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Administering Armageddon


By Robert O. Boorstin

THE SELECTIVE Service System (SSS), the agency that wants to register you and me for the draft resides in a bazooka-ammo red brick building near Chinatown in the nation's capitol. Actually, the SSS only takes up about three-quarters of the building's fifth floor, but from all of the yelling out in the streets, you'd think these people owned half the town.

Things at the SSS have been pretty quiet since 1973, when they stopped registering young men for the draft and fired 6900 of the department agency's 7000 employees. But since President Carter woke up to the Soviet threat--and decided that registering people for the draft not only would show the Kremlin what "grave consequences" await it but also might grab him a few primary votes--the people at SSS, all 78 of them who work in the Washington office, have been pretty busy. After all, it's not every day that you gear up for war.

"I can understand protesting the draft," says SSS spokesman Joan Lamb as she revolves in her chair, "but not registration." Lamb, who has been touring the area talking to college students, says she can't comprehend how young people make the connection between registration and the actual process of induction. Lamb smiles. She studied Russian history in college and understands the nuances of Soviet expansion. She also has a son who is draft age.

Two blocks down, and four blocks up the hill, Sen. William D. Proxmire (D- Wisc.) is holding hearings to decide on the fate of the National Science Foundation's budget in fiscal 1981. It is very dark in room 1318 of the Everett McKinley Dirksen Senate Office Building, but Proxmire's tongue cuts through the bureaucratic gloom. Proxmire is asking a quivering panel of NSF administrators why their agency spent $35 a day to finance a graduate student's research on "The Development of Political Institutions in Colorado in the 19th Century" when a man in Maine spends the same amount to support a family of four. The NSF people are chewing on their slide rules and muttering about understanding the future in relation to the past.

THESE ARE NOT very opportune times to be looking for spare cash in the halls of Congress. The pro-registration forces on the House Appropriations Committee--that 54-member panel which recommends who gets what--originally thought they'd just tack the $13 million needed to register 19-and 20-year old men for the draft on to the federal budget. But the federal budget is having troubles of its own and so they changed their minds, reasoning that they'd just effect a transfer of sorts and move the needed cash from the Department of Defense to the SSS. At the very least, they said, the SSS would require about $4.7 million to build itself a computerized system so when Armaggedon begins, we can all be there to watch it.

Out on the streets, they're yelling and screaming about civil liberties and stopping militarism but in the Congress, they're really worried about filthy lucre. And the logistics. As decision time nears Congressmen begin to realize Carter's plan is a vote gathering blind. As Ted Kennedy's been saying, one Congressional aide whispers in my ear, why do it if it would only take us an extra 13 days to muster the first 100,000 men needed to fight in North Yemen. "The additional step of peacetime registration," argues a "Dear Colleague" sent out by the small-but growing ranks of Appropriations Committee members who are against Carter's plan, "is an empty symbol because it adds nothing to the speed of American mobilization in the event of war."

But these guys are in the minority. The fate of the 19- and 20-year old men really lies in the aging and conservative Rep. Jamie R. Whitten (D-Miss.), the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. It's Congress in action, as Whitten calls up the requested transfer for a vote and then--panicking that his hawkish majority may have crumbled beneath him--shelves his idea for another day. An administration official is standing outside the door of room 140 in the U.S. Capitol, biting his nails until they bleed.

Some of Whitten's colleagues are predicting that, when and if they start to induct, as many as half those drafted will go c.o. (conscientious objector). It won't be easy to go c.o., Joan Lamb tells me back at the SSS, and the draft will be different this time around. No student deferments; the only people that are going to miss this one are those in or studying for the ministry and the real objectors--who will have to go work in some kind of socially redeeming job. "Don't worry," Lamb soothes. "If you're in college, you'll be able to finish out the term. If you're in your senior year, you'll be able to graduate first." And about that figure that 50 per cent will try to go c.o.? Lamb discounts the reports, fishes around in her desk and produces some xeroxed sheets emblazoned "Improving Capability to Mobilize Military Manpower: A Report by the Director of the Selective Service." "It's only a rough copy," she warns me. For each of the 28 pages of the report, some bureaucrat has pulled out his black Carter's ink pad and, top and bottom, boldly stamped the word "DRAFT."

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