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The Last Years: Vietnam and the Draft


I.      Introduction

In High School, in the days when my friends and I had to wait for our parents to pick us up from movies, I stood outside a theatre with Nick. He was nervous. He looked afraid. I knew something was wrong.

“Nick, what’s up, man?”

Nick shook his head and focused on the concrete. He tugged on his jacket and took a deep breath.

“I’m going to die, Justin, that’s what’s up. My grades are shit and the military is going to send me to the Middle East. I’m going to get shot in the back of the head in some desert. My life is over.”

I stared at him. I had no clue what he was talking about. Sure, it was 2002, so the World Trade Center was on all our minds, but he wasn’t a soldier. How could the military force him to fight? If he didn’t want to go, he didn’t have to, right?

After my parents picked me up, I told them about this conversation. They smiled, but I could tell they were worried. They tried to assure me that Nick was overexaggerating and that there would not be a draft.  A draft? Like in football? I was nearly sixteen, almost able to drive and I was completely unaware that in a time of war, I could be drafted into the military.

Later that night, my Dad sat with me and we talked about the draft. He explained that I would have to register when I turned eighteen. It was the law. He told me that my uncle, his brother, Russ was drafted during the Vietnam War. My Grandfather fought in North Africa during World War II. My Dad did not want me to go to war, but he made me aware that I might not have a choice.

When I reached 18, I registered. I watched friends and classmates enlist. I went to college. I was never forced to serve, but I can’t help but think, what if? What if George W. Bush would have sent me to war? Would I have gone? Would I have resisted? Russ, my uncle, was faced with this dilemma. He went. He served, but I don’t know what I would have done. Could I kill? Could I dodge?

During the Vietnam War, thousands of men who were eligible for the draft refused to be inducted into the military and joined the anti-war movement. Between 1965-1972, more than 4,000 young men were imprisoned for draft law violations.[1] In July 1966, in a Gallup poll, only 43 percent of those who asked said the draft was fair while 38 percent said it was unfair.[2] Despite the growing anger over conscription and the war, the United States drafted troops into the military from 1964 until 1973.

II.      Thesis:

Draft protests fueled anti-war sentiments at home and helped pull the United States out of Vietnam.  During the last years of the Vietnam War, the conviction rates of draft resisters, dodgers, and conscientious objectors plummeted. The military struggled to induct troops. Protests erupted in the streets. By 1973, the draft was over. Two years later, Saigon fell to Communist forces. The war was dead, and resistance to the draft helped kill it. 

Protests alone did not pull the United States out of Vietnam, but the draft was a popular reason why Americans opposed the war. Americans were angry. Parents, siblings, relatives, and friends were tired of the carnage. Tens of thousands of young men came home from faraway Asia in body bags. Many of them didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Young men who didn’t want to be soldiers died because they were forced into battle. The American public wanted the draft and the war to end.

Judges and lawyers had their own feelings about the war. As the conflict dragged on, support for the war faded. Draft offenders avoided war and jail. Prosecutors dropped cases. Conviction rates fell. By 1973, the year Nixon stopped the draft, the war in Vietnam was also near its end.

[1] Brock, Peter. 2004. “These Strange Criminals”: An Anthology of Prison Memoirs by Conscientious Objectors from the Great War to the Cold War. Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press. Pg. 407.

[2] Flynn, George Q. 1985. Lewis B. Hersey: Mr. Selective Service. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Pg. 241.

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