In the wake of Sen. John McCain’s death, I have seen many posts and tweets celebrating his military service. I have seen just as many posts and tweets condemning his military service. The latter usually progress into damning all those who served in the Vietnam War. I don’t believe this is right, just as I do not believe glorifying the war is right either.
Many claim that every man had a choice. They could dodge the draft one way or another, or challenge it and go to jail. Any of that would be better than serving in America’s imperialist war in Vietnam. So they say.
My main issue with this is that those who speak that way are operating under a completely different context than those young men living in the 1960s and 1970s. The distrust in government, the widespread questioning, that we experience as part of every day life now was only because of the Vietnam War era. Nor are we a golden superpower still riding the high of winning WWII and the incredible boons that rippled through a large portion of American society in its aftermath. It is easy to say now what people 50 years ago should have done because we cannot understand that context completely without living it ourselves. And we cannot do that.
This is to say nothing of the fact that many drafted likely could not afford to abandon families or spend time in a prison cell. The military would offer a paycheck, housing, food. Then there is the simple fact that to stand up against the US government, the US military, requires a strength of conviction that most don’t have. I certainly don’t have that.
I’m not saying anyone has to respect those who served in the war, but I am saying you have to respect context and reality.
“Ironically, authentically gay men also tended to be less successful than the gay deceivers in convincing draft boards they really were gay. The trick to convincing the Army psychiatrist, after all, rested not in behaving the way gay men actually behaved but in acting the way the psychiatrist managed they did. Fulfilling the heterosexual fantasies of homosexuality was, of course, an easier task for a heterosexual than for someone gay.”
“Gay groups commenting on the gay exemption were less cavalier about using confessional statements as a means to avoid military service. In San Francisco, the Society for Individual Rights issued a 1967 brochure that cautioned, ‘If you wish to serve you may do so knowing that countless homosexuals have, but you must at the same time weigh the real danger that you may receive a less-than-honorable discharge that will create serious difficulties for you in obtaining employment.’ It went on to outline the lack of confidentiality of records at local draft boards, as well as the problems one would face in getting any type of Civil Service employment after such a declaration.”
“The Committee to Fight Exclusion [of Homosexuals from the Armed Forces] did not object to the war or to service in it, [Don] Slater wrote, just to the hypocrisy of publicly saying gays could not serve in the military while privately drafting them. ‘If homosexuals are to be drafted, we insist that it be done under a publicly acknowledged policy change regarding their fitness, and that it be conducted according to uniform national standards rather than under the secret and divergent judgments of local induction center personnel.’
At this point, Slater changed his strategy from merely fighting the ban on gays in the military to helping to keep gays out of the military until the armed forces openly accepted them. In ads in underground papers, Slater warned that ‘homosexuals are secretly being drafted into the Armed Forces even though they do not ‘measure up’ to the medical, mental and moral standards established by the Defense Department…. Every homosexual has a right and a duty to refuse induction.’”
“Despite regulations and public protestations to the contrary, the military needed able-bodied men to fight its war and was quite ready to look the other way if some of them were homosexual.
As early as 1966, when Vietnam manpower needs first mounted, the Pentagon issued a directive to local draft boards requiring that potential draftees claiming homosexuality be required to submit ‘proof,’ according to later reports from gay organizers. The Defense Department later said a search of files turned up no such directive, but from that year onward, draft boards clearly did begin demanding evidence of homosexuality for gay claimants, either signed affidavits from sex partners or the sworn statement of a psychiatrist. The catch, of course, was that in forty-nine of the fifty states, confessing to a homosexual act also meant confessing to a felony, one that was sometimes punishable by twenty years in prison.
When publicly pressed to state its policy on admitting gays, the Defense Department asserted that it would not allow homosexuals to serve because, as Colonel M. P. DiFusco wrote at the time, ‘The presence of homosexuals would seriously impair discipline, good order, morals and the security of our armed forces.”
“A few months later, in advanced training at Fort Dix to become a clerk/typist, Perry [Watkins] was talking about the local gay hangouts with another gay draftee. Perry suggested they go barhopping the next weekend.
‘I won’t be here next week,’ the recruit said.
When Perry asked why, the young man said, ‘Because I’m gay.’
He had not even engaged in any sexual acts in the Army, he said. He had just told his commanding officer he was gay and they had started the paperwork to kick him out.
Perry marched into his commander’s office and explained that he was homosexual and that he wanted to be discharged. For a month, Perry did not hear anything. Then he was told that he could not be discharged for being gay, because he could not really ‘prove’ he was gay. In order to do that, he would have to be caught in a sexual act.
Perry contemplated this odd treatment. There was one difference between the draftee being bumped for being gay and himself, Perry observed. The other man was white. One other black friend of Perry’s had also checked the ‘yes’ box, Perry learned later, and was denied exemption; this young man had stopped the induction process finally by complaining to his congressman. It was interesting, but Perry didn’t have any grudge against the military; he did not fight his induction.”
Perry Watkins was an openly gay black man who was drafted into the US Army in 1968. His is not the only case of an openly gay man being drafted during the Vietnam War, nor is it the only case of an openly gay man being drafted during wartime in the United States. Manpower needs overruled the military’s own regulations during times of war.
This file unit contains photographs depicting a Draft Resistance Rally held at Town Hall in New York City. The rally was a demonstration of support for “The Boston Five,” William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchell Goodman, Marcus Raskin and Benjamin Spock, who were indicted in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts for aiding and abetting draft resistance.
Explore 12 critical episodes in the Vietnam War through National Archives records which trace the policies and decisions made by the architects of the conflict and help untangle why the United States became involved in Vietnam, why it went on so long, and why it was so divisive for American society.
On January 10, 1967, Princeton’s Draft Information Office opened. It helped students understand what options they had to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War. The “Counterdraft” newsletter was one of the resources available there.
Some men who did not wish to fight in Vietnam for moral or religious reasons returned their draft cards to their local Selective Service Boards. Jack B. Leonard, who was studying at Loyola University’s Bellarmine School of Theology, was a conscientious objector who refused to participate in the draft based on his religious beliefs.
The Department of Justice was unsure whether to prosecute Americans who refused to participate in the draft. Leonard’s letter became part of a series of communications between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Selective Service on the subject of prosecuting conscientious objectors. Of the estimated 500,000 Americans who resisted the draft, around 200,000 were formally charged for violating draft laws and faced prison time. President Jimmy Carter pardoned all “draft dodgers” in 1977.
This exhibition presents both iconic and recently discovered National Archives records related to 12 critical episodes in the Vietnam War. They trace the policies and decisions made by the architects of the conflict and help untangle why the United States became involved in Vietnam, why it went on so long, and why it was so divisive for American society.