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Special Message to the Congress on Reforming the Military Draft.

May 13, 1969

To the Congress of the United States:

For almost two million young men who reach the age of military service each year--and for their families--the draft is one of the most important facts of life. It is my conviction that the disruptive impact of the military draft on individual lives should be minimized as much as possible, consistent with the national security. For this reason I am today asking the Congress for authority to implement important draft reforms.

Ideally, of course, minimum interference means no draft at all. I continue to believe that under more stable world conditions and with an armed force that is more attractive to volunteers, that ideal can be realized in practice. To this end, I appointed, on March 27, 1969, an Advisory Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force. I asked that group to develop a comprehensive plan which will attract more volunteers to military service, utilize military manpower in a more efficient way, and eliminate conscription as soon as that is feasible. I look forward to receiving the report of the Commission this coming November.

Under present conditions, however, some kind of draft will be needed for the immediate future. As long as that is the case, we must do everything we can to limit the disruption caused by the system and to make it as fair as possible. For one's vision of the eventual does not excuse his inattention to the immediate. A man may plan to sell his house in another year, but during that year he will do what is necessary to make it livable.

Accordingly, I will ask the Congress to amend the Military Selective Service Act of 1967, returning to the President the power which he had prior to June 30, 1967, to modify call-up procedures. I will describe below in some detail the new procedures which I will establish if Congress grants this authority. Essentially, I would make the following alterations:

1. Change from an oldest-first to a youngest-first order of call, so that a young man would become less vulnerable rather than more vulnerable to the draft as he grows older.

2. Reduce the period of prime draft vulnerability--and the uncertainty that accompanies it--from seven years to one year, so that a young man would normally enter that status during the time he was nineteen years old and leave it during the time he was twenty.

3. Select those who are actually drafted through a random system. A procedure of this sort would distribute the risk of call equally--by lot--among all who are vulnerable during a given year, rather than arbitrarily selecting those whose birthdays happen to fall at certain times of the year or the month.

4. Continue the undergraduate student deferment, with the understanding that the year of maximum vulnerability would come whenever the deferment expired.

5. Allow graduate students to complete, not just one term, but the full academic year during which they are first ordered for induction.

6. In addition, as a step toward a more consistent policy of deferments and exemptions, I will ask the National Security Council and the Director of Selective Service to review all guidelines, standards and procedures in this area and to report to me their findings and recommendations.

I believe these reforms are essential. I hope they can be implemented quickly.

Any system which selects only some from a pool of many will inevitably have some elements of inequity. As its name implies, choice is the very purpose of the Selective Service System. Such choices cannot be avoided so long as the supply of men exceeds military requirements. In these circumstances, however, the Government bears a moral obligation to spread the risk of induction equally among those who are eligible.

Moreover, a young man now begins his time of maximum vulnerability to the draft at age nineteen and leaves that status only when he is drafted or when he reaches his twenty-sixth birthday. Those who are not called up are nevertheless vulnerable to call for a seven-year period. For those who are called, the average age of induction can vary greatly. A few years ago, when calls were low, the average age of involuntary induction was nearly twenty-four. More recently it has dropped to just about twenty. What all of this means for the average young man is a prolonged time of great uncertainty.

The present draft arrangements make it extremely difficult for most young people to plan intelligently as they make some of the most important decisions of their lives, decisions concerning education, career, marriage, and family. Present policies extend a period during which young people come to look on government processes as particularly arbitrary.

For all of these reasons, the American people are unhappy about our present draft mechanisms. Various elements of the basic reforms which I here suggest have been endorsed by recent studies of the Selective Service System, including that of the Marshall Commission of 1967,1 the Clark panel 2 of that same year, and the reports of both the Senate and the House Armed Services Committees. Reform of this sort is also sound from a military standpoint, since younger men are easier to train and have fewer family responsibilities.

1The National Advisory Commission on Selective Service under the chairmanship of Burke Marshall. Its report is entitled "In Pursuit of Equity: Who Serves When Not All Serve?" (Government Printing Office, 219 pp.).

2The Civilian Advisory Panel on Military

My specific proposals, in greater detail, are as follows:

1. A "youngest-first" order of call. Under my proposal, the government would designate each year a "prime age group," a different pool of draft eligibles for each consecutive twelve-month period. (Since that period would not necessarily begin on January 1, it would be referred to as a "selective service year.") The prime age group for any given selective service year would contain those registrants who were nineteen years old when it began. Those Manpower Procurement, chaired by Gen. Mark W. Clark. Its report to the House Committee on Armed Services is dated March 28, 1967 (Committee Print, 90th Cong., 1st sess., 30 pp.). who received deferments or exemptions would rejoin the prime age group at the time their deferment or exemption expired. During the first year that the new plan was in operation, the prime age group would include all eligible men from nineteen to twenty-six, not deferred or exempt, so that no one would escape vulnerability simply because of the transition.

