The 1969 Draft Lottery Didn’t Solve Nixon’s Problems

At the height of the Vietnam War, perhaps no stateside military issue caused as much friction as the draft. There was certainly already a groundswell of antiwar sentiment. The Saturday Evening Post ran an article on draft resistance called “Hell, No, We Won’t Go!” in the January 27, 1968 issue; the cover even depicted a burning draft card. The dislike for the random nature of the draft would only get worse in the days before and after the December 1, 1969, draft lottery drawing, which happened 50 years ago this week.

The draft had already been cited as an unfair process, and many Americans weren’t happy with the ongoing escalation of the country’s involvement in the war. With troop levels jumping from 82,000 in-country in 1965 to 500,000 by 1967, there didn’t seem to be much of an end in sight. Other social movements, like the hippie counterculture and the Civil Rights movement, began to intersect with anti-war activism, prompting louder and louder calls to end the U.S.’s role in the conflict.

President Richard Nixon sat in the center of it all. When he took office in January of 1969, he had publicly expressed a desire to begin a drawdown in troop levels. However, he wanted to achieve some kind of solution that brought Americans home, ensure the security of South Vietnam, avoid the appearance of a U.S. “loss” in any way, and move the U.S. military to a volunteer force; it was basically an impossible task. On November 26, 1969, Congress moved to modify part of the Military Selective Service Act of 1967; that adjustment gave the president the authority to change how the draft worked. That same day, Nixon issued Executive Order 11497, which allowed for random selection, or a draft lottery. It was held on December 1, 1969.

Curtis W. Tarr, director of the Selective Service System, turns the drum containing capsules of draft numbers at the annual draft lottery, Commerce Department Auditorium, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Thomas J. O’Halloran;

The lottery worked by putting every day of the year (including February 29) onto individual slips of paper and then packing each paper into a plastic capsule. The capsules were mixed in a shoebox, poured into a jar, and then drawn one at a time. The first drawn number was 258, which corresponded to September 14, the 258th day of the year. That meant that all eligible men of draft age (that were born on September 14 during a span of years that ran from January 1, 1944 to December 31, 1950) would be called to serve at the same time. Deferments were available for draftees that were actively in college or deemed physically unable to serve; some registered for the National Guard in an effort to stay home and avoid active deployment overseas.

The Draft Lottery. (Uploaded to YouTube by AP Archive)

At the time of the draft, 850,000 young Americans were affected. Local draft boards, with a span of 18- to 26-year-olds in the eligible range, chose 19-year-olds first., altering an earlier rule in which the oldest end of the pool was chosen first.  The lottery, which some took to be a fair, random way of selecting personnel, turned out to have all sorts of incongruities and problems, with some dates having a higher concentration of births and perceived inequities in selection at the local draft board level, since wealthier draftees were more likely to earn a deferment due to college enrollment. It actually exacerbated opposition to the war, according to books like Peace: A History of Movement and Ideas by David Cortright; Cortright wrote that Nixon’s own task force for exploring the volunteer army transition reported that draft resistance surged “at an alarming rate” in 1970.

As the war went on, Nixon juggled drawing down forces while trying to negotiate an end to hostilities. Drafts occurred in 1970, 1971, and 1972; they were set to expire in 1973 under the original provision of the order, but the January 1973 cease-fire agreement negated it entirely before the last draft would have happened. While 18-year-olds are still required to register for Selective Service, the military did segue to a volunteer force after the close of the Vietnam War.

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Read “Hell, no, we won’t go!” by Bill Davidson from the January 27, 1968, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.


Featured image: The Drafty Lottery of 1969. (Photo by Warren K. Leffler;

How to Become President without Being Elected

The early 1970s were some of the most tumultuous years in U.S. presidential politics. After the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in October 1973, Speaker of the House Gerald Ford ascended to the role of vice president. When President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, Ford was sworn in as president. This is part of a chain of firsts; Ford is the only president to have not been elected to the position of president, or even vice president. He’s also the first person to become vice president after the invocation of the 25th Amendment, which provides for the filling of such a vacancy. As Ford’s vice presidency bid was confirmed by the Senate 45 years ago today, it’s the perfect time to look at both the circumstances surrounding this complicated switch, and what the 25th Amendment provides in the way of a mechanism to replace both the vice president and the president.

