Percentage of soldiers drafted in WWII vs. Vietnam

The November 2001 Harper’s Index included the two factoids and credited the US Selective Service as the source:
–Chances that a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War volunteered : 4 in 5
–Chance that a U.S. soldier in World War II did so : 1 in 3

These facts seem to undermine everything we’ve been led to believe about the “Greatest Generation” and the protest culture of the 60s. I’m aware that the Index can be somewhat misleading in taking its factoids out of context, but I am stumped for areasonable explanation here. IS there a logical explanation, or do I need to throw out my “Saving Private Ryan” DVD?

There were a lot more soliders in World War II than in Vietnam. That’s one reason.
Not as many soldiers were as needed to fight in Vietnam.

I am a 79 year old volunteer veteran of the Army Air Corps in WWII. The number of ridiculous myths about WWII, particularly those by Tom Brokaw (The Greatest Generation) and some by Steven Ambrose, make me gag.

Saving Private Ryan is a fairly good movie, if you go for that sort of thing, but it is only a movie and is filled with factual mistakes and a lot of improbabilities. If you enjoy the movie, why throw it out? After all (and you probably won’t know about this film) Gen. Custer and his demise bore only a vague resemblance (i.e. Custer was the 7th Cavalry Commander and his command was half destroyed) to the Errol Flynn portrayal in They Died With Their Boots On. But it’s a pretty good rootin’ tootin’ shoot 'em up.

One reason would be that the average age in Vietnam was 22 while the average age in WWII was 26. And remember that in pre WWII America few men went to college and many never finished high school, so a lot of those 26 year olds were men who were already about 10 years into a career and going into the military represented a major disruption in their lives.

But there is also the fact that history tends to have a selective memory. There were about 350,000 draft dodgers during WWII (and thats just the ones who weren’t bright enough to think of a legit way out of service) and according to at least one poll made in 1947, some 25% of Americans thought that our participation in WWII was a mistake.

It’s not exactly in agreement with Harpers, but the following, from a Newsmax serialization of parts of Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heros and its History, is close:

I’ve seen the same figures elsewhere.

One other factor re why the generations are seen so differently:

After 12/7('41) there were no large scale, ongoing protests of World War II, the draft & the conduct of the war by the generation (more or less) doing the fighting.

The nightly TV pictures of 20-somethings getting gassed protesting the war (& some smaller elements chanting pro-VC/Ho slogans), juxtaposed with their age age-mates dying in Vietnam, made it easy to recall that “Kids weren’t like this in WWII”

BobT makes an excellent point. In WWII they needed vastly more people and so had to draft nearly every warm body. That is proved by zigaretten who points out that the average age of soldiers in WWII was 26 compared with 22 in Vietnam. In '68 when I was drafted I met only one older draftee during basic training and he was considered nearly over the hill at 22. They didn’t draft anyone over 26 during Vietnam. So the military’s modest needs during Vietnam could be filled by volunteers and relatively small number of draftees. In WWII, they needed everybody.

The other thing to consider is that if you are older (e.g., 26) and have responsibilities, you might be able to get out of some if you are drafted but not if you volunteer so some people in WWII may have found it to be in their best interest to wait for their number to be called rather than volunteering. On the other hand, for a younger person (e.g., 22), without responsibilities, it might make sense, if you are sure you are going to get drafted anyway, to volunteer so that you have some say in where you serve and what you do.

In short, I don’t think looking at the proportion of draftees to volunteers at any given time is a reliable way to gauge the popularity of a war or the patriotism of the draft age population.

Another factor is that after WWI the military was scaled back tremendously, and when the US entered WWII, the US had to increase the size of its forces tremendously. After WWII, as the Cold War began, the size of the military was kept quite large, and remains so to this day.

