Vietnam War Draft Lottery: Background information when reading Crossroads

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A Key to All Mythologies #1

by Jonathan Franzen

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen X
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2021, 592 pages

    Oct 2022, 592 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Vietnam War Draft Lottery

This article relates to Crossroads

Print Review

A man in a suit turns the crank on a glass lottery machine holding the capsules containing birthdays for the Vietnam War draftOne of the ethical debates presented in Jonathan Frazen's Crossroads concerns the United States' use of the draft to supplement its troops during the Vietnam War.

Conscription, commonly known as the draft in the United States, is a term of mandatory enlistment in national service, generally in a country's military. It's been employed in one form or another for millennia, with its first documented use going back to a system known as ilkum employed by the ancient Babylonians. Nearly every civilization that's had its own military force has had some sort of conscription in place for times of war.

In the United States, several attempts were made to create a conscription program, but none succeeded until 1863. As the Union Army entered the third year of the American Civil War it became apparent that more manpower was needed, and Congress passed an act that required all males between the ages of 20 and 45 to register for military service. As has frequently been the case, wealthier men were able to avoid the draft either by paying someone else to take their place or by paying the government $300 (about $6,500 in today's dollars). The US has implemented a draft in four wars since then (both World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War).

War was never officially declared in Vietnam, so the US government employed the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940 to enhance the size of the military. Known as a "peacetime draft," the act was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 to beef up forces for the country's anticipated entry into World War II. As the conflict in Vietnam intensified from 1954-1964, more than 1.4 million men were drafted into the military — about 120,000 per year. Deferments were put in place, such as exemptions for those pursuing higher education, which allowed men with financial means to avoid military service; 80% of draftees came from poor or working-class families. By 1965 the government was drafting up to 300,000 per year, and the draft continued through 1975.

Mass protests ensued, with some of the arguments focusing on the inequity inherent in the country's method of conscription. In November 1969, President Richard Nixon agreed (with the urging of his military advisors) to implement a system that would appear to affect all young men equally, and on December 1 the country held its first draft lottery since 1942. Each date in the calendar year was written on a slip of paper and placed in a blue capsule (366 total, to account for leap day), and then the capsules were drawn out of a glass container by hand, one at a time. The dates corresponded to a person's birthday, and the order in which they were drawn was the order in which people would be required to enter military service. The first date selected was September 14, so all men born between 1944 and 1950 on September 14 were assigned the lottery number 1 and were the first group to be called up; January 15 was the 17th number drawn, so those with that birthday were in the 17th group to be enlisted, etc. Within each day there was also a randomly generated number associated with a person's initials that further outlined who'd be called in which order. Additional lottery drawings were held annually through 1975, drafting from the population of men who turned 18 each year.

All told, draftees made up approximately 25% of American troops who fought in Vietnam. Although no one is sure of the exact numbers, many young men volunteered after the draft was implemented, their thought being that by doing so, they could at least choose their branch of service and perhaps stand a better chance of surviving the conflict. Although the lottery appeared to be more equitable than former methods of conscription, those who ended up overseas still remained disproportionately poor and working class. Some deferments were left in place, thereby allowing families who could afford it to send their sons to college to avoid the draft. Some also sent their children out of the country or purchased fake medical exemptions. Even those without money weren't necessarily resigned to enlisting, however, as some fled to Canada to avoid the draft while others simply didn't report for training. Still others faked conditions during their physicals so they'd be rejected (comedian Chevy Chase falsely claimed he had "homosexual tendencies," and rocker Ted Nugent is said to have feigned mental illness). A total of 209,517 men were prosecuted for avoiding draft laws, and the military estimated that another 360,000 were never formally accused. President Jimmy Carter controversially pardoned all Vietnam War draft dodgers in 1977.

President Nixon ended the draft in 1973, shortly before the end of the Vietnam War. The mechanisms for future conscriptions remain in place, though, so a fighting force can be quickly mobilized should the need arise. All male citizens are required to register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of their 18th birthday and are required to keep their personal information updated (address, marital status, education, etc.). Those who fail to register could face fines up to $250,000 and/or five years in jail. In September 2021, the House Armed Services Committee added a provision to the annual defense budget bill that would require women to also register for the draft, but it is currently still in the legislative process.

Curious as to whether or not you'd have been drafted for the Vietnam War? USA Today has a tool that will tell you what your draft number would have been in 1970, and whether or not you'd have been called for service.

Vietnam draft lottery, courtesy of Columbia University

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to Crossroads. It originally ran in October 2021 and has been updated for the October 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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