How did the Vietnam draft work pre-1970?
November 15, 2010 9:05 AM   Subscribe

How did the Vietnam draft work prior to the first lottery in December 1969?

I am very close to an uncle in my family who served (reluctantly) in Vietnam. About three months ago, a different uncle who is not close to him told me a story that shook me pretty hard. He told me that it was a big Family Secret that my uncle had not actually been drafted into the army but instead had enlisted to avoid jail after he got into a Springsteen-esque "hometown jam." Allegedly, my uncle was in a car accident where he killed another driver (or maybe a friend), and in a resulting court case the judge said "go in the army or go to jail." My uncle telling the story was light on details because he had heard it 35 years ago from a family friend, and apparently never said anything to anyone else about it.

I can't simply ask my uncle about this, as he would be very upset if it were true, and maybe even if it were not. And there are no other people who are alive that I can really talk to. A call to the courthouse in his jurisdiction lead nowhere. So my options are limited. One thing I thought of is looking at details of the draft.

Here is what I know: he went in the army mid-1969, when he was 21 years old. The first "lottery" took place December 1, 1969 for service in 1970. What I can't figure out is how things worked before that. The selective service's page suggests that it was "oldest first" from 25 down to 18 prior to that time, but was it purely that way or was there discretion? Is there any information about what age they got down to before the first lottery in 1969? Was the "oldest first" method determined on a national, or state-by-state, or city-by-city level? Would a 21 year old have a good/fair/bad chance of being drafted in 1969? If he was drafted, would every other kid his age have been drafted too? Does the SSA keep a "drafted/enlisted" field in their records for public information requests?

Some part of me feels like I should just write this off and forget about it, and even if I learn that it's true I don't think I'd ever acknowledge it to my uncle, but it's a big enough issue that I want to learn the truth.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Selective Service has an archive page explaining the system here.

As for the jail vs. enlistment practice, I have a personal friend who grew up with a very violent father and after mostly overcoming his youth moved into a paper-walled duplex in a rough part of Pittsburgh to save money during grad school. Long-story-short, his neighbor was a seemingly nice couple, except when the husband drank. One night after a few drinks himself, my friend overheard the husband beating the wife, became enraged, and kicked in the door to litterally beat the shit out of the husband. He plead guilty to assault charges and the judge gave him time served in exchange for deferred enlistment (after he graduated) in the military.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:33 AM on November 15, 2010

I don't know the particulars of the draft but FWIW, a family friend told us a similar story about enlisting in the late sixties. The best I can remember - he had a shotgun wedding at 19 but then ran out on her. There was an arrest for something unrelated minor thing led to being caught extremely far behind on child support then I think, some messy allegations from his wife and he was given the option of jail or Vietnam.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:35 AM on November 15, 2010

Apparently it did occur, because the Army was trying to end the practice in 1972.
posted by Knappster at 10:46 AM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

Have you seen this page regarding what information might be released with a public (i.e.: non-next-of-kin) FOIA request for military personnel records? I'm not sure if draft/enlisted status can be inferred from any of those pieces.
posted by mhum at 10:57 AM on November 15, 2010

I think this is the book you want: The Draft, 1940-1973 by George Flynn.

p172 looks helpful: "By the summer of 1966 the draft used the following sequence, in descending order, to call men: delinquents, oldest first; volunteers up to age 26; single and married since 26 August 1965; 19 to 26 with oldest called first; men over 26, youngest first; finally men 18.5 to 19 with the oldest called first."
posted by susanvance at 11:03 AM on November 15, 2010

Not to derail the question (very interesting question, btw) but what about looking at courthouse records for that year? Would there be a record of the arrest/trial?
posted by CathyG at 11:49 AM on November 15, 2010

The car accident would have been covered in the local newspaper. Many have been digitized and are available online.
posted by WyoWhy at 2:49 PM on November 15, 2010

A little detail: As I recall, circa '66- 70, if you were in college then you were safe from the draft. Around 1966-67 tests were given to college students specifically to determine if they were academically qualified to be in college. These were sort of like college board tests. Don't know if the intent was to weed out people who were claiming to be in college when they were clearly incapable of the work, or to "preserve" the better students. There was one cutoff grade for undergraduate qualification and a higher one for graduate. I know the tests were given, but don't know if the results were really used or if the plan was aborted.
posted by Kevin S at 6:26 AM on November 16, 2010

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