When I got out of college in 1961, I was commissioned and went into the Marine Corps. Why would I have done such a thing? Well, because if I hadn’t done that I probably would have been drafted into the Army as a private. Vietnam was a police action and there were some of my peers that hoped it would become a war so that they could serve in it and have that in their jacket (these were career types). The point I’m making is that there was a draft before Vietnam and you either went to college (temporary avoidance), got married or joined up. For that reason, until Johnson really escalated the war drafting married men was not needed. That is part of what the fuss was all about. They started drafting those people that had gotten out of the draft mostly by getting married or who planned to get married to avoid it.

David Simmons may disagree but I think one of the big differences between WWII and Vietnam is that people were opposed to getting into WWII. As everyone knows it took something like Pearl Harbor to get us involved. But after it got going there was more support and a willingness to put up with rationing, blackouts, etc. that never happened during Vietnam. When it started Vietnam was not unpopular, but then the longer things went on the more unpopular it got. So when we look back it is like reading a book, if it ended the right way who cares how it started? WWII had a good ending, Vietnam had a crappy ending.

That I believe is why there were more volunteers and yet you hear so much about draft dodging, during the Vietnam War.

WWII was a full scale war. Access to items like tires were restricted. If you had an exempt job like mining, steel making, munitions, you were locked into those jobs. You could not quit, they were your service.

Unless you were drafted, Vietnam was just something on the news.

For people who did not serve, there was a very big differance between the two wars.

No disagreement with the points made. As John Kennedy said about the Bay of Pigs operation, “Sucess has many fathers, failure is an orphan.” The Pearl Harbor attack was a unifying and defining WWII event. Before that, isolationism was the dominant political stance. In my midwestern town a common pharase was along the lines of, “Well, we pulled their chestnuts out of the fire in the last war and they never paid us the war debts so …” followed by the speakers other pet peeves. Aside to British and French posters: Don’t rain all over me, I know that our contribution to WWI was minor at the most, but I’m quoting the opinion in my part of this country.

In my farming town there were two types of people. Farmers and town folks and there was no little friction between them. Farmers got “B” gas ration cards, townies “A” cards. The former got a lot more gasoline than the latter. So much more that farmers really didn’t feel the restrictions of the rationing all that much. Farming was also an essential occupation so the farmers’ sons could get a draft exemption if they wanted one badly enough and this caused a lot of resentment. The terms “slacker” and “wearing the white feather (cowardice)” were not uncommon. Behind the farmers backs, of course.

The idea that it was “one for all and all for one” is not only wrong, it borders on ludicrous. And I went into the Army in 1943 so I don’t know if things got tenser as the war went on. But I doubt if they got any easier.

And as for the soldiers in the two wars, the incidence of AWOL, in Europe at least, in WWII was much higher than in Vietnam (or, for that matter, in Korea). During the Battle of the Bulge in Dec. and Jan. 1944-45 riflemen were in such short supply that cooks and bakers and company clerks who hadn’t had any infantry training since Extended Order Drill in Basic Training were put into the line. At the same time, according to historian John Tolandin Battle: Story of the Bulge, the equivalent of a division of infantry was AWOL somewhere in France.

Not that we were all a bunch of gold-bricks, but we were far from the unified heroes as Tom Brokaw would have it. The war was regarded as a nasty job that had to be done so it was. But very few people went out of their way to push themselves forward into the thick of the action. If we had to go we went, for the most part anyway, and that was about the size of it.

By they way, this is all my view of things. I’m sure you will find others who remember WWII differently.

Without some footnotes, this statistic may be quite misleading.

What defines a “Volunteer?”

In the Vietnam era, Army draftees were assigned a serial number beginning with “US”.

Army enlistees were given numbers starting with “RA” (stands for “Regular Army,” I imagine).

So, if you count up the number of US’s and RA’s, you have your ratio, right?

Not so fast, grunt-breath! If a draftee walked into an enlistment center and signed up (as I did), he was counted as an RA. How many of these were there? In the Vietnam era, I think a lot; WWII, maybe much fewer.

