Memorial Day celebrations were ubiquitous in the early days of the Boomer Generation. World War II was still fresh in the minds of our parents, so parades and ceremonies in towns across the country remembered those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Many boomers, including Mister B, recall the red, white and blue pageantry and solemnity with which the event was treated. Of course, one of the highlights for young boomers had to be the post-parade barbecue, with hot dogs, hamburgers and corn on the cob.
Memorial Day was first celebrated as Decoration Day in 1868 to remember the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces in the Civil War. As the U.S. became entangled in other conflicts and the Civil War-era generation passed on, each painted the holiday with a different perspective. The first World War was thought to be the war to end all wars, but less than a generation after, World War II was raging in Europe.
To meet the military needs imposed on a nation at war with itself, Congress approved the first national conscription act during the Civil War on March 1, 1863. All men between the ages of 20 and 44 were eligible to be drafted for military service. However, wealthier and politically-connected men made use of a clause that allowed them to send a substitute for their service. Consequently, men who could not afford to finance a substitute — through their own means or by pooling family money — were forced to serve while others did not. This inequity did not sit well in many areas, and evasion and resistance to the Draft was substantial. In July of 1863 emotions spilled out in New York City among Irish immigrants who were being signed up as citizens in an effort to increase the voting ranks. Many were unaware that this sleight of hand meant they would have to serve military duty, and the reaction was the Great Draft Riots.
After the Civil War, the army condensed its size to pre-war numbers, and tensions about the Draft were eased as soldiers were sent home. A few decades later, once it became apparent that the U.S. would enter World War I, the Draft was again initiated by the Selective Service Act of 1917. This time provisions were added to eliminate some of the inequities of the system used during the Civil War, and men between the ages of 21 and 31 were eligible to serve. In 1918, that was altered to the ages of 18 to 45 as the stalemate in Europe forecasted the need for more troops.
The ranks of the military had swelled to more than five times its pre-war size, and again, once the war ended, the army was reduced to pre-war numbers. Nonetheless, the Draft remained the primary supply of its men conscripted into service. Public sentiment for war and all things military were at an all-time low, and Congress repeatedly cut the military budget to the point that by 1940, shortages were so rampant in the military that the army used draftees to build equipment in anticipation of the U.S. being pulled into World War II.
Every boomer was taught about December 6, 1941, “the day which shall live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said. The Japanese attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. was officially at war 24 hours later. More than 10 million men were drafted to serve. This time, however, other than those conscientious objectors who resisted on a religious basis, the mood of the country was that the fight against the Axis powers was just and righteous, and must be won at all costs.
After WWII the Draft expired, but a peace-time draft was instituted by the passage of the Selective Service Act of 1948. This time men between the ages of 18 and 26 were eligible. Due to the surplus of manpower after the War, only a little over 20,000 men were drafted in 1949. That changed in 1950 when the country became entangled in the Korean conflict. Congress passed the Universal Military Training and Service Act in 1951, and 1.3 million men were inducted to serve.
After the Korean peace treaty in 1953, the U.S. become embroiled in the Cold War, so officials were hesitant to reduce military ranks when the feeling was that war could break out at any minute. Despite the continuation of the Draft, it took the Vietnam conflict in the early 1960s to galvanize young people against it. This time it would be boomer men who were to be drafted, and an increasing number said, “Hell no, we won’t go!” The difference between our parents’ generation’s call to duty and that of early baby boomers was striking. Boomers had a difficult time getting behind an undeclared war where objectives were hazy at best. As in the Korean conflict, shouts of the “domino theory” was practically the only rationale offered for defending a tiny country that few boomers had ever heard of up until that point. The domino theory projected that small countries would fall under Communist control, one by one, unless the West intervened. More than 1,700,000 men were drafted, and more than 58,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice for which they are remembered each Memorial Day.
By 1968, opposition to the war had grown — primarily through objections to the Draft — to such a degree that President Nixon promised in his re-election campaign to end the Draft in favor of an all-volunteer army. Quakers objected to every violent action the U.S. had undertaken, as far back as the Revolutionary War, but even though Nixon was raised a Quaker, his pronouncements appeared more politically expedient than philosophically opposed. After his re-election, he actually did propose to Congress the phasing out of the Draft in favor of an all-volunteer military in April of 1970. Congress responded in 1971 by issuing a two-year extension of the Draft, which had been set to expire.
When boomer males reached the age of 18, they were bound by law to register for the Draft. In 1969, a lottery to determine the call-up schedule for eligible males during 1970 was conducted. It was the first Draft lottery since 1949, which again was an effort to address the inequities of the system. Since it pertained to those born between 1944 and 1950, this was to be the first Draft lottery for Baby Boomers. Each following year, a lottery was held to determine the following year’s call-up schedule based on the men’s birthdates.
Mister B’s brother fortunately received a number on the higher end of the scale, meaning he was not likely to be called to active duty. Brother Boomer was, in fact, never drafted. Mister B signed up as every other boomer male did, when he turned 18. He entered college, but soon after, the college deferment was eliminated as Congress constantly tinkered with the inequities of the Draft system. Mister B was at the mercy of his year’s lottery. He received a number below 100, which did not bode well in terms of being called up. Fortunately for him, the final conscription call was in December of 1972. Despite the lottery’s standing, no further boomers — including Mister B — would be called to active duty in 1973.
Thus boomers became the first generation to benefit from an all-volunteer army since pre-Civil War days. American men between the ages of 18-25 are still required to register with the Selective Service today, but no man has been drafted since the Vietnam War. After the fall of Saigon in April of 1975, the U.S. officially ended its involvement in Vietnam, ending a chapter in history that had affected every Baby Boomer in one way or another.
How did the Draft affect your life, boomers?