What Trump’s Draft Deferments Reveal

Trump’s story is surprisingly typical of his generation—and that’s the real scandal.

Jim Young / Reuters

President Donald Trump’s Vietnam-era draft deferments made headlines again last week when The New York Times reported that, as a favor to Trump’s father, a Queens podiatrist may have written the letter that led to Trump’s I-Y medical deferment. That the story dropped on the same day as Trump made his first visit as commander in chief to American military forces in a conflict zone certainly makes for some interesting optics. But Trump is hardly unique. By the time Trump received his deferment, young men from privileged backgrounds had come to expect they would be able to avoid active-duty military service. His story says less about the president as an individual than about the choices America has made as a society about who should bear the burden of military service.

More than 15 million men of Trump’s generation sought to avoid active-duty military service, including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Dan Quayle. Up to 60 percent of men in the Vietnam generation took active measures to qualify for a deferment from the draft, while up to 90 percent of enlistments in the National Guard were draft-motivated by 1970. The idea that a privileged young man’s father may have leveraged connections with a local medical professional—who just happened to rent office space in a Trump building—to get a medical excuse for his son seems, as the military historian David Kieran tweeted, “an unsurprising nothingburger.”

American men have been consistent in their ambivalence to serving in the military. Through most of American history, men who chose peacetime service were viewed as the bottom of the social barrel. One soldier, stationed in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1942, observed that the popular perception of the American soldier was “still a National Guard jag staggering drunkenly down the street at 2 a.m.” The situation in wartime, of course, was supposed to be different. The ideology of civic republicanism defined military service as a masculine obligation. Male citizens had the duty to serve in an emergency. Most American men, however, from Thomas Paine’s “summer soldiers” who vanished from the winter encampment at Valley Forge up until the present, have tended to reject military service as a patriotic obligation. Conscription during wartime has been necessary because men have rarely been eager to put themselves into mortal danger, regardless of the cause.

During World War II, government agencies and private corporations launched a massive propaganda campaign to promote the importance of soldiering. Organizations from the War Department to the American Red Cross to Coca-Cola used heroic imagery to equate military service with masculine strength. In 1942, Harold Gauer, who did public relations for the National Youth Administration in Washington, D.C., was reminded by a friend that soldiers had become “the personification of the cause,” giving “America a beautiful personal stake—emotional stake—in [the war’s] success.” The friend urged Gauer to leverage the symbol of the soldier. On a wider scale, such imagery was necessary because neither the federal government nor private interests could persuade Americans that they should fight out of political obligation.

Many men of military age internalized the messages that connected manhood with military service. Veterans who have given oral histories repeatedly return to the theme of joining up to become men. Although Robert McClure’s father obtained a deferment for him, as the oldest of nine children on a western Kentucky farm, he decided to join up anyway. “I was afraid that people would think that I was afraid to go … and I didn’t want people to think that,” he later told a Library of Congress interviewer. Ralph Chase of Connecticut worried that he would be “blackballed” as a coward if he did not join up. Such stories form the backbone of the “greatest generation” narrative.

Yet this narrative, no matter how ubiquitous during and since the war, did not capture the full range of men’s experiences. Many others either outright rejected the connection between manhood and military service or simply failed to let it dictate their decisions. Close to 18,000 conscientious objectors chose either alternative public service or federal prison rather than be drafted into the armed forces.

More commonly, men tried to avoid induction in any way they could. After Arkansan John L. McRee married one of two sisters in a double ceremony, he learned that his new brother-in-law had received a marriage deferment from the next board over. He appealed his own I-A draft classification. Gauer and his friend Robert Bloch, who later wrote Psycho, spent much of 1942 scheming to keep Gauer from being conscripted. Bloch’s circle of friends believed he married as a way to disqualify himself from the draft. Even the U.S. Military Academy at West Point developed a reputation as a haven from combat. Once World War II ended, more than 20 percent of cadets left their training before being commissioned.

