Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a short series before the documentary series The Vietnam War (directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick) premieres this Sunday. Do not miss Part I.
There are two statistics that tell a lot about who went to Vietnam and who avoided the war: Harvard College, that symbolic bastion of the American elite, had 19 alumni who died in Vietnam. Dundalk High School in Maryland, attended largely by steelworkers’ kids and with a male student body a sixth of Harvard’s, lost 23.
Of the 19 Harvard alumni who were killed, only 11 were in the age group subject to the Vietnam draft. The others were from earlier classes and all, with the exception of two civilians and one who volunteered as an Army chaplain, had entered military service well before the Vietnam buildup began.
The Harvard casualty list includes just one draftee (one of only two men on the list who were not officers). However, according to a remembrance on his high school class website, that young man volunteered for the draft, which he quite possibly could have avoided if he’d tried (just ask Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, or Rush Limbaugh). Volunteering to be drafted was a get-it-over-with option for men who decided not to wait to be called but chose to be inducted out of turn, without seeking reclassification or some other way to avoid serving. If the one drafted casualty on the Harvard list took that route, it means that through the entire war period, not a single Harvard man who died was a typical — that is, involuntary — draftee.
Selective Service could have raised standards during the Vietnam War because the draft pool, born in the Baby Boom, was so large. It could have set a higher minimum grade on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, the basic intelligence test, and still easily met military manpower needs. Instead it lowered that requirement. Under rules promoted principally by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara — to the opposition of most military leaders — local draft boards across the country were required to call up scores of thousands of men with IQ scores below the minimum standard. Those men came overwhelmingly from poor, low-status backgrounds. Drafting more men from the bottom of the socio-economic ladder meant fewer needed to be called from the top steps, so the policy left intact the many escape routes for more privileged young men while penalizing the most disadvantaged.
The full story of Project 100,000, as that program was known, is told in an exhaustively researched and deeply disturbing book called McNamara’s Folly, by Hamilton Gregory. Not only did those under-qualified men take disproportionate casualties in Vietnam, but of those who came home, more than half left military service with less than honorable discharges. In other words, as Gregory (a Vietnam veteran himself) points out, after drafting clearly unsuitable men, the military sent them back to society permanently stigmatized for being unsuitable for conscription.
Long after the war, in his book In Retrospect and elsewhere, McNamara expressed regret for his role in shaping the U.S. intervention and its military effort in Vietnam. But as far as I can tell, he never apologized, in the book or anywhere else, for Project 100,000 or for draft policies that were applied so unequally to different classes of Americans — policies that were almost certainly one precursor of the social and cultural divides that split our country a half-century later.
As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Arnold R. Isaacs covered both the war in Vietnam and the antiwar protests at home. He is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy, and From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America. Isaacs lives in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.