PrimeTime: Marrying to Avoid Draft

ByReid Orvedahl

Feb. 1, 2001 -- "We have to talk," Marc Horowitz told his fiance Sherry Blum. It was the afternoon of Aug. 26, 1965, and he had a problem that could change their lives forever.

Horowitz, like thousands of young men across America, had found out that he needed to be married by midnight that night — or risk facing the draft. By day's end, scores of them would end up Las Vegas, unexpectedly becoming husbands.

In August of 1965, 35,000 men were being called up each month to serve in what would become America's longest and most divisive war. President Lyndon Johnson, determined to defeat communism, decided to escalate U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. To wage that war, the Pentagon needed to find more soldiers. To find more soldiers, the president had already doubled the draft call. Looking for even more eligible men to fight a war against communism, the Defense Department advised the president to change an old policy: Let them draft married men without children.

On Aug. 26, without any advance notice, President Johnson made it law. Anyone who was married before midnight that night would still be eligible for a deferment. But men who married after that would not be able to avoid or postpone serving in the military simply because they were married. So now many men faced one of the most important decisions of their lives: Should they rush to the altar, or risk fighting in Vietnam?

News of the new rule quickly spread across the country. For East Coast couples, it was too late. But for many men on the West Coast, there was still a chance they could get hitched in time.

Horowitz heard a bulletin while driving with his aunt through California's San Fernando Valley. Though he was already engaged to be married, he doubted that he and fiancée Sheryl Blum could wed by midnight.

"I said I don't know if we could get it all together," Horowitz told his aunt. "And she said, 'Are you really saying that you want a honeymoon in Vietnam?'"

The deadline looming, Horowitz and Blum set their sights on one of the few places that required no waiting period or blood test to wed: Las Vegas.

"We had a ceremony that lasted for about 30 seconds," recalls Blum, who is now divorced from Horowitz and remarried.

PrimeTime Thursday contacted 50 of the couples who raced to be married on that day. For some, the honeymoon was short-lived. As the war and the need for more soldiers continued to expand, all marriage deferments were abandoned.

Just Another Day at the White House

While the couples' lives would be changed forever, for the powerful man who sent those couples scrambling across the desert, it was just another day at the White House.

A close look at Johnson's documents from Aug. 26, 1965, reveals a day notable only for its blandness. Two signatures for what historians consider to be Johnson's two legacies: one to fight poverty, the other to help wage a war in Vietnam.

Johnson began his day in an unusual way: he ate breakfast in bed, while holding his first meeting of the day at 7:30 a.m. Two hours later, he strolled downstairs to an East Room packed with legislators, who applauded as he signed into law a new program of grants for the poor — a part of his vision for a "Great Society."

By noon EST — still morning for the hundreds of West Coast couples who'd marry by the day's end — Johnson convened a brief press conference in the Oval Office. He spoke gravely about a looming steel strike and the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles. He said nothing, however, about the draft or Vietnam. The press filed out, and the president moved onto an economic policy meeting.

Johnson intended to join his wife Lady Bird in Texas that summer afternoon. But bad weather prevented it. His schedule clear, the president worked the phones.

At 3:10 pm, Johnson's secretary reminded the president that several documents awaited his signature. Some time after that, Johnson put pen to paper and signed the executive order placing married non-fathers in the same draft status as unmarried men. In contrast to the morning's ceremony, there were no witnesses at all.

White House documents from that time reveal a detailed strategy about when to announce the order. The Pentagon wanted the president to announce a done-deal — no midnight deadline, just the end to the popular marriage deferment. The Justice Department objected, and a compromise was choreographed. To avoid "hurried marriages," the White House would announce the deadline at 5 p.m.

As young couples plotted how they would reach Las Vegas, the president worked quietly until 8 p.m., when he was joined by an old friend, Willard Deason. They dined upstairs in the private quarters. At 10:45 p.m., LBJ's diary notes that he "retired." Lights out.