The 25th Amendment was one of the two most recent additions to the Constitution at the time of the Agnew resignation. (The 26th Amendment, which fixed the voting age at 18, was ratified in 1971.) The 25th Amendment was submitted to the states in 1965 and ratified in 1967. It’s a four-section document with fairly direct language. Section 1 is one simple sentence: “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.” Likewise, Section 2 is equally simple: “Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”

The remainder of the amendment requires a little more explanation. Section 3 provides for the vice president to step in as acting president if the president submits a written declaration to the “President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives” that states that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” The president would have to notify the same parties when able to take those responsibilities back. This portion has been invoked three times: in 1985, 2002, and 2007. In all three instances, the president (Ronald Reagan in 1985; George W. Bush in the other two cases) underwent a colonoscopy and transferred power for a matter of hours. It might also sound familiar if you’re a fan of The West Wing; the issue came into play during the story arc involving the kidnapping of Zoey Bartlet (though power went to the speaker of the house as the vice president had resigned). If you’re wondering about what happened when Reagan was shot in 1981, that’s covered by Section 4.

Official portraits for U.S. president George H. W. Bush and vice president Dick Cheney
George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney have both served as acting president during presidential surgeries. (Official Portraits; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Section 4 holds a lot of potential for conflict, but it’s also a safety valve of sorts. The vice president, with a plurality of the cabinet and/or Congress, may declare to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives that president is unfit, allowing the vice president to become acting president. The second paragraph covers what would happen if the president disagrees; at that point, a two-thirds vote of Congress would be necessary to keep the vice president installed as acting president. When Reagan was shot, he was obviously not in a position to invoke Section 3. Vice President George H.W. Bush was on a flight at the time of the shooting, and not able to invoke Section 4. President Reagan was out of surgery by the time that the plane landed; therefore, no invocation of Section 4 occurred.

However, that doesn’t mean that other discussions of Section 4 haven’t taken place. Reagan’s third chief of staff, Howard Baker, had been approached by worried staff members regarding Regan’s competence after Baker became chief of staff in 1987. President Reagan’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease was not publicly disclosed until 1994, five years after he left office, and there’s no hard public evidence that he was dealing with the disease while president. Critics of Donald Trump have also called for invoking the 25th Amendment, with a number of outlets also reporting on talks among his staff or offering speculation on the topic when the president says something outrageous (which is, admittedly, common).

Spiro Agnew resigns.

But back in 1973, the use of the amendment wasn’t a tool for partisan threats or West Wing handwringing; it was a rulebook for averting a Constitutional crisis. Agnew resigned after being investigated for tax fraud and corruption. On October 9 of that year, Agnew informed Nixon of this plans to resign; the following day, he pled no contest on a charge of tax evasion and submitted his formal letter of resignation. Nixon invoked Section 2 and nominated Ford for vice president on October 12. The Senate voted for confirmation on November 27, with the House of Representatives following suit on December 6, 1973; Ford was sworn in just one hour later. The great irony, of course, is that Nixon would resign after the Watergate scandal in 1974, leading to Ford’s ascension to office. Ford lost the 1976 presidential race to Jimmy Carter and would become the only U.S. president and vice president to serve without being elected as such.

Gerald Ford sworn in as vice president.

Regardless of where the winds of political and historical fate send the presidency today, these situations underscore what a durable instrument that the United State Constitution is. Benjamin Franklin, who holds the distinction of having signed the Declaration of Independence, the 1781 Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. Constitution, urged his fellows in the Constitutional Convention to sign the document; as transcribed by James Madison, Franklin said, “I hope therefore that for our own Sakes, as a Part of the People, and for the sake of our Posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution, wherever our Influence may extend, and turn our future Thoughts and Endeavours to the Means of having it well administered.“ Franklin would no doubt be encouraged that it’s worked pretty well so far.

Nixon’s Resignation and the Legacy of a Flawed President

Just before lunchtime on August 9, 1974, the day after his resignation, President Richard Nixon and his family boarded a helicopter on the White House lawn. Stopping at the helicopter’s door, the president suddenly turned and flung out his hands in a gesture that might have indicated either “peace” or “victory.” Minutes later, the Nixons were borne away to a life after the White House. 

For his remaining 20 years, Richard Nixon must have fretted over how history would regard him. At least his reputation wouldn’t be tainted by the stigma of impeachment. Just one week before resigning, the House Judiciary Committee had drawn up articles of impeachment that charged him with obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and hindrance of the impeachment process.  

Nixon was spared that indignity when his successor, President Gerald Ford, pardoned him in September.  