Nevertheless, as avenues for deferments narrowed, most men grudgingly acquiesced to the Selective Service. Eighty percent of men born in the 1920s ultimately served during World War II, creating an unusual degree of shared experience and contributing to the civic republican myth of the “greatest generation.”

After World War II, the military, and the conscription system used to man it, retooled to fight the Cold War. Within the Cold War environment, the Selective Service defined certain civilian roles, including careers in science, engineering, and fatherhood, as important to defeating communism. Although his congressional mandate was to secure military personnel, by the late 1950s, Director of Selective Service Lewis B. Hershey had expanded his agency to guide the choices of civilian men through a policy called manpower channeling.

Under this policy, deferments would be used to encourage—or bribe—men to take civilian jobs in the national interest. “From the deferment of men to do, came the transition to defer to train to do,” Hershey explained. Rather than conscript all men into military service, Hershey advocated modifying the meaning of deferments. Instead of signaling that a man had little role to play in national defense, deferments should signify the vital security nature of civilian work. His agency made student and occupational deferments widely available to middle-class and elite men.

The military certainly would have taken Trump had he not obtained his deferments, but by the time the Vietnam War escalated, the system that administered the draft was set up to provide privileged men like Trump with exit strategies. Until 1965, college students, graduate students, huge numbers of men in white-collar occupations, fathers, married men without children, and those with minor medical ailments could be deferred. These deferments overwhelmingly went to men with means—those who could afford college and graduate school, who could support families, and who could pay for medical care.

As during World War II, when military needs escalated, the Selective Service tightened its deferment criteria. Trump, for example, sought the I-Y because deferments for graduate school had become largely unavailable by the time he graduated from college. But after more than a decade of being able to gain deferments relatively easily, men like Trump had come to expect them.

Trump may have exploited a system to obtain a medical deferment he did not deserve. It’s possible that his expectation of draft avoidance led him to seek out a sympathetic medical professional. If so, his actions would have been morally suspect, but not unusual. The more than 15 million men of Trump’s generation who avoided military service built on long-standing historical ambivalence, and they worked a system that had been designed to devalue such service. Trump potentially acted out of self-interest and entitlement, but he grew up within a system that encouraged both.

That system drowned under its own weight, killing the draft in 1973. In the political and moral morass that the Vietnam War became, conscription no longer provided an effective fighting force. Poor morale, racial conflict, and widespread drug use among soldiers who did not want to fight had pushed the armed forces, in the words of Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr., to a “state approaching collapse.” But the draft also ended because activists on both the left and right came together to oppose it. While civil-rights and antiwar activists claimed that men had the right not to be drafted into an imperialist war they despised, libertarian economists persuaded Nixon that the draft was an unfair “time tax” exacted inequitably from conscripts. In the eyes of men like Milton Friedman, conscription was akin to slavery. By 1973, when the draft ended, the right to free choice trumped civic-republican obligation.

The inequities of the Cold War draft, made possible by the inequitable availability of deferments, may have ramifications in today’s all-volunteer force.  A study recently published in Armed Forces & Society suggests that the descendants of men who were conscripted to fight in Vietnam, men who were disproportionately of minority and white working-class backgrounds, were more likely to enlist in the all-volunteer force than the children of men who avoided service. Even though the modern public almost universally reveres soldiering as an important profession, at any point in time, 99.5 percent of us leave it for someone else to perform.

Trump’s quest for deferments, therefore, was emblematic of a wider social and political shift in the last quarter of the 20th century. Republicans and Democrats both came to center their agendas on the rights of the individual, albeit in different ways. Trump, by himself, is in no way responsible for stratification in American society or the uneven nature of enlistment in the U.S. military. But understanding the context for his draft avoidance helps us understand the modern military. Trump was a product of the system in which he grew up, and if we don’t like how that system functioned, then we need to think about how we can avoid the same problems moving forward.