The day 343 was my lucky number

I recently finished an oral history of the period from August 1969 through September 1970, one of the most tumultuous of 20th century America. The first chapter dealt with the draft and the draft resistance movement and, as would be expected, the Vietnam war infused the other topics in the book, which I recommend reading. It brought to mind a particular day of my freshman year of college.

For those too young to remember, in December 1969 the Selective Service System began conducting lotteries to determine the order in which draft-eligible men would be called to report for possible military induction. It was the first such lottery since 1942. That day, 366 slips of paper containing birth dates were placed in plastic capsules and drawn individually by hand from a water-cooler size glass bowl. The order of selection was the order in which draft calls would be made for all men born from 1944 to 1950.

I actually was in the last draft lottery on March 12, 1975. By then, it was more randomized. A date would be pulled from one large rotatable bin and a number from 1 to 366 would be pulled from a second. Thus, the order in which the dates were drawn didn’t affect the resulting draft number.

It would be easy to think there was no reason to worry about the draft then. The last draft call had been December 7, 1972, and the last American combat soldiers left South Vietnam in March 1973. But in January 1975 the North Vietnamese started a major offensive and by March 1 the South Vietnamese Army had suffered massive losses and was in full retreat. Whether justified or not, my peers and I began wondering if Washington would think it necessary to go back into the fray. While that didn’t occur, all we knew on that March 12 was that things were quickly going to hell in South Vietnam (in fact, Saigon would fall on April 30).

Given there was no internet, no 24-hour news cycle and the lottery wasn’t a central concern in the country, finding the draft numbers took some effort. I don’t recall exactly how we found out but my lottery number was 343, meaning that even if the U.S. foolishly re-entered Vietnam, there was zero chance I would be drafted. To the best of my recollection, my roommate’s draft number was over 200, also a safe place. We actually threw a party in our dorm room to celebrate.

Fortunately, the lottery wasn’t a life-changing event. And criticism that the lack of a draft skews the socioeconomic makeup of our military and overburdens the National Guard has some validity. Yet it’s something I still and will always remember. I am perhaps more thrilled I wasn’t born six years earlier. In that December 1, 1969, lottery, the first date drawn was my birthday.

A “just war” – if there could be such a thing – would not require conscription. Volunteers would be plentiful.

Ben Salmon, “Open Letter to President Wilson

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