They sat on the floor and on sofas. A dozen of them, watching the president on television in a small basement apartment not far from the Capitol, where Carter was delivering his hard-line-defense-spending-military-might State-of-the-Union message.

We must prepare for the possibility of imposing the draft, said the president. "For this reason, I have determined that the Selective Service System must now be revitalized." Massive applause erupted from Congress. "Ohhhh no . . ." said one of the viewers, not so much at the expected statement by the president as at the loud response. "I will send legislation and budget proposals to the Congress next month so that we can begin registration" -- the president paused slightly -- "and then meet future mobilization needs rapidly if they arise."

They were young: the oldest 28, the youngest 21. Ten of them were draft age. This was the beginning, they all said. The first step. They broke into separate conversations. Over the din, one voice could be heard: "Where the hell are we going? These people are bent on war! They're crazy!"

The oldest have their memories of Vietnam and the earnestness of proselytizers -- the "oldest generation" hoping to teach 18-year-olds who have no such memories.

They are members of the United States Student Association (USSA) and in February they will start a national antidraft teach-in project. Carter's message will make their audience more receptive, they hope.

"I spent six years in exile in Canada," said Jack Colhoun, now a free-lance writer and director of the anti-draft project. "We paid a very major price for our resistance. We have to draw some lesson from Vietnam. Had there not been a draft in place -- I bet the country wouldn't have voted to send a 500,000-man expeditionary force to Vietnam. Peacetime conscription allowed the war to be escalated deceptively."

Frank Jackalone, 25, the national chairman of the USSA -- which has chapters on 300 campuses -- said, "Carter thinks he's trying to display strength with military muscle, pushed by the hawks, and I think it's a big mistake. I don't think the consequences of Afghanistan are big enough to prepare for war with Russia. College students, at least do not see Afghanistan as a vital interest."

There was a general feeling in that room -- where they sipped beer and wine and soft drinks and talked about the past and the future -- that their age would pay for the mistake of what they saw as bungled foreign policy. "Military might doesn't prove success, does not make a country secure -- look at Iran, we propped the shah up for years," said Colhoun.

They do not see a major difference between "going to war over the Persian Gulf" now and 1964, when Congress overwhelmingly supported the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. "I can understand the people's frustrations and impatience about the hostages and Iran, but this isn't the way," said Meg MacNamara, 25. "I was a draft counselor during the last phase of Vietnam. I was in high school then, in Tulsa, Okla., which is very conservative, and took a lot of grief doing this type of work. It's a weird feeling having to dust off the old manuals again."

They are steeped in facts. How the president opposed reinstating the draft a year ago. How Congress overwhelmingly voted it down "pre-Afghanistan." Their own patriotism was not in question, they say. "Studies show that registering for the draft increases the ability to mobilize only 12 days. If you're going to war, you can institute the draft. But to institute registration, have a pool to pick from and then plan a war is what we don't need," said Joel Packer.

They see registering for the draft as a symbol that the country is going to play an "aggressive" role, which they oppose. "I think if people truly feel the security of the country is threatened they'll act accordingly," said Packer. "But they want us to be 'patriotic' by 'forcing' us to register."

The women in the room said it was inescapable. Women would have to register this time. It was the inevitable end to the feminst fight, they felt. Diane Piche, 23, also hinted at a generation gap among draft-age and older adults. "My mother hated the antiwar demonstrators. I asked her, 'Should they reinstitute the draft?' and she said, 'Well, yes, I think. The volunteer army isn't working.' Then I asked if she wanted my baby sister, who is 17, to be drafted, and she said, 'Ohhh no!!' It only matters when it hits home."

This, of course, could be said of the draft-age adults who resisted so violently in the late '60s and early '70s and of those who are starting to galvanize on campuses now.

As college students around town watched basketball games and drank beer, the embryonic antidraft teach-in movement predicted that -- even with Vietnam -- their job would not be easy.

"We want to make sure that we and the kids younger than us are not being bamboozled," said one of the men. "When I was 18, I walked down to my registration, and it was as automatic as anything. Everybody registered automatically and then, after it, came the protest. We have to resist before."

Frank Jackalone, however, predicted that an education process would be necessary. "Most don't know what Students for a Democratic Society is, and they associate Tom Hayden only with Jane Fonda." Another, Scott Miller, said hopefully, "Oh, they have that stuff in history books now. They learn it in classes."

SDS and Tom Hayden and spilling blood on draft cards and breaking into Selective Service offices and chanting "Hell no, we won't go" and listening to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and marching 350,000 strong. . . . Romanticizing the past, said Colhoun. For years it was a tough struggle.

But there were also jokes last night. Jim Wright of Texas had the "best eyebrows" in Congress, when TV flashed on him.

There were jokes. Good-natured "Hey, George!" cheers when Sen. George McGovern said he thought Carter struck the right mood but that he was against reinstituting Selective Service registration. Good-natured hisses when the cameras panned on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA's Stansfield Turner.

There were recollections of the ploys to get out of the draft in the early '70s."Saying you were homosexual was always good. Or an obscene tatoo or braces on your teeth would get you out." They all opposed student deferments, but felt that, realistically, middle-class students would find loopholes one way or another. They were larded with statistics that the volunteer army was better than the critics said.

And then it was on to tomorrow. Phone calls to another antidraft group. When and where would the press conference be? How could they notify everyone? They assured each other they were going to start immediately selecting campuses to visit in the spring.

The first salvo of the antidraft movement 1980 -- as soft and slight as it was -- had begun.