The pardon wasn’t a favor to a fellow Republican, Ford explained. Rather, he was thinking about the nation. By blocking any criminal prosecution of Nixon, he hoped to stop the social and political rifts that had developed in America during the Senate’s investigation into the Watergate scandal. 

Nixon claimed he had acted on selfless motives. In his resignation speech, he declared, “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first. … Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” 

Putting “America first” might have been a ruse for protecting his dignity, but Nixon’s character was more complex than that. Although his White House recordings revealed he could be petty, prejudiced, and vengeful on a personal level, his policies and actions showed an astute grasp of the national welfare. If he was prone to stumbling on some matters, like authorizing and covering up the theft of data from the Democratic headquarters, he seems to have been far-sighted on the big picture, as Peter Bloch observes in “Richard Nixon — A Great President!” from the November 2012 issue of the Post.  

The article shows how much Nixon’s policies changed the U.S. government. Nixon was responsible for many far-reaching initiatives, such as starting a dialogue with China, establishing the EPA, and enforcing desegregation. Nixon was considered a hard conservative in his day — as demonstrated in his virulent anticommunist campaigns — but would be labeled a moderate by today’s standards.. 

In time, Americans may acknowledge Nixon’s mark on history aside from his crimes. But for the foreseeable future, his popular legacy will be limited to Watergate and his resignation.  


Magazine excerpt
 Click to read “Richard Nixon—A Great President” from the November/December 2012 issue of the Post. 

 Featured image: Illustration of Richard Nixon by Norman Rockwell for The Saturday Evening Post

8 Most Embarrassing Presidential Gaffes

Today, everything an American president says is dissected and analyzed. For anyone under such scrutiny, gaffes are inevitable, and every thoughtless, off-hand comment or tasteless remark is captured and broadcast even before the president realizes what he just said. But all such gaffes are not equally horrid.

Here is a list of the eight most regrettable utterances from the highest office.


1. No Crooks Here

Asked in an interview if there were any situation in which the president, in the best interest of America, could commit an illegal act, Richard Nixon replied, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” In hindsight, he was a little off on that one.


2. What Cold War?

Debating Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gerald Ford declared, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Asked if he truly meant that the nations held behind the USSR’s Iron Curtain weren’t dominated by Soviets, he repeated himself, asserting that Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia were free of Soviet interference. It destroyed all of Ford’s credibility in foreign affairs.


3. Unsound Check

Prior to a 1984 radio broadcast, Ronald Reagan was asked to speak into the microphone for a sound check. Joking, he said, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” A recording of his statement was leaked, and Soviet forces were briefly put on alert.


4. Language Tango 

In 1998 testimony before a grand jury, Bill Clinton was questioned about his improper relationship with White House aide Monica Lewinsky. In defending as truthful his statement that “there’s nothing going on between us,” he responded, “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is. If the — if he — if is means ‘is and never has been,’ that is not — that is one thing. If it means ‘there is none,’ that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.” His attempt at hair-splitting did not prevent his later impeachment by the House of Representatives.


5. Whose Finger Is on the Button?

Harry Truman, who liked to express himself in terse, direct statements, was asked whether the U.S. would consider using atomic weapons against the Chinese in Korea. He replied, “The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons, as he always has.” Unfortunately, the commander was the impulsive, headstrong General Douglas MacArthur. Many Americans feared the General would start the next world war through the use of atomic bombs. The administration quickly issued a correction, but it didn’t erase the worries.


6. Bad Lip Reading

At the 1988 Republican Convention, candidate George H.W. Bush pledged to resist Congressional pressure to raise taxes. “They’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say, to them, Read my lips: no new taxes.” Two years later, those lips had to eat those words as Bush raised taxes, helping to drop his approval rating from 79% to 56%.


7. You’re on Candid Camera

A reporter once asked Dwight Eisenhower what important decisions his vice president, Richard Nixon, had helped him make. Eisenhower, with uncharacteristic candor, replied, “If you give me a week I might think of one.” It was such a revealing remark that the Democrats replayed it in campaign ads against Nixon in 1960.


8. Gutter Ball

On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Barack Obama was asked about a recent bowling event. “I bowled a 129,” he replied. Leno replied sarcastically, “That’s very good, Mr. President.” And the president added, “It’s like the Special Olympics or something.” Even before the taped show could be aired, the White House recognized the insult to participants in the Special Olympics, and campaign of apologies began.

