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Background on Draft Registration and "Selective Service"

Don't Register for War.

Draft registration is one of the ways that all young men (and possibly soon young women as well) have to interact with the military and think about their relationship to military “service”.

It should go without saying that the only reason young men are required to register with the Selective Service System is so that they can be conscripted into the military, if Congress and the President decide to reinstate a draft.

The only reason for the existence of the Selective Service System is to plan and prepare to carry out a draft that would force people into the military. The only reason for Selective Service registration, and the only use of the registration database, is to facilitate a draft. Registration is part of the process of implementing a draft, not something separate or different from a draft.

Although “Plan A” for Congress, the Pentagon, and probably the President is the poverty draft, “Plan B” for all of them remains conscription. For example, Rep. John Murtha, chair of the Subcommittee on Defense of the House Committee on Appropriations, said in late 2008 that “I voted against the all-volunteer army because I didn’t think we could sustain a deployment in wartime without a draft…. We’ll never be able to fight a conventional war where you have two fronts without a draft. You can’t do it….”

It’s unclear how long the military will be able to rely on “volunteers”. Enlistments and re-enlistments are falling short of the military’s goals. Morale in the military is down. More and more soldiers are failing to report for active duty when called up, deserting, going AWOL, or requesting reassignment or discharge as conscientious objectors. “Stop-loss” measures to extend soldiers’ terms are increasingly unpopular, and undercut recruiting. It’s one thing to sign up for the National Guard or the reserves as a “weekend soldier”, and something very different to sign up for 2 years in combat.

Only outsourcing and privatizing war-making to mercenaries and contractors (partly by using private “guards” and “security contractors” in combat roles, and partly by outsourcing non-combat support work to civilians, freeing a higher percentage of soldiers for combat) has enabled the military to continue the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, etc. this long, on this scale, without a draft.

The Selective Service System maintains contingency plans for a general “cannon fodder” draft of young men (based on the current list of male registrants between 18 and 26) and/or a separate Health Care Personnel Delivery System, like the “doctor draft” during some previous U.S. wars, of men and women up to age 44 in 57 medical and related occupations (based on professional licensing lists). These plans could be activated at any time that Congress decides to reinstate either or both forms of a draft.

For more about the Selective Service System and how a general draft based on the current Selective Service registration database would work, see our article, What Is the Selective Service System? and our FAQ about the Selective Service System and the military draft (required military service), also available in Spanish as Preguntas frecuentes sobre el Sistema de Servicio Selectivo y la conscripciĆ³n (servicio militar obligatorio).

Knowing and willful refusal by young men to comply with the registration requirement is a crime, but compliance is low and nobody has been prosecuted since 1986.

“One who fails to register must “knowingly” do so before he is guilty of an offense,” as one appellate court noted. To convict anyone of wilful nonregistration, the government would have to prove that they knew they were required to register. This would be difficult unless someone has told the government, or said publicly, that they are deliberately refusing to register.

A July 9, 1982, communication to United States Attorneys from the Justice Department “requires that United States Attorneys notify non-registrants by registered mail that, unless they register within a specified time, prosecutions will be considered. In most instances we anticipate that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents will also interview alleged non-registrants prior to the initiation of prosecutions. Nevertheless, if a non-registrant registers prior to indictment, no further prosecutive action will be taken. The policy is designed to ensure that the refusal to register is willful.” (Memo from Dept. of Justice headquarters to all U.S. Attorneys, quoted in the U.S. District Court decision in U.S. v. Eklund, 551 F. Supp. 964, S.D. Iowa 1982.)

In May 2016, Selective Service officials finally admitted publicly, in interviews with U.S. News & World Report, what has long been obvious: The government abandoned enforcement of draft registration in 1988. Passive resistance has made registration unenforceable, and has made the registration list all but useless for a fair or inclusive draft.

Most men who register for the draft do so only if it is required for some other government program. Men who haven’t registered for the draft are ineligible for Federal student aid and some other Federal programs. In some states (although not in other states including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania), the Selective Service System has successfully lobbied for state laws that require men of draft age to register in order to obtain a driver’s license, or are automatically registered (sometimes without even realizing it) when they get a driver’s license. Male immigrants of draft age must register before they can be naturalized as U.S. citizens.

Few young men comply fully with the draft registration law. In practice, there is no penalty for late registration, as long as you register before your 26th birthday. Men are supposed to notify the Selective Service System every time they change addresses until they turn 26, but almost nobody does. Most draft notices sent to the addresses in SSS records would wind up in the dead letter office, or would be delivered to registrants’ parents’ homes (or former homes), rather than to the intended draftees.

Draft registration has failed. The Resistance has won. Bernard Rostker, who was Director of the Selective Service System from 1979-1981 during the attempt to get every American man born in 1960-1962 to register, told a Washington Post interviewer in 2017, “The list that they have I doubt could pass the legal definition of a complete and objective list, because it is structurally flawed and Selective Service knows it. It’s a list that I’m sure the courts would throw out immediately because it’s not accurate.” In April 2019, Rostker testified before the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service that the current draft registration system is “less than useless”, legally indefensible, and should be ended.

The History of Draft Registration and Draft Resistance Since 1980

We Are Your Children. Support Draft Resistance.

Draft registration in the USA was reinstated under President Carter in 1980, supposedly as part of the preparations for intervention by the USA in Afghanistan on the side of the Islamic fundamentalist warlords and mujahideen who were then fighting against the Soviet Union. The US government put me in prison for refusing to agree to fight on the side of the people who would later become the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It’s no wonder that people of my generation have no faith in the ability of the government of the USA to decide for us in which wars, or on which (if any) side, we should fight.

