The VVA Veteran® Online

March/April 2017

“Selective Service: Funneling the Poor and Working Class into Combat”


Between World War II and the Vietnam War, the world changed. In the United States, the world changed drastically. Our ideas of fairness began to change, our ideas about segregation changed, educational levels changed, and our ideas about poverty, labor, and the working class changed.

Early in the Vietnam War, African Americans were put in combat MOSs at rates above their percentage of population. In the first years of American escalation, even blacks who scored in the highest test category were placed in combat units at a level 75 percent higher than whites with similar scores. And only 2 percent of the officers during the entire war were African American.

At the beginning of the war black men comprised more than 20 percent of American combat deaths, about twice their portion of the U.S. population. However, the portion of black casualties declined over time so that, for the war as a whole, black casualties were only slightly disproportionate: 12.5 percent compared to a civilian population proportion of 11 percent.

Until 1965 African American men did indeed die at higher rates than white men. But by the end of the war African Americans were dying at a much lower rate, even lower than their white counterparts.

In Chance and Circumstance, Lawrence Basker and William Strauss quoted Gen. S.L.A. Marshall, saying that “The racial inequalities became a major scandal of the late 1960s. In the average rifle company the strength was 50 percent composed of Negroes, Southwest Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Guamanians, Nisei, and so on. But a real cross-section of American youth? Almost never.”


As the ranks became more integrated, they were more and more segregated by class. The class inequality involved African Americans and whites, as well as Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, and others of color and poverty. The war was fought mainly by working class men. While many more men had high school diplomas (79 percent) than in World War II (45 percent), many more people nationwide had high school diplomas. However, there were fewer middle class men and very few upper class men fighting in Vietnam.

According to a University of Notre Dame study, “Men from disadvantaged backgrounds were about twice as likely as their better-off peers to serve in the military, to go to Vietnam, and to see combat.”

Despite the fact that African Americans had a high school graduation rate of 60 percent, most did not score well on military tests. All schools were not equal. For the most part, these scores rated quality of education, not intelligence.

According to the National Opinion Research Center, three-fourths of the men fighting in Vietnam were from the working class or were poor. In the Second World War and the Korean War, the elite of the country, the upper, well-educated classes, and the middle classes went to war. By the Vietnam Era, there were deferments that had not been in place before, such as college and graduate school deferments. In addition, many of the better educated draftees and enlistees were sent to Germany, South Korea, Thailand, and other places, or else became clerks or held other non-combat jobs. These large-scale deferments left the working class and the poor to do the fighting. Because this was the time baby boomers came of draft age, there was an enormous pool of men to draw from. Being selective was easy.

One reason so many were offered deferments was because World War II had depleted the numbers of doctors, teachers, and other professions necessary for civilization to thrive. Student deferments ensured their existence after the Vietnam War.

But the real power behind who got to stay and who had to go was the local draft board. There were no rules to conform draft boards nationally, which meant they had the power to decide who among their own population would go to Vietnam. Social scientist Roger Little said that thousands of cases were “too hot, too puzzling, or too troublesome” for local draft boards. These cases were deferred. Later, however, when the war escalated, such cases were evaluated differently because of the need for troops.

Local boards were mostly made up of white, privileged, middle class men who were part-time, unpaid volunteers, poorly trained, who met once or twice monthly to decide on hundreds of cases. Even though each case had only minutes of attention, the situation was so complicated that the draft board members tended to rely on the advice of their clerks who were even more unqualified.

Selective Service Director Lewis Hershey refused to interfere with local boards because, he said, they knew their own populations best. Such decentralized control gave unprecedented authority to untrained board members. “Left to their own devices, the four thousand draft boards developed four thousand different policies,” Basker and Strauss wrote. This meant that in some areas, nearly all eligible blacks were drafted but few whites, while other boards drafted educated and well-heeled men.

