The Draft 1969

Often the design of official documents is intended to confound or frighten. One of the most ominous pieces of nondescript paper when I was a teen in 1969 was the card above: The draft card.

This simple registration-classification-identification card became a symbol of defiance that set the sixties ablaze. Burning draft cards (as shown on the cover of Ramparts magazine (below top), art directed by Dugald Stermer), was the most visible means of “registering” dissent. Doing so was against the law, punishable by a prison term. The catch was this: new cards were issued almost every year to reflect changes in draft status.

Those letter-number codes (below bottom) meant the difference between being shipped off to war or staying safely at home. I recall going for my physical (shortly after the premiere of Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie – the “Group W bench” (below second from top) became a lesson in draft dodging) at the old Civil War era Whitehall Street building in Manhattan. By accident I stumbled into the swearing in room. There were so many minorities – African American and Latino – joining up simply to get out of the urban ghetto, that I knew I would not be called up (the quota would be met). To this day, I feel guilty that others laid down their lives for me. But like so many others of my generation, we were convinced the Vietnam War was unjust at worst and foolhardy at best.

That war taught me a lesson about the power of dissent. And the importance of symbols, even if they are little wallet-sized pieces of otherwise nondescript paper.


7 thoughts on “The Draft 1969

  1. Pingback: The Daily Heller: periodical design, underground papers, sex. — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  2. Tom Greensfelder

    I second Lincoln’s sentiments. It was an illegal war, initiated through a lie: the Gulf of Tonkin incident (not unlike the WMD ruse that got us into the Iraq war).
    I was living in a dorm at UCLA in 1969 when they did the first lottery, which ended the student deferments. It was a strange scene to be in this room with 60 other guys watching the TV and having our fate determined by slips of paper with our birthdays printed on them being pulled out of a jar.

  3. tom morin

    Thanks for the rememberances Steven…for what its worth the Ramparts cover shown was issued Dec. 1967…featuring a great cover photo by Carl Fischer. Early in 1968, Warren Hinckle III came to Yale to meet with the editors of the Yale Daily News. They were planning a once a week publication called “friday” with investigative stories that I designed as a young graphics student. Warren handed out copies of this issue to everyone present for those meetings.

  4. Lincoln Cushing

    As a veteran of the war against the war, I don’t feel guilty for being part of that imperial machine. This was not a legitimate war of self defense for us, and I believe the casualties of soldiers and civilians on both sides was reduced more by opposing that cruel adventure than by joining it. The classic WW1 British poster “Daddy, what did YOU do in the great war?” doesn’t apply here. And by the way, it’s a little known fact that it wasn’t illegal to burn a draft card – it was illegal to not have one available to present upon demand to an authority. Smart rads “lost” their cards and then had one to burn.

  5. Bobbi

    I grew up a military brat. 1967-85. I’m familiar with driving through a guard gate and being saluted. Driving past rows of barracks and shopping at the PX. I recall driving home from the local college on the long road to base housing, past the flight area on a beautiful, sunny day. A dark shadow fell over my car and I curiously craned my head out of the window. An SR-71 was sliding (almost silently) over the road where I was driving, very low and heading for the flight strip. It was majestic and ominous all at once. I remember shivering from the shock of it. My grandfather served in WWII, the Korean war and Vietnam. My father has lasting issues from his service in Vietnam. I found it really interesting that you referenced government documents and their design. I’ve always thought of that sort of paperwork as the type of thing that makes my head hurt. A non-design, of sorts. It’s a very real part of my past that doesn’t often touch my current life. Steven Heller…. the memory man.

  6. Susan

    My boyfriend at the time was a conscientious objector, and we hated the term draft dodger… thanks so much for sharing your own story (also loved your piece on Just Kids – that really brought back memories!). 

  7. Richard

    I, too, sometimes feel guilty about not having served — although I received my card a few years after yours and was really a the tail end of the draft. Interesting piece. Thank you for writing about this and recalling the turbulent times this piece of paper evokes.

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