The Vietnam War draft lottery was a watershed event in my life, as I suspect that it was for so many others.
I entered the University of Missouri in the fall of 1966 as a member of the McDonnell-Douglas Co-op Program in engineering. As the oldest of four children spread out over only six years, I was concerned with being able to afford college. The Co-op Program was a way to do that because it envisioned working and going to school alternating semesters after the freshman year. At the time I signed up for the Program, the Selective Service Boards would permit a student to retain a II-S deferment during the working semester. However, this changed with the military build-up in the fall of 1967 when, to my great surprise, I was re-classified as I-A during one of my working semesters. With a fair amount of effort, I was able to be re-classified as III-A (occupational deferment) because I was working in the F-4 program at McDonnell-Douglas. But, having regained the II-S deferment upon returning to school, I quit the Program by the end of 1968 because I was afraid of another change in the rules. That experience with the Webster Groves Selective Service Board led me to believe that, once I graduated, I would be draft bait for sure.
The Draft Lottery gave hope of a different outcome. I remember that evening in the fall of 1969 well. Since the lottery affected all men then in college, everyone (at least all the men) that night was gathered around a radio as the numbers were drawn. (It might have been on TV as well, but we did not have access to one.). No one could study and a fair amount of adult beverages were consumed, legally or illegally. If your number was high, you had cause to celebrate and, if your number was one of the low ones, there was an excuse to drown your sorrows.
As it turned out, I received the number 232, a number that was in the “gray zone.” There was speculation that the 1970 draft calls would not go much beyond the number 200 but no one knew for sure. Trying to make plans for the future, in early 1970 I called my Selective Service Board in Webster Groves to get their view of how high they would go. I was told that, since they had not been able to meet their quota for a number of years, they expected to go through number 366 if the President would let them. But the President ultimately did not let them, although it was not until the fall that the President (Richard Nixon) announced that no Selective Service Board would draft beyond number 195.
But that outcome was unknowable in the spring of 1970. So, although I had been accepted at a number of law schools, I decided that the risk of military service interrupting law school was such that I would put off going until the issue was resolved. And I put into effect a back-up plan of applying to the U.S. Navy Officers Candidate School. As it turned out, the Navy was besieged with applicants with lower draft numbers and did not get back to me until the fall. By the time I was offered a place in OCS, the number 195 limit already had been announced. So I turned down the Navy and reapplied to law school.
This kind of experience – by no means unique for people of our vintage – is something that sounds foreign to people even a couple of years younger. Ask almost any male our age what his draft lottery number was, and he’ll remember. Very few others, even in succeeding classes, had much cause for concern.