• Long Read

Activists fought the US military draft for decades — they may soon have to again

As Congress considers requiring women to register for the draft, it's time we remember the movements that fought to abolish conscription and learn from their victories.

As if there weren’t enough to worry about these days, women soon may be required to register for the military draft.

You may not have heard about this development because of the avalanche of COVID-19 news. In late March, a national commission urged Congress to mandate that all women between 18 and 25 enroll with the Selective Service System, the agency that oversees the military draft.  

Congress may well ratify this proposal. Many prominent figures in both parties endorse the idea from Hillary Clinton to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If the past is any guide, however, we can expect activists to resist. During the Vietnam War, a massive draft resistance movement forced the government to eliminate the conscription system altogether. When President Jimmy Carter reintroduced the current registration system in 1980, a powerful anti-draft movement hobbled the government’s efforts to implement it. 

Nevertheless, the system has continued to register young men. The issue faded from national consciousness until 2015, when President Barack Obama allowed women to serve in combat roles. Various commentators and politicians asked: If women can fight on the front lines, why shouldn’t they also be subjected to the draft? Others raised a related question: Why not require everyone to perform some form of national service? Congress then charged the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service to examine such issues.

The commission spent three years and $45 million, conducted hearings throughout the country and solicited several thousand public comments. Its 245-page final report contained 49 recommendations, mostly ways to encourage voluntary opportunities for public and governmental service. 

Only the recommendation that would force women to register for the draft contains a compulsory element. If adopted, women who refuse to register would, like their male counterparts, be liable to criminal prosecution subject to up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.

Some progressives and feminists support the commission’s proposal. Jackie Speer, a liberal Democratic congresswoman from California, told The Hill: “If we want equality in this country, if we want women to be treated precisely like men are treated and that they should not be discriminated against, then we should support a universal conscription.”

Meanwhile, Rivera Sun of Code Pink, a women-led grassroots antiwar organization, disagrees. She told the commission: “The draft is not a women’s rights issue. Women’s equality will not be achieved by including women in a draft system that forces civilians to participate in activities that are against their will and harm others in large numbers, such as war. There is only one way for draft registration to treat everyone equally: abolish draft registration.”

This is not a radical idea. Except for brief periods during the Civil War and World War I, the United States had been conscription-free until the eve of World War II. Compulsory military service was considered un-American, incompatible with the values espoused by the land of the free. Countless numbers of immigrants came here to keep from being drafted in their native lands. One such immigrant was Frederick Trump, grandfather of the current president, who fled Bavaria to avoid being pressed into the Imperial German Army.

The United States discontinued conscription after World War II but resumed it in time for the Korean War. After that war ended, however, the United States continued to draft young men into the military. Relatively few were called up in those years. However, its very existence meant that any president could quickly mobilize troops without any check from Congress or the public.

The draft made it easy for the president to launch the war. But resisters exploited its main vulnerability: The draft requires the cooperation of those subjected to it.

That’s exactly what Lyndon B. Johnson did starting in 1965. The previous year he ran as the “peace candidate” saying he would not get the United States into a land war in Asia. Within months of the election, using pretexts of a fraudulent attack on a warship and an assault on a U.S. base, Johnson started pouring American troops into Vietnam. Because the president could issue draft calls on his own, he ordered nearly a quarter-million draftees into military service in 1965 and nearly 400,000 the next year. Soon there were a half-million American troops fighting in Vietnam, mostly draftees or men who’d enlisted to keep from being drafted. (Enlistees could choose their branch of service but had to spend three years, rather than two, in the military.)

Having the draft enabled Johnson to drag the United States into a major land war before the public fully grasped what was happening. The gross inequities of the draft system also helped him blunt public awareness of the massive buildup. Despite large numbers sent to Asia, only a fraction of those eligible served. Of the 27 million men of draft age during the decade of the war, only 2.5 million — or less than 10 percent — served in Vietnam.

To determine who would be drafted, the Selective Service offered lots of loopholes for the children of the political and economic elite, as well as much of the middle class. College students like Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney weren’t touched. Nor were those able to obtain doctor’s notes for minor — or contrived — maladies like bone spurs, as was the case with Donald Trump. For fear of ruffling affluent feathers, Johnson refused to call up the reserves or National Guard — another preserve of the middle class, some of whom, like George W. Bush, secured spots through political connections.

As a result, Vietnam became a working-class war. What’s more, most conscripts couldn’t even vote, as the voting age then was 21. Talk about taxation without representation!

The draft resistance movement takes rise

The draft made it easy for the president to launch the war. But resisters exploited its main vulnerability: The draft requires the cooperation of those subjected to it. Gene Sharp, a disciple of Gandhi and one of the chief theorists of nonviolence, explains: “Nonviolent action is based on a very simple postulate: People do not always do what they are told to do, and sometimes they act in ways that have been forbidden. … If people do this in sufficient numbers for long enough, that government or hierarchical system will no longer have power.”

