--Maurice Isserman and William R. Kenan, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, p. 4
The 1960s, 50 years ago, represented a major turning point in U.S. history. Is the nation about to turn again?
We have written about how the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913 brought a symbolic end to American politics’ post-Civil War era. President Woodrow Wilson, who visited the battlefield and spoke about healing the war’s wounds, was himself the first elected Southerner since the Civil War.
Wilson was a Democrat and a segregationist. Until Wilson and except for Democrat draft dodger Grover Cleveland of New York, every elected president from 1868 through 1900--nine elections--was a Republican and an officer, usually a general, from the victorious Union side. The 1913 Gettysburg encampment for over 53,000 Civil War veterans--Yankee, Confederate, all lily white--helped knit up the nation’s bitter North-South division.
Yet it took another 50 years or until the 1960s for blacks to secure the freedoms the Civil War had promised a century earlier.
The Civil Rights movement ended one era but opened another--the anti-Vietnam “civil war of the 1960s.” Today’s politics with its sharp division between elite and masses, between educated and less-educated, between professional and working/lower class, all bear the scars of Vietnam, all tracing back to the draft.
Brief history of the draft
The North instituted the first federal draft in 1863. That draft allowed $300 buyouts by those who could afford it, which led to massive New York City riots and the death of over 1,000. Because of the riots, buyouts ended a year later, and a more equitable draft enjoyed popular support through both world wars and Korea.
Then came Vietnam, which in 1965 produced the first draft riots since the Civil War. Though the more privileged in the draft-eligible pool successfully used student and medical deferments or enlistment in the reserves to escape Vietnam, dodging the draft generated guilt that fueled a massive anti-war/anti-draft movement.
In 1967, Selective Service terminated the controversial student deferments at age 24, while extending the draft-eligible age range from 26 to 35, threatening the privileged even more. Then in 1969, a lottery affecting all regardless of student status--an even more equitable system--went into effect, in its first year hitting the pool aged 20 to 26, and after that, each cohort becoming 19. The lottery survived only because draft numbers fell fast until the draft's 1973 end (see chart).
Almost 16 million men, including me (serving as a diplomat), avoided active military service. Of those, 57% were exempted because of jobs including other military service, deferred usually for student status, or disqualified for various physical and mental deficiencies, often helped by sympathetic physicians opposed to the war. Perhaps 100,000 draft eligible men fled the country.
*= A total of 1.5 million men were drafted during the Korean war (1950-53), with annual totals much higher than for Vietnam, but covering just three years. At peak strength, U.S. ground forces in Korea totaled 302,483. To avoid the infantry, many joined the Navy, Air Force or National Guard. Others gained deferments by scoring at least 70 on an intelligence test, but when 65% were deferred in the test’s first year, many suspected bias. In December 1950, 82% of the Army in Korea were regulars; two years later, the ratio had flipped to 63% draftee, 37% regular. The bulk of ground combat forces were working class, though more select because the Army rejected 50% of potential draftees. In Korea rear-echelon forces (67% of Army personnel) served 18 months, while combat troops (33% of the Army) fought for 9-12 months.
Brains win out
"For a half-century, America’s elite universities have drawn the most talented people from all over the country, socialized them and often married them off to each other. Brains have become radically more valuable in the marketplace."
--Charles Murray, Wall Street Journal
Murray’s “half-century” is the 50 years since the draft helped separate those able to escape Vietnam from those who served. A guilt-ridden, anti-war elite nurtured in the crucible of academia and fighting at home in the name of equality and justice, went on to gain control of most leading institutions. The meritocratic values that spared a generation from combat in Vietnam won the “civil war of the 1960s.”
America’s less-educated losers fell further and further behind. As Murray writes:
For white working-class men in their 30s and 40s—what should be the prime decades for working and raising a family—participation in the labor force dropped from 96% in 1968 to 79% in 2015 (see chart below). Over that same period, the portion of these men who were married dropped from 86% to 52%. . . In today’s average white working-class neighborhood, about one out of five men in the prime of life isn’t even looking for work; they are living off girlfriends, siblings or parents, on disability, or else subsisting on off-the-books or criminal income. . . about half the children are born to unmarried women, with all the problems that go with growing up without fathers, especially for boys. Drugs also have become a major problem.
Women win out
"Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment. And I've got to tell you that it is ... (APPLAUSE) It is really quite amusing to me."
The anti-war, anti-draft movement that powered the 1960s civil war included millions of women. They hated war and racial discrimination, were sympathetic to their draft-threatened brothers, but women also fought for freedom from constraints that blocked their true equality with men.
As Murray reminds us:
the civil rights and feminist movements. . . began as classic invocations of the [self-reliance] creed, rightly demanding that America make good on its ideals for blacks and women. But the success of both movements soon produced policies that directly contradicted the creed. Affirmative action demanded that people be treated as groups. Equality of outcome trumped equality before the law. Group-based policies continued to multiply, with ever more policies embracing ever more groups.Democratic politics wins, the working class turns
The 1960s civil war meant that by the 1980s, the Democrats’ longtime popularity with ethnic minorities, single women and low-income women, had alienated the white working class. Murray points out that a half-century of economic growth passed virtually nothing to the lower classes; real family income hasn’t increased since the late 1960s. For 50 years, American corporations have sent overseas millions of manufacturing jobs, the best-paying working-class jobs--70% held by males.
Murray adds that
[d]uring the same half-century, the federal government allowed the immigration, legal and illegal, of tens of millions of competitors for the remaining working-class jobs[, many in] the construction trades or crafts. They too were and are predominantly men’s jobs: 77% in 1968 and 84% in 2015.By today, as Joel Kotkin has found:
only 51% of Americans call themselves middle class while the percentage identifying with the lower classes rose to 48%. The bulk of this population belongs to what some social scientists call the “precariat,” people who face diminished prospects of achieving middle class status—a good job, homeownership, some decent retirement. The precariat is made up of a broad variety of jobs that include adjunct professors, freelancers, substitute teachers—essentially any worker without long-term job stability. According to one estimate, at least one-third of the U.S. workforce falls into this category. By 2020, a separate study estimates, more than 40% of the Americans, or 60 million people, will be independent workers—freelancers, contractors, and temporary employees.Democracy--one person, one vote--means we will hear from this angry, downscale mass, whether or not a new civil war is already upon us.