John Kerry’s Views on Volunteer Military: Then and Now

AP’s John Soloman finds an interesting parallel between John Kerry’s recent statements and his views as a Congressional candidate in 1972.

During a Vietnam-era run for Congress three decades ago, John Kerry said he opposed a volunteer Army because it would be dominated by the underprivileged, be less accountable and be more prone to “the perpetuation of war crimes.” Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran who turned against the war, made the observations in answers to a 1972 candidate questionnaire from a Massachusetts peace group.

After Kerry caused a firestorm this week with what he termed a botched campaign joke that Republicans said insulted current soldiers, The Associated Press was alerted to the historical comments by a former law enforcement official who monitored 1970s anti-war activities. Kerry apologized Wednesday for the 2006 campaign trail gaffe that some took as suggesting U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq were undereducated. He contended the remark was aimed at Bush, not the soldiers.

In 1972, as he ran for the House, he was less apologetic in his comments about the merits of a volunteer army. He declared in the questionnaire that he opposed the draft but considered a volunteer army “a greater anathema.” “I am convinced a volunteer army would be an army of the poor and the black and the brown,” Kerry wrote. “We must not repeat the travesty of the inequities present during Vietnam. I also fear having a professional army that views the perpetuation of war crimes as simply ‘doing its job.’

I would be interested to see how Kerry’s views on this issue have evolved over time.

Aside from the war crimes bit, Kerry was actually right about the short-term impact of an all-volunteer force. It was indeed disproportionately comprised of the poor, the undereducated, minorities, and petty criminals. As the stigma of Vietnam evaporated and pay increased along with standards, though, the average enlisted soldier became smarter and more educated than his civilian counterpart. Minorities are still over-represented in the enlisted ranks compared to the general population, for a variety of reasons.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Craig says:

    I believe you meant to write “John Solomon,” not “John Solo.” His correct name will ring a bell for many readers.

  2. legion says:

    Indeed, the AF is instituting a policy that will require any enlisted seeking promotion to senior NCO (E-7 and above) to have completed either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Quite a shift of the ‘traditional’ officer-enlisted social strata…

  3. James,

    I would question your comment on “minorities over represented in enlisted ranks”. African Americans are ‘over represented’ by 1% on recruits. Their retention rate is higher, so the African American enlisted man ratio is ‘over represented by 8%. All other minorities are under represented. So your statement could be much clearer by specifying African American as opposed to all minorities.

    But to really put this in perspective, look at the larger government minority rates. If you look at federal jobs overall, you see the 8% overall higher African American enlisted is close to the 7.3% “over representation” of blacks in the federal workforce.

    Race/Ethnicity. In FY 2004, African Americans were equitably represented in the military overall. In the enlisted force, African Americans were slightly overrepresented among NPS active duty accessions (15 percent) relative to the 18-24 year-old civilian population (14 percent). FY 2004 representation of “Other” minority enlisted accessions (American Indians and Alaskan Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and those of two or more races) stood at approximately 7 percent, equal to the civilian population (7 percent). Hispanics, on the other hand, continued to be underrepresented, with 13 percent among NPS accessions compared with nearly 18 percent for comparable civilians. African Americans are overrepresented in the enlisted ranks when compared to their civilian cohorts. Higher retention rates among African Americans continue to boost their representation among Active Components enlisted members — 21 percent in contrast to the 13 percent of African Americans among 18-44 year-old civilians in the workforce. With nearly 10 percent of active duty enlisted members counted as Hispanic, this ethnic minority remained underrepresented relative to the growing comparable civilian population (16 percent

  4. James Joyner says:

    yaj: Yeah, by “minority” I really mean “black and Hispanic.” Last I saw, Hispanics were 12% of the overall population?

  5. James,

    The report I linked to said that for the age group, Hispanics made up 13% of recruits out of a civilian population of 18%. With retention, Hispanics fall to 10% out of a civilian population of 16%.

    So it is only Blacks who are over represented minorities, not Blacks and Hispanics. And the over representation of Blacks is in line with their over representation in federal employment. So to say that a volunteer army is somehow unfair to blacks because they are over represented is also to say that the federal government is unfair to blacks because they are over represented in employment there.

    Since the recruitment numbers are in line (15% recruits being black out of 14% population), the higher representation in the military is due to their retention. They get in, they like it and want to make a career out of it. This is bad how?