The Vietnam War period was a turbulent time for America, not only because of the Civil Rights Movement but also because of the war itself; young American men were away fighting a cunning enemy in a country unfamiliar to many Americans of the time and there was little support for the war effort from those who believed that the cause was not worthy of the lives of their brothers, fathers, uncles, and friends. Since so many men chose to fight overseas in the war or were drafted, the government had to keep some of the men home to keep factories in production and for other important and essential careers. The men who needed to stay home in America for these reasons were exempt from the drafting and worked for companies that helped the war effort or were essential for daily American life; this was called a “critical job deferment.” Although having a critical job deferment from the government was a perfectly legal way to avoid the draft, many could not qualify for such and some of these men tried other methods of staying out of combat in Vietnam, many of which were illegal and most were dishonest at the least.
The Vietnam War, a conflict between the communist Northern Vietnamese and the Southern Vietnamese (who fought against communism), began in Vietnam long before the United States got involved; the Vietnam War began in the mid-1950’s and Americans only intervened in 1961 with the “advisors”, who were American military officers sent to Vietnam by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy who were supposed to instruct the South Vietnamese military leaders on battle strategies. However, the American advisors began to serve in combat roles in support of the South Vietnamese efforts, so President Kennedy decided to gradually send more soldiers, but unfortunately, the President was assassinated before putting any further battle plans into action. Kennedy’s Vice President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, succeeded him in the Presidential office; soon after Johnson became President, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as a result of a supposed attack on American ships, which gave the President a chance to send in more troops and begin bombing raids over Vietnam (which they called Operation Rolling Thunder). All of these decisions required the service of thousands more young American men, and in order to have enough soldiers for the growing conflict in Vietnam, the American government resorted to the process of conscription. However, drafting American men was not as simple as it may seem because many men could be exempt from the draft for various reasons and people became very creative in the ways they got a deferment or they evaded the draft in other ways.
Although there were many ways to avoid being drafted or lessen the probability that one would be drafted, most of the methods included things that only the upper or middle-class men could afford to do, like going to college, which earned a deferment. Deferments were a common legal way to get out of being called into military service, and they were regulated by a special drafting system which had six main (or at least very common) classifications: 1-A, 1-D, 1-Y, 2-S, 3-A, and 4-F. The 1-A classification basically signified that the person had no deferments and was ready to become a member of the military, and while the second classification, 1-D, also didn’t include a deferment, it was separate because it was a soldier in training or someone in a Reserve, such as ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps). The next classification, 1-Y, was for those who would only be called to serve in the military during times of extreme need or emergency for various reasons (this was considered a deferment); however, this classification was abolished before the end of the Vietnam War. The next deferment classification was 2-S, which dealt with students, who were usually granted a deferment while they were in college but would be eligible for drafting when they graduated if they chose not to continue their education with a further degree. Another deferment classification was 3-A, which was for registered people who had children or other family members who were dependent on them for food, money, and/or shelter. 4-F was a classification that granted full exemption for the registered person for disabilities or whatever other reasons deemed acceptable; however, this was not the only legal means of becoming exempt from at least the fighting part of military service.
Even though many people remember the Vietnam War’s “draft dodgers” (men who found unlawful means of escaping the draft), there were plenty of men who legally avoided fighting in Vietnam as well, some by enrolling in school, some by making a family, some by getting certain jobs that earned a deferment, some by filing as a “conscientious objector,” and some simply aged out of the system. Any men from age 18 to 26 were eligible for drafting without deferments; because the draftees were chosen by a type of lottery based on birth dates and initials, people were chosen at random from the registry, which gave men a decent chance that they wouldn’t be drafted, especially if they had been deferred. Even if a man was drafted, he had the chance to file as a “conscientious objector,” which meant that his religious or moral views prevented him from fighting in a war; these men were given either non-military service jobs (usually some kind of public service job) or a military service job that did not require the man to fight, and these placements lasted the same amount of time as one in regular military service. At the very beginning of the war, another way to escape the draft was to get married, which earned an automatic deferment, but this policy was quickly changed and men had to find other ways to get deferred. Jobs that granted deferments ranged from agricultural professions to ministry jobs to any kind of career that was helpful to the war effort, whether directly or indirectly.
