The last military draft in the United States (U.S.) was during the Vietnam War and resulted in protests that helped engender anti-war sentiment. Though the government has not required military service since then, all men currently living in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 25 must register with the Selective Service System so that the government will have an idea of the population available in case the need for a draft in the future should arise.
The first modern military draft or conscription took place in France in 1793; leaders of the new French Republic felt that required military service would turn peasants into patriots. Other European nations followed the lead of France during the 19th century. In the United States, the first military draft occurred during the Civil War of 1861-1865. The Confederate Congress passed a conscription law in April of 1862, and the U.S. Congress followed suit in 1863. Citizens of the Confederacy and of the United States disliked the draft in part because it favored the wealthy who could pay substitutes. Riots ensued in the U.S., for instance, in New York City in 1863. After the end of the Civil War, the U.S. did not have another draft until World War I in 1917.
The Draft During the Major World Wars
President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating the Selective Service System in May 1917. During World I, the government permitted deferments for those who were needed at home to support their family or worked in agriculture or industries necessary for the prosecution of the war. The draft returned to the U.S. during World War II. After Germany defeated France in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill instituting a peacetime draft. This draft was extended when the U.S. entered the war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor late in 1941. The draft during World War II was the largest ever in the U.S. with 10.1 million men drafted.
The Draft During the Vietnam War
Although the draft ended in 1946 after the end of the Second World War, Congress passed another Selective Service Act in 1948 as the Cold War emerged. As in the two world wars that preceded it, the United States employed the draft during the Korean War between 1951 and 1953. Conscription during the Korean War did not inspire the same angry, passionate protests that the draft during the Vietnam War did. The Vietnam War began in earnest in 1965 when the U.S. Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving President Lyndon B. Johnson the power to use force in Vietnam. In 1969 the first draft lottery was held. A day and month was recorded on blue plastic capsules; representatives of the Selective Service System drew the capsules at random from a large container. Each birth date was given a number based on the order in which they were chosen. Men born on a particular day and month between the years 1944 and 1950 were drafted according to the number assigned to their birthday.
The Vietnam War draft came at a time when a number of American youth were involved in protests over civil rights. The Vietnam War was not popular with these young Americans who also questioned whether communism was as evil as it had been portrayed by teachers, politicians and parents. The result was anti-war protests that included young men burning the draft cards that were proof of their registration for the draft. Congress responded by outlawing the destruction of draft cards, a law that was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 1968 decision.
Anti-war protesters during the Vietnam era brought attention to the disparities of the draft. White, wealthy men were more likely to receive college deferments since they could afford college tuition. They also could convince family doctors to write a letter to the draft board, urging a medical exemption. The poor, on the other hand, had to rely on Army doctors to grant them a medical exemption. African Americans were also overrepresented among draftees. The attention that anti-war protesters brought to these inequalities led Congress to make changes to the draft in 1971. Draft boards had to be representative of their communities, and deferments for students were curtailed. The draft ended in 1973 with the Selective Service Act expiring two years later. The Carter administration revived the Selective Service Act in 1980 after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, reawakening Cold War fears. American men have been required ever since to register with the Selective Service upon reaching the age of 18. However, due to the efforts of anti-Vietnam protesters, any future military draft in the U.S. is likely to be fairer to minority and economically disadvantaged Americans who historically have tended to bear the burden of conscription.
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