Registering young men and creating a list of potential draftees was a step towards a draft. Pressure for a draft increased during the Reagan Administration, which took office shortly after the resumption of draft registration. But the unexpected extent of noncompliance with Selective service registration, and the abject failure of the government’s brief attempt to make examples of a few of the “most vocal” nonregistrants, prevented the government from taking the next step toward a draft.

To put it another way, the only reason it’s still “just registration”, and nobody has been drafted since 1973, is that so many people resisted registration in 1980, and have continued to do so (mostly unnoticed) ever since.

The result has been a forty-year stalemate in which resistance to draft registration has continued to prevent a draft, but registration has continued and the unenforced registration law has remained on the books. There has been neither a sufficiently organized anti-draft movement to force the government to repeal the Military Selective Service Act, nor any face-saving way for Congress to repeal the law without admitting failure and, more importantly, acknowledging the constraint placed on military planning and capacity by the unavailability of a draft, even as a fallback option.

In 2021, Congress is finally being forced to confront this issue and make a choice. The opening of all combat assignments to women has made in unconstitutional to continue to require men but not women to register for a draft. Congress must now chose either to try to extend draft registration to young women as well as young men, or to end draft registration entirely.

The rest of this page describes how we got to the current situation in which Congress is making this decision.

Be warned: What follows will be, in part, a personal story. The “I” of this Web site is Edward Hasbrouck. Feel free to contact me directly if you want to talk to me about my personal motives, choices, and experiences, or the history of the prosecutions of draft resistance organizers.

Most people who weren’t involved in draft resistance organizing haven’t been paying much attention to draft registration. I’m able to tell this story because I was a participant in it, as an organizer with the National Resistance Commitee (in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco), co-editor of Resistance News, and one of those few nonregistrants — even among the minority who publicized their resistance — who were singled out for prosecution. But I don’t want to claim more of the credit for our victory over draft registration than is due, or that my motives were “representative” of anyone else, then or now. I did no more than many others, many of whom — women especially — remained invisible, either by their own choice or as a result of the sexism of the media and our own movement. And the actions of the millions who quietly sat out draft registration were, in the long run, more significant than those of the few thousand who openly defied the registration law.

When draft registration was reinstated for young men in 1980, following a five-year hiatus, Barack Obama — the only U.S. President to date to have been subject to the post-19080 draft registration law — was in one of the first cohorts required to register. Obama later wrote about the campus anti-draft organization at Columbia for the student newspaper, and may have attended a talk about nonregistration given by my friend and comrade in draft resistance organizing, Matt Meyer, at a meeting organized by the Columbia Students Against Militarism in November 1982, at one of the peaks of publicity about prosecutions of nonregistrants.

Those subject to draft registration in 1980 and after were part of a different, often overlooked, generation, “Generation Jones”, with different experiences and attitudes than the baby boom generation that was subject to the draft during the U.S. war in Indochina.

The end of the draft for the U.S. is often used as the delineator of the end of the baby boom. One could equally well use the resumption of draft registration delineating of the start of Generation Jones.

Men born from mid-1957 through the end of 1959 (on the cusp between the baby boom and Generation Jones) never had to register for the draft, and most of them paid little attention to draft registration. Draft registration was a major issue for men born in 1960-1962, who were supposed to register during mass registration weeks that were front-page news in in July-August 1980 and January 1981. Draft registration remained a significant issue for men born in 1963-1968, who had to register while prosecution for nonregistration seemed at least a possibility. By the time men born after 1968 reached the registration age of 18, it was already becoming clear that the threat of prosecution was minimal, and fewer and fewer people were paying attention to registration.

Barack Obama — who has described himself as part of Generation Jones rather than the baby boom — says he registered for the draft, but the response by his peers was dramatically different than the response by baby boomers to the previous Vietnam-era draft and registration system had been. Opposition to draft registration in 1980 was immediate.

President Carter surprised almost everyone — including his own Selective Service Director, Dr. Bernard Rostker who wrote in his memoir that he was told only hours before — by including a proposal to reinstate draft registration in his State of the Union Address on 23 January 1980. Rostker’s memoir also makes clear that draft registration was not seen as an “alternative” to the draft but as the first step in reinstating a draft. The push to reinstate draft registration within the Carter and later Reagan administrations came from opponents of the “All-Volunteer Force” (AVF) who saw bringing back draft registration as a step toward their real goal of bringing back the draft.

There were marches, rallies, and other demonstrations in cities and towns and on campuses throughout the U.S. within days. Protests against draft registration were organized by ad-hoc community and campus groups; by existing anti-draft, anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-nuclear, pacifist, feminist, anarchist, socialist, communist, libertarian, and religious organizations; by newly-organized local organizations and coalitions; and by local chapters and affiliates of national organizations, most often the single-issue Committee Against Registration and the Draft (CARD).

We Won't Die for Exxon. U-Mass Boston Anti-War Committee
[Banner of the newly-formed UMass-Boston Anti-War Committee at rally against draft registration, Government Center, Boston, 2 February 1980. Joe Allen at left. Photo by Michael Letwin, who was one of the speakers (see his speaking notes) at the rally.]

Opposition to draft registration was not limited to centers of radicalism. This photo, for example, shows a typical local college-town march against the draft in March 1980 in Morgantown, WV, with marchers led by a banner for the West Virginia University chapter of CARD and carrying signs including “Resist the Draft” (Students for a Libertarian Society, which was affiliated with the Libertarian Party but also included college and university students who would become part of the libertarian faction of “Reagan Revolutionaries”) and “Resist Registration” (Socialist Party USA; which Marxist groups were active, if any, varied from place to place).

