Fifty Years After the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force
The all-volunteer force has been one of America’s great success stories over the past five decades. In 1973, the United States eliminated the draft, creating the military as it is today. While far from perfect, the U.S. armed forces have never been more professional, educated, or capable. With such willing and able volunteers, it should come as no surprise that most Americans consistently oppose military conscription.
After two decades at war, however, a group of prominent defense critics now argue the all-volunteer force is “unfair, inefficient, and unsustainable.” They argue that it contributes to the nation’s “civil-military gap” and threatens the “social fabric of our democracy.” Congress has even chartered a national commission “to consider and develop recommendations concerning the need for a military draft.”
The United States should maintain the all-volunteer force, however, despite this criticism. While the civil-military divide is large and growing, reinstating conscription will not address the problem. Moreover, short of an existential threat to the nation, a draft is not politically feasible, publicly acceptable, or militarily suitable. The success of the all-volunteer is due to the lasting impact and enduring influence of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force (or Gates Commission), which presented its final report to President Richard Nixon in February 1970 — fifty years ago this month. This history of the commission — and how it reached its conclusions — offers lessons for the present day, and should inform our understanding of the U.S. military.
Nixon’s Campaign Promise
With a strong commission chair, an inclusive information-gathering process, and a coherent political strategy, the Gates Commission (named for its chairman, former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates) helped bring an end to conscription in the United States and usher in the all-volunteer force. The commission included cabinet secretaries, politicians, retired generals, captains of industry, seasoned educators, civil rights activists, famed economists, and even a law student. It convincingly argued that military conscription amounted to an unjust government tax with inequitable human, cultural, social, and economic costs for a generation of draftees, and unanimously recommended an end to the draft. The commission’s final report also recommended a more generous compensation and benefits package to recruit and retain servicemembers in a competitive market-based economy. Taken together, the Gates Commission is arguably the most successful blue-ribbon defense commission in U.S. history.
Throughout the 1960s, opponents of selective service openly criticized the draft as individuals found various ways to avoid conscription through “delays, exemptions, and deferments.” The deferment system was a particular source of angst for many Americans, as the public widely viewed it as exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities between rich and poor: The upper class went to college while the working class went to war. And the American war effort in Vietnam continued to escalate with no end in sight. By late 1968, nearly 37,000 U.S. troops had died in the war. According to the New York Times, the Pentagon estimated that “roughly 33 percent of Americans killed in combat were draftees.”
Meanwhile, domestic opposition to the war reached a crescendo at home. This opposition manifested itself through draft-resistance movements, widespread protests, and outright political disillusionment. For instance, a retrospective in the Washington Post described a massive, three-day protest outside the Pentagon in October 1967 as “a cultural touchstone of the decade [and] defining moment of American history.” Protests continued across the country, contributing to the nation’s divisive cultural and political climate and to President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968.
In late 1966, Nixon was in the early stages of his own campaign for the White House. The former vice president began by forming an inner circle of like-minded advisers — including Columbia University professor Martin Anderson, an economist by training — to counsel him on all matters of public policy. At a March 1967 campaign meeting in Manhattan, Anderson recommended that candidate Nixon reverse his longstanding position favoring conscription and come out publicly against the draft. Asking for time to study the issue before eventually presenting his findings to the group, Anderson proposed, “What if I could show you how we could end the draft completely — and increase our military power at the same time?”
After weeks of research, Anderson submitted a position paper to Nixon for review. In his memo, Anderson argued that the draft “constitutes two years of involuntary servitude to the State” and eliminating it “would actually strengthen our security.” Though Nixon expressed initial interest in the idea, several months passed without so much as a formal discussion or campaign meeting on the topic. But on Nov. 17, 1967, a young reporter from the New York Times asked Nixon for his thoughts on the draft. Anderson recalled, “Nixon smiled and replied evenly, ‘I think we should eliminate the draft and move to an all-volunteer force.’” The next day, the Times published an article titled, “Nixon Backs Eventual End of Draft.” With that, Nixon became the country’s most prominent public champion for the creation of an all-volunteer force. One year later, the American people elected him the 37th president of the United States.
