The Draft

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The Draft

From America's founding through the twentieth century, the draft has been a familiar way to ensure the country's safety in terms of the numbers of soldiers it can mobilize to fight in wars. In the tewntieth century, the draft has been used—in one way or another—during all of our major wars, from World War I to the Vietnam War. Naturally, then, draft-dodging has also played a part in American war history. From the famous to the infamous, numerous Americans—for one reason or another—have used whatever means they could to change their lot in the military during times of war or to avoid participation in war altogether.

The draft existed before American independence. In the colonies, young and middle aged (white) men were declared by law to constitute the militia of the colony, and such men were subject to compulsory militia training. After the adoption of the federal Constitution, Congress left militia matters largely to the judgment of the states.

In response to the Civil War, a federal draft law was passed in 1863 (and modified in 1864). The Civil War draft was not particularly effective: The draft law brought 46,000 draftees and 118,000 substitutes into the Union Army, which was eight percent of the federal army's total strength.

Congress passed a draft law in May, 1917 which lasted during America's participation in World War I. A majority of American troops who went to France during this war were draftees. The draft was administered by a decentralized civilian agency, the Selective Service System, whose power was largely exercised by local draft boards (the Civil War draft had been administered by the military).

In 1940, Congress again passed a draft law. Except for a draft-free period in 1947 and 1948, this law was renewed at four-year intervals until 1971, when it was renewed for two years. The draft then expired in 1973 when Congress failed to renew it. A Selective Service System, similar to that of World War I, supervised the draft.

During both world wars, the government eventually chose to rely solely on the draft for its military manpower needs, and volunteering for the military was forbidden. After World War II, however, the bans were lifted but by 1953 (the last year of the Korean War), still over half of enlisted men were draftees. After Korea, the military increasingly came to rely on volunteers (some of them motivated by the desire to avoid the draft), and the proportion of draftees in the armed forces was further reduced. There was an upsurge in the use of draftees during the Vietnam period, but the majority of enlisted men remained volunteers.

Some young men were able to find various techniques of dodging the draft. Draft-dodging was a widespread practice whenever the United States had a draft. Draft-dodging means deliberately modifying one's behavior—legally or illegally—for the purpose of avoiding the draft. Draft-dodging is different from draft resistance, which involves the open defiance of the draft law.

One popular method of draft-dodging was to volunteer for military service before the draft caught up with you. To enter military service voluntarily had certain advantages over the draft. A volunteer had some control over which branch of the service he entered, whereas draftees tended to end up in the Army rather than the Navy or Air Force. A volunteer could choose a branch of the armed services, or a specialty, where there was less of a danger of doing infantry combat duty. For those who volunteered for the National Guard, one's tour of duty would be done in the United States. A Vietnam-era study of those who had volunteered for the armed forces found that 40 percent of the respondents indicated that the draft led them to enlist. The number of draft-dodgers in the Vietnam-era National Guard and reserves was even higher—70.7 percent, according to a 1964 Defense Department survey.

Another method of dodging the draft was simply ignoring the law. According to one estimate, 160,000 men on the side of the Union failed to appear when summoned by their draft boards during the Civil War. During the World War I draft, between 2,400,000 and 3,600,000 men failed to register for the draft as required. The federal government held "slacker raids" during World War I in which federal authorities (civil and military), with help from vigilantes, would stop and detain draft-age men and find out if they were properly registered. In other periods, the draft laws were enforced by more conventional law enforcement techniques.

Married men were more likely to get deferments, a fact which did not escape draft-dodgers. The draft law of 1940 seems to have prompted some marriages: While in 1939 there was a total of 1,404,000 marriages, there were over 5,000,000 marriages in 1940 in the 18 to 29-year-old group alone. The Selective Service was aware that some men were using marriage and fatherhood to avoid their military responsibilities, and tightened the regulations in response. By the Vietnam-era, marriage and having children were not particularly effective ways of dodging the draft.

Fleeing abroad was another method of avoiding the draft. Mexico was a destination for some draft-dodgers during World War I, while Canada was a destination during the Civil War and the Vietnam War—Sweden was also a popular destination for some Vietnam-era draft-dodgers.

Under the old militia laws in the various states, a man who had enough money could avoid militia duty by paying someone to go in his place. This method of hiring substitutes was included in the federal draft law in the Civil War. Until June 1864, those who could not afford substitutes could avoid the draft by paying a commutation fee of $300.00. Many local and state governments gave financial assistance so that draftees could hire substitutes.

After World War II, attending a post-secondary school could also be a method of draft-dodging. If a college student satisfied the Selective Service that he had a good academic record, he could stave off the draft at least until graduation (in 1967, Congress made deferments available to all undergraduates, regardless of their academic standing).

Draft-dodgers (and draft resisters) have sometimes benefitted from Presidential amnesties, including Franklin Roosevelt's limited amnesty for World War I offenders in 1933, Harry Truman's limited amnesty for World War II offenders in 1947, and Jimmy Carter's complete amnesty for non-violent Vietnam-era offenders in 1977.

Eminent draft-dodgers include future President Grover Cleveland, who hired a substitute so as to avoid the Civil War draft, future President William Clinton, who made use of student exemptions and the ROTC program to avoid the Vietnam War, and future Vice-President Dan Quayle, who joined the Indiana National Guard.

—Eric Longley

Further Reading:

Chambers, John Whiteclay II. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America. New York, Free Press, 1987.

Curry, G. David. Sunshine Patriots: Punishment and the Vietnam Offender. Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Flynn, George Q. The Draft, 1940-1973. Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 1993.

Haig-Brown, Alan. Hell No, We Won't Go: Vietnam Draft Resisters in Canada. Vancouver, Raincoast Books, 1996.

Polner, Murray, editor. When Can I Come Home? A Debate on Amnesty for Exiles, Anti-war Prisoner, and Others. Garden City, New York, Anchor Books, 1972.