Pre-existing organizations may have had an advantage in organizing demonstrations on short notice. They owned bullhorns, knew how to apply for march permits, had organizational banners already made, and had membership lists and phone trees. But many of the first demonstrations in response to Carter’s announcement were entirely spontaneous, with no permits or formalized leadership. Most of those who took part, even when events were nominally sponsored by some organization or other, were newly mobilized, part of no organization, and motivated by no ideology but simply by opposition to the draft. Most of the participants and organizers in these initial protests were of draft age, and at least as many of were women as men. “I would not register. I feel I can’t. I would not serve the war effort. If that meant going to jail, as much as it scares me, I would still do it,” Tufts University senior Nancy Brink told the Boston Globe on 17 February 1980.

Students were most visible only because they were the most concentrated groups of young people, but non-student youth, parents, and other older allies were also galvanized into action by Carter’s proposal. Anti-war military veterans, veterans of draft resistance and conscientious objection, and other veterans of the movement against the U.S. war in Indochina — many of whom thought they had ended the draft in the USA for good — were also a prominent presence.

President Carter presented his proposal for draft registration as a way to “send a message” to the Soviet Union about U.S. readiness to intervene militarily in response to the Soviet-backed coup in Afghanistan (where the U.S. went on to arm and fund the fighters who would later come to call themselves the Taliban and Al Qaeda). But most anti-draft groups saw it primarily as a step toward war with Iran in response to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the tyrannical U.S. backed Shah, the so-called “Hostage Crisis”, and criticism of Carter as insufficiently bellicose by 1980 Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. “No war for oil!” and We won’t die for [insert name of major oil company]! were among the most common slogans of the new anti-draft movement.


[Demonstration against President Carter’s proposal for draft registration, midtown Manhattan, New York City, 27 February 1980. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum, Getty Images.]

Demonstrations and other nonviolent actions against the reinstatement of draft registration included marches and rallies in Washington, DC, and San Francisco, CA by several tens of thousands of people on each coast on 22 March 1980. In the pre-Internet, pre-social-media era, this was a remarkably large and rapid mobilization.


[“Antidraft demonstrators who had arrived early camped out on the Ellipse before marching to the U.S. Capitol. An estimated 25,000 protesters participated in the march.” Photographer unknown, Bettmann Archive / Getty Images.]

“Refuse to Register” and “I will not register” picket signs screen-printed by Fred Moore for the NRC were prominent at the San Francisco march (see this list of endorsers of the San Francisco march), where Fred Moore was one of the speakers.

Mobilization Against the Draft
[Front ranks of the West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration on Market St. in San Francisco, 22 March 1980. Photo by Chris Booth for Resistance News.]

March against the draft in San Francisco
[West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration passing the main Post Office and draft registration site (today the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals courthouse) on 7th St. at Mission St. in San Francisco, 22 March 1980. Photo from “It’s About Times” newspaper, via Foundsf.org.]

Mobilization Against the DraftFred Moore at City Hall, San Francisco
[Crowd at the West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration listens to speakers including Fred Moore of the National Resistance Committee. Civic Center Plaza in front of City Hall, San Francisco, 22 March 1980. Photos by Chris Booth for Resistance News.]

Lesbian Anti-Draft Action
[Lesbian Anti-Draft Action contingent in the West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration, 22 March 1980. Photo by Chris Booth for Resistance News. The next banner, partially visible, is from the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center. President Carter had proposed requiring both women and men to register for the draft, and straight feminists and many other women were also among the organizers and marchers in San Francisco and Washington.]

Piss on the PentagonDavid Harris at the US Capital
[East Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration, Washington, DC, 22 March 1980. Left photo by permission of Craig Glassner, previously published in Fifth Estate; left to right: Edward Hasbrouck, Mike Lawrence, unknown, Bill Steyert. Right photo: Vietnam-era draft resister and Resistance organizer David Harris speaks to the crowd in front of the U.S. Capital. David Harris also took part in an East Coast organizing meeting for the National Resistance Committee the following day.]

Other speakers at the Washington, DC, march and rally included the former SNCC chair Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and the feminist poet Denise Levertov, whose “A Speech: For Antidraft Rally, D.C., March 22, 1980” was reprinted as a prose poem in Candles in Babylon (New Directions Press, 1982) and other anthologies and collections. Some elected politicians spoke, but were not well received.

I was in Washington that day with Mike Lawrence and Vietnam Veteran for Peace Bill Steyert, who I worked with as fundraising canvassers for Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE) in Chicago, holding this flourescent piss-yellow on black “Piss on the Pentagon” banner on the steps of the Treasury Department headquarters to the enthusiastic cheers of passing marchers. Our employers at CBE didn’t know about or approve of the banner, and docked our pay but didn’t fire us for missing a day of work without permission to go to Washington for the march.

The mass registration start-up weeks in July-August 1980 (for men born in 1960-1961) and January 1981 (for men born in 1962) provided an ideal focus for anti-draft organizing and action. There were informational pickets and on-site draft counseling at Post Office throughout the country.

Berkeley Post Office
[Scene outside the Berkeley, CA, Post Office, 5 January 1981, the first day of the week during which all men born in 1962 were supposed to register. Photo by Andrew Mazer.]

