Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1967, a group of students gathered at the Sheep Meadow in Central Park to burn their draft cards. More than 150 cards were set alight that day, the largest such protest to that point in the Vietnam War. The year before, Selective Service had hit 382,000 inductions, the highest levels yet in the war, through a system that gave local draft boards great leeway in determining just who would be called for duty. Although the young protesters may have been the most vocal in their dissatisfaction with the draft, opinion polling from the time shows that the public overall had grave concerns about how the draft was implemented.
Vietnam Changed Everything
The general public seemed satisfied with the draft system in polls before Vietnam. During World War II, the majority of Americans believed that the draft was working fairly in their communities, with more than eight in ten saying so in Gallup polls throughout the war. A 1953 Gallup poll found 60% thought the draft was handled fairly in their communities, with 29% expressing no opinion. But less than half of the country thought that the draft system was working fairly in polls from 1965 to 1968.
Many criticisms were lodged against the draft system during this period, from disproportionate selection of poor and black men to unfair educational exemptions to the questionable necessity of the uncertainty young men lived with throughout their eligible years. Without comprehensive polling data, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the most important reason for lower support during this period, but polls did include some questions that indicated likely elements at play.
One issue was the system for deferments for college students. A 1966 poll from Louis Harris showed 46% of Americans thought the current draft system as it related to college students was unfair; only 44% thought it was fair. Unfortunately, the question described both the availability of deferral and the limitations on those deferrals, and there is no way of knowing which the respondents considered to be unfair. The polling record also does not give information about how many white Americans saw racial discrimination in the draft. The question was not put to the general public, though it was asked in a 1969 Gallup poll of black Americans. A plurality of 47% said “the present draft laws are unfair to Negroes”, while only 32% said they were fair. Twenty-two percent were not sure.
The polls do show clearly that the public believed not everyone fulfilled their service appropriately. A full 78% of the public believed that there was or some or a lot of draft-dodging going on. The public didn’t just see draft evasion as a question of young men going to jail or to Canada to avoid the military. Majorities believed that athletes and celebrities got deferments and that the rich could buy their way out of the draft.
The draft system itself, with its locus of control in local draft boards, was designed in such a way that some of these abuses perceived by the public may have been inevitable. But that didn’t mean people were ready to move to a more impartial lottery system. Gallup and Harris polls during those years showed a range of support for a shift to a lottery, with the highest levels of support (39%) shown in a June 1967 poll, and the lowest (25%) in August 1966. Support never reached majority levels.
Nonetheless, on December 1, 1969, the first lottery was held to determine draft priority. Men born between 1944 and 1950 were assigned numbers that indicated the order of induction, thereby eliminating some of the uncertainty that men of eligible age had experienced to that point.
Be All That You Can Be
President Richard Nixon wanted to go further than changing the draft system. He wanted to eliminate the draft and move to an all-volunteer army. Early in his presidency, Nixon requested the establishment of a commission to study the feasibility and desirability of such a plan. The Gates Commission presented their report on February 21st, 1970, drawing heavily on the ideas of Milton Friedman to argue that an all-volunteer army would foster competition, building a better, stronger army while maintaining individual liberty. Although the last conscripted soldier was drafted in 1972, the military had already taken steps toward building an all-volunteer service, increasing pay and advertising for recruits. Draft registrations were suspended in 1975.
In July 1980, Carter reinstated the requirement that young men register with Selective Service, a move that was supported by 64% in a Cambridge Reports/Research International poll at the time. Majorities in polls in 1980 and 1981 favored reinstatement of the draft. A 1980 ABC News/Louis Harris poll showed that the public did not share Friedman’s belief in the effect of bringing market forces to bear on military recruitment. Rather, 57% agreed with the statement “the young people the military has recruited on a voluntary basis mainly have been those who couldn’t get jobs elsewhere and have not made very good soldiers.” The public may have been skeptical about an all-volunteer military, but they still believed the way the draft had been administered in the last war had been unfair. In a 1980 ABC News/Louis Harris poll, 69% of likely voters agreed with the statement “the draft worked very unfairly during the Vietnam War, with college students and the sons of the rich figuring out how to avoid the draft.”
Over time, the public has come to accept the all-volunteer army as the norm. Support for the draft dropped off dramatically over the early eighties and has not reached majority support since. Results from questions about reinstatement from the last fifteen years stand in stark contrast to similar questions from the early eighties.
Some support for a return to the draft appeared during the first Gulf War. An August 1990 Gallup poll found 40% of the country supporting the reinstatement of the draft to provide soldiers for the conflict in the Middle East. But no such effect was seen during the Iraq War, when less than a quarter of the country favored reinstatement of the draft. Overall support for the draft has remained very low since the turn of the millennium. In the most recent poll on the subject, from CNN/ORC in February 2017, just 20% said they supported a return to the military draft.
Kathleen Weldon is Director of Data Operations and Communications at the Roper Center. She manages data provider relations, oversees the data curation process, plans archival development, and works closely with the IT development team in building new user tools.