Vietnam Draft Lottery Had Lasting Impact

The draft ended in 1973. It's effects still linger today.

The draft ended in 1973. It’s effects still linger today.

Political scientists Robert Erikson of Columbia and Laura Stoker of Berkeley, in a recent paper titled, “Caught in the Draft: Vietnam Draft Lottery Status and Political Attitudes,” [PDF] offer findings that the psychological impact of the draft, and specifically of the draft numbering system, have been permanent:

In 1969, the first Vietnam draft lottery assigned numbers to birth dates, determining which young men would be called to fight in Vietnam. We exploit this natural experiment to examine how draft vulnerability influenced opinions about the Vietnam War, party identification, political ideology, and attitudes toward salient political figures and issues of the day. Data analyzed come from the Jennings-Niemi Panel Study of Political Socialization, which surveyed high school seniors from the Class of 1965 both before and after the national draft lottery was instituted. Males holding low lottery numbers became more anti-war, more liberal, and more Democratic in their voting compared to those whose high numbers protected them from the draft. Trace effects are found even when the respondents were re-interviewed in the 1990s. Draft number effects typically exceed those for pre-adult party identification and are not mediated by military service or the acquisition of higher education.

The last of these answer the most obvious objection: That those who had high draft numbers were, well, drafted.

As the authors note in their introduction, this is a rare example of a useful “natural experiment.”

In December 1969, men of eligible age were randomly assigned draft numbers based on their birthday. Numbers were assigned from 1 to 366, with those with low numbers called first for induction. Thus, young men could find themselves facing the likelihood of being sent to Vietnam, escape altogether, or some ambiguous status in-between.

Thus, we have a large scale experiment with built-in control groups where assignment was random. Further, there are no observation effects since the researchers did the examination post-hoc; indeed, I’d guess Stoker wasn’t born in 1969. Further, probably of interest only to other political scientists, a classic dataset figured into the analysis.

John Sides elaborates on the major findings, highlighting in particular this from Erikson and Stoker’s conclusion:

The breadth, magnitude, and, in some respects, persistence of these attitudinal changes illustrates how powerful self-interest can become when public policies directly touch our lives.

It’s worth noting, too, that these men turned against Richard Nixon and the Republican Party despite the fact that the Vietnam War was started under the Democrats and escalated to major war status by Lyndon Johnson. Indeed, Nixon campaigned in 1968 on getting America out of the war.

While history isn’t exactly repeating itself, the parallels with Obama and Afghanistan are obvious. Then again, we don’t have a draft now, so the “powerful self-interest” is decidedly limited.

Via Chris Blattman via Robert Farley

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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. PJ says:

    Obama never campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I was in the last lottery and IIRC I drew a 315. Safe. Then they ended the draft so doubly safe.

    I don’t see anything like this effect over Afghanistan. No one is fighting in Afghanistan unless they volunteered. And since the war has lasted a decade any soldier who wanted out has by now had plenty of chances. It’s not like a serviceman in the last decade didn’t know they were going to Iraq or Afghanistan.

    What’s interesting in retrospect is how little effect in terms of win/lose the shift to a professional army has had. Korea and Vietnam with draftees, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan with professional soldiers. We still still win in a straight-up fight, and we still can’t beat guerillas on guerilla-friendly terrain. I imagine it’s cut casualties, though.

  3. steve says:

    I always find it more interesting to go through the list of people who managed to avoid going by getting multiple exemptions. It is amazing how many pro-America, strong on defense, patriotic, Real Americans went to a lot of effort to avoid the war. There appears to be no price for that in terms of political viability.


  4. Jib says:

    While history isn’t exactly repeating itself, the parallels with Obama and Afghanistan are obvious.

    No, they are not. In fact there is no parallel at all. There no draft with every soldier a volunteer and after these years of war, every single soldier who volunteers knows they will be making at least 1 and probably more than 1 combat tour (and they still volunteer). Obama never campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan, he campaigned on putting more troops into Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not some war with a vague start that no one understands why we are there, every American knows why we went to war in Afghanistan and the support for it, especially in the beginning was very high.

    If you were talking about Iraq AND there was a draft AND Obama was staying int he war instead of getting out then yes, you would have a point.

    Come on Doug, you really had to stretch to make a very shaky connection to try and say what? What is the point?

  5. Davebo says:


    Though your points stand on your own I have to note it isn’t Doug but James Joyner writing this post.

  6. Mr. Prosser says:

    I wonder how valid this study is since most draftees were under 21 and couldn’t vote until 1971. I was in the class of ’65 and enlisted in ’67 because I just didn’t want to use a IIS (student deferment) anymore and there was no way to take time off from school and go to Europe and “find yourself” unless your Daddy had some influence. The lottery, I’m sure, took the load off a huge number of high-number guys but the rest had no voting influence at all. The class of ’65 could vote in ’68 and Nixon won (I voted for Dick Gregory absentee from in-country) but the lottery was still a year out in that election, I think Nixon won as a reaction to the Chicago riots. Granted Nixon had a landslide in ’72 but the Democrats were a mess that year.

  7. Dividist says:

    Apparently we are the same age Mr. Reynolds. I was also in the 1972 February lottery and drew number 309. By then I was opposed to the war, but I recall thinking if my number came up, I would serve. I wonder to this day how differently things would have turned out if I had a low draw. Dodged a bullet literally and figuratively and cast my first presidential vote for McGovern in ’72.

    And you still owe me a bottle of 15 year old Laphroiag. No rush. Happy to continue stalking you across the blogosphere and dropping occasional reminders. It is really quite satisfying.

  8. Dividist says:

    I am notified that my comment is in the spam filter if anyone feels so inclined to release it.

  9. Herb says:

    My brother came back from Iraq a devout Republican, so who knows, a reverse trend might be in order.

  10. john personna says:

    So not having a draft means fewer liberals and peaceniks. As many of us have argued.

  11. rodney dill says:

    My two brothers got relatively high numbers. I turned eighteen after the draft ended, and am in the set of years that never had to register for the selective service.

  12. Bernieyeball says:

    The lottery was supposed to make the draft more equatable by ending the deferments available to students and at one time married men with children. What a load of crap!
    How a government can shanghai its citizens into war before those pressed into service are old enough to vote said government out of office and call it democracy is beyond me.
    I registered when I was 18 in Jan. of 1966. Still in HS.
    As with many of my of my class I went to Jr. College and College for the sole reason of preventing the State from dragging my keister to the Jungle and getting my head blown off.

    Steve writes: “It is amazing how many pro-America, strong on defense, patriotic, Real Americans went to a lot of effort to avoid the war.”
    Just ask Brush Lintoff. I was proud of him when he got control of his life and shed all those pounds off his frame. I did find it curious he couldn’t do that when he was eligible for the draft however. I think he got the coveted 4-F. Women and children go before the flat footed and fat.

    Nixon claimed he had a “secret plan” to end the war when he campaigned in 1968. Secret plan my arse. Over 20,000 American troops came home in body bags 1969-1971 after Tricky Dick was elected.

    When George II (the George that served in the National Guard during the Vietnam era) was pontificating about the glories of the shock and awe of war all I could think about were the words of Senator Gruening (AK) who objected to “sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn, which is steadily being escalated.”

    Happy Fourth of July!