Hundreds of people were arrested in sit-ins and other direct actions against registration during the mass registration weeks. The consequences were varied, but in some cases included Federal charges and sentences. The Boston 18, arrested at the Post Office and Federal courthouse in downtown Boston during the January 1981 registration week, eventually spent 30 days each in Federal prisons for obstructing draft registration, after exhausting multiple appeals. I was one of several observers swept up in the mass arrest of the Boston 18, along with those sitting-in. Charges against me and a couple of others were dropped, but some others including Gary Sachs, who like me had publicly refused to register for the draft, ended up doing 30-day bits in Federal prison even though they hadn’t actually been part of the sit-in.

In addition to single-issue anti-draft activities, draft registration was an issue raised by many multi-issue coalitions and events in the early 1980s, from the 1980 Chicano Moratorium to the 1980-1981 Womens Pentagon Action to nuclear disarmament and Central America solidarity rallies, marches, civil disobedience, and direct actions.

Poster by Carlos Callejo for the 1980 Chicano Moratorium
[“No Draft” was the first of the demands on this poster by Carlos Callejo for the 1980 Chicano Moratorium, held on the 10th anniversary of the 1970 Chicano Moratorium at which “Chale Con El Draft!” had been one of the most common slogans.]

The possibility of a new draft was already raised in 1979 in a preliminary list of demands for the 1980 Chicano Moratorium, which included, “We must oppose the draft since the working class minority youth will be the ones to most in cas of another war as they did in the last war.” The issue of the draft moved to the forefront of the Chicano Moratorium immediately after Carter’s call for restatement of draft registration:

The Chicano Moratorium is a great event in our history. At our first Moratorium in 1970 over 20,000 Chicanos and other nationalities took a stand against the Viet Nam War and our oppression here in the U.S.

Ten years later, we confront many of the same issues we did at the time of the original Moratorium. AGAIN, we face the threat of being drafted and sent to fight a war for our oppressors….

Carter is gearing up to reestablish the military draft. During the Viet Nam War Chicanos had the highest percentage of casualties. We made up 20% of the dead, while we were only 5% of the total U.S. population. THIS IS GENOCIDE!

Our stand today should be what it was in 1970: Our war is here, for our rights! Chicano students should organize an active resistance to draft registration, especially among our younger brothers and sisters in the high schools.

[Statement adopted 17 February 1980 at the National Unity Organizing Conference for the August 29th Chicano Moratorium Coalition.]

A nonregistrant who was later one of those prosecuted, Rusty Martin, student body president at the University of Northern Iowa, was one of the speakers at the march and rally for nuclear disarmament in New York City on 12 June 1982 by more than a million people — the largest single political gathering in one place in U.S. history. “We drove out from Iowa and I went straight to the UN rally…. I was looking at an amazing mass of people,” he remembers.

burning draft registration forms
[Nonregistrants (left to right) Rusty Martin, Jerry Mehalovich, Jeff Patch, and Gary Eklund burn draft registration forms outside the main post office in Des Moines, IA, on 21 July 1980, the first day of the registration week for men born in 1960. Men born in 1961 were supposed to register the following week. Unlike burning draft cards prior to 1975, burning registration forms is legal, and was a common expression of protest of draft registration. At many post offices, protesters removed all the registration forms from counter display racks, often replacing them with anti-draft literature printed to resemble the official forms. At least several hundred young men who were required to register, and perhaps as many as several thousand, actively publicized their resistance or informed the government of their refusal to comply with the law, but only 20, including Rusty Martin and Gary Eklund, were ever prosecuted.]

Nonregistrants for the draft played prominent roles in many other movements of that period. Leo Schiff, one of thousands of nonregistransts who were never prosecuted despite publicly declaring their refusal to register, was part of one of the Plowshares actions of symbolic direct disarmamentt at the nuclear submarine missile tube plan in Quonset Point, RI, in 1984.

Women's Pentagon Action: Stop the Draft

The draft was also an issue for antiwar feminist, even after Congress narrowed President Carter’s proposal and voted to require only men to register. As illustrated in the poster above by Yolanda V. Fundora, the draft was one of the major issues raised by 2,000+ participants in the Women’s Pentagon Actions in November 1980 and November 1981, well after draft registration had been limited to men. According to their Unity Statement:

We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and from the imagination. We are right to be afraid. At the same time our cities are in ruins, bankrupt; they suffer the devastation of war. Hospitals are closed, our schools are deprived of books and teachers. Our young Black and Latino youth are without decent work. They will be forced, drafted to become the cannon fodder for the very power that oppresses them… We do not want to be drafted into the army. We do not want our young brothers to be drafted. We want them equal with us.

Click here for more feminist statements against the draft and draft registration

Click here for more about women, the draft, and draft registration, including the role of antiwar feminists in the anti-draft movement in the 1980s

Pop culture references to the opposition to draft registration weren’t limited to punk rock. Anti-draft songs ranged from Frank Zappa’s 1980 single “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted” (written early in 1980 while the possibility of requiring women to register for the draft along with men was still under consideration, and with lyrics including, “My sister don’t wanna get drafted, she don’t wanna go”; Frank Zappa’s two sons were both approaching draft age at the time) to the Dead Kennedys’ “When Ya Get Drafted” and Prince’s 1980 Partyup (“You gonna have to fight your own damn war… ‘Cause we don’t wanna fight no more”). Punk rock was the embodiment of anti-authoritarianism, youth rebellion, and an often-explicit anarchism, and the most explicit draft resistance anthem of that era was the Clash’s “It’s Up To You Not To Heed The Call Up”, recorded in New York in the summer of 1980, released as a single that fall, and also included on the 1981 blockbuster triple album set, “Sandinista!

It’s up to you not to heed the call-up
You must not act the way you were brought up
Who knows the reasons why you have grown up?
Who knows the plans or why they were drawn up?

