President Nixon with conscripted troops in S. Vietnam, 1969.
This month marks 40 years since the formal transition from mandatory, conscripted military service to all-volunteer armed services, which was initiated under President Nixon. The road there was bumpy and doubtful, but the transformation remains among the most lasting and beneficial of RN’s legacies.
In 1969, RN established the President’s Commission on the All-Volunteer Force, with the stated goal of phasing out conscription. After the first meeting, a member of the commission noted to his chairman that “while there is a reasonable possibility that a peacetime armed force could be entirely voluntary, I am certain that an armed force involved in a major conflict could not be voluntary.”
Such dissent was pervasive, but the President – and, in an ironic twist, the protestors too –thought otherwise.
In 1965 and 1966, as the war in Vietnam expanded and draft calls grew exponentially, campuses erupted in violence and riots. Students burned their draft cards and skipped class in defiance, a growing sign of the unpopularity of the draft across the country. To add insult to injury, the voting age was 21 – so young men could be drafted at 18 without even being able to cast their ballots for leaders who would ultimately decide their fate.
Thus the idea to eliminate the draft was not a new one when Richard Nixon assumed office – and one that crossed the political divide, too. Speaking on CBS Radio during the fall 1968 campaign, he introduced a message that would become a signature mission in his administration:
“We have lived with the draft now for almost thirty years… We have lived with the draft so long, in fact, that too many of us now accept it as normal and necessary……
“Today all across the country we face a crisis of confidence. Nowhere is it more acute than among our young people. They recognize the draft as an infringement on their liberty – which it is. To them, it represents a government insensitive to their rights – a government callous to their status as free men. They ask for justice – and they deserve it.”
The Commission presented a plan to the President in December 1970, proposing that if pay could be raised and recruiting efforts expanded, all-volunteer armed services could function in wartime just as well without conscription. Not only would the draft’s ending restore some faith, but it would eliminate one of the main issues of protest, and thus take aim at the war protestors whom RN saw as delaying – indeed, obstructing – the chances for peace in Vietnam.
The recommendations were adopted and the draft was indeed phased out throughout the remainder of the war until RN ended U.S. involvement in January 1973. Simultaneously, RN was a major proponent of lowering the voting age to 18, which occurred in July 1971 (in the form of a constitutional amendment as the Supreme Court ruled that RN’s prior law to the same effect, though wholly well intentioned, should be a constitutional amendment).
The success of the All-Volunteer Force is certainly one of the boldest legacies of the Nixon administration. At the Yorba Linda kickoff of President Nixon’s yearlong centennial celebration on January 6, 2013, General Melvin Spiese, Deputy Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told the Nixon Library crowd of over 1,000:
Internal to the armed forces and easily forgotten is that milestone policy change that former Commandant of the Marine Corps and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General James Jones called the single most significant change in his career, the establishment of the President’s Commission on the All-Volunteer Force and the ultimate elimination of the draft. I can speak personally and professionally to the impact of that change during my career. As you look across the armed forces today and as we review the performance of all of our services during this decade of war, it is reasonable – and for me, easy – to conclude that our current all-volunteer force is not simply a success, but the best force we have ever fielded.
So why did it succeed when it was so widely expected to fail?
The RAND Corporation, in its study I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force, suggests four reasons for its success: attentive leadership on the issue from high levels of management, noting especially that “the AVF would not have come about when it did without the leadership of President Nixon”; the use of relevant research to test, adjust and evaluate the policies; a shift in recruitment tactics to attract high-quality young men and women; and a large enough budget.
Today’s success of the All-Volunteer Force, on display in both the Persian Gulf War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the greater war on terror, is, indeed, a testament to RN’s determination to end not only the Vietnam War with honor but to end the agony of thousands of young men – and he did.
Jimmy Byron is a Communications and Marketing Assistant at the Richard Nixon Foundation. He is a third-year student at Chapman University.