The Selective Service Saga: Will the middle-class draft now include women?

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By J.D. Pendry:

In 1971 when I enlisted into the Army, the draft was alive and kicking but not well.  To many the idea of conscription into the service, possibly into the combat arms with a Vietnam tour was not appealing.  Those evading the draft had their reasons and methods legal and illegal.  They were against the war, they were conscientious objectors, they had medical issues feigned and real, they claimed homosexuality, and others often with influential connections to the local Selective Service Boards were able to finagle multiple legal draft deferments.  Others when called simply refused to report, burned their draft cards, or left the country.

Selective Service History

The Selective Service Act (40 Stat. 76) was passed by the Congress of the United States on 18 May 1917 creating the Selective Service System. The Act gave the President the power to draft men for military service.

The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was passed by the Congress of the United States on September 16, 1940, becoming the first peacetime conscription in United States history.

The original Act was allowed to expire in 1947 because it was thought that a sufficient number of volunteers would enlist for the nation’s defense. The number of volunteers was not enough, however, and a new draft act was passed in 1948. Between 1948 and 1967 several draft laws were enacted.

On March 25, 1975, Pres. Gerald Ford signed Proclamation 4360, Terminating Registration Procedures Under Military Selective Service Act, eliminating the registration requirement for all 18-25-year-old male citizens.

Then on July 2, 1980, Pres. Jimmy Carter signed Proclamation 4771, Registration Under the Military Selective Service Act, retroactively re-establishing the Selective Service registration requirement for all 18-26-year-old male citizens born on or after January 1, 1960.

So only men born between March 29, 1957, and December 31, 1959, were completely exempt from Selective Service registration.

“No government really rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose, a war which even possibly may be wrong, a war which, in any case, does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation.…  I am now, writing to you because you have been good to me and have a right to know what I think and feel. I am writing too in the hope that my telling this one story will help you to understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military…From Bill Clinton’s December 1969 letter to the University of Arkansas ROTC.

Clinton put into words what most draft resistors believed.  They were victims.  They were good.  The war was bad.  The government was bad.  When he needed it, ROTC was a draft deferment.  When he no longer needed it, admitting publicly to “loathing the military” was okay.  Notably and with a dash of irony, President Clinton informed Congress in 1994.  “maintaining the Selective Service System and the draft registration provides a hedge against unforeseen threats and a relatively low-cost “insurance policy” against our underestimating the maximum level of threat we expect out Armed Forces to face.”

“Up to 60 percent of men in the Vietnam generation took active measures to qualify for a deferment from the draft, while up to 90 percent of enlistments in the National Guard were draft-motivated by 1970.” The Atlantic, January 2, 2019

Another popular way to avoid the draft and Vietnam was to join a National Guard unit.  President Johnson did not want to deploy these units because he feared it would further erode public support for the war, although a few National Guard units ultimately went to Vietnam.  It was difficult to get into a Guard unit because they were full and remained so.  In 1971, my basic training company was predominately National Guard.  I still remember them having to qualify with M-14 rifles and complete riot control training.  As time went on, I learned, among a very few, I was a Regular Army ‘cruit along with some lawyers, athletes and other members of the upper crust.  Our Drill Sergeants, everyone a Vietnam Veteran, did not go easy on anyone.  Maybe the opposite was true.  Forty-eight years later, I still remember them.  Not the lawyers et.al, but my Drill Sergeants.

The draft became so contentious a lottery system was used to determine who was drafted.   Before that, men were drafted by age with the oldest first.  The lottery number for my birthday was 344.  The number selected for men born in 1952 was 88.  This meant anyone born that year with 88 or a lower lottery number was drafted.  I would not have been drafted.  In those days, the lottery, draft dodgers, and the anti-war business wasn’t on my scope.  While at the Military Entrance and Processing Station (MEPS), a point of conversations was, “what’s your lottery number?”  I had no clue.  Some whose number was up had instead enlisted for a specialty or station of choice that might keep them out of Vietnam.

In a speech before a Chicago Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention August 1974, President Gerald Ford announced he was ordering a review on the status of young men convicted, charged or sought for offenses “loosely described as deserting and draft-dodging.”  On September 16, 1974, Ford granted conditional amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers and military deserters.  Presidential Proclamation 4313 declared: “In furtherance of our national commitment to justice and mercy these young Americans should have the chance to contribute a share to the rebuilding of peace among ourselves and with all nations. They should be allowed the opportunity to earn return to their country, their communities, and their families, upon their agreement to a period of alternate service in the national interest, together with an acknowledgement of their allegiance to the country and its Constitution.”  To the hearts and minds of Vietnam Combat Veterans these were hollow words. On March 29, 1975, President Ford, whose son Steven had failed to register for the draft, issued Presidential Proclamation 4360 ending Selective Service Registration.