So a certain percentage of “volunteers” were originally drafted and certainly never would have entered the military otherwise. It may distort the figures considerably.

And if you are wondering why I would enlist if I was so anti-military, here’s why. Escaping to Canada seemed like a poor option, and enlisting, with some guarantees, like occupation-specialty (MOS) and initial assignment location, looked like the better deal.

What age were the oldest draftees in WWII? I’ve heard people up to age 40 were drafted.

I couldn’t find this info at the selective service site.

I don’t know, and haven’t yet found out, about the oldest actually inducted into service. But, my father and I both registered for the draft at the same time in 1942. He was 53 and I was 19. The age limits had just been changed to take in those from 18 to 55.

When Saving Private Ryan came out, one of the facts that was given on talk shows was that the actors were too old. Supposedly, most of the soldiers were 18 to 21 years old, according to the experts.

I don’t know a thing about the military, but I know something about organizational politics. I’ll betcha that the dangerous, dirty, and unpleasant work fell disproportionately on the conscripts. Experts, feel free to correct me!

I beg to differ on the comment above that the American involvement in WWI was not significant. At the very least, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The British and French were still using inferior equipment, genocidially suicidal tactics and pointless strategy when the U.S. joined the war. The Germans had a cessation of violence on their Eastern Front with the Bolshevik Revolution.

U.S. units had a success under the command of Pershing, who had prohibited the use of US troops in French units, and this had a tremendous morale effect against the German sailors and soldiers, who saw the writing on the wall: they had enjoyed great success against bad weapons, tactics and strategy, but even the field troops knew that an endless supply of Americans who would not simply commit suicide in frontal charges, had state of the art weapons in the Tommy gun (in short supply) and the 1911, the BAR, etc., the gig was up. When the German Navy was told it was going to make an all out attack on the British Navy, they were not used committing the same suicidal tactics of the Allies, they mutinied, and the gig was up.

Nope. No unit could function very long unless the hazards were doled out pretty evenly. The casualty rate among platoon leaders (2nd Lieutenants) was high enough without adding to them the chance of being shot by your own men.

Well, it’s a free country and differing from me is still permitted.

The US used French artillery guns (75 mm cannon), French aircraft (Spad and Nieuport) and British Enfield rifles. In fact, some of our troops at the beginning of WWII were still using Enfields.

By the time US war production got cranked up, the war ended.

A college professor of the time once complained to me that other professors had blackmailed their male students: “Get out there and protest the Vietnam war, or I will flunk you, you will lose your deferment, be drafted, go to Vietnam and die!”
This set me to thinking about how probable that threat would be.
First, you would have to lose your deferments, which were numerous, then you would have to have a draft number that was of those selected, much less than the total. Then you would have to pass your physical, and basic training. Then you would have to select a combat or combat support branch, which in Vietnam varied between 1:7 and 1:13 combatant to non-combatant.
And then you would have to be stationed in Vietnam, which was not likely, as then as now the majority of soldiers are stationed in the US and Europe. And then you would probably not be sent to a “hot” combat area, and only if there was a ‘slot’ available–you would get “bumped” if someone in that unit re-upped to stay with his buddies.
The statistics seem to prove this out. In 10 years, the US suffered 56,000 killed, which for the first time just slightly more than half died of combat injuries than diseases. So 23,000 were killed by the enemy, or 2,300 per year, average.
2,300, out of a draftable age population in the US out of how many?
Not the worst odds for survival. Was it all a lie?

That story doesn’t make any sense. How could a professor know precisely which students did or didn’t protest the war? How could a professor get away with flunking his students for their views? After all, he could have been reported to a department chairman or a faculty committee for doing such a thing, and while there were certainly many professors against the Vietnam War (like most sectors of American society at the time, academia was very mixed in its attitudes toward the war), the number of professors radicalized enough to sanction the use of flunking students for their beliefs was trivial. I don’t believe that story at all.