2. Limited vulnerability. Each individual would experience maximum vulnerability to the draft only for the one selective service year in which he is in the prime age group. At the end of the twelve-month period which would normally come sometime during his twentieth year--he would move on to progressively less vulnerable categories and an entirely new set of registrants would become the new prime age group. Under this system, a young man would receive an earlier and more decisive answer to his question, "Where do I stand with the draft?" and he could plan his life accordingly.

3. A random selection system. Since more men are classified as available for service each year than are required to fill current or anticipated draft calls, Selective Service Boards must have some way of knowing whom to call first, whom to call second, and whom not to call at all. There must be some fair method of determining the sequence of induction for those available for service in the prime age group.

In my judgment, a fair system is one which randomizes by lot the order of selection. Each person in the prime age group should have the same chance of appearing at the top of the draft list, at the bottom, or somewhere in the middle. I would therefore establish the following procedure:

At the beginning of the third month after Congress grants this authority, the first of a sequence of selective service years would begin. Prior to the start of each selective service year, the dates of the 365 days to follow would be placed in a sequence determined by a random method. Those who spend the following year in the pool would take their place in the draft sequence in the same order that their birthdays come up on this scrambled calendar. Those born on June 21st, for example, might be at the head of the list, followed by those born on January 12th, who in turn might be followed by those born on October 23rd. Each year, a new random order would be established for the next year's draft pool. In turn those who share the same birthday would be further distributed, this time by the first letter of their last names. But rather than systematically discriminating against those who come at the front of the alphabet, the alphabet would also be scrambled in a random manner.

Once a person's place in the sequence was determined, that assignment would never change. If he were granted a deferment or exemption at age nineteen or twenty, he would re-enter the prime age group at the time his deferment or exemption expires, taking the same place in the sequence that he was originally assigned.

While the random sequence of induction would be nationally established, it would be locally applied by each draft board to meet its local quota. In addition to distributing widely and evenly the risk of induction, the system would also aid many young men in assessing the likelihood of induction even before the classification procedure is completed. This would reduce uncertainty for the individual registrant and, particularly in times of low draft calls, simplify the task of the draft boards.

4. Undergraduate student deferments. I continue to believe in the wisdom of college deferments. Permitting the diligent student to complete his college education without interruption by the draft is a wise national investment. Under my proposal, a college student who chooses to take a student deferment would still receive his draft sequence number at the time he first enters the prime age group. But he would not be subject to induction until his deferment ended and he reentered a period of maximum vulnerability.

5. Graduate Student Induction. I believe that the induction of men engaged in graduate study should be postponed until the end of the full academic year during which they are first called to military service. I will ask the National Security Council to consider appropriate advice to the Director of the Selective Service to establish this policy. At present, graduate students are allowed to delay induction only to the end of a semester. This often means that they lose valuable time which has been invested in preparation for general examinations or other degree requirements. It can also jeopardize some of the financial arrangements which they made when they planned on a full year of schooling. Induction at the end of a full academic year will provide a less damaging interruption and will still be consistent with Congressional policy.

At the same time, however, the present policy against general graduate deferments should be continued, with exceptions only for students in medical and allied fields who are subject to a later special draft. We must prevent the pyramiding of student deferments--undergraduate and graduate-into a total exemption from military service. For this reason the postponement of induction should be possible only once for each graduate student.

6. A review of guidelines. The above measures will reduce the uncertainty of young men as to when and if they may be called for service. It is also important that we encourage a consistent administration of draft procedures by the more than 4,000 local boards around the country. I am therefore requesting the National Security Council and the Director of Selective Service to conduct a thorough review of our guidelines, standards and procedures for deferments and exemptions, and to report their findings to me by December 1, 1969. While the autonomy of local boards provides valuable flexibility and sensitivity, reasonable guidelines can help to limit geographic inequities and enhance the equity of the entire System. The 25,000 concerned citizens who serve their country so well on these local boards deserve the best possible framework for their decisions.

Ultimately we should end the draft. Except for brief periods during the Civil War and World War I, conscription was foreign to the American experience until the 1940's. Only in 1948 did a peacetime draft become a relatively permanent fact of life for this country. Now a full generation of Americans has grown up under a system of compulsory military service.

I am hopeful that we can soon restore the principle of no draft in peacetime. But until we do, let us be sure that the operation of the Selective Service System is as equitable and as reasonable as we can make it. By drafting the youngest first, by limiting the period of vulnerability, by randomizing the selection process, and by reviewing deferment policies, we can do much to achieve these important interim goals. We should do no less for the youth of our country.


The White House

May 13, 1969

Note: Following a meeting with the President on May 13, Representative Gerald R. Ford of Michigan held a news briefing which touched upon the President's draft reform proposals. The text of the news briefing is printed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (vol. 5, P. 683).

Richard Nixon, Special Message to the Congress on Reforming the Military Draft. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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