It’s up to you not to heed the call-up
I don’t want to die!
It’s up to you not to hear the call-up
I don’t want to kill!

For he who will die
Is he who will kill

[The Clash, “The Call-Up”, 1980]

Literary opposition to draft registration in the 1980s included poems by Allen Ginsberg, “Verses Written for Student Antidraft Registration Rally 1980” (in Plutonium Ode and Other Poems 1977-1980) and “Industrial Waves” (in White Shroud, Poems 1980-1985).

More than a million potential draftees born in 1960-1962 opted out by boycotting the initial mass registration periods in July-August 1980 and January 1981. The rate of compliance with draft registration declined after that, even when the government mounted well-publicized show trials of a few of the “most vocal” registration resisters, who it was able to single out and convict on the basis of their public statements (and after personally serving them with notice of another “final” chance to register without penalty).

The Department of Justice considered several enforcement options, including the possibility of prosecutions for conspiracy, aid, abetment, or counseling of resistance, partly on the ageist theory that older allies of draft resistance were “old enough to know better” and more culpable than the presumably gullible draft-age men they had “led astray”.

As discussed in my 1984 article, National Resistance “Conspiuracy”?, based on internal government documents released on discovery in some of the trials of nonregistrants, policy-makers at DOJ headquarters didn’t rule out conspiracy or counseling prosecutions of organizations like the National Resistance Committee. But for tactical reasons, the DOJ decided to focus first on a few prosecutions of nonregistrants. That strategy backfired, and eventually the DOJ gave up entirely on prosecutions for violations of the Military Selective Service Act, without trying to prosecute resistance advocates, allies, or conspirators.

The enforcement strategy the government decided to pursue was spelled out in a memo drafted by David J. Kline, Senior Legal Advisor in the Department of Justice, and sent over the signature of his boss, Lawrence Lippe, Chief of the General Litigation and Legal Advice Section of the Criminal Division of the DOJ, to Assistant Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen on 11 January 1982:

The total number of nonregistrants will doubtless remain very high when measured against the Department’s prosecutive resources. However, an initial round of well-publicized, successful prosecutions should have a dramatic effect in further reducing the number of non-registrants….We first would have to accept the simple fact that, although some persons will be prosecuted, there will be others who are neither registered nor prosecuted. Nevertheless, such a policy, geared to present funding levels, might well yield sufficient general deterrence so that the Selective Service system receives sufficient registrations to maintain the credibility of the system.

Some of the “Reagan Revolutionaries” and other Reagan Administration officials were libertarians who had opposed the draft during the U.S. war in Indochina, and argued within the Reagan administration for an end to draft registration. Others had been, and still were, firm supporters of the draft.

The Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice in the early 1980’s, D. Lowell Jensen, had worked together in the Alameda County [CA] District Attorney’s office in Oakland the 1960s with Ed Meese, later a key aide to Ronald Reagan first as Governor of California and later as President. Jensen led the prosecution in the 1969 conspiracy trial of the Oakland Seven for organizing Stop the Draft Week, an attempt to shut down the Oakland military induction center. At the Department of Justice in the early 1980s, Jensen oversaw the development of the policy for attempted enforcement of Selective Service registration through prosecutions of a few selected nonregistrants. During Reagan’s second term, he sent Jensen back to Oakland with an appointment as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Robert Mueller and Me

I was one of only 20 people prosecuted under the policy that evolved as described above. Most of us were convicted, solely on the basis of our public statements such as this letter I wrote to the government — nonregistrants who kept quiet faced almost no real risk of prosecution, even then. I spent about 6 months in the custody of the Attorney General, mostly in a Federal Prison Camp, in 1983-1984.

I was prosecuted by former Marine Lieutenant and platoon leader in Vetnam Robert Mueller, then a junior Assistant U.S. Attorney, later Director of the F.B.I., and more recently Special Counsel in charge of the investigation of Russian government interference in the 2016 Presidential election.

Like John Kerry, Mueller graduated from an Ivy League college, then volunteered for the military out of a sense of noblesse oblige.

But while Kerry came back from Vietnam having learned that the war was wrong, and became active in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (and went on to a career in electoral politics including as Senator from Massachusetts), Mueller came back from Vietnam still believing in the war and the draft — as evidenced by his eagerness to prosecute draft resisters even in an obviously unsympathetic district like Massachusetts. Muller’s failure to learn from his experience in Vietnam suggests that his commitment to “principle” is more a commitment to dutifully following orders than a commitment to following one’s conscience. Mueller was a good soldier. He follows orders. He was and is a good prosecutor who saw, and probably still sees, his role as prosecutor as waging war — war on communism, war on crime, war on terror, etc. — by other means.

Mueller’s boss, William F. Weld — then U.S. Attorney, later Governor of Massachusetts, and later still 2016 “Libertarian” candidate for Vice-President of the USA — also attended my trial to observe his protegé Mueller’s performance in court.

My case was Mueller’s first high-profile trial, and my head was a significant early stepping stone in his political climb. Mueller was first brought to public notice in a front-page column by World War II veteran David Farrell in the Boston Globe on 20 December 1982, just after my trial, under the headline, “Prosecutor’s the Hero”:

The courtroom contrast was striking between Hasbrouck, who said he is “prepared to go to jail” to support his convictions, and [Asst. U.S.] Atty. Mueller, who spoke in measured tones about the need to uphold the law…. Mueller is not well known in this area…. His resume reveals an extensive and impressive background in criminal law which is surpassed by his outstanding record during 33 months in the US Marine Corps…. The judge, who has a reputation for being lenient, can let Hasbrouck off with an alternate sentence in a school for the retarded or even a suspended term. US Atty. Weld, who happened to sit next to Hasbrouck’s mother throughout the trial, is expected to ask Judge Nelson for a jail term when he makes his recommendation next month.

