Draft Card Burning Protest

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Draft Card Burning Protest


By: Anonymous

Date: June 20, 1969

Source: AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

About the Photographer: This photograph is a part of the archive maintained by the Associated Press, a worldwide news agency based in New York. The photographer is not known.


The Viet Nam era draft card is also known by its legal description, the status card. The draft card was an aspect of the Selective Service Act, the federal legislation that legalized the conscription of eligible males into the American armed services during the Viet Nam war (1962–1973).

In the early days of the military involvement of the United States in the Viet Nam conflict, the effects of the draft were not widely felt throughout the American population, as the number of American military personnel deployed in Viet Nam was less than 25,000 persons. After the Congress and the Senate passed the legislation known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson (1908– 1973) was empowered to take whatever military steps were deemed necessary to preserve American interests in Viet Nam and the greater South East Asia region. The American military presence and its corresponding exposure to casualties increased after 1965.

Between 1965 and 1969, the Selective Service Act provided various means whereby eligible males could be declared exempt from the draft. The most common exemptions were those extended to persons enrolled in a college or university, members of the National Guard, or members of the Peace Corps.

The American university campuses became prominent aspects of the growing anti-war movement that began to attract national attention after 1965. The burning of draft cards became such a popular method of protest against the war in Viet Nam that President Johnson signed into law an amendment to the federal legislation in August of 1965 that rendered the burning of a draft card to be a criminal act, punishable by up to five years in prison or a 10,000 dollar fine.

The constitutionality of the draft card prosecutions was tested in the Supreme Court of the United States in May, 1968, in the case of United States v. O'Brien. The Court upheld the law, ruling that the burning of a draft card interfered with the smooth and effective function of the Selective Service system. The court indicated that there were other means available to a person who wished to freely express their views concerning the war without destroying the government issued card.

As the involvement of the United States military in Viet Nam increased between 1966 and 1969, the forms of protest against the war broadened. In addition to the burning of draft cards, the well publicized refusal of boxer Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) in 1966 to respond to his draft notice and the 'March on the Pentagon' as organized by various peace groups in 1967 brought further focus to the issues concerning the American involvement in Viet Nam.

As American military casualties mounted through 1968, chants such as 'Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?' were directed at President Johnson at public gatherings by protestors. The anti-war movement was a significant factor in the decision of Johnson not to seek a further term in the 1968 presidential election.

Thousands of eligible young men under the draft fled the United States to Canada or Europe to avoid the prospect of being compelled into service in Viet Nam. When the peace talks involving representatives of the United States, North Viet Nam, and South Viet Nam did not produce an agreement to end the conflict, the war continued and the domestic protests took on an increased urgency through 1969. The protestor depicted burning his draft card in June, 1969 is representative of the sentiment expressed by a significant segment of the American population that the war was no longer worth the cost.



See primary source image.


The primary significance of a draft eligible American male burning his draft card in the summer of 1969 is in the powerful symbolism that this simple act represents. The symbolic burning of the draft card was not an act that reflected the attitudes of much of the American population at that time. In a Gallup public opinion poll taken in July of 1969, a time roughly contemporaneous with that of the photograph, fifty-three percent of Americans surveyed approved of the manner in which President Richard Nixon was handling the Viet Nam war, with thirty percent who disapproved and the balance undecided. While the anti-war movement had an undeniable resonance with the young and the liberal elements of American society, in June 1969 there was not yet a broad consensus that the involvement in Viet Nam should end.

By 1969, the burning of a draft card did not defeat the subject's eligibility to be drafted; the American government had a data bank that operated independently of the paper card to record the identity of all persons liable to be drafted.

By the end of the American involvement in Viet Nam in 1973, over 170,000 eligible males were excused from active military service on the basis of being declared conscientious objectors. The protestors who demonstrated by burning their draft cards or evading service by leaving the United States are not included in this total.

Prosecution was not a common consequence of draft card burning. After the O'Brien ruling from the Supreme Court, there appears to have been an implicit desire on the part of law enforcement to avoid directing further attention at a visible example of the anti-war protest movement. Persons who burned their draft cards were often classified as 'delinquent' for the purposes of Selective Service and liable to be drafted in priority to the other eligible persons.

The Nixon administration was successful in temporarily solidifying a reasonably solid base of public support for its war management and direction when Nixon referred to his pro-war constituency in a speech made in November 1969, as the "Silent Majority" in the midst of a demonstrative anti-war movement.

Shortly after the Silent Majority speech, however, the protest movement picked up further momentum with the organizing of the National Moratorium, held November 15, 1969, involving protests held throughout the country, including a march on Washington by between 250,000 and 500,000 persons. With the revisions to the Selective Service process in December 1969 that placed an emphasis upon the random selection of males between the ages of nineteen and twenty years, the pace of the anti-war protests symbolized by the draft card burning photograph of June, 1969 accelerated.

The draft card burnings as a form of protest became obsolete in 1973 when the federal government suspended the military draft and any requirement on the part of otherwise eligible male to register for military service. The registration component was reinstituted in 1980, but the return to a conscripted military service will require an act of Congress of the United States. Registration now has significant civil consequences, as a failure to register will prohibit a person from obtaining federal employment, admission to most state sponsored universities, and other forms of government programs.



Bailey, Beth, William H. Chafe and Howard Sitkoff, ed. A History of Our Time: Readings on Post-War America. New York; Oxford University Press, 2002.

Elmer, Jerry. Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Viet Nam-era Draft Resister. Nashville, Tennessee; Vanderbilt University Press, 2005.

Web sites

Washington Post. "The Viet Nam Protests: When Worlds Collided." 2000 <http:/www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/2000/vietnam092799.htm> (accessed June 2, 2006).

UC Berkeley Library. "Anti Viet Nam War Protests, 1969." <http://lib.berkeley.edu.MRC/pacificaviet/#1969> (accessed June 2, 2006).