On January 21, 1977, his first day as President, Jimmy Carter issued Presidential Proclamation 4483 granting “full, complete and unconditional pardon” to all who may have committed or been convicted of any offences between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973 in violation of the Military Selective Service Act.  On July 2, 1980, President Carter signed Presidential Proclamation 4771 reinstituting Registration Under the Military Selective Service Act as one of his responses to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  Ironic isn’t it?  Pardoning draft evaders and deserters while looking if necessary, to draft more.

President Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter, promised to end Selective Service registration.  According to a Cato Policy Analysis of Draft Registration in a letter to Senator Mark O. Hatfield May 5, 1980 Reagan argued it would “do little to enhance our military preparedness” but could “actually decrease our military preparedness, by making people think we have solved our defense problems.”   Regan also added his belief that “draft registration destroys the very values that our society is committed to defending.”  In 1982, citing national security, President Reagan reversed his position and kept the Selective Service System.

I’ve had a few discussions with people despising President Trump for his Vietnam era draft deferments.  I tried to explain the times to them, but that blind hatred blurs their perception and the facts of life.  It’s a sad testament to our society, but our privileged have always managed to get their deferments.  This article appearing in The Atlantic, January 2, 2019 sums up the issue up perfectly: Trump is hardly unique. By the time Trump received his deferment, young men from privileged backgrounds had come to expect they would be able to avoid active-duty military service. His story says less about the president as an individual than about the choices America has made as a society about who should bear the burden of military service.”  I add a resounding AMEN!

In 1973, with the end of the draft, our Armed Forces became all-volunteer and remain so.

There have been draft evaders from every war and conflict.  Roosevelt dealt with it following WWI and Truman following WWII.  So where do we go from here?  There are important questions.  Do we need to keep Selective Service?  There are arguments in both directions.  The bigger question for me, having lived through the Vietnam Era is if we have a draft, who will show up?  America’s middle class will, that’s who.  Those who’ve always stepped up when called.

Now we have a new question.  Should women register for Selective Service and the draft?   It was a previously settled question per the Supreme Court decision, in Rostker v. Goldberg (1981).  The Court’s decision rested largely on this caveat: “Congress’ determination that any future draft would be characterized by a need for combat troops was sufficiently supported by testimony adduced at the hearings so that the courts are not free to make their own judgment on the question. And since women are excluded from combat service by statute or military policy, men and women are simply not similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft, and Congress’ decision to authorize the registration of only men, therefore, does not violate the Due Process Clause.”

Beginning January 2016, Defense Secretary Ash Carter of the Obama administration announced all military occupations and position will be open to women, without exception.

“They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat,” Carter added. “They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers, and everything else that was previously open only to men.”

On February 22, 2019, a US District Judge in Houston decided requiring male-only registration is unconstitutional.  This is not a question for the courts, rather one for Congress.  There have been arguments for women in direct combat roles since the Women’s Army Corps deactivated.  My opinion now is as it was during my service time.  Women should be able to serve in any capacity where they meet the physical and mental standards.  The pertinent question then becomes should they be compelled to serve in combat arms branches, or should it remain for them an option?  The supreme court decision concluded that since “women are excluded from combat service by statute or military policy”, they are not in a similar circumstance as men who can be compelled to combat service therefore, they do not meet the purposes of a draft and should not have to register for a draft.  Since January 2016, they are no longer excluded by statute or policy from combat service.

My opinion remains unchanged.  Women should be allowed into any military specialty where they can meet the physical and mental standards.  The standards should never be gender-normed because biological differences in muscle mass and sheer strength do not change with an artificial standard.  Have you observed recently the trans-gender boys competing with and easily defeating the girls in high school athletics?  Should women be allowed into combat arms?  Yes, some have completed the training.  Should they be forced into combat arms through a military draft?  No, because most of them can’t do it.  There are many men who cannot meet the standards and are reclassified into less demanding specialties.  If as a matter of national security, we are to conscript people into service to build combat forces it should be to build Soldiers not provide cannon fodder.

The Obama administration opened this Pandora’s box by allowing women into all combat arms specialties in all services.  The Texas judge has put the matter back into the courts but is has no business there.  It is time for the Congress to perform its Constitutional duty by settling the issue with legislation.  It is time to end social engineering of the military.

© Copyright by J.D. Pendry, 2019. All rights reserved.

Email J.D.: jd@jdpendry.com

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J.D. Pendry
About J.D. Pendry 17 Articles
J.D. hails from the Southern West Virginia coal field communities. In 1971, while living in Chicago, he enlisted into the United States Army retiring September 30, 1999, as the Garrison Command Sergeant Major for the Fort Myer Military Community, which included Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia and Fort McNair in Washington, DC. Assignments included three tours in Germany and two in South Korea. Following Army service, he worked for the Veteran’s Benefits Administration where he served as a Decision Review Officer until retiring June 2016. In April 1999, his book, The Three-Meter Zone, was released by Presidio Press. He has published articles in professional military journals and other websites and continues writing for J. D. Pendry’s American Journal.

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