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What is a Draft Card?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated May 23, 2024
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A draft card is the notice sent by the U.S. government to tell a military draftee that he must report for duty. The Selective Service Act was passed in 1917, forcing men of a certain age to register for the draft. If a man’s number was pulled in a draft lottery, he was sent a draft card ordering him to report. The draft card was used by the U.S. government for conscription purposes from 1917 to 1973.

The system determining which men were drafted into the military changed slightly with each president, though the basics stayed the same. A draft card was issued after a publicized drawing of two numbers. For the lottery, one barrel was filled with every date in the current year, while another barrel was filled with the numbers one through 365. The Selective Service would then choose an age of draftees, usually starting with the age of 18. At that point, a Selective Service representative would pull a date and number from the barrels.

Any man turning 18 years old on the date pulled from the first barrel would have to report to duty, with the second number indicating in what order he would go — the lower the number, the sooner he would have to report to duty. The drawing would continue until all 365 numbers were drawn, and draft cards would be issued in the order indicated by the drawing. During peak times of drafting, when almost everyone of a certain age had a draft card, young men who did not have their draft card were considered draft dodgers and often were harassed, beaten or arrested. Despite this, it also was common during the Vietnam War for draft cards to be publicly burned and those not subject to the draft to help hide those who were dodging it.

The age at which a man had to register varied, because laws constantly changed over the years. The required length of service also changed during World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War, going from one year to the duration of the war plus six months. During World War I, a person could pay another to take his draft card and report for duty, which caused the military to be largely made up of the poor or lower middle class, because they could not afford to hire a replacement. It was also common for draft cards to be rescinded under certain circumstances, especially for men with children and college students. Being a college student was the only real exception by the time of the Vietnam War.

Draft cards became obsolete in 1973, when the U.S. military was changed to an all-volunteer system. Despite this, men of a certain age are still required by law to register with the Selective Service or risk becoming ineligible for certain government benefits, especially student loans. The draft, along with draft cards, can be reinstated by the U.S. government at any time, although the benefits and pay provided to military members has allowed the military to maintain reasonable numbers without it.

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Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Feb 26, 2014

That makes for a heck of a fun 18th birthday -- register to vote then sign up for Selective Service. Yes, we have an all volunteer military, but that could change should the need arise. If you're grateful not be called up to go to war, thank one of those volunteer soldiers for keeping our military ranks full.

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