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Facing the Draft Lottery During the Vietnam War

By Noah Frank

Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) draws the first number of the Vietnam draft lottery. Courtesy Selective Service

On the night of December 1, 1969, hundreds of thousands of young men across the country anxiously held their breath. For the first time in over twenty-seven years, a national draft lottery was being held.[1] Congressman Alexander Pirnie, ranking Republican of the House Armed Services Committee, drew the first number. “September 14th… September 14th is 001.” Pirnie had selected one of 366 capsules from a large bowl. Each capsule contained a day of the year (including leap years), and was pulled at random and given a corresponding number. [2] Those with birthdays corresponding with low numbers were faced with the imminent prospect of being drafted into the army and sent overseas to fight in Vietnam. For Joel Frank, the specter of the draft loomed large. “I was very worried. I did not want to be drafted.” [3] Though Joel didn’t face the immediate possibility of being drafted that night in December 1969, it was a distinct possibility on the horizon that couldn’t be ignored.

During the era of the Vietnam War, roughly 26.8 million men between the ages of 18 and 26 were eligible for the draft lottery. Of these, around 8.7 million eventually wound up serving overseas in Vietnam. [4] Prior to the implementation of the lottery system, the draft had operated under the principle that the oldest eligible men were drafted first. [5] President Nixon hoped that the draft lottery would reduce anti-war sentiment on college campuses around the country, by making those with higher lottery numbers feel less immediately threatened and creating a sense of “randomized fairness.” A key feature of the draft lottery was that each age group was only at risk for a single year. [6] Despite Nixon’s hopes, many resented the draft and saw it as unfair. [7] A key feature of the draft lottery was that each age group was only at risk for a single year. [8] Men eligible for the draft would have their lottery number called the year before they turned 20. Those with lower numbers would be ordered to report for physical exams as part of pre-screening. Those fit for service were given the classification 1-A. [9] Even with these measures attempting to create an image of “fairness” associated with the draft, there were still 570,000 draft offenders and 563,000 less-than-honorable discharges from the military during the Vietnam War Era. [10]

An example of the capsules containing dates throughout the calendar year that would be drawn at random and paired with a draft lottery number. Courtesy Selective Service

Historian Michael S. Foley notes that young men confronting the possibility of being drafted essentially faced the three choices of fighting in a war many of them considered futile and immoral, going to jail, or finding a way avoid both the war and jail. These decisions arguably inspired cynicism and weakened American’s faith in their government. [11] While historian H.W Brands in his book American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, makes much of how many young men protested the war, sometimes violently, most young men facing the draft lottery confronted their fate in ways far less dramatic. [12] Depending on their socio-economic status, young men facing the draft lottery had a variety of options. As Natalie M. Rosinsky writes in her book The Draft Lottery that “men studying to be ministers, priests or rabbis could be exempted from service.” [13] Men could also join the National Guard to substitute their military service, an avenue future presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both took. Some men tried, usually without success, to qualify as conscientious objectors and avoid service altogether. [14] The draft lottery also faced criticisms from those who said it favored the middle and upper classes, by offering deferments for those seeking college degrees. Men from working class families often could not afford college, and so this possibility was closed off to them. [15] Young men who managed to stay in college were able to delay their risk of being drafted through most of the years of the draft lottery. [16] For many men from working-class families, the draft lottery must have hardly seemed random.

Joel Frank, however, grew up in a middle-class family in Brooklyn, New York City. [17] Asked whether people he knew were concerned about being drafted, Joel recalls that “most of my friends were concerned. Living in a middle-class neighborhood. Most [sic] guys I knew where [sic] going to college and expecting to get student deferments.” [18] Joel also decided to enroll in college. On his college experience, Joel stated “I was commuting to college, but eventually I dropped out. When I was 19 I moved to upstate New York and enrolled in Ulster County Community College to renew my student deferment, but I soon dropped out there as well. Schools were slow to inform the government that students had dropped out in order to prolong their deferments, and I re-enrolled in the fall when I was 20, though I would drop out again not long after I got another deferment.” [19] Joel’s draft lottery occurred mid-year in 1971, and he recalls his draft number being 187, though he initially thought it might be 179. [20] The ceiling number for Joel’s lottery group was 95. [21] Joel remembered that his high lottery number for that year “made it less likely for me to be drafted.” [22] An article from 1971 appearing in the New York Times would seem to confirm Joel’s memory. The article declared that men born in 1952 (like Joel, who were 19 that year, and facing the lottery for next year’s draft) were safe from the draft, and that those with low numbers would only be drafted in the event of a national emergency. [23] In June 1971, the rate of induction for draftees had slowed to a trickle. [24] Though Joel may not have realized it immediately, he was essentially safe from the draft lottery from this point forward.