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At the time when Johnson upped the draft calls, men were required to carry their draft cards at all times and obey orders from Selective Service or face up to five years imprisonment. Defying the law, men began burning their draft cards or returning them to the government at public antiwar rallies. In the most impressive action, more than a thousand men turned in their cards at simultaneous rallies held in over two dozen cities on Oct. 16, 1967. Organizers collected the cards and hand delivered them to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. The government responded by indicting Benjamin Spock, a well-known pediatrician, and four others for aiding and abetting men violating the law. The crackdown backfired. Not only did the government lose the case, but hundreds of older adults, including Martin Luther King Jr., signed petitions or made public statements in support of draft resisters.

Two points should be made about draft resistance during the Vietnam War. First, it was an explicitly nonviolent movement. Many of its leaders had been involved in the civil rights movement in the South, and they deepened their commitment to nonviolence from esteemed mentors.

David Miller burned his draft card at a public rally just after Congress passed a law specifically to make that act a crime. At the time, he lived and worked in a Catholic Worker house in New York. Bruce Dancis coordinated the first mass draft resistance action when some 200 men burned their cards before a major protest march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in New York. Dancis studied at Cornell where poet and priest Daniel Berrigan taught.

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David Harris, who helped organize the national card turn-in in October 1967, was part of the Gandhian Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Palo Alto, founded by Ira Sandperl and Joan Baez. Michael Ferber, a leader of the Boston Resistance group and indicted along with Dr. Spock, was the college roommate of David Dellinger’s son. A World War II draft resister, Dellinger was one of the defendants in the infamous Chicago 7 trial. Ferber wrote an excellent history of the Vietnam anti-draft movement called “The Resistance.” He coauthored the book with historian Staughton Lynd, a well-known peace and labor activist. (In my personal case, Martin Luther King Jr. inspired me. I turned in my draft card along with about a dozen other men at a public gathering a few days after his assassination.)

The second important point about the draft resistance movement is that it succeeded by undermining the system. Its organizers believed that if we could get enough men to resist, we could overwhelm the prison system. They explicitly used the model of the civil rights campaign in Birmingham in 1963, when hundreds of citizens (including children) were jailed and brought the city to a standstill. They believed they could achieve the same result with enough draft resisters. Yet this tactic didn’t work as quickly, nor as obviously, as it had in the South. Ultimately, the draft resistance movement did overwhelm the system, but few of us realized our impact.

The draft becomes a major liability

During the war years, the Selective Service referred some 210,000 men to the Justice Department for prosecution. Of that number, less than 10 percent were indicted, just four percent were convicted, and only one and a half percent (about 4,000) were sentenced to prison. Public sympathy for draft resisters helps explain why federal prosecutors were reluctant to go after violators and judges declined to sentence many of those convicted to prison. By the spring of 1970, a Gallup survey revealed that only 17 percent of adults favored jail time for those who refused to cooperate. According to the most detailed study of the Vietnam draft: “Had [draft law violators] been prosecuted as vigorously as bank robbers, the federal prison system would have had to double its capacity at the height of the war.”

Brayton Harris, Assistant Director of Selective Service, admitted to a TV reporter that many men had registered as “Jimmy Carter” and some women registered as a protest.

By showing they were not intimidated, draft resisters demystified the system and helped create an environment where increasing numbers of their peers were emboldened to find their own ways to avoid going to Vietnam. An estimated 250,000 simply didn’t register (almost none were ever caught). Many intentionally flunked their military physical exams (two out of three failed to pass in mid-1970, as opposed to less than half six months earlier). Some 30,000 fled to Canada or Sweden. And nearly 800,000 filed for conscientious objector designation during the war. In 1972 more men received conscientious objector status than were inducted in the Army.

An article in New York magazine in June 29, 1970, entitled “Selective Service Meets Massive Resistance,” described the situation: “Draft resistance in New York City has become so widespread and so sophisticated that the Selective Service System, cumbersome to begin with, today seems barely capable of drafting anybody who doesn’t care to be drafted.” In Oakland, California, 53 percent of 4,500 who were ordered for induction did not show up, and another 5 percent appeared but refused to be inducted.

Many women and overage men joined draft-age resisters to challenge the system. They often targeted the 4,000-plus local draft boards and induction centers for vigils, rallies, sit-ins or even actual raids where activists broke in and destroyed files. (Daniel and Philip Berrigan conducted the most famous break-in in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1968.) By 1970, the Selective Service reported that, on average, there was at least one “antidraft occurrence” (demonstration or break-in) every day. The situation was so bad the agency reported that local boards had difficulty renting space and keeping staff.

