Draft Lottery Number One

The late 60's had no shortage of issues to attract attention. I often felt that when the 50's ended, a wave of awareness swept across the country and we could see so many of our shortcomings. Maybe it was the fear tactics of McCarthy or Kennedy's organized crime investigation or Kruschev promising to bury us or opening the heavens to space exploration or it might have been seeing it all on television that brought a generation together to collectively shout about the injustices that we perceived. I do know that it was easy to find people who would take to the streets to express a point of view about the running of our country and changes we felt were needed for the world.

The war in Viet Nam summarized many of them. The war itself was problematic as few in my generation felt any threat from the domino theory of international politics. It just seemed so wrong to use Southeast Asia as a chess board to keep the nuclear powers from using the force of advanced weaponry while our leaders engaged in a testosterone induced body builders contest. The fact that young people who did not have the privilege of participating in democracy except as a class exercise could be drafted and sent off as the pawns of power was a major rallying cry. The draft itself was another bogeyman under the bed.

The draft was a disgrace. With a little money, you could stay in school and be deferred from conscription. Graduate school provided further delay. Of course, the result was that we were sending those who chose not to attend college or could not attend college to the rice patties of Viet Nam. The racial biases of the day that kept universities disproportionately white, placed a de facto racial bias on the draft. If the war was not sufficiently immoral, then the draft pushed it over the edge. Essentially, we were sending the poor and non-white to catch bullets for a war we never planned on "winning". The protests of that time changed that system and for that I am quite proud of my role in those changes.

I was also devastated as the changes took place. The first step in eliminating the draft was to drop the system of deferments and replace it with a lottery based on your birthday. Everyone born on a certain day would get the call. The arbitrariness of determination was meant to balance the economic and racial biases of the draft board. I was a junior at George Washington University at the time of the first lottery. We knew that our influence had created a much fairer system but were not looking forward to losing the comfort of the catbird seat. The first lottery was televised. People gathered around the television to see when their birthday would be called. There was a statistical suggestion that only the first 50 of the 366 days would actually be called to serve. A 6 in 7 chance seemed like pretty good odds at the time.

Me? I will never forget the hollow feeling of not even making it out of the top 10. I do not remember, but it seems to me that my birthday was the seventh drawn from the barrel. All I could do for the next several hours was drive my Austin Healey Sprite on the country roads taking pleasure in the machine and feeling like the condemned on a last fling (think about the film "On the Beach" for the cinematic reference). I wish that I could say that I was able to at least muster up some sense of nobility in that I knew that the lottery was an improvement that we had demanded, but there were too many other emotions as I straightened the curving country roads that night.

Lee McGavin
Leander, TX 2010

More on the Viet Nam era.


The photo above is from the Selective Service System's web page and shows Republican Congressman Alexander Pirnie pulling numbers from a bowl. My memory may not be completely reliable as the SSS data shows that the date picked 195th was the actual last date used in this lottery, so that goal of making it past the first 50 dates drawn would not have been much help.

Other notes from the SSS web page include the fact that while people still register for the draft (online of course) no one has been drafted since 1973. Also, 10 million were drafted to fight World War II in Europe, Asia, Africa and on the seas. Almost 2 million were drafted to fight a war in Viet Nam, a nation with a land mass roughly the size of Italy.

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