inductions of celebrities such as Elvis Presley and the baseball player Willie Mays underscored the universality of military service in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, even before the war in Vietnam began, the baby boom made the induction of large numbers of American males fiscally impossible. The Kennedy administration therefore implemented a series of deferments that allowed most men to avoid military service either because of family commitments or career choices.

These deferments, as well as medical and other deferments, permitted large sections of the middle class to avoid the draft. As a result, working-class Americans and members of minority groups were drafted at disproportionately high rates. A maladroit attempt in 1969 to replace local draft boards with a national lottery system did little to quiet the criticism. Consequently, as American forces completed their withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, the United States ended its draft. Male registration for the draft returned in 1980 in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, but the United States did not induct anyone from those rolls.

The resulting All Volunteer Force (AVF) replaced the coercion of the draft with market incentives such as higher pay, better conditions, and training designed to be more easily transferred to post-military civilian careers. At the same time, some of the more distasteful aspects of military service, such as food preparation (the notorious "KP" duties), open barracks housing, and even (in the Navy) crew-cut hair styles, disappeared. The Gates Commission that planned the AVF argued that with reforms such as these the military would be able to attract men in sufficient numbers and of sufficient skills to maintain a first-rate military.

The Gates Commission supposed that the core of the military would remain white and male. They were surprised by the increasing numbers of women and minorities that sought military training, many in areas previously limited to them. The insufficient interest that white males showed in military service forced the services to be more open to previously underused "manpower" pools. As a result, the service academies opened their doors to women in 1976 and all services, even the once proudly segregationist Marine Corps, devoted significant efforts to recruiting African Americans and Hispanics. The result was a military that was still disproportionately white and male at the higher levels, but no longer exclusively so. Colin Powell's appointment to the top post as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989 marked the first time an African American had held that post. The enlisted ranks continued to be filled by men from disadvantaged backgrounds because entry-level salaries remained low.

Some close observers of the military worried that, in the absence of conscription, the military's values would become less congruent with those of American society as a whole. The military as a whole is now significantly more conservative, more Republican, more religious, and more Southern than the American population in general. This divergence helps to explain why the military fought so vigorously against Clinton administration plans to permit gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed services. Critics argue that the divergence of military and civilian values creates a dangerous situation for the health of a democratic republic. Nevertheless, as yet there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the military as an institution is abandoning its ethos of professional service to the state and its duly elected representatives.


Appy, Christian. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers in Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Baskir, Lawrence, and Strauss, William. Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation. New York: Vintage Press, 1978.

Binkin, Martin, and Johnson, John. All-Volunteer Armed Forces: Progress, Problems, and Prospects. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1973.

Cohen, Eliot. Citizens and Soldiers: The Dilemmas of Military Service. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Neiberg, Michael. Making Citizen-Soldiers: ROTC and the Ideology of American Military Service. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Segal, David. Recruiting for Uncle Sam: Citizenship and Military Manpower Policy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.

Michael S. Neiberg

See also:Grunts; Military Families; Nixon, Richard M.; Powell, Colin; Race and Military; ROTC; Selective Service; Vietnam Veterans; Women Integrated into the Military.