In January 1969, Arthur Burns, a member of the Nixon campaign team, sent the president-elect a report outlining “suggestions for early action,” reminding him that “one of your strongest pledges during the campaign was the eventual abolition of the draft.” Burns recommended Nixon “appoint a special Commission charged with the task of developing a detailed plan of action for ending the draft.” Living up to his campaign promise, Nixon announced the commission by proclaiming, “I have directed the Commission to develop a comprehensive plan for eliminating conscription and moving toward an all-volunteer armed force. The Commission will study a broad range of possibilities … including increased pay, benefits, recruitment incentives, and other practicable measures to make military careers more attractive to young men.” With that, Nixon set the slow wheels of government in motion.
Beyond staff, office space, and an operating budget, a blue-ribbon defense commission of this caliber would also require a cadre of prominent private citizens and former public officials to serve as commissioners and give this massive undertaking the public attention and credibility it deserved. Anderson recalled, “The members of the commission were carefully chosen. It is relatively easy to select members of a commission so that the result is predetermined. We deliberately — at some risk — chose not to do that. Instead, we decided to appoint five people who were for the idea, five who were against it, and five who, while they had no clear position, were men and women of integrity.” With this strategy in mind, the president asked former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates, an all-volunteer force skeptic, to lead the commission. To his credit, Nixon knew that without a strong and well-respected commission chairman in the lead, any report recommending the transition to an all-volunteer force would be dead-on-arrival in Washington.
A Strong Chair at the Helm
An Ivy Leaguer, investment banker, and Navy veteran, Thomas Gates held several senior positions in the Eisenhower administration, including undersecretary of the Navy, secretary of the Navy, deputy secretary of defense, and secretary of defense. With an unparalleled Pentagon résumé, Gates was larger than life and highly respected among defense insiders. He enjoyed the gravitas necessary to lead such a consequential commission because he had been widely “credited with major management innovations” within the Department of Defense.
As chairman, Gates fostered a collegial commission environment where dissent was welcome. For instance, fellow commissioner Crawford Greenwalt asked Gates “whether the Commission was obligated to recommend an all-volunteer force plan” since “his only concern was that he be free to reject the all-volunteer solution.” Gates told him that “it was not necessary for the Commission members to assume at the outset that an all-volunteer force solution was either feasible or desirable.” According to Stephen Herbits, one of the last surviving commissioners who agreed to an interview for this research, “We asked ourselves whether an all-volunteer force was both desirable and doable. Skeptics raised the question as to whether it was desirable. Proponents were not afraid to explore the question because they never doubted the wisdom of an all-volunteer force.”
Reflecting on Gates’ leadership, famed economist and fellow commissioner Milton Friedman recalled, “Tom Gates was a splendid, open-minded, even-handed chairman, who gradually shifted his position to become a convinced supporter of an all-volunteer army.” Similarly, Herbits recalled, “Everyone in the room respected Gates. He was thoughtful and never raised his voice. He never ruled with an iron hand and when he wanted to move on to another topic, everyone agreed. His sheer personal charisma and authority moved the process along.” Clearly, Gates was the perfect choice to chair Nixon’s commission.
An Inclusive Information-Gathering Process Meets a Coherent Political Strategy
With less than a year to report his findings, Gates decided not to hold any public hearings on the commission’s work. However, he did demand an otherwise exhaustive information-gathering process. This included briefings from senior Pentagon bureaucrats, meetings with the service chiefs and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visits to Capitol Hill, and thorough analyses from the commission staff. Beyond defense officials, the Gates Commission also heard private testimony from prominent veterans’ organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Indeed, the commission understood the implications of its work for the American people, designing its final report “to be a persuasive public document which presented the economic, social, and political arguments for a volunteer force and a rebuttal to the arguments against a volunteer force.” Of course, this final report would not have come to pass were it not for the commission’s preceding staff reports and studies. The staff director, William Meckling, organized the commission’s research under directors responsible for total force manpower requirements; supply of officers; supply of enlisted personnel; and historical, political, and social research.
On Dec. 20, 1969, after months of study and debate, the commissioners unanimously concluded that an all-volunteer force was the most desirable solution, but not without some remaining internal differences. On Jan. 9, 1970, the commissioners met one last time to address their lingering disagreements. Gates facilitated a tense discussion wherein “the commission argued over the wording and the feasibility of the [all-volunteer force] at particular force levels.” This internal tension also stemmed from a debate over the war in Vietnam. Herbits, a Georgetown Law student at the time, objected to a draft version of the commission’s final report, which included language supporting the Vietnam War. Herbits, usually deferential to the elder statesmen on the commission, spoke up in defiant opposition to the other commissioners. After arguing that the ongoing conflict was beyond the scope of the commission’s work, Herbits threatened to vote against the final report as drafted. He recalled exclaiming, “Do you really want the youngest member of this commission telling the country he doesn’t agree with its report?” In search of unanimity, Gates brokered a deal between the quarrelling commissioners by conceding Herbits’ point and omitting language supporting the war.
