The Vietnam War is a bad memory that has faded over time for many of us who were young adults when the conflict was raging in a full-throated roar.

By 1968, 500,000 American soldiers were stationed in Vietnam.   50,000 had been killed in action.  Multiples more wounded in body and mind.

Martin Luther King Jr., Washington D.C. 1963

Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in April of 1968. Bobby Kennedy was gunned down two months later on the campaign trail for President in Los Angeles.  Both were outspoken against the U.S. involvement in the war.  

President John F. Kennedy during his short term in office from 1961-1963 expanded the U.S. presence in Vietnam. After JFK’s assassination his Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson, went all-in.  

Brothers Jack and Bobby Kennedy

Before December of 1969, young men 18 and older were eligible to be drafted into service unless they had a student deferment (i.e. were enrolled in college) or a medical condition that excused them from service.  Consequently, most of the draftees were kids whose families couldn’t afford college or to pay a doctor to “find” a medical excuse. 

This inequity was addressed by a lottery system that was introduced in December of 1969.   Basically, those who were draft eligible (born between 1940 and 1951) would be selected based on the date of their birth.   366 balls with each month and day of the year written on them—including leap year—were placed in a large, glass bowl and pulled out one at a time.  Much like a bingo game.  All of this played out on national television with millions of young men and their families glued to their TV sets.  If you were unlucky enough to be born on September 14, you were the first ball pulled, which meant you were first in line to be drafted into service.

Rep. Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) member of the House Armed Services Committe, picks the first capsule for the national draft lottery Dec. 1, 1969. The first date drawn was Sept. 14. At left is outgoing Selective Service director Lt. Gen. Lewis Hershey.

The National Guard was flooded with applications. Some fled to Canada.   Others went into hiding in the U.S.   Several refused to report for duty and were arrested. 

In a rather surprising move, President Johnson decided to not run for a second term.   This opened the door for Richard M. Nixon who was elected President and sworn into office in January of 1970.   His campaign promise to ease America out of Vietnam was not fulfilled.  In fact, quite the opposite happened.

President Richard Nixon announces the invasion of Cambodia on national TV on April 30, 1970

On April 30, 1970, the U.S. expanded the war into Cambodia with air assaults and movement of troops across its border with Vietnam.  

Antiwar protests immediately exploded across the country.  Coordinated walkouts from classes on college and high school campuses—students and professors—were staged across the country, including at my alma mater at the University of Southern California.  

2,500 protest at USC between Doheny Library and Bovard Auditorium, May 2, 1970

100,000 protest in Washington D.C. May 1970

On May 4, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a protest at Kent State University.   Four students were killed, and ten others wounded by gunfire. 

Neil Young wrote a powerful song about this watershed moment in the antiwar movement, “Four Dead in Ohio,” and Crosby Stills Nash and Young recorded it.  

All hell broke loose. 

Over 100,000 marched on Washington D.C.  150,000 in San Francisco.  Virtually no part of the country was unscathed by protests.   College campuses were a lightning rod for dissent.  As were their ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) facilities—over 30 were burned down.

Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, May 9, 1970
Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1970

On May 11, 1970, as classroom walk outs persisted, USC’s President Norman Topping announced a plan that excused students from attending the remaining classes in the semester (about 4 weeks’ worth), and allowed them to take their midterm grades as their final grades for the semester.  Students were thereby freed up to “work for peace.”   The campus became eerily quiet.

Two weeks earlier, Topping announced his decision to seek early retirement as USC’s president citing health reasons.  He had served as president for 12 years and was 62 years old.  (“Men and Events,” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1970)

There was a graduation ceremony held on USC’s campus in June that was unaffected by protests given that most everyone had already left school.  

In 1969-1970 I was a sophomore at USC and a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. As noted above, the war was raging in Vietnam and there were rumors that changes would be made to the selective service process that might eliminate student deferments. In October of 1969, I was presented with a rare and most coveted opportunity to join the Air Force Reserves. My older brother, a recent USC grad, had moved to Pennsylvania for grad school and the commander of his reserve unit in Los Angeles said I could have his spot and jump ahead of thousands on the waiting list. Although I would have to leave school and do six months of basic training, I was inclined to accept this gift.

I reached out to my father for advice. He’d spent 5 years in the Army during World War II, fought over two bloody years in the South Pacific and was a highly decorated officer. He said, “Don’t do it–take your chances. If things continue to go to hell in Southeast Asia, everyone will get drafted and you might as well stay in school as long as you can and increase your chances of going in the service as an officer.”

I took his advice. Two months later, the lottery was staged and my birthday, January 13, was the 326th number pulled. I literally “won the lottery.” Several of my fraternity brothers were not so lucky. In fact, three of them had their birthdays drawn 1, 2 and 3.

The Vietnam War not only divided our country and campuses, but it also pitted fraternity brothers against each other. I didn’t like the War, but I wasn’t one of those who protested against it. I’m sure I was influenced by my father who, like many WWII veterans, took the position we must follow the policies of those who hold power in government. “They know what’s best.”

I’d received straight A’s on my midterms, so when President Topping announced the new policy I took those as my final grades and was excused from my remaining classes. Several fraternity brothers and I “worked for peace” by playing baseball on the eerily quiet Rod Dedeaux Field on campus.

The Vietnam War continued for another five years and “officially” ended on April 30, 1975 when South Vietnam’s capital city, Saigon, fell into the hands of North Vietnam’s communist party.


  1. Kay says:

    A dreadful time in our history. On my university campus, the student union was set on fire and classes were cancelled in May, 1970. Yes, the whole world was watching.

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Write Me Something Beautiful Authors - Casey and Jimmy Gauntt

Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

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Jimmy Gauntt

was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

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