One of the biggest problems that people had with the Vietnam War was the drafting itself, because those who were financially less fortunate could not afford to attend college, which granted a deferment, and therefore could not get many of the jobs that gave deferments (such as engineering). This problem was further exaggerated by the Civil Rights Movement, when people accused the government of giving the wealthy an unfair advantage, as well as complaining that it was a racist issue because many poor Americans were black. As the war stretched longer and longer, many Americans became increasingly hostile to the war effort and criticism of the drafts only became stronger as Americans watched the Vietnam War unfold on their television screens, which was unlike anything they had seen before. The hatred directed towards the war effort and the drafts soon spread to bitterness toward Vietnam veterans and even toward those who had received job/school deferments.
Glenn D. Helman received a critical occupations deferment during the Vietnam War after graduating from Mississippi State University in 1969 with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering. He was interviewed about the Vietnam War, drafting, deferments, the life of the times, and especially his critical job deferment for his contract with General Electric, a company that was considered important for society in America and essential to the war effort. While Mr. Helman did not serve in the military, he had many college friends and acquaintances who were drafted and served in the war; he said, “it seemed like about half of my friends from Mississippi State went to Vietnam.” Since he graduated from college in the middle of the war, men his age and slightly younger than him were perfect draft age, and “if you didn’t go to college, you were often drafted, even if you had a family or whatever, you still got drafted,” according to Mr. Helman. When asked about how long his friends stayed in Vietnam, he explained that he didn’t remember the exact amount of time, but that the troops stayed in Vietnam for a long while before coming back and the conditions were rough for the soldiers. Mr. Helman explained that “most of them (the soldiers), when they came back, didn’t talk about it (the war) much. It was not a good experience for them, it was bad, and so they didn’t want to talk about it. It was just a bad memory.”
The veterans also faced another challenge when they returned: the people’s discontent because of the war had shifted to contempt toward those who fought in the war. Mr. Helman described it this way: “People were spitting on veterans. When they came back, it wasn’t like they were war heroes. If you were a veteran, others might have looked down on you. It was not a good situation.” He told a story of veterans who, after coming home from the war, changed out of their army attire and into civilian clothes as soon as they could, so that they wouldn’t be mistreated for being Vietnam vets. When asked what made the difference between the treatment of World War II veterans and Vietnam veterans, he replied, “World War II was a war with a direct threat to America and had a common enemy, whereas, for Vietnam, it wasn’t so much a direct threat to the United States. In World War II, we had the Japanese coming in and bombing Pearl Harbor.” Mr. Helman spoke much about the unpopularity of the war in the eyes of the American people, because of the loss of life and because of the mandatory draft. He said that “there were some people that knew that the veterans had no choice, so they didn’t look down upon them, but others, especially young people at colleges and such, were demonstrating and kind of ridiculing the veterans. But the veterans really didn’t have a choice. They had to serve, that was the law.”
Obviously, from the opinions that Mr. Helman has, there were some Americans who somewhat understood the veterans and truly cared for them, but the mainstream opinion seemed to be that the war was ridiculous and anyone involved in it deserved the fault. The draft was a very serious thing; even classes in college were somewhat affected by the wartime drafting. “There were some mandatory classes we had to take that were kind of like ROTC, it was kind of like a preparation for those who would be drafted,” said Mr. Helman. He also spoke of “draft dodgers,” which he described as “people who escaped to Canada or hid and changed their name so they wouldn’t be drafted.” There was so much hate against the war that it spread to anyone who had different views from someone else. Although “the war just was not popular,” as Mr. Helman put it, “it was not right for anybody to treat the veterans that way. But they could certainly criticize the government, you know, Congress, for authorizing it, but to criticize those who went over and put their lives on the line, it wasn’t fair to them at all.” In Mr. Helman’s opinion, “sometimes the demonstrations (against the drafts or the war) were just a big party with kids acting out and they acted out against the veterans, too.” He thinks that another reason that the war was so highly disliked is that Americans could see the violence on their own television screens in their own homes, and while World War II was also bloody, it was not visible to the public like the war in Vietnam. When Mr. Helman was asked if the United States should have gotten involved in Vietnam, he replied, “You know, I wouldn’t say, because I’m an engineer and I didn’t study history as much, but sometimes getting involved in a war can be like stepping in quicksand, and there’s not a winner. We need to protect our people, but it’s not a simple answer. Other people don’t think like we do. Who are we to say what other countries should do?”
The Vietnam War period was a period of immense change for America in numerous ways; the war and the government’s reaction to it changed the way Americans thought of their leaders, the United States became less segregated, and some would say that Americans became better at evading certain details of the law. People of the time seem to have lost some of the trust in their leaders after various instances of dishonesty by the government and they began to think more for themselves. The distrust and resistance to the government in the 1960’s and 1970’s is shown through the history of the Vietnam War drafts and all those who refused to accept it.
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