Late this week, word reached the news media of the death on June 21 of Curtis W. Tarr at his home in Walnut Creek, California. The majority of Mr. Tarr’s career before his retirement was spent in the groves of academia; he was president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, in the 1960s, and from 1985 to 1989 headed Cornell University’s graduate school of management.  And indeed, these are the two jobs he held which are listed first in his Wikipedia entry. In between he also ventured into the business world, as a vice president of the venerable farm-equipment company [John] Deere & Co.
However, what guaranteed Mr. Tarr’s passing an obituary in the New York Times, and a story over the Associated Press wire, was not his work in these fields, but rather, his service for a few years in the Nixon Administration. He started it as an assistant secretary of the Air Force, and concluded it in the State Department.  But from 1970 until 1972, Mr. Tarr found himself in one of the hottest seats in government: the third director of the Selective Service System, the independent goverment agency in charge of administering the conscription of young Americans into the Armed Forces of the United States.

The SSS has been in continuous existence since 1940, but nowadays is mainly known to Americans under the age of sixty as the source of the notices that are found in Federal buildings and post offices, reminding male citizens of the United States, and non-US citizens resident in this country, that they must register with the organization within 30 days of their eighteenth birthday or face penalties.

Nowadays, seeing these notices makes one picture a goateed slacker merely pausing to glance at the required card before proceeding to look over scuffed vinyl records or to get a frozen yogurt.  But in 1970, the situation was much, much different.

Drafts had been instituted in the Civil War and World War I, then discontinued in peacetime. But with Hitler’s armies sweeping across  Europe and Japan’s armed forces rampaging in China, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that it was time to implement a full-scale peacetime draft – for at the time, Pearl Harbor was still nearly a year and a half away.

Therefore, the Selective Service System was set up in September 1940. Its first director, Clarence A. Dykstra, served a little under half a year, and was replaced in April 1941 by General Lewis B. Hershey.  Gen. Hershey continued as the officer in charge of the nationwide draft throughout World War II.  In 1948, the wartime SSS was reorganized to reflect the establishment of the Department of Defense, but Gen. Hershey continued as director for over two decades more.

Under him, the SSS was, for over two decades more, perhaps the most inescapable aspect of the life of any male American between the ages of 18 and 26.  (That was in a time when women did not serve in the Armed Forces except as volunteers, and only in non-combat positions.)

During peacetime, if you were in the category described above, you registered on or just after your eighteenth birthday. During peacetime, if you were between the ages of nineteen and twenty-six, and not in college or graduate school, and unmarried or childless, you most likely would be called up to the Army, and inducted to serve twenty-one months, after which you would serve either a minimum of one year active service or a minimum of three years as a reservist.  In wartime, the service could be extended to five years on active duty and in the reserves.

This was the system under which the United States fought the Korean War; maintained its military strength during the Cold War years of the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations; and then fought the Vietnam War from the aftermath of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution until the end of the 1960s.  During all that time, Gen. Hershey was as familiar a face in the American media as  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (one of the few Federal officials to serve longer than him), and better-known that all but a handful of the generals who outranked him.

And, in that position, he became the focus of increasing controversy as the 1960s wore on and the Vietnam War became steadily less popular. During World War II, Gen. Hershey had supervised a system in which everybody, rich or poor, high-school dropout or college student, even straight or gay to a considerable degree, crossed the line and served their country in its hour of need. During the conflict in Korea, this approach was substantially the same – many Americans who had finished their educations on the GI Bill and were moving into the workforce were called back to serve their nation again.

But after the Korean War, the SSS’s response to the increased number of Americans attending college or graduate school was to permit such students exemptions if they were in good standing academically.  This resulted in a huge increase in the percentage of Americans seeking a higher education – but, paradoxically, those who were most protected from the draft became the ones who were most vocal in their criticism of it, and of Gen. Hershey.

In 1967, to meet requirements for increased manpower, Congress enacted legislation which raised the age of conscription to thirty-five, and cut off student deferments  after one’s twenty-fourth birthday.  With a war continuing with no visible end in sight, students across the country became increasingly militant, and antiwar demonstrations, starting with the march on the Pentagon in 1967, began larger and larger.

By 1969, Gen. Hershey was the focus of massive wrath at such events as the “moratorium” protests in Washington attracting hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, and President Nixon concluded that the time had come to alter the process by which young soldiers were conscripted.  But he also decided that the general had become far too much of a political liability to be the man to supervise this change.

Accordingly, Gen. Hershey retired from the SSS in Feb. 15, 1970, and was elevated to the rank of four-star general.  After six weeks during which Colonel Dee Ingold was the organization’s acting director, Mr. Tarr took it over.

For most of its history, in peacetime and wartime, the work of the SSS was chiefly in the hands of local draft boards, whose members supervised the examination of draft cards and chose personnel based on their eligibility in terms of the statuses outlined above.  But in November 1969, President Nixon signed legislation changing this system to one based on a simple lottery. On December 1 of that year, amid enormous publicity, the first such drawing was held.

For the least two or three decades, residents of many states have turn on their television sets once a week or once a day to watch shapely ladies select balls with numbers on them out of what looks like an oversize popcorn popper, which, when assembled in groups of three or five or six, enable the lucky among us to visit Easy Street.   But that December evening, by contrast, millions of students leaned forward, sweat beading across their brows, as they waiting to find out whether the day of their birth would determine whether their chances of visiting Germany, or Iceland – or Vietnam – for two years were highly probable, extremely minimal, or someplace in between.

When Mr. Tarr became SSS Director, tasks involved not only supervising this lottery as new numbers were periodically drawn, but overseeing the implementation of changes in his organization in the latter stages of the Vietnam War.  In 1971 student deferments, except for those studying divinity, came to an end.  Since the number of draftees had begun to dwindle steadily, this produced less controversy than might have been the case earlier – and there was also an understanding that at least, as the war was coming to an end, an effort was being made to put the obligation on service on all Americans of draft age in an equal fashion.  This work, along with his supervision of measures to make draft boards more reflective of the concerns of local communities, earned Mr. Tarr considerable respect among those who worked with him. Such was also true of his capacity for hard work and careful, thoughtful management of the process.  Heading the SSS was, as he said later, not a job he enjoyed, for it meant that many young men whom it touched ended as names on that long wall on the National Mall – but it was a job that had to be done, and as such, had to be done in a fashion as honest and fair to everyone affected by it as possible.

Mr. Tarr left the SSS on May 1, 1972. His successor, first as acting and then permanent director, was Byron V. Pepitone, who supervised, in January 1973, the end of the permanent military draft in the concluding days of the Vietnam War.  Two years later, President Ford terminated registration for the SSS; this lasted for five years until registration was implemented by President Carter soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  But though the requirement to register remains until this day, it is frequently ignored.  For forty years, the United States has had an all-volunteer military which has seen the country through three wars, including the two longest in the nation’s history.

Nonetheless, the memory of the draft still remains, both for those who were eligible for it and those who, like myself, reached the age of 18 very soon after the registration requirement ended temporarily.  For such people, the SSS is still remembered as part of the everyday life in a vivid period of American history, and Mr. Tarr’s efforts to administer it in an even-handed and impartial way are recalled with much respect.