President Johnson never fully mobilized the nation. He refused for years to activate the National Guard or Reserves, for example, because those men were generally better educated and more affluent. These were the kinds of people who would protest, and Johnson wanted as little public opposition as possible. He wanted to wage the Vietnam War with as little disruption to the general population as possible. Drafting less advantaged, younger, less educated working class and poor men caused less trouble. Young men were especially powerless, because the voting age then was twenty-one; nineteen-year-old men made up a great part of the fighting forces.

In his book Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, Christian Appy says, “Poor and working-class men ordinarily allowed military doctors to determine their physical fitness. Induction center examinations were often perfunctory exercises in which all but the most obvious disabilities were overlooked.” According to Chance and Circumstance, men who arrived at their induction physical with professional documentation of a disqualifying ailment had the best chance of getting a medical exemption. Induction centers usually did not have the time or desire to challenge outside opinions.

“Through an elaborate structure of deferments, exemptions, legal technicalities, and noncombat military alternatives, the draft rewarded those who manipulated the system to their advantage,” Appy wrote. “Among this generation fighting for one’s country was not a source of pride; it was misfortune. Going to Vietnam was the penalty for those who lacked the wherewithal to avoid it. The student deferment was the most overtly class-biased feature of the Vietnam era draft system.”

Baskir and Strauss wrote: “Men who were knowledgeable about the system and had the means to press a claim had a 90 percent chance of receiving a physical or psychological exemption even if they were in good health. That the men who were most able and likely to seek professional help in avoiding the draft were white and middle class is not surprising.” According to Appy, 76 percent of the men sent to Vietnam were from lower, working-class backgrounds.


Unsuccessful and part-time students became “draft bait.” A student deferment could be lost if one’s grades were not up to par. What “up to par” meant depended on individual draft boards. In 1966 and 1967, a policy of drafting those with poor grades was instituted by the Selective Service. A test was given to nearly one million students: the Selective Service Qualilfying Test with Categories I-V. Those who did not score well were drafted. Until Project 100,000, Categories IV and V were rejected.

Many full-time students had poor grades because they had jobs while in college. Students who did not carry a full class schedule were drafted, including those who attended junior or community colleges. These were usually students who could not afford full-time school or who had to work at jobs that conflicted with a full-time schedule.

Few men from the more privileged classes were drafted, because they could afford to attend elite, four-year, private colleges, including Ivy League schools. In a survey of Harvard’s Class of 1970, just two men served in Vietnam.

While about 5 percent of Americans were farmers in the 1960s, the National Opinion Research Center survey showed that 12 percent of draftees were from agricultural communities. The survey revealed that “about two-thirds of the workers engaged in agricultural labor were wage earners (farm laborers or migrant farmworkers) with family incomes less than $1,000 per year.”

Not everyone was a draftee, of course. Many volunteered. However, many of those were “draft-motivated.” Many thousands draft-age men decided to volunteer rather than be drafted, because they would be able to choose their jobs in the military. Draft pressure became the most important cause of enlistments as the war lengthened, according to several studies, including those done by the military.

One of the most egregious acts of the draft was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000. Under this project men who scored at the Category IV level were drafted. In his book McNamara’s Folly (see May/June 2016), Hamilton Gregory noted that many of these men could not read or write, dress themselves properly, or understand protocol. Christian Appy wrote: “They were punished with Undesirable, Bad Conduct, or Dishonorable Discharges, branding them as deserters or military criminals or other sorts. Another 300,000 were sent home with General Discharges.” Their death rate in Vietnam was twice that of the total force.

During the Vietnam War working and poor classes were funneled toward combat, while the middle and upper classes were protected. The Selective Service instituted class-based channeling. The military reduced admission standards, instituted medical exemptions for the well-informed, and gave exemptions to students who could afford full-time college. Plus, Project 100,000 channeled the working class and poor into Vietnam in staggering numbers.


VVA Chapter 269:
Helping Another Generation
New York State President
Ned Foote Commended
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