Mr. Selective Service: General Lewis B. Hersney

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Author: Douglas Wissing
Date: Winter 2016
From: Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History(Vol. 28, Issue 1)
Publisher: Indiana Historical Society Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,138 words

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Protestors overran Washington, D.C, on November 15, 1969. Deep in the tumult of the Vietnam War, it was the largest antiwar demonstration in U.S. history. Hundreds of thousands marched through the embattled capital. Tear gas hung like wraiths in the trees; the river of marchers crunched across glass broken by rampaging radicals. The whole panoply of dissenting America rallied at the National Mall--college students and Yippies, ministers and maidens, Ban the Bomb moms, Clean for Gene volunteers, draft resisters, vets with their fatigues and angry faces, Black Power activists, pacifists, and patchouli-scented hippies and anarchists waving black flags, all milling on the Mall, sitting on the grass, lolling on bedrolls.

Through the vast crowd, an elderly general from Indiana meandered, marveling at how the world had changed. Indiana-born and Indiana-bred, General Lewis B. Hershey was the director of the Selective Service System, America's military conscription organization. The antiwar protestors reviled him.

A folksy Hoosier, Hershey had essentially encoded his midwestern belief system into America's military draft. Beginning in 1940, Hershey's organization drafted twenty million men and regulated the lives of hundreds of millions. Americans had generally accepted the draft, but anti-Vietnam War activists had changed that with unending agitation. Responding in kind, Hershey called the protestors "long-haired, runny-nosed, dirty-eared misfits," and tried to take away their deferments.

Wandering through the antiwar maelstrom on the Mall, however, Hershey was sanguine. "There are claims that 250,000 people were on the monument grounds," seventy-five-year-old Hershey wrote the next day to his son. Old soldier Hershey had reasons to be worried, but evinced few concerns, writing he "wondered whether we would be able to get out"--but only because of the throng rather than hostility. He reported the crowd was "good natured" and "all behaved very well." The antiwar march came at the penultimate moment for Hershey. After wielding immense power for nearly three decades, he had become another casualty of the unpopular war, dumped from his position by recently elected President Richard Nixon. Hershey only had a few more months to serve as the draft chief.

The crowd in Washingotn listened to senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern lambast the war, and sang protest songs with Peter, Paul and Mary, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, joining to thunder John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance." The scene was a galaxy away from Hershey's Hoosier and military certitudes. "It was," he wrote, "something like I have not seen before."

Hershey was born on September 12, 1893, on a small northeastern Indiana farm near Angola. His family was very poor--even cheap funerals were a burden. "There were many, many things we did not have," he wrote. But he always credited his success to the values and modalities he learned in Indiana. "First, we believed in work--hard work--and long working hours. Second, we learned early in life how important it is to rely on a person's word," Hershey said. "We took our neighbor's word at face value, because we knew his background and we believed there was validity...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Wissing, Douglas. "Mr. Selective Service: General Lewis B. Hersney." Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, vol. 28, no. 1, winter 2016, pp. 44+. Accessed 7 Dec. 2022.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A462983611