The Draft

When the draft – or conscription – was initiated for the first time in 1863 there were large riots in New York City. Poor White people rioted because they were angry that wealthier individuals could literally buy their way out of the draft and because they feared that Black people, who were exempt, would take their jobs. Involuntary servitude, or forced service in the armed services has been instituted off and on since then depending upon the military’s need for conscripts.

There was some opposition to the draft even before major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began. Neither college students, who by definition were generally not poor nor people of color, were given exemptions from service so the poor and disadvantaged – who could not afford to go to college – were drafted at higher rates. Consequently, the poor and people of color were also were injured and killed at disproportionately higher rates.

Draft LotteryAside from the discriminatory nature of the draft, it channeled youth into college. More importantly it was seen as the means to conscript “cannon fodder.” Without the draft young people said, there could be no war. Therefore the draft became a lightning rod, attracting opposition and public demonstrations.

It is no surprise then that young people around the world, opposed to the war and objecting to the racism and channeling nature of the draft organized against it. At the same time, in America the draft forced each individual subject to it to scour their conscience. Cooperation with the draft by just carrying a draft card was seen as supporting the war.

Some conscientious objectors objected to the war based on the theory of Just War or religious beliefs but Resisters argued that it was the draft system and the war that needed to be changed. They argued that it was not acceptable for one person to be exempted on the basis of religious beliefs, but that the whole system was wrong and that one should not cooperate with it.

Against the backdrop of the war which came into every household in living color with the evening news, over 500,000 young men evaded the draft or refused cooperation.  Resistance became such an issue for the government that President Nixon tried to undermine it by changing the draft to a lottery. The first lottery was held December 1, 1969. By removing the universal threat of being drafted to a smaller percentage of enrollees, the draft resistance movement was diffused, but it had already won. The size and articulation of the domestic anti-war movement led by the Resistance forced an ending to the war.