It was 38 years ago today that the draft ended and it hasn't come back,
but its shadow looms across the American bad memory landscape, only
dying out as my generation passes on and the baby boomers lose their
boom. Why did it end, why did it start, and why isn't it back, since we
are in a couple of wars now with more threatening?
The draft ended because civil society had grown to despise it. When the
citizenry finally comes to despise something, elected officials
eventually get it and act, often because enough of the unresponsive ones
are defeated in elections. The rest begin to understand that a shift in
public attitude makes it adaptive for them to shift too. The US history
of the draft--and the resistance to it--is complicated and shocking in
The draft during the Civil War was a lightning rod issue for both class
and race and the parties were not what we might assume from our notions
of what parties stand for today in the minds of many.
Democrats were "antiwar," but like so many who call themselves antiwar,
they were anti this war, not pacifists at all. Indeed, in the early
1860s they often referred to the war of secession as the "
." They stoked the fears of poor whites, warning that if Lincoln, that
meddlesome Republican, managed to free the slaves, the north would be
flooded with free blacks who would take all the factory jobs and all the
unskilled or low-skilled work, replacing the immigrants from Ireland and
elsewhere. When Lincoln pushed through a stronger draft law, poor whites
rioted in New York City in what were really race riots but which are
known as draft riots. Eleven black men were lynched during the five days
of rioting, starting on the Monday morning, 13 July 1863, after the
draft lottery began.
Huge crowds of white men beat blacks, white owners of businesses that
served the black community, abolitionists, black women and they even
burned the black orphanage, though they did permit the 233 children to
escape. Fear of job loss fanned by inflammatory rhetoric and the most
uncivil public dialog produced a chapter so ugly in the history of New
York and America that it is not a big feature in most school history
texts. It should be.
America had accepted the draft after Pearl Harbor, even though the
threats from Nazi Germany had allowed Congress to pass the
Selective Training and Service Act of 1940
, the first peacetime draft in US history.
and some other nonviolent men from the Union Theological Seminary openly
resisted that, refused to register, and were sent to prison.
In a complete reversal of the racist draft riots of 1863, the World War
II pacifists who served prison time organized against segregation in the
prisons and succeeded in changing federal prison policy, achieving
desegregation in some prisons before it would be achieved 15-20 years
later in "free" society around those prisons in the South.
Draft resistance in Vietnam was sketchy at first and pandemic near the
end. January 27 is a satisfying date to recall that end to involuntary
servitude. The resistance to that draft in that war was
and ranged from the stupidest (which, as a boy of 17 in 1968, I almost
did, until I finally came in contact with the draft resistance
movement), which was to enlist in one branch of the armed forces in
order to avoid going to Vietnam, to the most principled, which was to
publicly burn one's draft card and head off to prison. There were many
shades of response, from the Bill Clinton model (stay in school long
enough to remain exempt from the fighting) to the Ben Spock/Dave
Dellinger model (even if you are not of draft age, you commit nonviolent
civil resistance to it and risk imprisonment) and everything in between.
By the time it finally ended, US civil society opposed it and the
generals and politicians learned to avoid it at all costs. They are the
new draft resisters, using other methods to conscript nowadays. They
love it when the economy tanks and young people are desperate for GI
benefits, a job, and even housing. It's the Darth Vader approach: Luke,
come over to the dark side. Young people, boxed in, see one way out as
the recruiters shine bright lights on their option. It's not called a
draft now, but it is a defacto poverty draft and I look forward to the
day that ends. I hope we can all join in working to create other
attractive options for our youth or we will continue our slide toward a
militarized culture. Meanwhile, a moment to honor the end of the draft
on this day in 1973. May it never come again.