The Lasting Effects of the Vietnam Draft Lottery

The 1969 Vietnam draft lottery assigned numbers to birth dates in order to determine which young men would be called to fight in Vietnam. We exploit this natural experiment to examine how draft vulnerability influenced political attitudes. Data are from the Political Socialization Panel Study, which surveyed high school seniors from the class of 1965 before and after the national draft lottery was instituted. Males holding low lottery numbers became more antiwar, more liberal, and more Democratic in their voting compared to those whose high numbers protected them from the draft. They were also more likely than those with safe numbers to abandon the party identification that they had held as teenagers. Trace effects are found in reinterviews from the 1990s. Draft number effects exceed those for preadult party identification and are not mediated by military service. The results show how profoundly political attitudes can be transformed when public policies directly affect citizens’ lives.

From a new piece (gated; ungated) by Robert Erikson and Laura Stoker.  Previous research, such as by Joshua Angrist, has looked at the economic consequences of military service in Vietnam, using the draft lottery number as a proxy (or, in the statistical patois, “instrument”) for serving.  Erikson and Stoker are the first, I believe, to look at the effects of the draft lottery on political attitudes.  Here are the main findings, elaborating on the abstract above:

  • Among college-bound men—the group most affected by the institution of the lottery in 1969—those with lower draft numbers had more negative views of the Vietnam War when they were interviewed in a 1973 survey.  This is not due to actual military service, but seems to reflect a general emotional reaction to the prospect of service.
  • Lower draft numbers also made these men more liberal and more Democratic.  This trend was driven by men who up to that point had leaned Republican but, because of Nixon’s policy, fled to the Democratic Party.

That the effects of the lottery show up 4 years after it was instituted is notable.  Truly remarkable, however, is that some of these effects show up years and years later:

  • The shift toward the Democratic Party was permanent.  As Erikson and Stoker write, “A prominent effect of getting a poor outcome in the draft was to cause reevaluations of party loyalties.
  • Finally, those with lower draft numbers had less favorable opinions of the Vietnam War even when interviewed in 1982 and 1997.  That is to say, the effect of draft lottery status was evident almost 30 years after the draft itself.

Erikson and Stoker conclude:

Vulnerability to the draft induced by the 1969 lottery not only structured attitudes toward the Vietnam War, but also provoked a cascade of changes in basic partisan, ideological, and issue attitudes. The breadth, magnitude, and, in some respects, persistence of these attitudinal changes illustrates how powerful self-interest can become when public policies directly touch our lives.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.