Chance and Circumstance

Lawrence M. Baskir served as general counsel and chief executive officer of President Gerald R. Ford’s clemency board for draft evaders and deserters, and William A. Strauss was director of planning and management for the board and director of the staff that prepared its final report. From these pivotal positions in the controversy surrounding the administration of the nation’s selective service laws during the Vietnam era these two men have written an exhaustive study of the operation of the selective service laws throughout the course of the war and have concluded that these laws were blatantly unfair on their face and hopelessly complicated from an administrative point of view, finally collapsing, for all practical purposes, in the depth of the conflict. If that is true, one is left with the inevitable conclusion that the United States was not only bound to lose the war in Indochina but indeed deserved to lose it.

The Vietnam conflict was America’s most painful war by any standard. It was the nation’s longest war, and one that eventually ended in defeat. It was a war where the only heroes were prisoners, who in earlier conflicts were largely forgotten or even the objects of shame. The war saw a majority of those eligible for service evade that service either legally or illegally, while many within the military deserted their posts and fled to foreign countries willing to receive them. Finally, as it became clear that America was not going to win, supporters of the war within the United States turned the greater part of their frustrations upon those Americans opposing the war, much more than upon the enemy in Indochina, and particularly upon those who openly defied the draft or deserted the military. A climate of disorder and hatred within the United States itself followed.

The thesis of this study is that the majority of young men subject to the draft during the war legally evaded service through a multitude of loopholes in the selective service laws. Those loopholes were there because the American people as represented by Congress wanted them there, and the Selective Service concurred. The system had been built up piecemeal since the resumption of the draft in 1948 and was supposedly designed to ensure that the military drafted only those men fit to serve and those not needed in the civilian economy. The problem was that such categorization was very loosely and politically defined, so that by the time the unpopular Vietnam War rolled around, clever youth, mostly from privileged and educated backgrounds, simply took advantage of the abundant legal opportunities available to them for evading military service. They did not go, and they received no public censure for not going. Even if no loophole were available to a youth, once drafted into service there were yet other ways for the clever and the manipulative to avoid combat.

The complexity of the draft laws, with all their loopholes, together with all of the bureaucratic procedures and “safeguards” in the administration of the laws, meant that the system would collapse if enough people wanted to “gum it up.” This apparently was what happened by 1971, when the system began to fall of its own weight. A body of complex law and procedure, administered by local boards composed of citizens who were often totally ignorant of the law, assisted by low-level civil service clerks, was a perfect target for draft resisters with clever lawyers. There were plenty of courts presided over by sympathetic judges willing to listen to cases where incompetent draft boards made errors in administering a hopelessly complex set of laws. These courts increasingly found that local boards were in violation of Supreme Court rulings on the operation of the law, and draft offenders generally went free. The fact is that the law was so complicated that no board could really avoid making a fatal error in a controversial case,...

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Book World. June 11, 1978, p. E4.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, March 1, 1978, p. 272.

Library Journal. CIII, April 1, 1978, p. 735.

New York Times Book Review. June 11, 1978, p. 9.

Newsweek. XCI, June 5, 1978, p. 100.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIII, February 6, 1978, p. 98.