Joel’s story with the draft lottery, and the story of countless other men from the period who faced the draft, seem to contradict Brands’ narrative in his book American Dreams. In discussing how young people viewed the war, Brands spends several pages focusing on the SDS movement and its violent off-shoot known as the Weathermen. Brands writes “The Weathermen and similar groups espoused violence in America as a way to end the violence in Vietnam, and members bombed college ROTC buildings, draft board headquarters, army induction facilities, and research laboratories conducting defense-related work.” [25] Brands also makes a tacit acknowledgement that most protest of the war was peaceful, but still misses the larger picture. [26] In focusing his narrative on dramatic storytelling, Brands arguable misses out on the less dramatic, yet no less compelling story of the vast majority of young men facing the draft lottery. Most men did not burn their draft cards or sympathize with the views of groups like the Weathermen. The majority of young men seem to have been ambivalent or opposed to the war, but to primarily be focused on simply finding a way to stay out of it. Joel Frank’s story reflects this more common narrative, which Brands neglects in his discussion of the period.

[1] Abney, Wes. 2009. “Live from Washington, It’s Lottery Night 1969!” HistoryNet, November 25, 2009. http://www.historynet.com/live-from-dc-its-lottery-night-1969.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Interview with Joel Frank via email, December 7, 2017.

[4] Maxwell, Donald W. “Young Americans and the Draft.” Courtesy of JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25162083.pdf

[5] Abney, Wes. 2009. “Live from Washington, It’s Lottery Night 1969!” HistoryNet, November 25, 2009. http://www.historynet.com/live-from-dc-its-lottery-night-1969.htm

[6] Card, David, and Thomas Lemieux. “Going to College to Avoid the Draft: The Unintended Legacy of the Vietnam War.” Courtesy of JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2677740.pdf

[7] Abney, Wes. 2009. “Live from Washington, It’s Lottery Night 1969!” HistoryNet, November 25, 2009. http://www.historynet.com/live-from-dc-its-lottery-night-1969.htm

[8] Card, David, and Thomas Lemieux. “Going to College to Avoid the Draft: The Unintended Legacy of the Vietnam War.” Courtesy of JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2677740.pdf

[9] Abney, Wes. 2009. “Live from Washington, It’s Lottery Night 1969!” HistoryNet, November 25, 2009. http://www.historynet.com/live-from-dc-its-lottery-night-1969.htm

[10] Maxwell, Donald W. “Young Americans and the Draft.” Courtesy of JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25162083.pdf
[11] Ibid.

[12] H.W Brands. American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 152-155, 170.

[13] Rosinsky, Natalie M. 2009. The Draft Lottery. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books. Google Books. 10.

[14] Ibid. 10-11

[15] Ibid. 13

[16] Card, David, and Thomas Lemieux. “Going to College to Avoid the Draft: The Unintended Legacy of the Vietnam War.” Courtesy of JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2677740.pdf

[17] Interview with Joel Frank via phone, November 12, 2017.

[18] Interview with Joel Frank via email, December 7, 2017.

[19] Interview with Joel Frank via phone, November 12, 2017.

[20] Interview with Joel Frank via email, December 7, 2017.

[21] Selective Service. “Vietnam Lotteries.” https://www.sss.gov/About/History-And-Records/lotter1

[22] Interview with Joel Frank via phone, November 12, 2017.

[23] Rosenbaum, David E. “Men With Numbers Over 125 Safe From Draft in 1971.” The New York Times. October 6, 1971. http://www.nytimes.com/1971/10/06/archives/men-with-numbers-over-125-safe-from-draft-in-1971.html?_r=0

[24] Card, David, and Thomas Lemieux. “Going to College to Avoid the Draft: The Unintended Legacy of the Vietnam War.” Courtesy of JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2677740.pdf

[25] H.W Brands. American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 154.