Featured image: Rcihard Nixon (Photo by Ollie Atkins, National Archives)

Pre-Watergate Nixon letter expresses excitement for recording presidential history

Cover of the Fall 1972 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Photo by Ollie Atkins

Buried in the archives of The Saturday Evening Post are treasures from the nation’s nearly 300 years of history, whether in vintage advertising, classic illustrations, or insightful reporting that illuminates life in America of decades now passed.

Frequently we find old articles with an interesting point of view, providing us with insight on specific historical events from the people who lived through them.

And in the case of this gem from our Fall 1972 issue (right), some articles look much different when measured with the hindsight of history.

Then-President of the United States Richard Nixon wrote this letter for the Post in relation to a photo essay by official White House photographer Ollie Atkins, which appeared in the same issue. The full text of Nixon’s letter appears below. Click here to see the photo essay as it originally appeared in the Post.


To Communicate Dimensions of Truth

By Richard Nixon

In the archives and libraries of America are carefully preserved the records of each of our Presidents—letters, minutes, diaries, memoranda—and now even tape—recorded interviews with those who are a part of past administrations. But only in recent times has the strong effort been made to preserve a complete photographic account of Presidential history.


Though I often joke with Ollie Atkins, the official White House photographer, about his persistent efforts always to be in the right place at the right time with his cameras, I must say that I am very happy indeed with the modern practice of keeping a full photographic record of the Presidency. For as I look over Ollie’s pictures, including those which make up the photographic essay on these pages, I realize again their unique ability to communicate dimensions of truth which are often missed in the written record.

Through these pictures, for example, I can feel again the sense we all had in Peking and Moscow of participating in one of history’s watershed moments. And I am reminded, too, as I look through these photos, of nuances of personality in those I have known which are sometimes difficult to put into language. By helping to preserve the mood, the spirit, the character of a person or an event—or an entire administration—the photographer can perform, I believe, a unique public service.

When historians study all the records of the Nixon years, I hope they will conclude that these were good years, years in which we ended a difficult war, achieved significant arms control agreements and made peaceful negotiation the way of life among nations. I hope, too, that this Administration will be remembered as one which reordered an economy which had grown dependent on wartime spending, decentralized and revitalized a Federal bureaucracy which had grown rigid and unresponsive, and helped a divided Nation substitute the rule of reason for confrontation and disorder.

There have been moments of disappointment in these years, of course, but there have been many more moments of great satisfaction. After nearly four years as President, I believe we can be proud of the record we are leaving for those who will write the history of this Administration—even as I am proud of this photographic essay concerning some of its highlights

{signed} Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon—A Great President!

Richard Nixon

Earlier this year, many in the media celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Celebrate is not too strong a word for the self-congratulatory outpouring from reporters and commentators, many of whom saw themselves as the last bastion of defense of our very freedoms against the Nixon administration’s onslaught. And there is no doubt that, had he not resigned in 1974, Richard Nixon rightly would have been impeached and removed from office as a result of his clear and pernicious crimes.

However, as we look back after four decades, it’s time to recognize a Richard Nixon that too many people overlook: a strange, awkward, self-hating man who transformed America—and the world—in ways that only the greatest leaders could dream of.

Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 is his most dramatic achievement—one that even his most dedicated enemies will grant him. Only a fierce anti-Communist like Nixon could have had the political capital to reverse decades of American foreign policy overnight; and only a wise foreign-policy strategist could have guaranteed that this reversal would be permanent. But Nixon’s domestic accomplishments probably have a greater effect on our lives, and just listing some of them make the point: the Philadelphia Plan and the Affirmative Action legislation that guaranteed employment rights to minorities and women; the Equal Rights Amendment; the Title IX Act, which revolutionized women’s sports; and the Environmental Protection Act; the Clean Air Act; and establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. His proposal to revolutionize healthcare coverage would have been far-reaching and comprehensive—40 years before Obamacare. Ted Kennedy said his worst mistake was opposing Nixon’s health plan for political reasons.

Historian Robert Caro’s great biographies of Lyndon Johnson have done much to make new generations understand LBJ’s complexities—this corrupt, foul-mouthed bully who simultaneously brought America the blessing of civil rights along with the evil of the Vietnam War. Surely it is time for a gifted writer to illuminate our most Shakespearian president: Richard Nixon—a man of outstanding ability and accomplishment who went to great lengths to record his most secret, shameful, private thoughts and deeds; and who, by refusing to destroy those tapes, ensured his own destruction.

The opinions expressed in “The Contrarian View” do not represent those of The Saturday Evening Post.

