Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 2: Conscription

In the 1960s and 1970s, controversy over the military draft created some strange bedfellows. Much of the radical left, with Noam Chomsky being a notable exception, opposed the draft, as did a significant number of liberal Democrats, liberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans. On the other hand, plenty of liberal Democrats, liberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans, along with most conservative Democrats, favored it. Both anti-draft leftists and conservatives often argued that forcing people into the military was a violation of their civil liberties. Those who opposed both the draft and the Vietnam War tended to believe that conscription was allowing the government to continue to wage an immoral war. Those who favored the draft but opposed the war often believed that an all-volunteer military would be more efficient and might actually weaken anti-war protests. Indeed, to this day, proposed bills in the House of Representatives to shut down Selective Service are generally cosponsored by a mix of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. For a time, Reagan seemed to align with the pro- war, anti-draft faction. During his time as Governor of California, he supported ending the draft, though in 1969, activist Karl Hess criticized him for including the caveat that the draft should continue until the Vietnam War ended. There was, however, an ominous harbinger of Reagan’s future stance on this issue. In 1970, the then-governor responded to efforts to reinstate Muhammad Ali’s boxing license by stating, “Forget it. That draft-dodger will never fight in my state.” This was an odd statement, not only due to Reagan’s stated opposition to the draft but also due to the fact that he had no problems pardoning (white) country singer Merle Haggard for crimes such as robbery.

Of course, thanks largely to pressure from activists and anti-draft politicians, the draft ended in 1973 under right-leaning centrist, Richard Nixon. Selective Service was terminated in 1975 under another right-leaning centrist, Gerald Ford. Mandatory Selective Service registration, though not the draft itself, was reinstated in 1980 by left-leaning centrist Jimmy Carter. This demonstrates the difficulty in labeling support for the draft as right-wing or left-wing. In 1979, perhaps anticipating Carter’s actions, Reagan wrote that conscription, “rests on the assumption that your kids belong to the state…. That assumption isn’t a new one. The Nazis thought it was a great idea.” The point that conscription has been a hallmark of fascist/totalitarian regimes was fair, though it would make Reagan’s later actions rather jarring. In his 1980 presidential campaign, he promised to end Selective Service if elected. The year after becoming president, however, he did a 180. “We live in a dangerous world,” he warned, announcing that he would continue forcing young men to register for the draft. Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, a moderate Republican and longtime critic of conscription, warned that, “The president by this action is issuing an invitation to establish a peacetime draft.” Representing left-wing opposition to the draft, David Landau of the ACLU denounced Reagan’s pivoting as, “an unconscionable decision,” and Reverend Barry Lynn of Draft Action called it, “a hypocritical and morally bankrupt decision representing a total break with Mr. Reagan’s historic commitment to volunteerism and individual freedom.” While Lynn was correct that bringing back Selective Service was morally bankrupt, he was wrong that Reagan had historically been committed to volunteerism and individual freedom. After a “grace period,” the Justice Department resumed prosecuting people who failed to register in the Summer of 1982. By September of 1983, there had been fifteen indcitments. All in all, it was quite a reversal for a man who, the year before being elected, had publicly linked conscription with Nazism.

 

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