I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Army
What Have We Done?
A Summary of Then and Now (1960–2006)
The Move to End Conscription
Conscription is not the norm for America. Americans have historically distrusted standing militaries. A citizen militia — the National Guard of today — is provided for in the Constitution as a counter to a strong standing federal army. While there was an implied obligation for all to “provide for the common defense,” the first national draft did not come until the Civil War. After the war, the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois set down a design for a future draft system that would be the model for the future conscription system in the United States. The model was based on federalism, as it existed in the 1860s. It apportioned the requirement for future conscripts to the states and through the states to individual counties. This plan, together with the concept of “channeling” draft-eligible men into whatever military or civilian occupation best supported the war effort — a concept that led to the term Selective Service — was implemented during World War I and again in 1940, on the eve of World War II. President Harry Truman ended conscription for a time in 1947 but, following the same model, reinstated the draft as a Cold War measure in 1948. It remained in place until 1973.
If America has no tradition of a draft absent an ongoing war, hot or cold, we have a tradition of the intellectual elite longing for some form of national service. The issue is not so much the need of the country for the labor of these conscripted citizens, but the benefits that would be wrought on a young person having served the country for some period of time.4 Voluntary programs, such as the Peace Corps, were fine for those who already had a calling for service. What was needed, they argued, was compulsory service to transform the unredeemed and to make them better citizens. The attraction was not so much for military service as for any service. If other forms of national service were constitutionally prohibited, military service would do.5
In reality, the Cold War draft of the pre-Vietnam period was a poor substitute for universal service. As the size of the draft age group expanded and the needs of the military fell, draft calls fell, and the universality of the system became a sham.6 While other countries, France for example, facing a similar situation tried to maintain universal conscription by reducing terms of service to fit their demographics and their budgets, this was not really an alternative for America, given the worldwide military commitments it had accepted after World War II. By the early 1960s, the Selective Service had became “a draft agency that did more deferring than drafting” (Flynn, 1985, p. 218). In 1962, only 76,000 were drafted. By comparison, more than 430,000 draft eligible men were given educational or occupational deferments that year, and over 1,300,000 were deferred because of paternity. In fall 1962, President John Kennedy extended deferments to married men, even if they were not fathers. For all practical purposes, this meant that anyone who wanted to could avoid military service. What was left of the draft became politically sensitive because of the perception that the system of deferments had gotten out of control. The need for a draft was openly questioned. Pressure mounted in Congress to reform Selective Service and, at least, study the feasibility of an all-volunteer force. In 1963, President Lyndon Johnson announced that the Pentagon would undertake a comprehensive study of the draft system.
While there was a movement in favor of some form of compulsory national service as a responsibility of citizenship, there was also a movement that believed that the draft was “inconsistent with a free society” (Friedman, 1967). The leading proponent was University of Chicago Professor Milton Friedman. Economists and those who accepted Professor Friedman’s argument dominated the Pentagon study of the draft. The task of the study, as they saw it, was to estimate the cost of shifting from the draft to a voluntary system of manpower procurement. The study group drew the distinction between the cost to society of having a draft and the budget costs of moving to an all-volunteer force. Their argument was that the cost to society is very high when the cost of the military is not paid for by the general public but by a small group of draftees forced to serve at below-market wages. They argued that, by comparison, the budget cost of the all-volunteer force was “affordable.” The analysis was set aside, however, as the country moved to increasing draft calls for the Vietnam War.
By fall 1968, the unpopularity of the draft and the Vietnam War motivated the Republican candidate for President, Richard Nixon, to publicly announce that if elected he would move the country to an all-volunteer force. In a campaign speech, Nixon said that a draft that “arbitrarily selects some and not others simply cannot be squared with our whole concept of liberty, justice and equality under the law. . . . in the long run, the only way to stop the inequities is to stop using the system” (Nixon, 19680.3 MB).
The Army itself was also ready for a change. As the official Army history of the period put it, “well before the Gates Commission rendered its report, the Army’s leadership had concluded that an end to conscription was in the service’s best interest. . . .” (Griffith, 1997, p. 1720.9 MB).
On February 20, 1970, the Gates Commission, set up by President Nixon to advise him on establishing an all-volunteer force reported that “We unanimously believe that the nation’s interest will be better served by an all-volunteer force, supported by an effective standby draft, than by a mixed force of volunteers and conscripts” (Gates, 19706.7 MB).
The recommendation by the Gates Commission must be seen against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. By the late 1960s, the widespread opposition to the Vietnam War had moved from the burning of draft cards to riots in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Finally, with an unpopular war in a stalemate and at the request of President Nixon, the House of Representatives moved to an all-volunteer force by approving Public Law 92-129 by a vote of 297 to 108 on August 4, 1971. The Senate followed on September 21, 1971, by a vote of 55 to 30. On September 28, 1971, President Nixon signed the bill that extended the draft for only two years and committed the country to transition to an all-volunteer force (Lee and Parker, 1977, pp. 138-14721.7 MB).