The Photographer and the Spy

Ollie Atkins was there when Alger Hiss’ career was destroyed and Richard Nixon’s was made. He was still around the two men’s careers passed each other in the opposite direction.

It was one of those famous American trials that capture the spirit of its times, and take on broad meaning.

The government accused Alger Hiss of lying to Congress, but only because it couldn’t charge him with treason. A former communist had claimed Hiss had provided the Soviets with classified U.S. documents in 1938, but the statue of limitations protected Hiss from prosecution. So the government charged him with lying to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

At first, it seemed preposterous. A Post writer described Hiss as a man of “impeccable background”:

The Pumpkin Papers<br />by Ollie Atkins<br />Jan/Feb. 1976
The Pumpkin Papersby Ollie AtkinsJan/Feb. 1976

“…an official in the State Department, a member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle, the President’s confidant at the Yalta Conference, one of the chief architects of the United Nations charter and the Secretary General of the United Nations organizational conference … He was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, both with highest honors. He was on the board of the Harvard Law Review. He was chosen as a young man to be secretary to the renowned Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Alger Hiss was urbane and flawless in dress. His bearing exuded sobriety, confidence, dedication and aplomb. Not a hair on his head was out of place. There was no ounce of flab on his body. One look was enough to assure anyone that Alger was the essence of the creme de la creme—the very best the elite eastern establishment could produce. Fortunate we were to have a young man of such quality to help guide the affairs of state. And to gild this pure white lily, Alger Hiss was an expert (if amateur) birdwatcher. He could talk with eloquence and enthusiasm about the rare prothonotary warbler, a shy creature with exquisite gold and yellow markings which was a sometime habitue of the swamps of Virginia. No one who really likes birds can intend ill for his fellowman.”

That description was written by Oliver Atkins, a longtime Post employee who is now recognized as one of the great American photojournalists. Atkins worked for the Post until 1968, when he left the magazine to become Richard Nixon’s official photographer.

Johnson with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, June 1965.
Johnson with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, June 1965.

Atkins had photographed every president starting with Truman. He enjoyed working with Nixon—”the best of all the presidents I have known as a subject for photography”—and he admired the man.

They probably knew each other from Nixon’s earliest days in the public eye. In 1948, Nixon was a young Congressman from California and a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He pushed the Committee to investigate a suspected communist in the State Deparment: Alger Hiss.

Atkins wrote about the Hiss trial for the Post in 1976. What made the story “timely and meaningful today is that our country is under severe stress in matters of security and espionage.” America had just emerged from several years of hearings, accusations, and investigation into Watergate. Once again, American officials had stolen documents, subverted Federal law, and lied to Congress. Only this time, the accuser, Richard Nixon, was now the accused.

Politics on Trial

It is hard for Americans who didn’t live through those days to understand the importance of this trial. People had grown frustrated in their attempt to find the Americans who were aiding communists. Earlier in the century, it was assumed communists were working among the poor and the struggling labor unions.

In the 1930s, their suspicions shifted to intellectuals. Conservatives suspected that the highly educated progressives surrounding President Roosevelt were shifting the country and its economy toward socialism. Anticommunist sentiments rose sharply after the war, with good reason; Russia had returned to its old job of overthrowing capitalism.

So there was delight among conservative anticommunists when a spy was identified in the State Department. Here, at last, was proof that the Red Menace had infiltrated the power grid of Washington.

The bugaloo was everywhere. Here, the first witness is sworn in at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing dealing with Communist influence in Hollywood. Rep. Richard M. Nixon sits to Rep. J. Parnell Thomas´s left. Left of center, the author, a <em>Post</em> photographer readies his Speed Graphic
The first witness is sworn in at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing dealing with Communist influence in Hollywood. Rep. Richard M. Nixon sits to Rep. J. Parnell Thomas´s left. Left of center, the author, a Post photographer readies his Speed Graphic

Alger Hiss was convicted in 1950 and sentenced to five years in prison. He was released after 44 months. By 1976 Hiss regained his license to practice law. Richard Nixon was barred from legal practice and never tried to reclaim his license. Following his resignation from the presidency and his pardon by President Ford, Nixon spent the year planning ways to resurrect his reputation.

Oliver Atkins died the next year. He left his vast collection of photographs to George Mason University, which now holds over 57,000 of his images.

Richard Nixon passed away in 1994. Alger Hiss outlived him by two years. To the end of his life, he continually maintained his innocence of treason and his loyalty to America.