[26] Ibid. 154.

NOTE: This transcript is reconstructed from detailed notes taking during a phone conversation with the interview subject on November 12, 2017.

Joel Frank is the father of the author, and was a some-time college student of prime drafting age from Brooklyn, NY in the years immediately after the height of the war in 1968 with the Tet Offensive.  

Q.  What do you remember of the Tet Offensive? Were you surprised?

A. It was on the news a lot. Every night there would be news from Vietnam on the TV. At the time of the Tet Offensive (January 1968) I was a sophomore in high school, but I would turn 18 in June of 1970. I was certainly worried, but I primarily remember domestic events that were happening around the same time as the Tet Offensive, particularly around the issue of civil rights with riots of the previous two years in Newark and Detroit. I went to an all-boys high school, and all the talk of the issues of the day filtered down to us. We even pulled off our own small protest, walking out of class to demand that we be allowed to wear blue jeans, which we felt was a big deal at the time. My older sister was more involved in issues of civil rights at the time, but it was something I became concerned about and the issue gradually gained traction at my school.

Q. Were you concerned about the prospect of being drafted?

A. Not when I was a sophomore in high school, though I was against the war. I was definitely not worried in 1970 when I turned 18, because even though I didn’t have the best grades in high school I managed to get into York College and get a student deferment. If it weren’t for that though, I most likely would have been drafted that year. 1968 and 1969 had seen some of the largest number of draftees into the war. The draft worked on a lottery system, and I had a high number, possibly 179, which made it less likely for me to be drafted. They would use a bingo-type machine to choose draft numbers. I was commuting from home to college, but eventually I dropped out. When I was 19 I moved to upstate New York and enrolled in Ulster County Community College to renew my student deferment, but I soon dropped out there as well. Schools were slow to inform the government that students had dropped out in order to prolong their deferments, and I re-enrolled in the fall when I was 20, though I would drop out again not long after I got another deferment. The draft was polarizing the country, with half the country thinking those who tried to avoid the draft were cowards and the other half thinking they were standing up for their rights. Some people were burning their draft cards and heading across the border to Canada.

Q. What was your opinion of LBJ before the war? How did it change?

A. LBJ became president in 1963 after JFK was killed, and I didn’t know much about him [LBJ] then. I was very young at that time, but I remember I was very sad when JFK died. My family had visited Washington, D.C in the summer of 1963, I remember keeping a postcard with JFK on it. This was also around the time I first became aware of politics. I remember that the death of Kennedy had an intense effect. At first, LBJ focused on civil rights, which I hadn’t been fully aware of [as a child] but supported once I became more aware in high school in 1966. My sister’s involvement with civil rights issues also had an effect on me. As I got older and became more worried about being drafted, I started not to like LBJ so much. The war was always in the news, and there were a lot of bad feelings surrounding it in 1967-68. I remember they announced in 1971 that men born in 1952 wouldn’t be drafted that year, which was a temporary relief due to the high draft number I received. After LBJ announced he wouldn’t run for reelection I supported Humphrey as I had never liked Nixon. I thought Nixon was vague and remembered watching JFK debate Nixon on TV and not liking him even then. By 1968 though, my opinion of LBJ was greatly diminished.

Q. H.W Brands, in his book American Dreams, describes how the assassinations of MLK, JFK, and RFK happening in such a short span of time, along with the Vietnam War, lead to a decline in American liberalism which helped elect Nixon. Do you agree?

A. I find that slightly odd. There was certainly great anger, especially after the deaths of MLK and RFK. I suppose it’s somewhat true, there were riots, and many people were scared. It seemed that a slow end to white dominance in society was occurring, and whites were polarized with some seeing no issue, while others were viciously opposed to their loss of influence. There was pushback which helped elect Nixon. There were also racial equality marches in D.C in the 70’s.