This was an opinion column, but the Globe’s news coverage of my case was no more sympathetic or objective. The Globe’s full-time staff reporter at the Federal courthouse, William Doherty, was an old-school police-beat hack who identified with the police and hung out with the courtroom marshals in his spare time — not like the more recent norm of journalism-school and in some case law-school trained legal reporters. The Globe’s William Doherty was no relation to Will Doherty, my comrade in Mass Open Resistance and an occasional contributor to the Gay Community News. But the similarity in names confused some readers, since my friend Will was a journalism major at MIT and might plausibly have been interning for the Globe. When I was indicted, the Globe’s reporter didn’t call my parent’s home at the phone number listed in the name of Hasbrouck at the address in Wellesley given for me in the indictment. (They later changed to an unlisted number because of hat calls about their draft-dodger son, but not until later.) Instead, the Globe’s reporter started calling random Hasbrouck’s in other towns in Boston-area phone books. Another friend of mind, curious about the story in the newspaper, later went through the same routine of calling Hasbroucks listed in area phone books and found the person who had talked to the Globe. They described the conversation as follows:

“This is William Doherty. I’m a reporter with the Globe, trying to track down an Edward Hasbrouck. Do you know him?”

“No.”

“Are you related?”

“Probably. We’re all distant cousins.” (I m ight have said the same thing, but the key word here is “distant”. Almost all the Hasbroucks in North America are descendants of two Hasbrouck brothers who came to what is now the USA more than 300 years ago, and we’re all at least 10th cousins. I never met any other Massachusetts Hasbroucks, but Doherty may have inferred, without inquiring further, that this was a close-knit extended family in which everyone knew everyone else.)

“Do you you know where he might be? He was just indicted for draft resistance.”

“I don’t know. Maybe he went to Canada?”

William Doherty’s story in the Globe the next day — the first most of my neighbors or potential jurors heard of my indictment — included the sentence, “The Wellesley man indicted, Edward J. Hasbrouck of Elmwood avenue, could not be reached for comment. A woman identifying herself as a cousin of Hasbrouck’s said he left Tuesday for Canada.” Doherty’s courtroom coverage went downhill from there. The best report on my trial wasn’t in any of the local papers but a front-page feature by Berkeley Hudson in the Providence Journal.

The instructions from the Justice Department to U.S. Attorneys were to seek indictments of nonregistrants only in the most “sympathetic” Federal districts, so as not to stir up anti-nuclear, anti-war, and student activists. Most U.S. Attorneys in big cities and liberal districts chose not to seek indictments in the cases that were referred to them, and the District of Masschusetts was the epitome of an “unsympathetic” district for proesecution of draft resisters, If Mueller had been “just following orders” he would have declined to prosecute, as did more than 90% of the other Federal prosecutors to whom similar cases were referred. I’ve never found out how Mueller and Weld got permission to go after me in Boston, and I have no reason to think that either of them started out with any personal anamus against me, rather than a general animus against draft resisters. But I infer that one or both of them — most likely Mueller — must have had sufficiently strong feelings about draft resisters to allow their political opinions to influence how they exercised their prosecutorial discretion.

While in prison, I was denounced as a yuppie in the pages of the New York Times by Rep. Gerald Solomon (sponsor of the laws denying Federal student aid, which I had never received anyway, to nonregistrants), for having taken the risk of speaking out about my resistance to the draft. (More about my personal reasons for refusing to register for the draft.)

The show trials backfired. Prosecutions served only to publicize and encourage the resistance. Nonregistrants learned that only those who spoke out would be, or could be, prosecuted, and that the government was powerless to round up the millions of people who were violating the law. Mass nonviolent direct action provided, and continues to provide, safety in numbers for draft registration resisters.

Even Federal appellate judges reviewing convictions from the show trials of the “most vocal” nonregistrants recognized the message they communicated:

“Apparently the moral of the government’s policy is: if you want to evade the draft registration law, do nothing, say nothing, and you will not be prosecuted. Only those with the courage and candor to write the government refusing to register will be punished.” (U.S. v. Eklund, 733 F.2d 1287, 8th Circuit 1984, en banc, Lay, Chief Judge, dissenting)

I was part of organizing and networking for demonstrations in response to any indictment of a nonregistrant beginning in 1981, and there were protests, rallies, marches, or vigils in more than 100 cities and towns throughout the U.S. in June 1982 in response to the first indictment of a nonregistrant, that of Ben Sasway in San Diego on 30 June 1981, as well as a sit-in and blockade of the headquarters of the Selective Service System in Washington, DC, on 18 October 1982 (just four days after my own arraignment in Boston for refusal to register, although of course the blockade been in preparation for months).

Sean Herlihy and Russ Ford under arrest at Selective Service headquarters
[Sean Herlihy (left) and Russ Ford (right) under arrest at blockade of Selective Service headquarters, Washington, DC, 18 October 1982. Photo by Grace Hedemann Hane, War Resisters League.]

In some places there was organized lobbying of Federal prosecutors to make them aware of the local support for draft registration resisters and the likely anti-draft response to any prosecutions. In Chicago, after a meeting with supports of draft registration resisters, the U.S. Attorney decided not to seek indictments in any of the 75 cases of suspected nonregistrants that had been referred to him.

