The 1969 Vietnam War Draft Lottery: Killed by a Birthday

PHOTO: Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) drawing the first capsule for the Selective Service draft, Dec 1, 1969. Photo credit: Selective Service System
PHOTO: Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) drawing the first capsule for the Selective Service draft, Dec 1, 1969. Photo credit: Selective Service System

One’s birthday is associated with happiness, life and celebration, but for a countless number of young American males who were unlucky enough to have been born between 1944 and 1951, it was something as pure as what day of the year they blew out their birthday candles that ultimately led to their untimely and horrific deaths.

To understand how this macabre web was woven, we must first jump back to the early days of World War II, where an ever expanding Japanese Empire began tearing through the nations of Southeast Asia, leaving devastation in its wake.

When Japanese forces conquered the jungle nation of Vietnam, the invading forces allowed Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai to continue to serve as the head of the country in exchange for his cooperation with the Japanese Empire.

The emperor’s cooperation with the ruthless occupiers caused many of the Vietnamese people to resent him and as the war winded down, revolutionaries eager to overthrow the unfaithful leader were many.

The most popular of these individuals, however, was committed communist Ho Chi Minh, who seized the opportunity to strike against the Vietnamese emperor and soon amassed a large and faithful following in the northern region of the country.

In early 1946, the communists had successfully captured Hanoi and most of northern Vietnam, establishing a communist government in the north, known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Emperor Bao Dai, still in power in the southern half of the country, set up the State of Vietnam, with support from French colonial soldiers who attempted to reassert their nation’s military strength after having been humiliated by Nazi Germany.

In the decade that followed, open battles, border skirmishes and proxy wars were fought along the border until the French eventually withdrew their forces from the fighting.

In the closing years of the 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration was openly supporting the southern side, training and equipping South Vietnamese forces as conflicts between democratic and communist sympathizers began to increase throughout the nation.

In the early days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, the U.S. had only committed around 800 personnel to train and outfit the South Vietnamese; however, the administration soon began to fear what was known as the “Domino Theory,” which stated that if South Vietnam was to fall to the North, then other places in southeast Asia were to become vulnerable to communism as well. This caused President Kennedy to begin sending additional American soldiers to Vietnam and by the second year of his presidency, there were around 9,000 troops in Vietnam.

In November 1963 John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, leaving historians to debate what his next moves would have been in the wake of rising violence and bloodshed against American soldiers in the region.  This point has been debated endlessly, but for so many it what might have been was of little importance, as President Lyndon B. Johnson increased the number of U.S. personnel in South Vietnam and by the end of 1965, the US had sent 82,000 troops to Vietnam, and Johnson’s military advisors wanted another 175,000. Due to the heavy demand for military personnel, with a draft already in effect in the United States began increasing the number of men being summoned each month.

By 1967, a half-million US soldiers were serving in Vietnam and Pentagon officials were still demanding more young lives to fight in the Southeast Asian civil war.

Their demands were met with assertions that draft officials were unfairly targeting African-Americans, individuals from the Appalachian region, and destitute families, while leaving the wealthy and privileged out.

In an effort to make the selection process more fair, on November 26, 1969, Congress authorized President Nixon to issue an executive order prescribing a process of random selection for draftees for the raging war. Nixon’s solution: The 366 days of the year (including February 29) were printed on slips of paper. These pieces of paper were then each placed in opaque plastic capsules, which were then mixed in a shoebox and then dumped into a deep glass jar. Capsules were drawn from the jar one at a time and opened.

The first number drawn was 258 (September 14), so all registrants with that birthday were assigned lottery number 1. The second number drawn corresponded to April 24, and so forth. All men of draft age (born January 1, 1944 to December 31, 1950) who shared a birth date would be called to serve at once. The first 195 birthdates drawn were later called to serve in the order they were drawn; the last of these was September 24.

Unfortunately, for all of its effort to make the selection process truly randomized, people soon noticed that the lottery numbers were not distributed uniformly over the months of the year. In particular, November and December births, or numbers 306 to 366, were assigned mainly to lower draft order numbers representing earlier calls to serve. This led to complaints that the lottery was not truly random as the legislation required.

An analysis of the procedure suggested that mixing the 366 capsules in the shoe box did not randomize them sufficiently before placing them into the jar (“The capsules were put in a box month by month, January through December, and subsequent mixing efforts were insufficient to overcome this sequencing”). Only five days in December—December 2, 12, 15, 17, and 19—were higher than the last call number of 195; meaning that of individuals born in December only people born on these five dates were never drafted. Had the days been evenly distributed, 14 days in December would have been expected to remain uncalled.

After a handful of revisions were made, a second draft lottery was held the following July for young men born in 1951.

Between 1965 and 1972 the draft provided more than 2.2-million service members to the U.S. military.

In total, the conflict claimed the lives of 58,318 American young men and resulted in the United States abandoning the conflict in January 1973. On April 30, 1975, South Vietnam surrendered to enemy forces from the north and Vietnam was reunified as a communist nation, which it remains to this day.

Though there presently is no draft in the United States, should a future draft ever be required, not much has changed as to how draftees would be selected. The Selective Service Committee who presides over the draft procedures has stored the large tumbler that holds all the number and dates that will be drawn to select candidates and the only thing that seems to have changed between the method of the past and the present one is that instead of using pieces of paper in blue capsules the SSC now uses ping-pong balls with the dates and numbers on them.

Its a tragic thought at how many American young men never grew old, never married and never became fathers for no other reason than that they were born on an unlucky day.  As we celebrate Veteran’s Day and remember all who served, we salute you, American Soldier, and say thank you for your service.

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