Instead of being a dependable system for funneling cannon fodder into the swamps and jungles of Vietnam, the draft had become a major liability for the war machine. Soon after Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he decided that the best way to blunt opposition to the war was to get rid of the draft altogether. The system was dismantled in 1973.

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The draft returns, but so does protest

Jimmy Carter decided to resurrect conscription seven years later after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He decreed that all men born in 1960 or 1961 register at local post offices during a two-week period in the summer of 1980 — or face up to five years in prison. To encourage voluntary compliance, Selective Service paid $200,000 to a public relations firm to produce pro-registration commercials featuring such notables as the coach of the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team. Anti-draft groups countered with their own radio spots by Lily Tomlin and Martin Sheen. Those who showed up to register were greeted with rallies, demonstrations and sit-ins in dozens of cities. Some protesters removed the registration forms from post offices and destroyed them.

Brayton Harris, assistant director of Selective Service, admitted to a TV reporter that many men had registered as “Jimmy Carter” and some women registered as a protest. He claimed, however, that in 90 days the IRS would have tabulated data about those who had not registered, so that “we will go into high gear on enforcement.” As it turned out, only about 70 percent of the 1.5 million men required to register had done so voluntarily, leaving some 450,000 in violation of the law.

Realizing the impossibility of prosecuting nearly a half-million young men, the Department of Justice — according to an internal memo — decided that “an initial round of well-publicized, successful prosecutions … might well yield sufficient general deterrence so that the Selective Service System [could] maintain the credibility of the system.”

Edward Hasbrouck in front of the Federal courthouse in Boston before being sentenced for refusing to register for the draft in January 1983. (Hasbrouck.org/Ellen Shub)

The government’s “high gear on enforcement” failed miserably. Only 20 men were prosecuted, and that failed to deter the thousands who publicly refused to register and the hundreds of thousands who did so quietly.

One of those singled out for prosecution was Edward Hasbrouck, a nonregistrant who had been an outspoken organizer of the anti-draft campaign. An ambitious young federal attorney named Robert Mueller (yes, that Robert Mueller) represented the government. The case became a cause célèbre in New England with several demonstrations, including one where three people chained themselves to Boston’s federal courthouse doors to prevent the trial from proceeding. Mueller won the court case, but the judge suspended a six-month jail sentence and ordered Hasbrouck to do 1,000 hours of community service. (A year later, displeased that Hasbrouck was continuing his anti-draft organizing work, the judge reimposed the prison term.)

The Selective Service becomes a political sinecure

Selective Service then became a stealth system. Since not all men would voluntarily sign up nor be frightened into it, the agency enlisted other government agencies. Now about 50 percent of registrations occur when men get their state driver’s license (31 states require draft registration). Another 20 percent when they apply for a college loan. (Most student loans are backed by the federal or state governments.)

Much like other parts of the military-industrial complex and America’s forever wars, the Selective Service occupies a niche in the military apparatus that endures because nobody challenges it.

Penalties for not registering can be severe. Someone who has not registered by the age of 26 will be refused a job or job training with the federal government or with most state governments. Meanwhile, any noncitizen who fails to register before age 26 will be ineligible for citizenship.

Still, despite having spent more than $800 million over the last 35 years, the Selective Service admits that only about 90 percent comply with the law. So, every year about 200,000 men slip through the various Selective Service nets, and more than one million men could be prosecuted as felons. That does not count the numbers who have technically violated the law because they do not notify Selective Service every time they change their address — a requirement almost universally ignored.

Former Selective Service Director Bernard Rostker described the resulting situation with the commission last year, saying, “the current system of registration does not provide a comprehensive nor an accurate database upon which to implement conscription. It systematically lacks large segments of the eligible male population and for those that are included, the currency of information contained is questionable.” Indeed, Rostker concluded: “My bottom line is there is no need to continue to register people.”

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So, why does the Selective Service carry on despite its inability to perform its most basic functions? Bureaucratic inertia is part of the answer. Much like other parts of the military-industrial complex and America’s forever wars, the Selective Service occupies a little niche in the military apparatus that endures because nobody challenges it.

The agency also serves as a political sinecure. Its current director is Don Benton, whose main qualification for the job appears to be that he chaired Trump’s campaign in the Pacific Northwest. Trump originally appointed him to the Environmental Protection Agency, but he was pushed out after only two months because of his “bizarre” behavior and then put in charge of the Selective Service. His resume may receive even more scrutiny when Congress considers the commission’s proposal to register women. While a Washington state senator, he once told a female Republican senator that she was acting as a “trashy trampy-mouthed little girl.”

Shouldn’t we transform the draft into something useful?

