The anniversary of a big experiment in randomness

December 1, 2018, is the 49th anniversary of a major sociological experiment in randomness conducted by the United States government, and it is one that changed the fates of hundreds of thousands of young men and their families. On December 1, 1969, the first televised Selective Service draft, also the first nationwide randomized draft since World War II, was conducted just as the Vietnam War was about to enter a new, more protracted phase.

This blog has looked frequently at the related concepts of probabilistic randomness, fate, and theodicy (the “justice of God”). [1] The 1969 draft “rolled the Cosmic dice” for about 850,000 men born between 1944 and 1950 as a “catch-up” draft meant to resolve the status of most of these men for once and for all over the 1970 calendar year. The draft process had become politically controversial and procedural arbitrary at local draft boards around the country, and so lottery was intended to substitute for the frailties of human judgement.

Fate #1 – the drawing

The drawing itself was televised by CBS on a Monday night, cutting into Mayberry RFD, and I vividly recall watching the event in a crowded TV lounge at my university dormitory in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mathematics, fate and (if you were a believer) the “hand of God” came together in this very tense crowd, a scene replicated all across America wherever young men were gathered. Even though I had just turned eighteen and was registered for the draft, this first “catch-up” round stopped just short of including my birth year of 1951. My number would be drawn the next July in an improved version of the lottery, and so those of us younger by just a few months watched friends react throughout the torturous drawing. [2]

This draft lottery was in two parts, both ostensibly with uniform probability distributions, which were possibly not-so-uniform in reality. Plastic capsules, each containing a slip of paper designating a day of the year, were drawn one-by-one from a jar. The first capsule drawn read “258” (September 14), and so a draft number of 1 was assigned to all men in the pool years born on that day of the year, putting them first on the list at their respective local draft boards. A later lottery drew the letters of the alphabet for ordering the potential draftees of the same birth-date further by name. Once their year in the draft pool was over, these men would go to the back of the line.

Later analyses have proposed that there was insufficient mixing of the capsules prior to selection and so those men born in November and December appear to have had a slightly-higher chance of drawing an early draft date. Subsequent years’ lotteries improved on this method to strive for more uniform randomness. [3]

Fate #2 – the deferments

The lottery draft was primarily justified after social pressure began to rise against the long-time policy of liberally granting deferments to the draft-age men who had “connections” or knew how to “work the system.” The demographics of the fighting force and of the casualties coming home looked very different from for those of us who got to stay behind. Gradually rules were tightened, for instance the elimination of the deferment for married men in 1965.

The lottery was intended to take this tightening of deferments a giant step forward, but it wasn’t that clean a transition. Student deferments up to that point typically allowed young men to finish their entire course of study before being re-classified “1-A” and put at the front of the draftee line. This deferment was not tightened until 1971, narrowing down to allowing the draftee to complete only the current semester of school before reporting for duty. As fate would have it, I was in this “carry-over” group, given a number in the second lottery of 1970, but allowed to hold on to my “grandfathered” student deferment.

I will say that the incentive for keeping one’s grades up in those years was thus quite high. I recall watching a student leave a final exam very early in obvious distress, smashing a window with his fist on the way out the door. He knew he would not be returning to school the next semester.

Fate #3 – Cambodia

Despite being elected on an “end the war in Vietnam” platform, the newly-elected President Richard Nixon expanded the Vietnam war into neighboring Cambodia in early 1970, just a few months after that first Selective Service lottery. The war and the draft numbers kicked up again, and subsequent college campus anti-war protests culminated in the Kent State University shootings in May of 1970.

We have subsequently learned that Nixon had managed to scuttle a peace deal being worked on by President Lyndon Johnson in the waning days of the 1968 presidential campaign so as to not give credit to Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, and the war dragged on until the 1975 fall of Saigon. Over 58,000 young men were killed in the Vietnam War, and over 150,000 were injured. I often think about how many of these men were watching that CBS evening broadcast of the draft on December 1, 1969.

The sociology and the theodicy

Which system of selecting draftees was “fairer”? Was it the pre-1970 version, where local draft boards used multiple legal factors and quasi-legal judgments to determine who was “most worthy” to be drafted? Or was the post-1971 version more fair, with many more men in the eligibility pool and “the roll of the Cosmic dice” determining who would live and who would die? If you were a young male watching television that night, I suspect the answer depends on how “lucky” you were.

The New Testament book of Acts opens with the story of the selection of a new apostle in order to replace the disgraced Judas Iscariot and to round out their quorum of twelve members. That, too, was done by “casting lots.” Randomness meets fate meets theodicy (the “justice of God”), and the questions remain unanswered.

A memorable song about the draft from the late Phil Ochs:

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  1. Here are some example posts on the subjects of probabilistic randomness, fate, and theodicy.
  2. See this post for more on how you won the “birth lottery.”
  3. In a truly-uniform distribution, each of the 366 days of the year would have an equal chance of being selected with each drawing. A caution on reading “suspicious patterns” into uniform lotteries, however. If I were to flip a coin four times, in which of these results (in this exact order) would an unfair coin be suspected?H H H H H
    T H T T H
    Counterintuitively, either one of these sequences has the exact same probability of being thrown.

1 thought on “The anniversary of a big experiment in randomness

  1. Pingback: College after coronavirus #2: The social holding pen – When God Plays Dice

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