One of the most famous roll calls in the history of the House of Representatives came on Aug. 12, 1941, when a 203 to 202 vote defeated an amendment that would have ended the government's authority to draft men into the Army. Isolationists who opposed President Roosevelt's increasingly open moves to support those fighting Nazi Germany and resisting imperial Japan came within one vote of dealing a devastating blow to his preparations for what he saw as an inevitable struggle.
Less than four months later, when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered World War II, everyone realized how close the country had come to a disastrous decision.
Lyndon Johnson, a member of the House who had voted to save the draft, often spoke about that day as one of the most decisive in all the tumultuous years he spent in Washington.
No such attention was paid earlier this month when the House voted by a much wider margin, 232 to 187, against restoring the $24 million it would cost to keep the draft registration process going for another year.
Of course, no one has been drafted since Richard Nixon instituted the all-volunteer armed forces in order to quiet some of the protest against the Vietnam War from young men and their parents. I was on a sabbatical at Harvard's Institute of Politics in 1969-70, when those protests were at their height. A few years later, the war was still going on but the draft had ended -- and those same students were out on the quads throwing Frisbees as if they had not a care in the world.
The fact that no one younger than their mid-forties has ever faced the possibility of being called up involuntarily for military service is one of the most significant generational divides in this country. For millions of Americans who were drafted in World War II, or in the Korean conflict (as I was) or in the early years of Vietnam, it was one of the most important events of our lives.
It meant at a minimum that we were separated from homes, families, jobs and schools and thrown into an environment where discipline was applied without regard to your personal wishes. The status marks of civilian life disappeared quickly as you sat for your first military brush cut.
For many of us who were white, the draft brought the first experience of taking orders from African Americans and Latinos. It taught survival skills, and made you understand -- in a fundamental way -- your obligations to a group much larger and more diverse than your own circle of friends. It obviously made you appreciate the freedoms of civilian life even more -- and spurred you to defend those freedoms and the system of government that ensures them. Those of us who were drafted for overseas duty came home valuing America more than ever before.
To be sure, nostalgia should not set policy, and no one challenges the judgment of the professionals that today's all-volunteer armed forces are the best in our history. The services are having trouble recruiting and retaining people, but the remedy for that is improved pay and conditions for the men and women in uniform.
Still, even if they have no intention of resuming the draft, the Pentagon officials who opposed elimination of the Selective Service organization have a point. The registration process at least reminds young men of the obligation they may have to fulfill, and the database would be useful should we face mobilization.
Those arguments prevailed in the Senate, which has included funding for Selective Service in its spending plans. The issue will be resolved in a House-Senate conference.
At the very least, one would have hoped the House debate on ending draft registration would have touched on some of the larger issues of national service. Instead, it was perfunctory, turning more on the cost (which is minuscule in the larger scheme of things) and the offsetting spending cuts that would have been required under the budget caps Congress is certainly going to break for other purposes.
Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican from Texas, made the classic argument that "conscription is a totalitarian notion . . . a threat to freedom." In response, the sponsor of the amendment to restore funds, Navy veteran Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, spoke of it being a "time-proven" system of saving as much as a year in mobilizing for war. A couple of other members inserted statements for the record referring to the "obligation" of service -- and then the vote was taken.
Nobody was around to say to the House members: "Folks, there's some history we should remember."