Granted, the Selective Service may be badly flawed, but shouldn’t we keep the draft registration system just in case we need to fight another major war? That’s precisely how its supporters defend the agency. Its website quotes President Trump as saying: “Historically, the nation has maintained Selective Service registration to provide a hedge against the catastrophe not yet anticipated. Registration is a means to sustain preparedness.”

Prepared for what? Conscription’s supporters invariably bring up the specter of World War II, the “Good War,” when about 50 million men between the ages of 18 and 45 registered, 10 million were drafted, and another 6 million enlisted for military service. The vast majority of the public believes that war was righteous and that conscription was necessary to defeat fascism.

How likely is such a scenario in the contemporary world? Military technology — such as drones, artificial intelligence and long-range missiles — has changed the nature of modern warfare. These changes have eliminated the need for large numbers of lightly trained manpower, that is, conscripted cannon fodder.

If members of Congress look at conscription as something that might apply to themselves, they would undoubtedly support bills to abolish the antiquated and ineffective Military Selective Service System.

Consider the past half century. The United States has engaged in numerous conflicts without the draft: In 1991 the government quickly assembled more than 540,000 troops to fight the Gulf War. For the so-called War on Terror, there was at one point 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 150,000 in Iraq, and much smaller numbers deployed in Syria, Libya, Somalia, Niger, Chad, Mali and the Philippines.

What about military preparedness for a “catastrophe not yet anticipated”? According to retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and historian William Astore, the United States has what he calls a “potent quick-strike force” of roughly 250,000 troops of Special Operations forces and Marines. If you add to that total, the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne 10th Mountain Divisions, Astore insists that the United States has “more than enough military power to provide for America’s actual national security.”

The Selective Service may not play a role in terms of national security, but it does perpetuate the war machine’s grip on American consciousness. It’s one of those subtle ways the military has become an accepted backdrop of our society. Aside from those unlucky ones who are denied jobs or college loans, the rest of us rarely get reminded that the draft is lurking behind the scenes. An exception took place earlier this year after the president ordered the assassination of a senior Iranian official and threatened to go to war with Iran. The next day the Selective Service’s website crashed because of the deluge of anxious men checking whether they were about to be drafted.

Ending conscription once and for all

When Congress begins to debate the commission’s recommendation, we can expect to hear arguments favoring conscription that are unrelated to military preparedness. Some will contend that the draft would enforce a kind of social egalitarianism and point nostalgically to the experiences of draftees in the past.

Essayist Joseph Epstein, who was drafted in the late 1950s, claimed that “Under the draft, the American social fabric would change — and, judging from my experience, for the better.” He recalled: “I slept in barracks and shared all my meals with American Indians, African Americans from Detroit, white Appalachians, Christian Scientists from Kansas, and discovered myself befriending and being befriended by young men I would not otherwise have met. I have never felt more American than when I was in the Army.”

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That may be a powerful argument, but other draftees had much less rosy recollections of military life — the enforced regimentation, the petty rules, the training to kill and maim. And Epstein doesn’t consider the “selective” part of Selective Service. Any resumption of the draft would only impact a small percentage of the population as the military simply doesn’t need millions of warm bodies. The Armed Forces have set the bar so high that 70 percent of all volunteers fail to pass the physical exam.

What about national service? After all, the country desperately needs work done on its infrastructure, work to develop renewable energy sources, improve educational opportunities and health care. Why not greatly expand Americorps and the Peace Corps or other agencies with “draftees”?

What about the current pandemic? “Why isn’t compulsory service on the menu of policy options right now?” Charli Carpenter, a professor at UMass-Amherst, conjectured in a recent op-ed. “Imagine that the Selective Service called up members of the age group least vulnerable to a severe course of — let alone death from — COVID-19 and drafted them not to join the military but to perform paid civilian service.” She suggested that her 18-year-old son Liam would be perfect for such service.

National service is a laudable idea, and the commission made dozens of valuable recommendations in this regard. But many who advocate for national service insist that it be made compulsory. And why just young men or just young men and women? Virtually everyone in any age group can make useful contributions to society, even septuagenarians like myself. After all, almost half of all U.S. senators (48) are older than 65, as are 147 U.S. representatives and 15 governors. The current president is 73.

Yet you never hear someone recommend compulsory military or national service for people in their own age group. Or demand that middle-aged and older people be required to register with a government agency and be available to spend two years of their lives in the military or voluntary service opportunities under penalty of five years in jail and/or a fine of $250,000.

It’s certainly no surprise that a national survey found that only 38 percent of women vs. 61 percent of men favor the commission’s recommendation that females be registered. If members of Congress look at conscription as something that might apply to themselves, they would undoubtedly support bills to abolish the antiquated and ineffective Military Selective Service System. If they don’t get rid of the agency, it will be up to nonviolent resisters to find creative ways to put an end to conscription once and for all.

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