Today the Selective Service system is on stand-by. Every male in America between the ages of 18 and 25 must register with the Selective Service System, but never has any individual since the Vietnam War era been conscripted into service. The first and last experience a young adult will ever encounter with Selective Service will be receiving a draft card in the mail on his 18th birthday.
The late 1960s and early 1970s presented a starkly contrasting scenario, in which the Selective Service had a much greater effect on the lives of young Americans. Between 1965-1973, over one million men were drafted into military service. After 1965 the monthly draft calls rose from 20,000 to 30,000, the average age of draftees lowered from twenty-three to nineteen, and the criteria for deferment became much stricter.
Unchecked by any executive powers, the Selective Service System was run by one man for three decades, General Lewis Blaine Hershey. General Hershey began his military career serving in the National Guard in his home state of Indiana. His unit actively served on the Mexican Border and in Europe at the end of WWI, but never saw combat. General Hershey continued his military career, completing graduate studies at The Army War College in 1934. On July 1, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt promoted him to director of the Selective Service System. During the Vietnam War era, largely due to his response to war protesters on college campuses, in which he mandated that demonstrators against recruiters be subjected to immediate conscription, Hershey became very unpopular among the young people of the time.
Any desired institutional reform of the U.S. Armed Forces required adjustment to this matter concerning Selective Service. Within the first few weeks of his administration, RN organized an assembly of top military and economic advisers known as the Gates Commission, with the purpose of drafting a plan for instituting a volunteer army. With the use of Congress in returning authority over the draft to the executive branch, reform of Selective Service became possible. President Nixon started to use this authority to stop the unnecessary draft calls and initiate instead a random lottery draft, in an attempt to ensure that young people had ample time to prepare for their military appointments, and to remove any unnecessary anxieties associated with conscription.
One of the first steps RN took in securing Selective Service reform was the removal of General Hershey. In a memorandum to Peter Flanigan, an influential aide to the President, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman expressed that “the President is anxious to move as quickly as possible on General Hershey because of the significance this will have in the youth community”. View the memo below:
General Hershey, the face of one of the most unpopular policies related to the Vietnam War, was often associated with the failures of the prior administration. Therefore, RN recognized that if he desired to facilitate reform, Hershey had to go. Many in Congress also expressed that sentiment.
In another memorandum written to Flanigan, a young Congressman by the name of Donald Rumsfeld expressed that “…after a careful study of the Selective Service System, the proposed reforms, and of General Hershey, I have come to the conclusion that it would be most unfortunate if he were allowed to continue by the new Administration”. View his memo below:
Although the solution seemed simple in practice, it would be very difficult to replace a man who had served as the head of a government agency for nearly thirty years.
President Nixon decided it best to gracefully discharge General Hershey of his Selective Service duties by promoting him to a separate position. On October 10, 1969, RN met with Hershey in person to discuss his new role as Advisor to the President on Manpower Mobilization. He also awarded Hershey with an additional star to his ranking, making him the only four star general to have never served in combat. RN ensured that General Hershey left the position with honor and respect. Hershey’s departure marked the end of an era, and symbolized RN’s commitment to initiating change in America’s military structure.
With Hershey out of the picture, RN now had the credibility to prove to both congress and the public that he was serious about reforming the Selective Service System and creating an all-volunteer army. Within one month of RN’s meeting with General Hershey, Congress approved his bill, H.R. 14001, An Act To Amend The Military Selective Service Act of 1967.
In a press release that morning of November 29, 1969, President Nixon stated that “…while this measure will remove a great number of inequities and…remove [any] uncertainty to which I refer…we shall not be satisfied until we can finally have the system which I advocated during the campaign of a completely volunteer armed forces”.
By one year’s time, the foundation for an all volunteer force would be set. On December 1, 1969 the lottery draft was implemented. Shortly thereafter, the Gates Commission forwarded its plan in favor of an all-volunteer armed forces. On March 18, 1970 Curtis Tarr was appointed the new Director of the Selective Service System.
The recommendations of the Gates Commission and reform of the Selective Service convinced Congress that the end of conscription was imminent. Legislation for the end of the draft and a stand-by Selective Service System was eventually passed on September 21, 1971 with the Senate’s approval. President Nixon signed the bill into law on September 28, 1971.
Within two years of taking office, President Nixon was able to effectively pass a key piece of legislation with bipartisan support. This victory demonstrated the President’s ability to govern and to work with congress, a trait desirable of a leader who holds the office of President.