Feeling draft of Vietnam

Legacy: The effects of conscription, last used in an unpopular Southeast Asian war that started four decades ago, haunts America still.

February 15, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The Vietnam-era draft cut a tornadolike swath through a generation of American men.

"It was a crucible question, regardless of where you came down on the war in Vietnam," Alexander Bloom, a historian at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, says of the draft. "It was a question people who did not want to go to that war had to face - whether to go to Canada, to the resistance, to teach in an inner-city high school, whatever helped you stay out. It was not something you did casually."

Those years have surfaced again with allegations about President Bush's service in the National Guard and heroic tales of war from opponent John Kerry's combat in Vietnam.

When Bush and Kerry faced the draft, eligibility was determined by complex regulations governing deferments.

"Students got out, certain occupations got out, if you had braces on your teeth you got out," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Anything that the military didn't have to deal with, it didn't want to deal with because it had all these other people it could call up," he says, referring to the baby boomers reaching age 18.

That made avoiding the draft something of a high-stakes game. Stay within one or more of the safe havens until you reached age 26 and you were no longer vulnerable. But leave one of those havens and you might find yourself under fire in Vietnam.

The game favored the affluent and educated, who could go to graduate school, regardless of their genuine academic aspiration; who could find a friendly orthodontist to put on braces, no matter what the state of their teeth was.

Kerry and Bush lost their student deferments when they graduated from Yale - Kerry in 1966, Bush in 1968 - at the height of the war and the draft. In 1966, more than 382,000 were inducted through the draft. That was the biggest call-up of the Vietnam era. The second-largest was in 1968 when slightly less than 300,000 were inducted.

Kerry, from an influential family and an Ivy League school, was the type who usually found a way around the draft. So his choice to join the Navy appears unusual, particularly for someone who had just given a talk to his fellow graduates that was critical of the Vietnam War

But Douglas Brinkley, Kerry's biographer, says signing up was not surprising for the son of a one-time test pilot who spent his career in government service.

Kerry's father "felt you had a real duty to your country, almost to an obsession," Brinkley says. "John Kerry was raised with that.

"If you cut to 1965 or '66, his father was totally against the war," says Brinkley, author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. "But there was never a sense that the Kerry boys were going to shirk their duty."

Kerry had other influences - a fascination with the story of John F. Kennedy and his PT 109 heroics in World War II, and a close group of friends at Yale that included the grandson of Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing, U.S. commander in Europe in World War I.

"It was the uncool thing to do - not to join the military," says Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans and editor of American History magazine.

Because he was not drafted, Kerry could choose his service - the Navy where only pilots were seeing much combat - and he could try for officer candidate school, a cinch for a Yale graduate.

One way out of going to Vietnam was the National Guard.

"In every other war prior to Vietnam, up to and including World War II and Korea - and in every war since - the military has used the National Guard as the primary mobilization base," Segal says. "But with Vietnam, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations made the decision not to draw heavily on the reserve components, instead to primarily use conscription."

Segal speculates that this was because so many baby boomers, who, unlike those in the Guard, had done no service, were available for the draft. Whatever the reason, he says, "The decision not to deploy the Guard made it a way to get out of going to war without going to Canada and, indeed, to do something honorable, to put on the uniform of your country."

John C. McWilliams, a history professor at Penn State, agrees. "The National Guard was very appealing for those individuals who did not want to go to Vietnam but instead stay home and live life as normal as possible," he says.

The problem was that once that became clear, a long line formed to get into the Guard. Segal says the decentralized nature of the National Guard makes it impossible to know how long the line was. With entrance decisions made on local levels, the Guard was open to charges that influence was used to get to the head of the line.

"Clearly, there was some political pull involved," Segal says. "It is anecdotal evidence, but there is story after story of people jumping over others on the waiting list."

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