There were shows of support and solidarity with draft resistance everywhere that nonregistrants were prosecuted, even in locations Federal prosecutors had chosen as likely to be “sympathetic” to the prosecution of draft resisters. In Des Moines, IA, for example, 200 people surrounded the Federal courthouse and 21 people were arrested on Federal charges of “interfering with the administration of justice” for blockading the courthouse to prevent the “political trial” of Gary Eklund.

Wanted for Refusing to Kill Resist Draft Registration. Come to Ed Hasbrouck's Trial. Convicted: Six Men for Refusing to Register with Selective Service
[Posters for demonstrations at the trial of Andy Mager in Syracuse, NY, and the trial and sentencing of Edward Hasbrouck in Boston, MA. More info.]

My arraignment (photo), trial, and sentencing in Boston were attended by draft resistance activists and supporters from throughout New England, New York state, and further afield, including campus and community activists, radicals and liberals, women and men, and several generations of resisters. That’s John Bach, who had been imprisoned for almost three years for resisting the draft during the U.S. war in Vietnam, next to me in the courthouse elevator on the way to my sentencing. Also at my sentencing were Elmer Maas and Dean Hammer of the Plowshares Eight, and several participants in later “Swords into Plowshares” disarmament actions. Dave Dellinger, who was imprisoned for refusing to register for the draft during World War II and later had been one of the Chicago 8, came to my trial from Vermont and was one of the speakers at a teach-in at MIT the evening before — as he had been one of the speakers at a teach-in at the University of Chicago the day I was first arrested, at an anti-war and anti-draft demonstration against Robert McNanamara in 1979. Three people — the “Chain Gang” of Eric Weinberger, Sean Herlihy, and Elizabeth Boyer Davidson — were arrested for chaining themselves in the courthouse doors to prevent the trial from proceeding. Other persons unknown locked the bars over the courthouse doors with U-locks and plugged the keyholes with glue the night before I was to be sentenced.

Hundreds of letters were sent to Judge David S. Nelson urging him to reject the prosecution’s request that he sentence me to prison. Judge Nelson initially ordered me to do 2,000 hours of community service. Almost a year later, after Judge Nelson objected to the political message expressed by my work, he imposed the six-month prison sentence that he had originally suspended, despite the quite brave testimony at my probation violation hearing by my probation officer, Esther W. Salmon, that she believed that my peace work satisfied the terms of the judge’s order.

While only 20 nonregistrants were prosecuted, several thousand registration-age men had taken the same risk by publicizing their refusal to register and/or informing the government about their refusal to comply with the law. But these visible and confrontational forms of resistance were just the tip of the iceberg of widespread but quiet defiance of the call to register for the draft.

Any thought of further prosecutions was abandoned for good in 1988 when the Department of Justice refused to waste time investigating any more nonregistrants. Since then, the resistance has been almost completely spontaneous. As a grassroots movement of individual direct action, without leaders or organizations, it has also been almost entirely invisible. As a result, most recent reporting on the prospect of a draft has overlooked the significance of the ongoing resistance.

Click here for more about current Selective Service registration compliance, noncompliance, and enforcement

Click here for more about the prosecutions of draft registration resisters, 1982-1986

The organizational history of the visible anti-draft movement of the 1980s has yet to be written, and is beyond the scope of this article. But a few key but obvious ideas may help inform and guide that historical work:

Most of those who violated the Military Selective Service Act in the 1980s or after were neither part of, nor motivated by, any organization or ideology. The organized “anti-draft movement” was the very small visible portion of a very large iceberg, which made it both potentially powerful and highly vulnerable (and attractive) to potential cooptation or takeover by other organizations that wanted to use its “hot button” status to promote their ideologies or recruit support for their organizations and issues.

These underlying dynamics produced a constant tension between efforts to build intersectional solidarity between anti-draft activism and other movements, and efforts by other existing organizations and movements to capture the anti-draft movement (or at least its organized and public face) and impose their definitions and interpretations on the public image of its meaning, motives, and significance.

This tension played out within anti-draft organizing, both nationally and in many localities. Resisters were often used as “poster children” and props for others’ messaging, and often had to struggle (not least against ageism within the anti-draft movement) to speak for ourselves.

Rather than celebrating the diversity of motives and forms of opposition and resistance to the draft and draft registration, many activists tried to impose their own ideas as to which motives, and which forms of anti-draft action, they believed to be the politically correct ones. Some believed — or claimed publicly, even if they knew it wasn’t true — that most draft resisters identified as “conscientious objectors”. Others wanted to portray us all as motivated primarily by anti-imperialism. Many of the most motivated and committed anti-draft activists were also those who brought their own preexisting agendas, and were least interested in listening to, much less amplifying, what resisters actually said about our own motivations and agendas.

The disunity and rapid disappearance of anti-draft organizing and the visible anti-draft “movement” in the 1980s tended to obscure the continued, and ultimately more significant, quiet noncompliance, and lent credibility to the false perception that noncompliance with Selective service registration is a thing of the past (just as that active resistance to the draft was a thing only of the 1960s and 1970s, not the 1980s).

Since 1980, noncompliance with Selective Service registration and address update requirements has been sustained — almost entirely by spontaneous individual action, and in the absence of any ongoing draft resistance organizing or propaganda — at rates many times higher than the resistance at the peak of the U.S. war in Indochina or any earlier U.S. war or draft. Mass direct action (noncompliance with registration) has prevented, and continues to prevent, reinstatement of the draft, and has rendered registration completely unenforceable.

