FDR had been dead for fifteen years, but my social studies teacher remained fixated on him. She would slip comments into class discussions that derided him and the big government of the New Deal. One day she said, “Whenever the government starts a program, the program never disappears. It just gets bigger and bigger.” I knew little about the New Deal then and was not interested in defending it or other government initiatives. Instead, I was a general wiseass, and my mind instinctively searched for counterexamples. I raised my hand and when she called on me, said, “What about prohibition? That was a huge government program, and we no longer have it.” She turned her back on me and did not call on me again for a week. I was not unhappy with that outcome.
She was from that American school of get-the-government-off-my-back, a strain of bitching that always seems to be with us. The examples seem ubiquitous, and we see it now with people denouncing required face masks as socialism. Underlying such complaints is that in the good old days, government was smaller, and Americans had more freedom. Of course, as with prohibition this has not always been true. Big government programs of the past are not all still with us now. Slavery and the many tentacles of the Jim Crow laws that existed in the lifetimes of many of us required a strong government for example, but those “programs” no longer are with us.
Because of my northern roots in a white small town, I was not directly affected by Jim Crow (nor was I directly affected by the myriad laws and government actions and policies that discriminated against women), but I, as were almost all Americans of a certain age, was affected by another, now defunct, freedom-restricting, big government program—the military draft. To someone my age, the draft needs no explanation, but many of my students, a generation or two younger than I am, not only did not know that it existed, but could not believe that it ever was the law of the land. But, yes, men (only men, not women) could be required to join the armed services. Put in slightly different terms, the government could force men from their homes and jobs and families, control their lives for years, and place them in a position where there was the possibility that they would have to kill or be killed. This was big government writ large.
Its reach was so pervasive that it routinely affected people’s behavior even before a military induction. I learned this early. In sixth grade, Glen and I hung out at George’s service station. A couple of high school boys did some work there. One day they discussed what they would do after high school and whether they should get some vocational training. Gary said, “No. I’m just going to get any job I can and wait to get drafted.” He was going to put his life on hold until after his forced military service.
The draft led many to enlist. Perhaps part of the motivation was public service and patriotism, but a self-interest was also at work. An enlistee, unlike a draftee, could choose the branch of the armed services he would go into, and the college-graduate enlistee could be an officer while the draftee was a private. In a personal cost-benefit analysis, many concluded it was better to enlist than wait to be drafted. I have many friends of my age, often graduates of the country’s most selective universities, who were officers in the armed services while the draft existed. There are fewer similar people today who are veterans.
The draft affected education and job choices. College males got deferments; that is, they would not be drafted while in school. And for a long time, deferments were also given for graduate school. In my generation, only those from 18 to 26 were drafted. Back then, I never heard of a “gap year” before college or graduate school. We knew that such a time off from school might find us not in Europe with a knapsack and a rail pass but backpacking in Vietnam using military transport. One of the reasons so many of my generation may have gone to law or business school is the draft deferment it offered. (Not so for medical school. Doctors got drafted at 26 and beyond because not enough doctors enlisted. Go watch M*A*S*H).
If, however, you finished all this education by the ages of twenty-four or twenty-five, you still had to make it until twenty-six not to be drafted. Ah, but for some jobs, you also got a deferment. Public school teaching was one. Teach until twenty-six, and then start your real career. Many of my generation had a brief stint as a middle-school teacher.
The draft was not only big government because it could intrude into every corner of a life, it was also big because it produced a huge bureaucracy. Nearly every county in the country had a selective service (the official name for the draft) office with one or more paid workers as well as volunteer (I think) boards. (Does anyone know who came up with “selective service”?) And, of course, regional and national offices. Paperwork galore.
Both aspects of the big government came together for me in my second year of law school. As I began my legal studies during the height (or shall we say, depth) of the Vietnam War, deferments for graduate school ended. And thus, one day during a break in my classes, I found the missive in my mail with what was then the famous salutation, “Greetings.” I was being drafted pending a physical, for which I had to return to my home county.
It wasn’t as though I hadn’t thought about being in the army before—all males of my generation did–but the draft notice certainly, how shall we say, focused my attention on an impending military life. It was more than a little hard to concentrate on the law of corporations or the tax code with the army looming. Part of my thoughts that followed the draft notice were about the war that the U.S. was then bogged down in, but many of my thoughts just went to basic training, which I dreaded for good reason.
(continued September 14)