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Draft Registration Draws Protests

Students protest Carter’s draft registration efforts and question his motives

By Sam Teller, Crimson Staff Writer

In the months leading up to the graduation of Harvard’s Class of 1980, student activists had a lot to protest—including the concerns over a potential draft that permeated the campus.

With U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s stalwart support, Congress reinstated draft registration for eligible men aged 19 and 20 starting July 21, 1980. The draft had been abolished in 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War.

Almost four million young American men were ordered to fill out paperwork with their local Selective Service Board, but almost all graduating seniors in the class of 1980 were too old to be affected.

And though draft registration was not officially reinstated until after graduation, students protested Carter’s plan on the steps of Widener Library and on college campuses across the country.

In January of 1980, over 800 students and Cambridge residents gathered outside Widener Library in the bitter cold to express opposition to the legislation that would reinstate draft registration.

Jamin B. Raskin ’83, who organized the demonstration along with a roommate from Canaday, says “there was a very strong sentiment on campus against draft registration and against a reheating of the Cold War.”

Many critics believed that Carter’s reinstatement of draft registration was a political move designed to publicly demonstrate his military strength in response to the Iran hostage crisis and the recent Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

Howard Zinn, a historian, social activist and author of A People’s History of the United States, questions Carter’s motives and credibility.

“[The context of Carter’s reinstatement of draft registration] suggests it was an attempt to show how tough he was and how he was preparing for military action against the revolutionaries who had taken over the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and held 52 hostages,” he writes in an e-mail.

Zinn also co-led a demonstration in October 1980 that drew around 1,000 people to protest Carter’s foreign policy, specifically the possibility of a draft.

Scott A. Rosenberg ’81, who is also a Crimson editor, recalls that many on campus felt that Carter’s policies were unreasonable.

“Carter had this image problem that people perceived him as a weak president,” says Rosenberg, who chaired the Crimson Editorial Board. “This draft registration was part of his ‘get tough,’ or ‘seem tough,’ policy, and our feeling at 20, 21, 22 years old, and as a fairly liberal group of editorial writers, was that this was a ruse. It had nothing to do with keeping the country strong. It was absurd. If there was a war with the Soviet Union, it would have been nuclear war and we all would have been dead.”

Rosenberg wrote a Crimson editorial in March 1980 arguing that “the real purpose of that draft would be to fight a conventional World War III in Europe.”

But the draft issue didn’t galvanize the campus like other hot button news items such as Harvard’s investment in South Africa.

“Divestment was the most important,” says Frederick R. Coburn, Jr. ’80. “Everyone came out for that. South Africa protests probably drew half the campus two or three times.”

Mark V. Holmes ’80 recalls that “the [1980] springtime protest season was about divestment in South Africa.”

“Some people tried to make an issue of it, but it was just registration,” says David S. Cohen ’80, a self-described conservative, now living in Connecticut. “The Communist agitators around the square were the ones making it a big deal.”

“I don’t remember any on-campus protests about the draft, but I do remember going to a largish demonstration at Government Center,” says Eleanor J. Barnes ’80, who says she used to hang out with the “Trotskyite crowd.”

Cohen says members of the Class of 1980 specifically had other things on their minds.

“We were seniors and people were more worried about getting a job,” he says. “It wouldn’t affect us anyhow.”

—Staff writer Sam Teller can be reached at steller@fas.harvard.edu.

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