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We the People: Registering for the Selective Service is not the same as having a draft

UPDATED: Sat., July 17, 2021

Draft Director Curtis W. Tarr spins one of the two Plexiglas drums in Washington as the fourth annual selective service lottery begins in 1972. The military has not drafted anyone into service in almost 50 years, but American men must still register when they turn 18.  (Charles W. Harrity)
Draft Director Curtis W. Tarr spins one of the two Plexiglas drums in Washington as the fourth annual selective service lottery begins in 1972. The military has not drafted anyone into service in almost 50 years, but American men must still register when they turn 18. (Charles W. Harrity)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Name one reason it is important for all men age 18 through 25 to register for the selective service.

The accepted answers for the question about selective service on the citizenship test are that it’s required by law, it’s a civic duty, or it would make the draft fair, if needed. While the first two are hard to argue, the last could generate some debate, based on the history of the draft.

The United States has an all-volunteer military and has not drafted anyone into armed forces for almost 50 years. But it still has a Selective Service System that requires men to register shortly after turning 18.

The possibility of using that system to reinstate a draft is sometimes suggested by people who believe it would spread military service or even broader national service more fairly over the nation’s racial, ethnic and economic levels.

But one of the main complaints about the draft before it was suspended in 1973 was that it fell disproportionately on the poor and minorities who weren’t able to take advantage of exemptions that helped the rich and middle class to avoid service.

“The draft has always been controversial,” said Amy Rutenberg, an associate professor of history at Iowa State University and the author of “Rough Draft: Cold War Military Manpower Policy and the Origins of Vietnam Era Draft Resistance.”

For most if its history, the United States hasn’t had a draft and relied on volunteers to fill its armed forces. In the beginning of the country, each state maintained its own militia and the federal army and navy were kept small. All white males, aged 18 to 45, were technically part of their state’s militia, although the requirement wasn’t always enforced and training was sometimes irregular, according to the official time line compiled by the Selective Service System.

Even after Congress declared war on Great Britain in 1812, it rejected a request by President James Madison to conscript men to fight the war, relying instead on volunteers and state militias to provide a fighting force.

There was a long-standing reluctance in America to have a standing army that could get too big and too powerful and take over the government, Rutenberg said.

In the Civil War, both sides started by calling on militias. The Confederate Congress instituted a draft in 1862 for all white men between the ages of 18 and 35 to serve up to three years. But it allowed the wealthy to hire substitutes and had a rule that allowed plantations with 20 or more slaves to exempt a person to “oversee” their work. Some owners divided their land, and their slaves, to have multiple exemptions.

The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1863 requiring able-bodied men between 20 and 45 to register for a draft, with names to be drawn to fill quotas in different cities, towns and counties. But a man could buy his way out of the draft for $300, or hire a replacement, so the draft would fall more heavily on the poor who couldn’t pay their way out of service. When the day came to draw names in New York City, riots broke out and resulted in four days of looting, burning and in some cases lynching of free Black people living in the city. Troops who had just fought at Gettysburg had to be called to the city to quell the riots.

In World War I, all men aged 21 to 30 – and later those 18 to 45 – were required to register for a draft that was again administered locally. Exemptions were available for some jobs, including farming and shipbuilding. Thousands applied for exemptions and hundreds of thousands refused to register.

In 1940, with war raging in Europe and Asia, Congress approved the Selective Service System, the nation’s first peacetime registration for all men between 21 and 35, administered by an independent agency. After Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered the war, the age limit for registration later expanded to between 18 and 64. Local draft boards made the decisions that filled quotas, with deferments given for agriculture and some industries. Over the next three years some 10 million men were inducted.

After World War II, the selective service law expired in 1947 but was re-established in 1949. It operated for the Korean War much as it had in World War II, with men between 18 and 26 required to register and local boards selecting men for induction. Students, fathers and some occupations could get deferments, and more than 1.5 million men were drafted.

The Selective Service System continued after the Korean War ended, but federal officials saw it as a tool of fighting the Cold War while lifting some groups out of poverty, Rutenberg said. To counter Soviet advances in science, the selective service “channeled” men into certain occupations in science, engineering and teaching by providing deferments for those jobs or attending college. That meant those exemptions largely went to middle- and upper-class men who could afford to go to college and earn a degree.

The federal government also developed programs to help men who were rejected for service because of reasons often connected to poverty, such as poor health or education, as a way to “lift them up” through military service.

When the Vietnam War escalated and the need for troops increased, middle-class men were more likely to be eligible for deferments, while working class and poor men often didn’t have the same options of college, a qualifying occupation or a record of medical care that would flag a reason for a medical deferment, Rutenberg said.

The poor and the working class were less likely to take advantage of “draft counselors” who helped some middle-class men seek deferments or claim conscientious objector status, she said.

The draft also was used as a way of inducing people to volunteer for military service, because by enlisting one had a greater choice of options for the branch and specialties one could request, although it usually meant serving a longer term. Draftees faced a two-year term, which wasn’t long enough for some specialties, often went to the Army, were trained as infantry, which meant they were more likely to be sent to combat in Vietnam.

Complaints about the inequity of the draft led to a change in the Selective Service System in 1969, with many student, fatherhood and occupational deferments phased out. Instead the system used a random sequence lottery which assigned a number to each birthdate for eligible men that year and those who turn 18 in the following years. Local boards used the numbers drawn in the lottery to order eligible men to report for a physical to determine whether they were acceptable to be drafted.

By 1971, however, the United States was drawing down troops in Vietnam and shifting responsibilities to the South Vietnamese forces. The last call for draftees was issued in December 1972 and the draft officially expired in July 1973. The nation switched to all-volunteer armed forces and the Selective Service System was put in “standby.”

There was no registration between 1975 and 1980, when the system was re-established and upgraded as a way of giving the country a way for rapid mobilization in an emergency. Young men must register within 30 days of turning 18.

From time to time, members of Congress have suggested the nation return to the draft, expanding the Selective Service System to include other types of public service as well as military service, although it has never received wide support.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that the fact only young men are required to register for selective service does not amount to unconstitutional sex discrimination. It deferred to Congress, which is studying whether to expand the draft to include women as well as men, something that could be part of an upcoming national defense bill.

Rutenberg said it’s hard to predict whether the nation would ever return to a military draft.

“It would take either a calamitous event of some kind, or at the very least the passing of the Vietnam generation,” she said. “For them, the fear of the draft remains very clear.”

Editor’s note: The lottery system for the draft was instituted in 1969. An earlier version of this story listed the wrong date.

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