The Libertarian Roots of the All-Volunteer Military

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On July
1, 1973, the all-volunteer military in the United States became
a reality during the Vietnam War. This reversed the conscription
policy that Woodrow Wilson had adopted when he persuaded Congress
to declare war on Germany and Austria in 1917. War was declared
on April 7, 1917. The draft law was passed on May 18.

The United
States Constitution is quite specific with respect to compelling
men to join the military. Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress
“To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws
of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” No
other justification is specified. This provision was a legacy
of the second constitution in American history, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties
(1641). (The
first was the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, 1639.)

7. No man shall be compelled to go out of the limits of this plantation
upon any offensive wars which this Commonwealth or any of our
friends or confederates shall voluntarily undertake. But only
upon such vindictive and defensive wars in our own behalf or the
behalf of our friends and confederates as shall be enterprised
by the counsel and consent of a court general, or by authority
derived from the same.

During the
Revolution, there was no national draft. One historian of conscription
summarizes the situation. “In the American Revolution,
the new state governments assumed the colonies’ authority to draft
men, through county militia officers, for their short-term militias.
They extended it to the long-term state units of the Continental
Army, but they denied Gen. George Washington’s request that the
central government be empowered to conscript.”

There is
no provision in the United States Constitution for drafting men
to serve in foreign wars. Wilson ignored this fact, and so did
Congress. So did the Supreme Court.

If there
is a single piece of legislation that marks the final transition
of the United States from a Constitutional republic to an unconstitutional
empire, the imposition of the draft in 1917 was that event. Lincoln
had imposed the draft, but he defended this decision on the basis
of putting down a domestic insurrection. The Confederacy had imposed
the draft, but it defended this decision on the basis of defending
against foreign invasion. Each decision was consistent with its
respective view regarding the legality of secession. Each decision
had a Constitutional justification. The draft of World War I did


In September,
C-Span ran a tape of a National Defense University conference devoted to the history
of the all-volunteer military. One of the speakers, University
of Rochester economist Walter Oi, spoke on the influence of economic
analysis in persuading President Nixon to abolish the draft. Other
speakers acknowledged Dr. Oi’s contributions in this effort. (I
don’t usually refer to people’s handicaps, but Oi is blind. He
is also a Nisei who was interred in one of Roosevelt’s concentration
camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II.) Milton Friedman’s
contribution was also mentioned by several speakers. What was
not mentioned was the original documents in which the first faint
rumblings of the gathering storm were heard.

In December,
1966, Sol Tax, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago,
held a four-day conference on the draft. Two of the speakers were
Friedman and Oi. The papers were later published as The
(University of Chicago Press, 1967). Because of
the time delay in publishing a book — I speak as a former
book publisher — it is likely that the book appeared after
the next document appeared.

In the spring
of 1967, a student publication at the University Chicago published
a symposium on conscription. This was the first time in its six-year
history that an entire issue of the journal had been devoted to
a symposium. It was also the last time. It ceased publication
after one more issue. The journal was the New
Individualist Review
. The articles included these: “Why
Not a Volunteer Army?” by Friedman, “Conscription in a Democratic
Society” by Robert Flacks (a sociology professor at Chicago),
and “The Real Costs of a Voluntary Military” by Oi.

was a remarkable publication. It was self-consciously libertarian.
In the first issue, Spring 1961, it led off with an article by
Friedman, “Capitalism and Freedom.” This was a brief introduction
to his book of the same title, which was about to be published
by the University of Chicago Press. Also in that initial issue
was an article by Ronald Hamowy, then a graduate student in the
University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. His article
was an anarcho-capitalist response to F. A. Hayek’s recently published
book, The
Constitution of Liberty
. Hamowy was the NIR’s book
review editor. What is remarkable about Hamowy’s critique is that
Hayek was at that time the most famous faculty member in the Committee
on Social Thought program. Ralph Raico contributed an article
on Wilhelm von Humboldt. Raico was on the NIR board.

