The Libertarian Roots of the All-Volunteer Military

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 not.


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 Draft (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.

The NIR 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.

The NIR 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.

Finally, 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.

Conscription 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.

Although 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.

The 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.

Between 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.

Panelist 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 increased.”

Anderson 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:

Once 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:

Finally, 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. 412).

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.”

December 20, 2003

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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