Unable to get young people to register voluntarily, the Selective Service System has tried to shift to a system of economic coercion and incentives, turning the draft registration program into a form of “poverty draft”.. At the urging of lobbyists for the Selective Service System, some states require young men to agree to be registered with the Selective Service System if they want to obtain a state’s license. Most of those who register in other states do so in order to qualify for student loans, government jobs, or job training, or in order to protect their immigration status and eligibility for U.S. citizenship. (Almost all male U.S. residents are required to register for the draft, including non-U.S. citizens).

The shift from predominantly grant-based funding for higher education and vocational training in the 1960’s and 1970’s to predominantly loan-based funding in the 1980’s and after roughly coincided with the reinstatement of draft registration, with which it has since been linked. It has served to channel> loan recipients into needing higher-paying jobs to pay off their debts, and to make it more difficult for them to choose unpaid or underpaid public service work. This is a major reason why, despite the continued interest of young people in activism, it is harder for them to choose lower-income careers today than it was for those in the 1960’s who typically graduated from college with minimal, if any, debt. In today’s circumstances, few people who want to further their education feel they have much choice about whether to register for the draft (although they do have a choice, and we urge them to exercise that choice), and their registration is no indication of their willingness to be drafted. Many more people would resist if they were drafted than are willing to risk negative consequences (including forgoing Federal student loans) for resistance at the time of registration.

Almost no one complies with the legal requirement to notify the Selective Service System of address changes until a man reaches age 26. We presume that, like almost all his peers, Barack Obama violated this law, although he may have done so unknowingly, couldn’t have been prosecuted without proof of knowledge of the law, and could no longer be prosecuted or penalized, even if he now admitted knowingly breaking the law, since the statute of limitations for either nonregistration or failure to report address changes expires on one’s 31st birthday.

Most registrants have effectively “unregistered” by moving without telling the Selective Service System where they have gone, and most induction notices would end up in the dead letter office. That will make it even harder for the government to try to crack down on those who haven’t registered, or who refuse to report for induction, since the government must prove to a jury that anyone accused of a draft law violation actually got a notice of what they were supposed to do (register, report address changes, or report for induction).

As did the National Resistance Committee, I support all those who resist conscription of the labor (through the draft) or their money (through war taxes), regardless of whether they do so through quiet evasion or open defiance.

The Selective Service System assumes that all registrants are willing to report whenever and wherever they are called up, to fight and kill whomever they are told to kill. In reality, many registrants will resist if drafted. Others registered in the hope or expectation that they will qualify as conscientious objectors.

Many people registered only out of fear, and will report only if compelled to do so — which will prove as impossible as compelling young men to register has proved. Others were registered involuntarily and essentially “passively”, under state laws (passed in response to lobbying by Selective Service) that require draft-age applicants for state driver’s licenses to consent to having their drivers-license information used to register them with the SSS. (California is the largest state without such a state law, although proposals for such a California law have been made repeatedly.) These people’s registration status indicates nothing about their willingness to be drafted or the likelihood that they would resist a draft.

Still others have registered in order to qualify for Federal student loans, job training, government jobs, and other programs. People who register solely in order to be able to afford to go to college, or to get or keep a job, can’t be presumed to be willing to be drafted.

Some people dismiss the actions of millions of young people who have quietly ignored the requirement to register for the draft, or to tell the Selective Service Service whenever they move, as presumably apolitical, insignificant, or “cowardly”, or as draft “evasion” rather than draft “resistance”. But such an analysis ignores the reality of political life and the risks of overt resistance for the poor people, people of color, and undocumented immigrants who make up the bulk of this ongoing but quiet resistance to draft registration.

The most detailed and explicit rebuttal to these erroneous assumptions about the significance of quiet resistance, the “hidden transcripts” of subaltern political thought and action, and their relationship with the “public transcripts” of overt resistance has been made by James C. Scott:

Much of the active political life of subordinate groups has been ignored because it takes place at a level we rarely recognize as political. To emphasize the enormity of what has been, by and large, disregarded, I want to distinguish between the open, declared forms of resistance, which attract most attention, and the disguised, low-profile undeclared resistance….

For many of the least privileged minorities and marginalized poor, open political action will hardly capture the bulk of political action…. The luxury of relatively safe, open political opposition is rare… So long as we confine our conception of the political to activity that is openly declared we are driven to conclude that subordinate groups essentially lack a political life…. To do so is to miss the immense terrain that lies between quiescence and [open] revolt and that, for better or worse, is the political environment of subject classes….

Each of the forms of disguised resistance… is the silent partner of a loud form of public resistance.

[Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Yale University Press, 1990, Chapter 7]

Desertion is quite different from an open mutiny that directly challenges military commanders. It makes no public claims, it issues no manifestos, it is exit rather than voice. And yet, once the extent of desertion becomes known, it constrains the ambitions of commanders, who know they may not be able to count on their conscripts…. Quiet, anonymous,… lawbreaking and disobedience may well be the historically preferred mode of political action for… subaltern classes, for whom open defiance is too dangerous.

[Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press, 2012, Chapter 1]

Draft registration has failed, by any measure. Congress should repeal draft registration and abolish the Selective Service System. If it doesn’t, the President could and should proclaim an end to draft registration. In the meantime, people potentially subject to the draft should continue to resist.

The real question is not, “Will Congress enact a draft?”, but, “Will would-be draftees submit to a draft?” The clear evidence is that they will not comply voluntarily, and that the government has no way to enforce the draft law in the face of such widespread noncompliance. As was the case during the first USA-Iraq war in 1990-1991, we still won’t go (PDF). Draft resisters are often accused of naiveté, but those who believe that they have the power to impose a draft are deluding themselves and refusing to face the facts.


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This page most recently modified 2 March 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.