In those
days, which were not all that good, there was The Freeman.
It had begun five years earlier. There was The Journal of Law
and Economics, another University of Chicago publication,
begun in 1958. There was nothing else of an academic nature aimed
at or written by libertarians. There was Modern Age, but
it was not heavily devoted to economics, and it was hardly libertarian.
Beginning in 1964, there was The Intercollegiate Review,
also not libertarian.

was an intellectual oasis. It was written in English — graph-free
and equation-free — by graduate students and their professors.
I subscribed from the first issue to the last. The NIR
proved that there was intellectual life after The Freeman.
The NIR had a limited audience. It was not a period of
plenty for free market graduate students in economics. The early
1960’s were the Kennedy years, the years of supreme confidence
and influence of the Keynesians. The longest peacetime economic
boom (pre-Clinton) in American history began in 1961. It would
end in the first half of Nixon’s first year in office — the
last fiscal year in which the United States government ran a budget
surplus (small). By 1969, wartime price inflation had appeared.
The 1944 Bretton Woods agreement on international monetary affairs
was under siege, as the dollar was under selling pressure and
central banks were in a gold rush. But in 1961, none of this was
on the horizon. Neither was Vietnam.

Anyone in
academia choosing an academic journal to present the case for
the all-volunteer military would not have chosen the NIR,
had there been any academically respectable alternative outlet.
There wasn’t.

Ayn Rand gave a speech against the draft in 1967. It is still
sold by the Ayn Rand Book Store: “The Wreckage of the Consensus.”
Years later, Walter Oi said of the 1969 Gates Commission, which
recommended the all-volunteer force, that staff members had been
influenced by Rand’s presentation

Ideas have
consequences, as Richard Weaver’s book editor persuaded him to
title his most famous book. (Weaver, too, was a University of
Chicago professor in the English Department until his death in
1963.) But for ideas to have consequences, they require hooks
in order to snag the world and move it in a different direction.
The Vietnam war was a very large hook.


The Vietnam
war produced large-scale organized protests. Nothing like them
had been seen since the draft riots in New York City in 1863.
The demonstrations were held across the nation. They brought together
protesters against all sorts of social evils and alleged social
evils, but the war was the galvanizing force. This summary describes
the situation in the late 1960’s.

became one of the many casualties of the Vietnam War. After President
Lyndon B. Johnson committed American ground troops in 1965, draft
calls soared from 100,000 in 1964 to 400,000 in 1966, enabling
U.S. forces there to climb from 23,000 military advisers in 1964
to 543,000 troops by 1968.

draftees were only a small minority (16 percent) in the American
armed forces, they made up the bulk of the infantry riflemen
in Vietnam (88 percent by 1969) and accounted for more than
half the army’s battle deaths.

The war
was not conducted exclusively by conscription. There were legal
ways around the draft. College was the favorite escape hatch,
one that was dear to the hearts of parents. Until 1969, there
were deferments for college and graduate school. This was good
for people who liked to study.

most common form of draft “protest” was evasion. Of the 26.8 million
young men who reached draft age between 1964 and 1973, 16 million
(60 percent) did not serve in the military. Of those who avoided
service, 15.4 million received legal exemptions or deferments,
and perhaps 570,000 evaded the draft illegally. Among illegal
draft evaders 360,000 were never caught, another 198,000 had their
cases dismissed, 9,000 were convicted, and 4,000 sent to prison.
In addition, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 fled into exile, mainly
to Canada, Britain, and Sweden.

What was
unprecedented in American history was the increase in the number
of conscientious objectors. They had a moral problem with going
to war, they told their draft boards. The percentage of CO’s to
actual inductees grew as never before in any American war.

1965 and 1975, faced with well over 100,000 apparent draft offenders,
the federal government indicted 22,500 persons, of whom 8,800
were convicted and 4,000 imprisoned. As the Supreme Court expanded
the criteria from religious to moral or ethical objections, CO
exemptions grew in relation to actual inductions from 8 percent
in 1967 to 43 percent in 1971 and 131 percent in 1972. Between
1965 and 1970, 170,000 registrants were classified as COs.

The conscription
system was under enormous pressure from its intended victims.
Their parents agreed with them. Yet the fact remains that the
draft ended under Nixon, and Nixon had been re-elected by a landslide
in 1972. He did not need the protestors’ votes in 1973. Why did
he end the draft?


In March,
1969, Nixon had signed a directive to set up a 15-man presidential
commission, the Commission on an All-Volunteer Force (Gates Commission),
to study the ending of the draft. There were three economists
in the group: W. Allen Wallis, Milton Friedman, and Alan Greenspan.
Greenspan was still in his Randian phase. Wallis was a free-market
scholar who had served on the board of trustees of Leonard E.
Read’s Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), which published
The Freeman. He was the president of the University of
Rochester in 1969.

