Hell No, We Won’t Go by
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That was one of many chants I remember from protesting the war in Vietnam and the draft. And the truth was, most of us didn’t go. You could go the medical route like Donald Trump, AKA Cadet Bone Spurs, who managed to get a 1Y deferment after receiving four other student deferments. Or like many guys I knew, you could go the Bill Clinton route and get educational deferments like he did when he attended Georgetown and Oxford. Or you could join the National Guard like George W. Bush, where he allegedly played hooky and spent his service in Texas.

Hell no, we won't go. And the truth is most people I knew didn't end up in Vietnam.

I don’t blame them. No one I knew wanted to go. Some received deferments for teaching. Some stayed in college and then went to graduate school to delay the draft, hoping the war would end before they ran out of education. Attorneys, doctors, dentists, nurses, and veterinarians could put off serving until they finished their training. You could also join the Peace Corps or use a connection who knew someone on your local draft board. The point is, if your family had money, you were far less likely to be drafted.

Still, the prospect of being drafted and sent to Vietnam had a huge impact on the lives of my generation. My husband was in medical school from 1967 to 1971. That meant he could put off his service until he received his M.D. and enter the army as an officer. To do this, he had to sign up for the Berry Plan, which many of his peers did. You could enter the army after finishing your internship year or after completing part of your residency. His friends who signed up never went to Vietnam, as the plan ended in 1973. But they did give two years of army service in remote locations in the United States, delaying the start of their careers and uprooting their families.

My husband rolled the dice despite receiving a frighteningly low number in the 1970 draft lottery. He gambled that the war would be over before he was drafted as a trained physician. Luckily, he guessed correctly. I was all set to pack up our infant son and flee to Canada if he was wrong. My younger brother spent a year “studying” in Canada and would have stayed there. But 218 was a pretty safe number in the draft lottery, and he came back to the states the following year. You can look here to see what your fate would have been back then based on your birth date.

So, who did go to Vietnam aside from the fictional Jack Pearson on This is Us? Many of the boys I was teaching in my Basic English class back in 1967-68 ended up there because they lacked the grades to get into college. It wasn’t the best time to be teaching high school English in that era. My students, both those on the track to be drafted into the war and those who were college-bound and able to avoid it, questioned the relevance of reading A Tale of Two Cities or learning about figures of speech. I didn’t blame them. The war hung over our lives, and it was a war that made no sense to us. It definitely felt like the worst of times.

Country Joe and the Fish had a song that summed up the way we felt back then, I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,

Come on mothers throughout the land,
Pack your boys off to Vietnam.
Come on fathers, and don’t hesitate
To send your sons off before it’s too late.
And you can be the first ones in your block
To have your boy come home in a box.

And it’s one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

It was a bad time for our country, leading to a generational divide as fathers who had served in World War II debated with their sons who didn’t want to serve in Vietnam. The Greatest Generation rejected their long haired, unpatriotic, draft-dodging kids. It was clearly a time of inequity in terms of who fought and who had the means to avoid service.

Creating an all-volunteer army to fight our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems fairer on the surface than having a draft, but the result of who volunteers to serve now is still a reflection of the haves and have nots in our country. Without the threat of having to serve, the opposition to those wars was not as strong. The draft felt like a threatening cloud over our lives, but it also fueled the opposition to the war in Vietnam.

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Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Tags: vietnam war, draft, protests
Characterizations: been there, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    Your story truly recaptures the overarching dilemma of that time—for all of us, not just men of draft age, because as you say EVERYONE was affected. And I agree that abolishing the draft took the edge off, not just allowing us all to breathe a sigh of relief, but also reducing the opposition even to unjust and unnecessary wars. Maybe this was an unintended consequence, although I’m now cynical enough to believe it was completely intended.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Both options are bad in that people who have limited opportunity end up fighting our wars. Maybe the solution lies in what Obama said, “No more stupid wars.” But then, he couldn’t bring all of our troops home.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    You and John (in his comments) are right. No one wanted to be shipped out and there was a gloom that had settled on the youth of the US. Our parents remember fighting against the Nazis and that sacrifice seemed worthy and noble. This seemed distant, vague and wrong and those who could, got deferred as long as they could. I had cousins who became doctors and did their national service on reservations in Arizona. They did it proudly. It was worthwhile and much more meaningful than going off the the jungles of Southeast Asia. You captured the time and the tone just right.

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