The Draft: WWI to Vietnam

A Vietnam draft protest at Yale (Robert Child, The New Haven Journal Courier)

I was a child of the 60s and 70s, in college at the height of the Vietnam War protests, a junior during the Kent State incident.

I was not among the protesters.

As a child born into a military family, I supported our country, our government, and our military in those chaotic days. I believed fervently that if my country were sending our young men—some of whom were my classmates and friends—to war, we would respect, protect, and support them. They were risking their lives for us and our way of life. We owed them.

Young men on campus, boys actually, talked endlessly about the War and the draft. When they received their number, some talked of burning their draft cards or fleeing to Canada, but most said they would volunteer or go if drafted.

Although the numbers vary by source or method of measurement, from 66% to 75% of those who served volunteered for Vietnam, higher than for World War II (40%), Korea (47%) or World War I (42%).

The Vietnam War draft lottery drawing occurred on December 1, 1969. The drawing determined the order in which America’s men aged eighteen to twenty-six would be called for induction during 1970.

Congressman Alexander Pirnie picks a capsule for the 1970 draft

Before a live audience in Washington, Congressman Alexander Pirnie of the House Armed Services Committee picked one of 366 blue capsules from a glass container and read the date contained inside the capsule: September 14. With that, all eligible men born on that date received the draft number “1.” The drawing continued until the remaining 365 capsules were drawn and paired with a sequence number. 

The Vietnam era draft ended in 1973. Since then, all personnel entering the military have been volunteers.

World War II

In the fall of 1940, in anticipation of being drawn into the conflict in Europe, Congress enacted the first peacetime draft in America’s history. In a process similar to that in use in World War I, the government assigned numbers to twenty million men aged twenty-one to thirty-six. 

stimson picks
A blindfolded Stimson picks a draft number in 1940

On October 29, 1940 Secretary of War Henry Stimson used a wooden spoon crafted from a beam of the Philadelphia Independence hall to stir capsules a glass bowl—a bowl also used for the World War I draft. Each of the tiny capsules contained a different number from one to nearly seven thousand. Stimson reached into the bowl, withdrew the first capsule holding a numbered slip of paper. He handed the paper to President Franklin Roosevelt, and the President read the number aloud: One Fifty Eight. 

All men holding the number 158 were required to report immediately to their registration office for induction into the military.

The World War II draft differed in a number of respects from the Vietnam era draft. For one thing, blacks were not included in the first groups of men drafted for World War II, though that changed in the later years of the War. Student deferments were allowed for as long as students were full time and undertaking a field of study and could continue until the student was too old to be drafted. 

The World War II draft was also more prone to bias and manipulation. State and local draft boards classified the eligible men, determining which men would actually be drafted. In some cases, personal relationships, biases, and favoritism came into play.

World War I

The military had expected a million volunteers but received only seventy three thousand. On May 18, 1917, close to six weeks after the United States entered the First World War, Congress passed the Selective Service Act. The act required all men in the country between the ages of twenty-one and thirty to register for military service. Within a few months, ten million men had registered.

President Woodrow Wilson was mindful of the discontent with the Civil War draft that had caused riots in New York. During the draft of 1863, men could purchase an exemption for $300 or hire a substitute, allowing wealthier citizens to escape service. Wilson disallowed purchase and substitution options for World War I, making the draft more acceptable to the country. He and his Secretary of War Newton Baker, took a different approach to establish a sense of fairness. They created local draft boards charged with registration and determination of the sequence of induction of draftees—thus the lottery. 

Secretary Baker picks the first capsule  for the second draft of World War I.

In July 1917, a blindfolded President pulled the first capsule from a glass bowl for the first draft of WWI. Afterward a series of dignitaries also blindfolded pulled capsules with the numbers written on a board behind them. 

The first capsule for the draft held the number 258. 

Sources and Suggestions for Additional Reading


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