Unlike most
presidential commissions, the Gates Commission produced a report
that senior-level Administration officials actually read. The
report was released on Feb. 20, 1970. As the National Defense
University conference reported, the Commission had been evenly
divided on the issue going into the project: five to five, with
five undecided. By the end, the skeptics had been won over. The
Commission’s report was unanimous: end the draft.

In 1973,
Congress refused to extend the draft law. It expired automatically
on July 1, 1973.

But why
had Nixon put together a commission in the first place? According
to Martin Anderson, now of the Hoover Institution, but in the
1960’s a free market economist who actually got his book against
urban renewal, The
Federal Bulldozer
, published by MIT Press in 1963, recounted
at the National Defense University conference how this happened.
One account has summarized his presentation.

Dr. Martin Anderson of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University
was a young professor at Columbia in the 1960’s, when he was
asked to join Nixon’s team of advisors for the 1968 election.
He recited the development of the force from an idea to a platform
peg. He mentioned that the military draft had been controversial
since the Civil War.

“The military
draft has troubled our society since the beginning,” Anderson
said. “When those young men started dying [in Vietnam] opposition

described how it was at a meeting of the advisers that he first
had an idea to do away with the draft and increase military
power. He wrote a 17-page paper on the subject that President
Nixon found interesting. A New York Times reporter asked
the candidate during a 1967 trip what he would do about the
draft and Nixon replied, “I think we should do away with the
draft and go to an all-volunteer force.”

This does
not do justice to what Anderson said. I remember the details.
He had been on a plane with Nixon in the 1968 campaign. Nixon
called to him and asked him to sit down. Nixon then asked him
if there was any policy recommendation that might make a difference
in the campaign. Anderson said, “an all-volunteer military.” Nixon
responded positively. He asked Anderson to write up his proposal.
Anderson did, in a 17-page report.

Then came
the interview by New York Times reporter. Nixon said he
would end the draft. That got media attention. Then, two weeks
before the election, Nixon gave a radio speech in which he presented
the details of his proposal. After his inauguration, he pursued
the idea. Herbert Klein, who served as Nixon’s first Director
of Communications, 1969—73, recounts:

in office in 1969, Nixon found he had made a campaign promise
opposed by much of the top military brass, many of his supporters
in Congress and his two top military-oriented appointees, national
security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and defense secretary, Mel
Laird. A very vocal volunteer force supporter was a young congressman
from Illinois, Don Rumsfeld, who introduced legislation supporting
the proposal; and while Senate and House hearings were held on
his bill, nothing happened. Rumsfeld later joined the Nixon staff.

To end a
policy as well established as the draft, in the middle of a war
that the nation was losing, with as many vested interests as the
American military-industrial complex has, was nothing short of
remarkable. Yet, at the National Defense University conference,
every military officer who spoke said that the change helped the
development of the high-tech military. They all said, “we could
not go back to the old system.” Bureaucracies shape the attitudes
of their employees. The inertia imposed by the existing system
now favors the continuation of the all-volunteer military.


In unique
circumstances, a supposedly unthinkable idea can become national
policy within a short time. If we date the first academic rumblings
against the economics of conscription as Sol Tax’s December, 1966,
conference, it took less than seven years to end the draft. The
University of Chicago was the central institutional factor in
the great year of re-thinking: 1967.

Yet there
was something else, a factor far deeper in Western society, which
prompted the abolition of the draft. That factor was revealed
for all to see in those organized war protests in the late 1960’s.
Martin Van Creveld, a military historian at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem, has identified this factor: a widespread loss of
faith in the nation-state. In his 1999 book, The
Rise and Decline of the State
, he writes this of the waning
years of the twentieth century:

the most obvious sign of people’s feelings toward the state has
been their unwillingness to fight on its behalf, with the result
that in one country after another conscription has been brought
to an end. . . . Once governments had abolished the draft they
found, often to their chagrin, that it could not be restored (p.

People in
the West are losing confidence in the nation-state. They are unwlling
to provide, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion.”

20, 2003

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is the author of Mises
on Money
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