Q. What was your reaction to the 1968 DNC Convention protests in Chicago? Did you sympathize with them?

A. They were terrible, the police were very violent. The polarization the country was experiencing surrounding the war came to a head. There was fierce anger, which only grew in the wake of the assassinations. Different groups at the time had different agendas, the police were provoking the protesters into acts of violence and beating them up, and anti-government sentiment was growing with resistance to the war. There were also rumors that Nixon viewed himself as a king, that he wanted White House staff to have fancy uniforms and a “palace guard.” That was a general time of upheaval, and I also remember the black athletes in the Olympics of ’68 who held their fists up, similar to the NFL protests today. I also remember Kent State a few years later, where the anger over the war again came to a head with the shooting of several students protesting the war. Some people in the country viewed the protestors in Chicago and elsewhere as traitors, and others agreed with them that the war was wrong.

Q. How did you react when Nixon won the 1968 election?

A. I was not happy. I was about 16 at the time. There were so many crazy things happening at the time, with riots, and the events in Chicago, that the election felt like just another thing. Many people were disturbed by all that was happening, and people rallied around protests related to the war and civil rights. There were also conspiracy theories floating around. People were worried that the FBI was spying on them, that they kept files on people and tapped their phones. There were also infiltrators in movements like the Black Power movement in which Malcolm X had been a prominent figure. He had been assassinated himself only a few years earlier.

Q. Do you remember Nixon’s phased ending of the war through “Vietnamization,” and the invasion of Cambodia? How did you react at the time?

A. Nixon had been waging a secret war in Cambodia. I remember during high school in June of 1970 things were all “helter skelter” just like in the then recent Beatles song. Many different things were visible in the media, from issues relating to civil rights to rumors of soldiers “fragging” [killing] incompetent or poorly trained officers to avoid getting killed pointlessly themselves.

Q. Were you relieved when the war ended?

A. Yes. I had been living with a fear of the possibility of my going to war. There were mixed feelings in the country generally, with people talking about whether or not the U.S had been defeated. For most, losing the war had a negative effect on their self-image of the country. Not long after the war, President Ford granted a mass pardon to those who had burned their draft cards and fled to Canada.

Q. How did you feel when South Vietnam fell a view years later? Did you sense a “Vietnam Syndrome?”

A. A little. I remember there were “boat people,” thousands of South Vietnamese refugees trying to get out of the country before it fell under communist control. There was some debate at the time over letting them into the U.S, but ultimately there was a fear that U.S-Vietnam babies (babies with a GI father and a Vietnamese mother), who were ostracized in their society, would be killed once the North took over, so many were let into the U.S. In general I was simply glad the war was over. It seemed that it had been a huge waste, with many Americans and Vietnamese dying for no reason. Nixon had campaigned on ending the war, which he eventually did, but half of all U.S soldiers to die in the war died under Nixon’s administration. Petty politics seemed to needlessly cost lives.

NOTE: This transcript is from an email interview conducted on December 7, 2017.

Q. What do you remember about registering for the draft when you turned eighteen?
A. I remember feeling very worried. I did not want to be drafted. For me this occurred in mid-1970.
I had spent the previous 5 years (1965-1970) “watching the war” on the nightly news broadcasts.

Q. What do you remember of how the draft lottery system worked? How much of the draft lottery
system did you personally experience?
A. I was in the third Vietnam war lottery. I was thankful for a relatively high number (187). This
occurred mid-year 1971 when I was 19.
Q. Do you remember ever appearing before a draft board?
A. I do not really remember, I may have to go when I turned 18to appear but did have to send in
documents occasionally.
Q. Were many people you knew at the time worried about being drafted? Were there a significant
number who were “draft-resistors,” or were most people simply trying to go about their daily life
while avoiding the draft?
A. Most of my friends were concerned. Living in a middle-class neighborhood. Most guys I knew
where going to college and expecting to get student deferments.

Q. What was the process for getting a student deferment?
A. College or University registrar had to send information about full time enrolment.

Q. Was getting a deferment a significant reason you went to college?
A. ABSOLUTLEY. I enrolled and dropped out of college 3 times when I was 18, 19 and 20 years
old. I would wait for my daft board to be notified that I was a full-time student, then drop out. It
seemed schools did not notify when I dropped out. So each fall I made sure I was registered.

Q. Did your draft-eligibility, or potential eligibility, strongly affect your views of the war?
A. Yes. I had an anti- Vietnam War sentiment and draft just helped to personalize that feeling.