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When the military draft was initiated for the first time in 1863 during the Civil War there were large riots in New York City. Poor White people rioted, angry that wealthier individuals could literally buy their way out of the draft, and fearful that Black people, who were exempt, would take their jobs.

Jumping ahead 100 years, there was some opposition to the draft even before major U.S. involvement in Vietnam began, again because of the lack of fairness and because of its purpose in enabling the war. College and graduate students who, almost by definition, were neither poor nor people of color, were given draft exemptions. However, poor and disadvantaged men not in college were drafted at higher rates and were consequently injured and killed at higher rates.

Aside from the discriminatory nature of the draft, it deliberately channeled young men into occupations supportive of the status quo, particularly by exempting men for college and graduate studies. The draft came to be seen as the means to conscript “cannon fodder;” it made sure that young men were available to fight wars initiated by their elders. Resisters believed that without the draft, there would be no war. Consequently, the draft became a contentious lightning rod and a point of vulnerability in the war effort, and so it became an ongoing focus for political action.

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

Some who filed for conscientious objector status opposed the war in Vietnam based on their belief in the theory of a “Just War” or because of their religious beliefs against killing. Members of The Resistance argued that it was the draft system itself, and the war it enabled, that needed to be stopped. They believed that it was not acceptable for some to be exempted while others were not; the whole system was wrong and moral individuals should not cooperate with it.


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