With a unanimous agreement secured, Gates shifted his attention to combating opposition to the final report. According to Gus Lee and Geoffrey Parker, “Mr. Gates thought it was essential that the commission squarely face all major objections to the volunteer force, and eventually a complete section of the report was set aside to refute common criticisms of the volunteer force concept.” As such, the commissioners socialized their final recommendations over dinner with key stakeholders, including Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor. Bernard Rostker writes, “As the Gates Commission proceeded to ‘prebrief’ the services on their emerging recommendations, it became clear that the commissioners’ views were different from those prevailing in the Pentagon.”
The next morning, Resor attended the commission’s meeting to formally deliver the Army’s official response to the report’s findings and recommendations. Throughout the meeting, Resor frequently referred to would-be volunteers as “mercenaries.” According to Martin Anderson, “At some point, [Milton] Friedman couldn’t take it anymore and responded to Resor, ‘Look, let’s make an agreement. If you promise to stop calling my volunteers ‘mercenaries,’ I will promise to stop calling your draftees ‘slaves.’” To that end, the commissioners argued conscription imposed “social and human costs by distorting the personal lives and career plans of the young and by forcing society to deal with such difficult problems.” Volunteers, on the other hand, would “maintain a high quality force … that is more experienced, better motivated, and has higher morale.” Tensions remained high as the commission prepared to publicly issue its final report. To get ahead of any Pentagon misinformation campaign, Gates went out of his way to visit the Senate Armed Services Committee and allay lingering congressional concerns. By engaging Washington stakeholders throughout the process, Gates clearly understood his central role in ensuring the commission’s success.
In close consultation with the White House, the commission published its final report through the Government Printing Office and Macmillan Company. The Nixon administration would “ensure maximum public exposure of the Gates Commission report” by printing 5,000 hardcover books and another 100,000 paperback copies by March 1970. This proved to be a smart and wildly successful public information campaign. Gates showed remarkable leadership in the final stretch as he “led the commission to settle its remaining differences and eventually persuaded all members to sign without a single dissenting opinion.” The importance of the commission’s unanimity on an all-volunteer force cannot be overstated. The commissioners, representing a veritable cross-section of society, signaled to the defense establishment that the American people were ready to embrace a historic policy change by replacing conscription with an all-volunteer force.
Keep the All-Volunteer Force
The inequitable human, cultural, social, and economic costs of conscription during the Vietnam War robbed a generation of draftees of their youth. The Gates Commission deserves a great deal of credit for helping to end military conscription in the United States and laying the intellectual foundation for the advent of the all-volunteer force three years later. Ultimately, the Gates Commission succeeded because Gates led an inclusive information-gathering process, satisfying stakeholders, and employed a coherent political strategy, overcoming opposition.
Indeed, the all-volunteer force is the cornerstone of the modern American military. The U.S. military today is a more effective, just, equitable, and meritorious institution, thanks in large measure to the commission’s foundational work 50 years ago.
Like conscription, however, the all-volunteer force has come at a significant cost. While the Gates Commission asserted that “conscription offers the general public an opportunity to impose a disproportionate share of defense costs on a minority of the population,” the same could be said for the all-volunteer force today. In fact, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates illustrated this point during a 2010 lecture: “Yet even as we appreciate, and sometimes marvel at, the performance of this all-volunteer force, I think it important at this time … to recognize that this success has come at significant cost. Above all, the human cost, for the troops and their families. But also cultural, social, and financial costs in terms of the relationship between those in uniform and the wider society they have sworn to protect.” After two decades at war, the 50th anniversary of the Gates Commission serves as a timely reminder that military service is a costly endeavor, for volunteers and their families alike.
Maj. Brandon J. Archuleta, Ph.D. is a strategic planner in the Army war plans division and author of the forthcoming book, Twenty Years of Service: The Politics of Military Pension Policy and the Long Road to Reform. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.